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Verrocchio Sculptor and Painter of Renaissance Florence

Accompanying images can be viewed starting on page 5 of the October 2019 issue pdf

By Joseph R. Phelan*

You’ll come face to face with Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brother Giuliano in all their grandezza and a (possible) teenage Leonardo da Vinci when visiting the National Gallery of Art (through January 12, 2020). The name Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-‘88) may not ring any bells but his patrons, the Medici, are familiar to millions of viewers worldwide thanks to the popular Netflix series. And his most famous pupil, Leonardo, continues to drive more millions to visit the Louvre every year in search of one painting.

What the Gallery is presenting is the artist’s first-ever monographic exhibition in the United States. While modest by “blockbuster” standards, it is mighty in quality. Four treasure-filled rooms allow us to linger and marvel over the sculpture, painting, and drawings. The fine aesthetic qualities of these objects are front and center in this show, as they should be at an art museum. At the same time, the art illuminates the cultural politics of Medici Florence during the two decades of Lorenzo’s regime

Florence in the 15th century was one of the richest cities in Europe thanks to banking and production of high-end textiles; it was also ground zero for the Renaissance. “Modern banking and matchless art,” Tim Parks in his Medici Money writes, “were intimately linked and even mutually sustaining. . . . With [usury] we have the Renaissance, no less.” As super rich bankers the Medici were vulnerable to denunciations for the mortal sin of lending money with interest. Spending huge amounts of money on churches, chapels, monasteries, and filling them with art was essential to redeem their souls and maintain their de facto control of the republic.

Verrocchio grew up during Florence’s mid-15th century building boom. Although trained as a goldsmith, he found work on multiple different projects for different masters, learning how to sculpt in bronze, marble, precious metals, and clay. As Andrew Butterfield, the exhibition’s guest curator, noted at the press preview, Verrocchio’s ambition to stand out, to compel admiration, in a city of big talents and great achievement, and his technical mastery led to the making of the most innovative sculptures of the second half of the 15th century. “Verrocchio’s clients, especially the Medici,” Butterfield writes, “valued his capacity to do the outstanding, as it added to their own luster and authority.”

The artist was also a brilliant teacher, talent scout, and nurturer of genius. The paintings and drawings produced in his workshop by students and collaborators — along with Leonardo, there was Perugino, Ghirlandaio, and Botticelli — pushed the boundaries of what was possible and laid the foundation for the High Renaissance of the next century.

Verrocchio’s first bronze masterpiece, David with the Head of Goliath (ca.1465), was meant to rival or surpass the great Donatello’s earlier version. In contrast to that mysterious and disturbing nude version, we have an extraverted, lanky teenager dressed in a fancy tunic possessed of a tense yet graceful energy and an acute alertness. The renowned Leonardo scholar David Alan Brown suggested years ago that the teenage Leonardo as the sculptor’s apprentice at the time might well have been the model. Brown even wondered whether the legendary beauty, grace and intelligence of the young genius influenced Verrocchio’s image of David.

There is an even more surprising story behind Verrocchio’s treatment of the severed head of Goliath. The artist treated the grimacing face sympathetically, presenting a weary sufferer, evoking compassion in the viewer. For decades the head was separated from the David, and was taken to be the head of the Baptist or Christ. But the prominent wound on the giant’s forehead is the giveaway that this is the giant. The gaping wound may be a painful echo of Verrocchio’s own childhood trauma during a game of throwing rocks he accidentally hit a friend in the head with a rock and killed him.

The elegant bronze David was commissioned by Lorenzo’s father Piero. The boy hero was the symbol of the Florentine republic’s victory over their external enemies. By commissioning the statue, the Medici as de facto rulers were converting a republican symbol into a princely one.

The Medici brother’s busts are on view behind David — famously ugly Lorenzo (thought to be a copy of a wax bust from 1528) and handsome Giuliano.   1478-1521  . There’s a good reason for this brilliant placement. In 1476 the brothers sold the statute to the city government in order to adorn the town hall, where this politically charged figure was placed. We can agree, in this case at least, with Charles Dempsey in his catalog essay that “the Medici [viewed by virtue of] magnificence as a policy for creating and maintaining good will toward, as well as memorializing, their house and its interests.”

In the next room there are examples of how Verrocchio’s restless imagination inspired by competition with rivals — ancient and modern — led to breakthrough works. In the bronze Putto with a Dolphin (1465-‘80), the first Renaissance sculpture to be planned fully in the round, the artist seems to be setting out to rival the glorious achievements of the legendary ancient sculptor Praxiteles. What makes this more astonishing is that Verrocchio was working from an ancient description of a work which did not survive. He created an image positively bursting with energy and joy — balancing on one foot, the putto embraces his dolphin and seems about to ascend into the heavens.

The marble bust, Lady with Flowers (ca. 1475) portrays a woman at half-length complete with arms and hands, looking forward towards the viewer. This is said to be an idealized portrait of his mistress Lucrezia Donati. Lorenzo was well known, in Machiavelli’s words, to be “marvelously involved in things of Venus.”

Besides being de facto ruler and magnificent patron, Lorenzo, was a fine poet. One of his verses rhapsodies about a dulcet beauty with the “fairest of hands” gathering “fresh and lovely” flowers while also “plucking” the poet’s heart. Verrocchio is complimenting his patron and pushing the envelope by drawing poetry out of stone.

The devotional pictures in the third room by the teacher and his workshop are mesmerizing for their naturalistic beauty, three dimensional qualities, and for the reverence with which their sacred subjects are treated. In a few we can see the hands of his several students at work. In Virgin Adoring the Child (1475-‘80) a likely collaboration with Domenico Ghirlandaio, an especially elegant Mary and infant are set in an impressive classical ruin which is meant to signify the end of the pagan world. Verrocchio, a master of perspective, is responsible for the impressive one point perspective, the vanishing point of which lies just below the Virgin’s hands that are clasped in prayer.

The large Madonna and Child with Two Angels (1470-‘75) from London, a collaboration between Verrocchio, Leonardo and a third artist, offers bravura painting of the Madonna’s cloak and an exquisite broach both pointing to the teacher who was trained as a goldsmith. The angel on the left side bears a striking similarity to the one Leonardo painted in the famous Baptism of Christ in the Uffizi. And the impressive landscape echoes Leonardo’s sketch of the Arno Valley, one of his most important early drawings.

Best of all is the remarkable Madonna and Child (ca. 1465-’70) from Berlin with its subtle effects of light and transparency on the Virgin’s cheek and veil. The robust three dimensionality of the figures and the soft and subtle smokiness of the flesh tones derive from the master. The latter effect comes to be known as sfumato which Leonardo would make famous in his portraits.

Verrocchio encouraged both competition and collaboration among his brilliant students. The exhibition invites us to picture his work space as it was 500 years ago. Butterfield put it wonderfully at the press preview: “Imagine Perugino in one corner, Leonardo in another and Botticelli in still another. And there’s Verrocchio in the center orchestrating the whole thing making painting and sculpture. This “intense effervescence of creativity” allowed the teacher’s students and collaborators to reimagine the impossible as possible.

Gratitude is due to guest curator Andrew Butterfield and his collaborators — Alison Luchs and Gretchen A. Hirschauer, both of the National Gallery and Lorenza Melli of the Kunsthistorisches Institut Max-Planck in Florence — for putting together this exhibition and the beautifully illustrated, 384-page catalog. This is sure to be a collector’s item and would make a magnificent Christmas gift for an art lover.

* Joseph R. Phelan, a Washington based author and teacher, is The InTowner’s museums exhibitions senior reviewer. He has taught at the Catholic University of America and the University of Maryland University College and was the founding editor of Artcyclopedia.com, the fine art search engine. 

Copyright © 2019 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Joseph R. Phelan. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited, except as provided by 17 U.S.C. §107 (“fair use”).