Works Of Verrocchio

OF the history of this altar-piece nothing is actually known except that it was painted for the Vallombrosan monks of San Salvi; but few works of the fifteenth century have been the subject of more speculation and dispute. The picture passed on the suppression of the convent of San Salvi to that of Santa Verdiana, from whence, during the French occupation, it was removed to the Academy.

The conclusion which has received most general acceptance among critics is that the figures of Christ and the Baptist, together with the general landscape setting, were painted by Verrocchio, and presumably at an early period in his career; but that the kneeling angels were added later, the one at the left, with face in profile, by Leonardo da Vinci, and the other by Verrocchio. To this conclusion, Miss Cruttwell, the latest authority upon Verrocchio, takes exception, and brings forward apparently good reasons for believing that the attribution to Leonardo is untenable. Her conclusions are based upon a technical analysis which cannot be detailed here. The incident related by Vasari which has furnished the foundation for the discussion in regard to this picture has already been referred to in the extract from Walter Pater printed on a pre-ceding page. That the angels were added at a later date than the rest of the picture there seems to be no doubt. They are painted in oil, while the remainder is in tempera; but the picture has been so damaged by more recent “restorers” that it is difficult to distinguish between the original work and the later additions.

The striking similarity of this picture to the `Baptism’ now in the Academy at Florence, which is variously attributed to Fra Angelico and to Alessio Baldovinetti, indicates conclusively that the earlier picture served Verrocchio as a model. The composition is identical, and the attitude of the figures is copied exactly. There is, however, a great advance in technical skill, and particularly in knowledge of the human figure. The excellence of the anatomy, which is well-nigh faultless, contrasts strangely with the stiffness and lack of grace in the figures, the naïve treatment of the foreground rocks, and the metallic foliage of the palm-tree.

Although closely akin in both style and technique to the work of Baldovinetti and the Pollajuoli, there is, as pointed out by Julia Cartwright, “a higher refinement and grace in form, and a truer sense of beauty about the whole.”

The strong influence and popular appeal of Verrocchio’s work is shown by the immediate adoption of his `Baptism’ as a model for all later representations of the same theme. It was repeated almost exactly by Lorenzo di Credi, and also by the Robbias.

‘THE ANNUNCIATION’ PLATE II

THIS picture, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, is now held by many critics to be the work of Verrocchio. It was executed for the altar of the Sacristy of the Convent of Monte Oliveto, near Florence, and while there was attributed to Domenico Ghirlandajo. Since its removal to the Uffizi Gallery it has been officially labeled with Leonardo’s name, although marked with an interrogation.

The Virgin is seated in the terraced garden of a Florentine villa, with the dark trees defined against the pale sky in the falling twilight. The Virgin receives the message without emotion, even placing one finger on the page to mark the place where her study has been interrupted, and will evidently re-turn to it unruffled after the angel’s departure.

In the opinion of Miss Cruttwell, although this picture lacks the supreme distinction of Leonardo’s work, it is nevertheless “one of the most beautiful paintings of the Renaissance for the dignity and charm of the figures, and even more for the poetic suggestion of the landscape, with its successful rendering of an atmospheric effect. It seems the twilight hour, the moment so brief in Italy between daylight and darkness, in which the cypresses stand out black masses against the pale sky, losing all but the outline of their form.” The decorative treatment of the Virgin’s desk and the careful rendering of the least details are suggestive of the goldsmith’s style, and point to a comparatively early date.

‘DAVID’ PLATE III

THE bronze statue of `David,’ now in the National Museum, Florence, Tis usually considered the earliest work in sculpture of Verrocchio. It was executed for the Medici, probably for Piero, to decorate the Villa Careggi, and was later bought by the Signoria and removed to the Palazzo Vecchio, where it was placed at the head of the stairs at the entrance to the Sala del Giglio. The pedestal designed by Verrocchio, which still remains, is now occupied by a bust of the Grand Duke Ferdinand i.

This pedestal shows that to obtain the effect intended by the sculptor the statue should be viewed from the right, so that the face is seen directly full-front. Carefully as the back of the statue is finished, it is evident that the artist intended that it should be seen chiefly from a given point. From this position the faults often pointed out, of the too prominent elbow and the some-what trivial expression, vanish completely. Referring to this question of position Miss Cruttwell says: “From the correct standpoint the supple swing of the body, the audacious carriage of the head, give to the statue an expression of superb self-confidence unmatched save in the `St. George’ and the marble `David’ of Donatello. The eyes glance freely and boldly from under the level brows, the smile on the lips is full of meaning. One hand rests lightly on the hip, the other grasps the sword with menace and resolution. The figure vibrates with youthful vigor and the pride of conquest.”

Verrocchio has disregarded entirely the traditional representation of the biblical narrative. The youth with carefully curled hair, fringed jerkin, dainty sandals, and carrying his own sword is a patrician, rather than the shepherd-boy armed only with a sling.

The modeling and construction of the figure exhibit thorough mastery of anatomy, and the elaborate ornaments, exquisite in every detail, show the goldsmith’s training and the craftsman’s skill.

Upon its present pedestal in the Bargello the statue is not only seen from the wrong direction, but is much lower than intended by Verrocchio.

‘EQUESTRIAN STATUE OF BARTOLOMMEO COLLEONI’ PLATE IV AND V

BARTOLOMMEO COLLEONI of Bergamo, one of the greatest generals and wealthiest princes of the fifteenth century, was equally celebrated for his audacity in the field and for the magnificence of his private life. Most of his long career was spent in the military service of the Venetian state, to which he added much territory and prestige. Upon his death, in 1473, he left the greater part of his large estate to the Republic, with the request that a bronze equestrian statue should be erected to his memory in the Square of St. Mark. As a consequence, in 1479, the Signoria invited three sculptors, Verrocchio, Leopardi, and Vellano, to prepare models for a statue, which were finished in 1481, and the choice given to that of Verrocchio. Although the Signoria refused to allow the erection of the statue in the Square of St. Mark, they spared no pains in selecting the sculptor and in securing the most splendid work possible. By a verbal quibble they satisfied their consciences in providing that the site upon which the statue should stand should be the Piazza of San Giovanni e Paolo, an insignificant square upon which the Scuola di San Marco faces.

According to Vasari, the choice of Verrocchio, a Florentine, so aroused the jealousy of certain Venetians that they intrigued against him and succeeded in having the commission for the statue require that Verrocchio should provide the horse, while Vellano should execute the rider. This so enraged the Florentine that he broke up his model and returned home, refusing further connection with the work. Learning what he had done, the Signoria ordered that if he should again dare to set foot upon Venetian territory he should be beheaded. Verrocchio replied that they had better refrain, because when they had cut it off it was not in their power to reunite the head to a man, and especially such a head as his, while on the contrary he could replace the head broken from his horse, and could make it even more beautiful than before. Whereupon Verrocchio was ordered to return to Venice, and to repair his model. Whatever basis of truth this anecdote may have, it illustrates the haughty independence attributed to the sculptor by his fellow citizens. It is known, at all events, that the commission was finally given him without further restrictions, and that he was promised 1,800 ducats, equivalent to about 20,000 dollars in our money.

The model was completed in clay before Verrocchio’s death, but the casting in bronze remained to be carried out by others. Verrocchio had requested in his will that this delicate task be entrusted to his faithful friend and assistant Lorenzo di Credi, but the Signoria finally placed it in the hands of Alessandro Leopardi, who was already known as a metal worker of proved ability.

Whether or not Leopardi deliberately set to work to rob Verrocchio of his fame as the sculptor of the statue is uncertain, but the fact remains that he was given entire credit for the work by his contemporaries.

Nevertheless to Leopardi alone is due the credit for the magnificent pedestal, and this in itself is enough to prove him an artist of great ability. The statue was at last completed, and uncovered to the public on March 21, 1496.

Mrs. Oliphant thus refers to Colleoni and his statue: “It is not possible to pass by the name of Colleoni. This is not so much for the memory of any-thing he has done, or for the characteristics of an impressive nature which he possessed, as from the wonderful image of him which rides and reigns in Venice, the embodiment of martial strength and force unhesitating, the mailed captain of the Middle Ages, ideal in a tremendous reality which the least observant cannot but feel. There he stands as in iron—nay, stands not, but rides upon us, unscrupulous, unswerving, though his next step should be on the hearts of the multitude, crushing them to pulp with remorseless hoofs. Man and horse together, there is scarcely any such warlike figure left among us to tell in expressive silence the tale of those days when might was right, and the sword, indifferent to all reason, turned every scale.” Of the wonderful force expressed in this statue, M. Müntz has written: “Verrocchio has known how to reproduce that superb self-confidence which made the dying general exclaim to the Venetian ambassador, `The Republic should never again allow to a general such unlimited power as to me!’”

The difficulties of combining freedom of action with the proper distribution of so great a weight of metal are apt to be overlooked in judging a statue in which the grace of movement and perfection of balance are so evident. Horse and rider seem actually alive and in movement, yet the action is final and allows no uncomfortable suggestion,of walking off the pedestal. There had been but one other bronze equestrian statue cast in Italy in modern times, Donatello’s `Gattemelata;’ but the horse of the latter is as clumsy in action as Verrocchio’s is light and graceful. Speaking of Verrocchio’s remarkable knowledge of equine anatomy, Miss Cruttwell writes: “The horse of the Colleoni bears sufficient testimony, to this day unequaled for beauty of form and noble bearing. In construction and action it shows enormous advance beyond Donatello or any of his contemporaries, and compares favorably even with the superb antique steeds of San Marco, from which he drew his inspiration.”

And again, referring to the figure of the general himself, she says: “Noble and powerful, by its superior concentration of energy it focuses the attention, which might otherwise be centered on the horse. Upright in the saddle—almost standing in the stirrups—with a superb gesture it dominates and in-spires the movement of the animal. The unity between horse and rider is complete. The menacing eye, the formidable gesture, the tense muscles, the swing of the body in the saddle, give an impression of indomitable strength unequaled in art.”

‘PIITTO WITH DOLPHIN’ PLATE VI

VASARI states that Verrocchio “executed for Lorenzo de’ Medici, for the fountain of the Villa at Careggi, a putto of bronze throttling a fish; . . . which putto is certainly marvelous.” His original design, according to the inventory of his brother Tommaso, included four lions’ heads and three heads of bronze (probably human masks); but the latter have disappeared. The present porphyry basin and steps of the fountain, as it stands in the courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio, are by Francesco Tadda.

This little figure is of equal beauty from whatever point it is viewed, being designed for the center of an open space. A boy holds a struggling dolphin under his arm, and the pressure seems to produce the fall of water from the fish’s nostrils. “Nothing,” says Rumohr, truly in his happiest vein of description, “can be gayer or more lively than the expression and action of this infant, and no modern bronze can be named that combines such beautiful treatment with such perfect style. It is a picture of a half-flying, half-running motion, whose varied action is still true to the center of gravity. With a happy feeling, the artist has given to the child a pleasing fullness of rounding, and to the wings a certain angular sharpness.” He adds, and the remark is still true: “This model piece was lately deprived by cleaners of its beautiful `patina,’ the effect of time, and the result has been the creation of hardness which the spectator must not attribute to the artist, but to the barbarism of our day.”

“In this putto,” says Miss Cruttwell, “we have our first introduction to the realistic type of child, which replaced that of the Donatellesques, and be-came so popular in Florentine art.”

‘CHRIST AND ST. THOMAS’ PLATE VII

THE order for this group of two bronze figures was given Verrocchio in 1463, but the work was not completed until 1483. It occupies a tabernacle, one of fourteen of similar size and shape, built in the pilasters of the exterior walls of the Church of Or San Michele in Florence. When in 1355 the open loggia which had been the corn-market was enclosed and developed into the present elaborately decorated church, each of the most important gilds of Florentine craftsmen was called upon to assist in its decoration and was assigned a niche or tabernacle in which was to be erected a statue of its patron saint. The niche now occupied by the `Christ and St. Thomas’ was first given to the Parte Guelfa, which, however, became so unpopular that in 1459 its statue of St. Louis was ordered removed and the place given to the Gild of the Merchants, which was the commercial tribunal (not strictly speaking a gild) which presided over all the gilds. The gild commissioned Verrocchio to execute a statue of its patron saint, Thomas. It must not only represent the saint, but also, for symbolic purposes, the act of his incredulity. Verrocchio therefore was given a space designed for a single figure, in which he must place two figures in action. In 1483 the group was cast and set in place. It at once received general popular approval. Landucci, in his diary, recording the event, says of the group, it “is the most beautiful thing that can be found, and the most beautiful head of the Saviour that has yet been made.” And Vasari, in the next generation, voicing the popularity which still survived, says, “Wherefore this work well merited to be placed in a tabernacle made by Donato, and to have been held ever in the highest esteem.’

The freedom of composition and action of the group shows a remarkable departure from the severely mathematical traditions of Quattrocento sculpture, and its influence upon contemporary art was immediate and decisive. It can scarcely be doubted that the daring innovation and originality in the composition of Verrocchio gave the impulse for the license and extravagance of the Baroque school. The composition was repeatedly copied in whole and in part. The features of the Christ, the arrangement of hair, the figure of the youthful saint, the beautiful hands and feet, the representation of drapery, were all immediately seized upon by the foremost sculptors and painters of the day and perpetuated as popular types.

‘BUST OF A LADY’ PLATE VIII

UNTIL recently this bust has been accepted without question as the work of Verrocchio. Its resemblance to the painted portrait of a lady in the Liechtenstein Gallery, Vienna, has led Mackowsky to attribute both to Leonardo. In describing it Miss Cruttwell says: “The face is marvelously alive and sensitive, with the suggestion of an evanescent emotion, half of surprise, difficult to analyze in words. It is a face typically Florentine in its squareness of cheek and jaw and the accentuation of bone, and it is interesting to compare it in profile with that of the central figure in the `Dance of the Hours’ in the `Primavera’ of Botticelli. The features are identical, and there can be no doubt but that bust and painting represent the same lady, evidently a person-age of importance, since in the allegorical picture it is at her that the Love directs his flame-tipped arrow.”

The bust, which is of marble, and is now in the National Museum, Florence, was part of the Medici Collection, and from this it is fair to assume that the lady, if not a member of the family, was at least connected with it. Dr. Bode has, however, traced a resemblance to the portrait of Giovanna degli Abizzi, wife of Lorenzo Tornabuoni, and supposes the bust to be a portrait of her.

‘MADONNA AND CHILD’ PLATE IX

THERE are many Madonnas, in sculpture and in painting, attributed to Verrocchio; but one only, the terra-cotta relief formerly in the Gallery of Santa Maria Nuova, and now in the National Museum in Florence, can be considered authentic. The treatment of this subject is, like the other important works of the master, a distinct innovation, and its influence upon Florentine art, judging by contemporary imitations, must have been important and far-reaching. The Virgin, with her elaborate head-dress, contemporary clothes, and cheerful smile, is modern and secular, represented in her human rather than her divine aspect. It is neither historical nor symbolical. The charming child, with his gay and careless face, is equally lacking in the traditional characteristics of ecclesiastical art. There is no halo or suggestion of Christian emblem, and even the conventional blessing gesture seems half-hearted and perfunctory. The dove above the head of the Virgin is a modern addition in stucco.

It is worthy of remark that at a time when the painters and sculptors of Florence looked to the Church for a considerable part of their patronage, Verrocchio was so seldom employed upon ecclesiastical work. Only six or seven, at most, of his known commissions came from ecclesiastics. Nevertheless, the few religious subjects upon which he was employed exerted a strong and lasting influence upon Florentine art. It is especially notable that the conception and interpretation of the Madonna introduced by Verrocchio immediately superseded those previously in vogue. As Miss Cruttwell has pointed out, this furnishes the most convincing proof of his immense influence and the popularity of his work.

The date of this relief is uncertain, but the treatment of the elaborate drapery is in Verrocchio’s later manner. The modeling of the Virgin’s hand, like that of the marble bust in the National Museum, shows a degree of refinement and expression unmatched in contemporary art. Verrocchio is par excellence the sculptor of beautiful hands. He is said by Vasari to have given much attention to the making of casts in plaster of different parts of the body, of arms, hands, feet, knees, etc., and this record is borne out by the exquisite modeling of the hands and feet in all his work, remark-able, even among the Florentines, who bestowed on them so much attention. The type of hand selected by Verrocchio, and invariable in all his authentic work, is large and strong, but sensitive and exceedingly delicate in shape, with broad palm and long fingers, muscular and flexible, a hand capable of expressive gesture as well as of strenuous grip. Luca della Robbia is the only one of all the Florentines who has equaled it in beauty.

‘BUST OF GIULIANO DE’ MEDICI’ PLATE X

THIS bust of terra-cotta, now in the collection of M. Gustave Dreyfus of Paris, is one of Verrocchio’s finest and most characteristic works. The face is splendidly modeled, with the sculptor’s usual emphasis of anatomical structure.

If the armor is copied from that actually worn by Giuliano, as seems probable, it must have been wrought by Verrocchio himself, for the decorations are in the highest degree characteristic of his style. Despite the fact that Verrocchio derived all the motives for his ornament from familiar sources, yet his manner of treatment is so personal, accentuating their fierce and trenchant qualities, that he has made them completely his own, and they seem almost as a sign-manual of his work and that of his school. His fierce griffin has nothing in common with the mild beast of Desiderio, nor his terrible gorgon mask with those on the Roman breastplates. His acanthus leaf seems to bristle like the spines of some formidable animal, and compared with the serpent-tailed dragon of his decorations, the original in Donatello’s work seems almost tame.

( Originally Published 1905 )

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