The Cautionary Tale
of Verrocchio

When Students
Surpass their Masters

Andrea del Verrocchio and workshop, Tobias and the Angel, c. 1470–2

© THE NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON
Andrea del Verrocchio and workshop, Tobias and the Angel, c. 1470–2
Andrea del Verrocchio pushed his students and painting as a whole to new heights. Why was his legacy neglected for centuries?

Andrea del Verrocchio pushed his students and painting as a whole to new heights. Why was his legacy neglected for centuries?

©Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie / Christoph Schmidt

Andrea del Verrocchio, Madonna and Child, c. 1470 or 1475

“Verrocchio was the hallmark of what the Florentine Renaissance was. The only two people who rivaled him in versatility were Leonardo and Michelangelo.”

Francesco Caglioti

When we think of the quintessential Renaissance Man, the first two names that naturally come to mind are Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Michelangelo (1475-1564). The former had interests—actually areas of excellence—that included drawing, painting, sculpting, mathematics, music, and engineering, while Michelangelo was known as a sculptor, painter, architect, and poet. However, one generation prior, Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-1488) successfully embodied this ideal as a goldsmith, sculptor, painter, musician, draftsman while also maintaining an active workshop that trained the likes of Lorenzo di Credi, Pietro Perugino and Leonardo Da Vinci.

The exhibition in Florence, Verrocchio Maestro di Leonardo, currently on view at Palazzo Strozzi, which will move in a slightly different iteration to the National Gallery of Art in the fall, is the first monographic exhibition of this (once) overlooked master.

“The idea of the exhibit sprang from the fact that both me and co-curator Andrea De Marchi think that Verrocchio is an artist of utmost importance, on a par with Giotto, Donatello, Raffaello and Michelangelo,” co-curator professor Francesco Caglioti told Art & Object. “We think he invented the style [that would become the high-Renaissance style]. He had a universal reach, anticipating the universality of Leonardo, who, surely, had his own proclivity, but was largely encouraged by his master.”

Masters, in art history, tend to be merely remembered for their most notable students. The phrase that “those who can’t do, teach” has an interesting connotation in art history. In fact, the vast majority of the most eminent painters and sculptors were taught or had an apprenticeship led by masters who gave them the necessary tools, but never managed to get notoriety or distinction themselves. Francesco Squarcione (1395-1468), for example, was a tailor and an ancient-art enthusiast, who collected Grecian and Roman sculptures and trained more than 130 painters. His most famous student? Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) who was taught to study Roman sculptures by his master. Likewise, Simone Peterzano (1535-1599), a mannerist painter known for his penchant for monumentality, is mainly remembered for being the one who taught a young Caravaggio (1571-1610). More outrageously, when, in the late 1800s, the Salon dictated what artists and painters were deemed worthy, Fernand Cormon (1845-1924) established a successful atelier where he would coach aspiring artists to create paintings that would be deemed a fit for the Salon: of course, now we mainly remember him because of his more wayward students who went against his teachings, namely Vincent van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Contrary to the stereotype of teachers whose artistic skills were unremarkable and lacked innovation, Verrocchio is known for bringing about significant changes. In fact, he was, first and foremost, a great observer of nature. Up until the mid-1800s, artists had been striving to have art imitate nature in the closest possible manner. “[With Verrocchio,] nature is perfectly imitated, and he is the first artist who allows art to go beyond nature,” Caglioti explained. He also refined the imagery surrounding the Madonna with Child, and equaled the Flemish masters in the rendering of highlights, shadows, and translucent surfaces, such as jewels.

Andrea del Verrocchio, Lady with Flowers, c. 1475
Musei del Bargello, Florence

Andrea del Verrocchio, Lady with Flowers, c. 1475

Andrea del Verrocchio and workshop Tobias and the Angel.
© The National Gallery, London.

Andrea del Verrocchio and workshop, Tobias and the Angel, c. 1470–2

Leonardo da Vinci Woman’s Arms and Hands; a Small Man’s Head in Profile.
Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Leonardo da Vinci, Woman’s Arms and Hands; a Small Man’s Head in Profile, c. 1474–86

Leonardo da Vinci Sketches of Heads and Figures
Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Leonardo da Vinci, Sketches of Heads and Figures in Bust‐Length, Profile Views; a Nursing Virgin and Child in a Landscape; Infant Saint John; Standing Male Nude; Heads of Lions and a Dragon (recto), Heads and Figures in Bust- Length Views, with One Figure in Three-Quarter Length (verso), c. 1478

Andrea del Verrocchio David Victorious.
Musei del Bargello, Florence

Andrea del Verrocchio, David Victorious, c. 1468–70

Sandro Botticelli Madonna and Child with Two Angels.
Naples, Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte

Sandro Botticelli, Madonna and Child with Two Angels, c. 1468

Andrea del Verrocchio Madonna and Child.
©Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie / Christoph Schmidt

Andrea del Verrocchio, Madonna and Child, c. 1470

Andrea del Verrocchio The Virgin and Child with Two Angels.
© The National Gallery, London.

Andrea del Verrocchio, The Virgin and Child with Two Angels, c. 1471–2

Andrea del Verrocchio Winged Boy with Dolphin.
Musei Civici Fiorentini

Andrea del Verrocchio, Winged Boy with Dolphin, c. 1470–5

Andrea del Verrocchio Saint Jerome.
Gabinetto Fotografico delle Gallerie degli Uffizi. Photo by Francesco del Vecchio

Andrea del Verrocchio, Saint Jerome, c. 1465–70

Leonardo da Vinci Drapery for a Kneeling Figure, in Profile View
© RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Michel Urtado

Leonardo da Vinci, Drapery for a Kneeling Figure, in Profile View, c. 1470–5

Leonardo da Vinci The Virgin with the Laughing Child.
©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin with the Laughing Child, c. 1472

Leonardo da Vinci Drapery for a Seated Figure in Nearly Frontal View.
© RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Michel Urtado

Leonardo da Vinci, Drapery for a Seated Figure in Nearly Frontal View, c. 1475–80

Andrea del Verrocchio Incredulity of Saint Thomas.
Musei del Bargello, Florence

Andrea del Verrocchio, Incredulity of Saint Thomas, 1467–83

Andrea del Verrocchio and assistants Crucifix.
Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bargello

Andrea del Verrocchio and assistants, Crucifix, c. 1475

Giorgio Vasari’s less-than-favorable assessment of Verrocchio’s work is the main reason why Verrocchio was relegated to a secondary position in art history. In his seminal collection of biographies The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, Vasari praises Verrocchio’s versatility, describing him as having a vast technical knowledge and “as one who delighted in study and hard work and was little content to be considered great in one genre alone.” In spite of this, he took issue with his alleged lack of “facility of a natural gift,” which resulted in his “manner somewhat hard and crude.” By contrast, he lauded Leonardo for his innate grace, a “gift bestowed by God and not acquired by human art.”

“Vasari’s disapproval stems, paradoxically, from his own merits,” said Caglioti. “Since Verrocchio jumpstarted that process that, in the span of two generations, brought Renaissance art to its Zenith, he ended up like those who, the more significant innovations they brought about, the more easily they got surpassed by those who came after them.” So, Vasari inevitably saw him as “less than” Leonardo or Michelangelo, who, however, both benefitted from Verrocchio’s teachings: the former was one of his pupils, while the latter studied under Ghirlandaio, who, in turn, was part of Verrocchio’s workshop. “Verrocchio was the hallmark of what the Florentine Renaissance was. The only two people who rivaled him in versatility were Leonardo and Michelangelo,” Caglioti reiterated. “Sure, Raffaello was ‘universal’ too, but he wasn’t the one actually making his sculptures: someone else executed them based on his drawings.”

Because of Vasari’s assessment, it was only in the late 1800s that English, French, and American scholars became increasingly interested in Verrocchio’s contribution to art history. It didn’t help that the general public hardly had opportunities to enjoy it themselves: Verrocchio’s most notable and monumental works are the Medici tombs, the Equestrian Statue of tactician and disciplinarian Bartolomeo Colleoni in Venice, and the cenotaph of cardinal Fonteguerri in Pistoia, all works that were inextricably linked to their location. The Museo del Bargello in Florence hosts the majority of his sculpture work, and, while his paintings are scattered all around the world, “As a painter,” said Caglioti, “Verrocchio is of interest mainly among scholars.”

On that note, while the way his works were scattered all around Italy and Europe never hindered scholars in their studies of his legacy, it never favored Verrocchio’s fame with the larger public, at least until now. “In order to really love an artist, the larger public has to be able to go see the works themselves. And it’s now time for the general public to get to know him.”

As for whether the future might lead the general public to re-discover similar figures Caglioto promptly extinguishes any budding enthusiasm. “Verrocchio’s case was unique in art history.”

About the Author

Angelica Frey

Angelica Frey is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. She writes about art, culture, and food.

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