This year is the five-hundredth anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death, and the museum world has not been slow to celebrate the career of this most remarkable—and marketable—of Renaissance artists. Of the many exhibitions being held this year, the two most significant were forecast to be shows in London and Paris presenting sizeable tranches of, respectively, Leonardo’s surviving drawings and his paintings. In London, the Royal Collection Trust has placed in Buckingham Palace the Queen’s matchless collection of Leonardo’s drawings (May 24 through October 13, 2019), while the Louvre will host the most comprehensive viewing of his paintings—fourteen of fewer than twenty surviving works—ever brought together in a single place (October 24, 2019 through February 24, 2020). Crowd-control measures—the Louvre received more than ten million visitors last year, up to fifty thousand per day—are already in place.
Discerning art lovers wishing to understand Leonardo “in the process of growth” (the mode of understanding recommended by Aristotle) would have been better advised to take in a recently concluded exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, the core of which is to travel to Washington, D.C., this month.
For the last dozen or so years, the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi has been organizing what are, from a scholarly and connoisseurial point of view, the finest art shows in Italy. The Fondazione was formed in 2006 with the aim of sidestepping the roadblocks of bureaucracy and politics that so often surround the great national collections. Its formula was invented by an outsider to Italian museology: James Bradburne, the brilliant British-Canadian impresario who was its first director. Bradburne was determined to avoid the curse of the blockbuster exhibition: busloads of tourists with no serious interest in art, driven by the dark engines of turismo di massa to spend an average of six seconds inspecting works of art they have been led to believe are significant. Florence has enough of that already, and serious lovers of art have long been demoralized by conditions in her largest museums, the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace, which at certain times of year resemble more the central train station of Milan at rush hour than places of communion with the work of great artists. Bradburne focused instead on providing the intelligent museum-going public with idea-driven exhibitions designed by accomplished scholars and experts. Visiting one of the Palazzo’s exhibitions is like listening to a brilliant series of lectures by some leading authority, illustrated by the actual objects. The Fondazione’s exhibitions range across the history of art from antiquity to the present day. It has championed the works of neglected young Italian artists and introduced modern Chinese art to European audiences; it has explored the genesis of stylistic change, the interaction of artists and great collectors, the nexus of art and philosophy, the use of techniques like trompe l’oeil in different epochs; and it has provided richly contextual presentations of too-little-known artistic movements. In all its activities, the Fondazione has remained delightfully free of the tedious political messaging so common these days in Anglosphere museums.
With the Leonardo quincentenary looming, the Fondazione’s directors—with typical enterprise—located an Archimedean point from which it could leverage the institution’s advantages and avoid the desperate scrum among museums for Leonardo exhibits. It decided to focus on the man who, more than anyone else, formed Leonardo as an artist: his teacher, Andrea del Verrocchio (1435–88). This turned out to be an inspired move. First of all, and rather amazingly, there has never been a monographic exhibition devoted to this leading artist of Lorenzo de’Medici’s Florence. Second, Verrocchio scholarship turned out to be ripe for a major reassessment, and the Fondazione found two brilliant scholars, Francesco Caglioti and Andrea De Marchi, experts respectively on his sculpture and painting, to lead an international team of curators and designers. The exhibition catalogue is brim-full of new discoveries and insights into this great master, hitherto known primarily for his sculpture in bronze. Finally, research for the exhibition has established with near certainty Leonardo’s authorship of a terracotta Madonna and Child, bringing the number of his securely attributed sculptures from zero to one.
An introductory label greeted viewers as they entered the exhibition with what seemed like an inflated claim: “No one shaped Florentine art in the age of Lorenzo the Magnificent more than Verrocchio.” One might be inclined, as I was, to dismiss this claim as promotional puffery, muttering under one’s breath, “Really? Botticelli? The Pollaiuolo brothers? Ghirlandaio? Filippino Lippi? Cosimo Rosselli? Andrea della Robbia?” Yet by the end of the exhibition one saw that the claim is precisely calibrated and fully credible.
Verrocchio turns out to be a kind of paradox: a well-known artist who is also unknown.
Verrocchio turns out to be a kind of paradox: a well-known artist who is also unknown. His major works in bronze are familiar to every student of the Florentine Renaissance: David (ca. 1468–70) and the Incredulity of Saint Thomas (ca. 1467–83) in the Bargello; Winged Boy with Dolphin (ca. 1470–75) in the Palazzo Vecchio; the Beheading of John the Baptist (1478–80) in the museum of the Duomo; the tombs of Piero, Giovanni, and Cosimo de’Medici in the Church of San Lorenzo. The exhibition supplemented the well-known by providing insight into two aspects of the artist which remain far more obscure. First, it gave the viewer an appreciation for Verrocchio’s achievements in media other than bronze sculpture: drawing on paper, fresco, panel painting in tempera, and sculpture in marble, terracotta, and wood. Second, it demonstrated how central his art and his teaching were to the Age of Lorenzo de’Medici. Passing through the various rooms, we learned how Verrocchio strove to embody the artistic ideals of his time, how he filtered, refined, and redirected impulses from previous generations, passing them on to pupils, collaborators, and followers, while also challenging rivals for artistic supremacy. We glimpsed an artistic world of intense competition but also generous and admiring collaboration. The result, as Francesco Caglioti writes, was “a new era of Florentine art in the 1460s,” an era devoted to perfecting nature by developing an experimental science of representation, guided by “the most noble ideals of beauty.” Against Giorgio Vasari’s implausible idea of Leonardo as a genius taught chiefly by nature, one comes to realize that his supreme skills were the fruit of many generations engaged in the passionate pursuit of common civilizational ideals.
Verrocchio’s relationship with earlier and later generations proved to be the exhibition’s organizing principle. The first two rooms investigated his ties to the great masters in sculpture of the early Florentine Renaissance: his teacher, Desiderio da Settignano, and Donatello, the greatest Western sculptor before Michelangelo (Verrocchio occupied his studio near the Duomo after the great man’s death). We were then introduced to Verrocchio the painter and his school in the large third room containing a series of Madonnas with the baby Jesus. There the supreme work was the Madonna of Volterra (ca. 1476–8), on loan from the National Gallery of London, where Verrocchio’s idea of beauty as “a vision of extreme elegance and refinement” is made manifest. According to De Marchi, this was possibly the finest painting of the 1470s, a work that drew younger artists into his orbit. The other works in the room allowed one to see the painting’s impact on contemporaries such as his collaborator Francesco di Simone Ferrucci, younger rivals such as Botticelli, and pupils such as Leonardo, Perugino, and Lorenzo di Credi. The rest of the exhibition similarly showed how Verrocchio, his apprentices, and his collaborators addressed a variety of projects in different media. The era’s shared experience of finding ever more innovative and naturalistic ways of retelling the old stories of the Bible, the saints, and Greco-Roman antiquity, one realizes, must have been thrilling.
Scholars and collectors have searched for examples of Leonardo’s sculpture for centuries.
The exhibition culminated in the ninth room, where the visitor was brought into the exciting project of attributing a new work to Leonardo. It is well known from the biographical tradition and from Leonardo’s own words and the drawings in his notebooks that making sculptural models in plastica—soft media such as wax and clay as opposed to marble carving—was one of his regular ways of thinking through problems of disegno. He tells us himself that he liked to make models of horses, old men’s heads, human body parts, and Nostre Donne e Cristi fanciulli intieri (complete models of the Madonna and Child). Scholars and collectors have searched for examples of Leonardo’s sculpture for centuries. A number of works have been attributed to him with varying degrees of plausibility, and several embarrassing fakes—like the wax Flora in the Bode Museum of Berlin, the work of a British forger—have been exposed. Before the exhibition there were only three serious candidates: a small terracotta relief of an angel in the Louvre (an attribution rejected by the Strozzi curators); a terracotta of Saint Jerome Reading held by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London (an attribution made by Eduardo Villata in 2011 but not yet widely accepted); and the Madonna and Child (ca. 1472) included in the Strozzi exhibition. This terracotta, also held by the fortunate Victoria & Albert, had already been tentatively attributed to Leonardo by a number of scholars and connoisseurs before World War II, but thanks to the vast authority of Sir John Pope-Hennessy the sculpture traveled in the post-war period under the name of Antonio Rossellino. Francesco Caglioti first reproposed the attribution to Leonardo in 2005, but it is only thanks to the expertise assembled for this exhibition, in particular that contributed by the Met’s Carmen Bambach, the greatest living authority on Leonardo’s drawings, that the work can now be securely attributed to Leonardo.
One key datum in the attribution is a set of drapery studies by Leonardo echoed precisely in the drapery of the terracotta Madonna. Among the true marvels of the exhibition, these drapery studies from the late 1470s and early ’80s show how Leonardo’s gifts as a draftsman were beyond any doubt on a plane higher than any artist of the Quattrocento had ever achieved or could achieve. Set next to other drapery studies of the period by Filippo Lippi and Verrocchio, they leapt off the wall thanks to their astonishing verisimilitude. Yet as Bambach points out in several of her curatorial contributions, the famous sfumato technique, first described circa 1490–92 in one of Leonardo’s notebooks, was already being explored by Verrocchio and his school in the 1470s. Leonardo was exceptional in his technical virtuosity, but in this respect he was not a true innovator.
The Madonna and Child itself, on the other hand, expresses a remarkably original concetto. One of the values Verrocchio and his school sought to enact in their retelling of classical and sacred stories was a deeper sense of the humanity of the actors, sometimes verging on the sentimental. The Blessed Virgin holds baby Jesus’s hand up so that he can wave to or bless the viewer; baby Jesus lunges for a breast, or plays with a bird, or reaches, all unknowing, for the little cross held up to him by his older cousin, John the Baptist. Leonardo’s variation on this theme presents the Mother and Child in a truly intimate moment. The Madonna, with a mischievous smile on her face, puts her left hand under her baby’s cloak and gently grazes his thigh with the thumb and index finger of her right. Baby Jesus is seen bursting out in a laugh while his little toes wriggle uncontrollably. One small hand tries to check his mother’s fingers. She’s tickling him. There could be no more humanizing presentation of the Madonna and Child than that. The viewer is turned from a worshipper into a visiting family member, sharing the pleasures of motherhood. The pose is utterly original, unexampled to my knowledge in any other of the many thousands of representations of the Blessed Virgin. If other artists knew about Leonardo’s concept, they didn’t imitate it: they may have feared being thought disrespectful. Leonardo, clearly, did not.
The humanizing of the divine was also the central theme of the final section of the exhibition, mounted in the Bargello, Florence’s sculpture museum, with the collaboration of the Bargello’s curatorial team. Here the main item was Verrocchio’s complex bronze group, the Incredulity of Saint Thomas (ca. 1467–83), cast originally to occupy the niche in Orsanmichele maintained by Florence’s mercantile court, the Tribunale della Mercanzia. The subject is about establishing trust through the presentation of evidence, a theme appropriate to the Tribunal’s activity. The Incredulity is one of Verrocchio’s two greatest works in bronze (the other being the equestrian statue of the condottiere Bartolomeo Colleoni in Venice, finished after his death by other hands). Much of the installation made a convincing case for the work’s influence on the Cinquecento’s representation of Christ. Verrocchio humanized Christ by presenting him as a noble man who has suffered, not least from the doubts and betrayals of his own disciples, calmly offering forgiveness with one hand and exposing the wounds in his side to Thomas with the other. His face is in solemn repose, born of contemplative experience. The difficulty of capturing nobility of soul was emphasized by the skilled but repulsively vapid imitation in the same room by Pietro Torrigiano, an artist best known for breaking Michelangelo’s nose in a fist fight. But what was truly astonishing, at least to this viewer, was the figure of Doubting Thomas. The face of Thomas as presented by Verrocchio is glimpsed in the moment when the arrogance of disbelief is being changed helplessly into trust by the reality of the Risen Christ. The changing facial expression is echoed by his body, which rotates towards Christ, one leg crooked as though in the act of falling to his knees. The subject of Doubting Thomas has been a common one in Christian iconography for over a millennium, but Verrocchio’s interpretation of it has never been surpassed, not even by the powerful theatrics of Caravaggio’s famous painting.
What the Incredulity of Saint Thomas shows, among other things, is that Leonardo’s famous preoccupation with rendering “the inner motions of the soul” did not begin with Leonardo: Verrocchio was already pressing towards that goal in the 1480s. The point was underlined in the exhibition by the juxtaposition of Verrocchio’s tempera painting on paper of Saint Jerome from the late 1460s with Leonardo’s Saint Donatus of Arezzo (ca. 1475–76), a painting in tempera on canvas. Leonardo’s painting is the more precisely finished of the two, but it is doubtful whether he is more successful in portraying the subject’s interior life. In fact, one begins to question whether Leonardo’s obsession with verisimilitude is not achieved at the cost of human insight; whether technical mastery itself implies a certain coldness, an abdication of the artist’s interior sight, his human judgment.
The Strozzi exhibition aimed to illustrate the emergence of Leonardo’s art from its Florentine context, but inevitably it prompted a kind of paragone between Verrocchio and his greatest pupil and collaborator. Despite the vast difference in their modern fame, it is not clear, at least to this viewer, that the comparison is all in Leonardo’s favor. On a technical level Leonardo was without peer; there can really be no question that, measured by the canon of verisimilitude, he was the greatest draftsman and painter of all time. His finished drawings and paintings have wonderful presence, even monumentality, but there is necessarily a loss of refinement, elegance, and warmth. A comparison between Verrocchio’s representations of Christ and Leonardo’s $450 million Salvator Mundi (which I have seen only in photographs) is hardly fair, given the latter’s condition and continuing doubts about the extent of Leonardo’s contribution to the work. But there can be no doubt that Leonardo’s cosmic savior, holding the starry sphere containing all worlds in his left hand while making a slight, emotionless gesture of blessing with his right, is hardly human; his human form is merely the avatar of his divinity. Though typologically similar to Verrocchio’s Christ, he is no longer part of a human story; his expression is fey and uncanny; his eyes communicate infinite sight but no sympathy. For all the technical brilliance of Leonardo’s painting, the humanity that may be found in Verrocchio’s Christ has disappeared. The visitors to this exhibition may decide for themselves whether Leonardo or his master Verrocchio was practicing the nobler and more beautiful art.
1 “Verrocchio: Master of Leonardo” was on view at the Firenze Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, from March 9 through July 14, 2019. An abbreviated version of the exhibition, titled “Verrocchio: Sculptor and Painter of Renaissance Florence,” will open at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., on September 15, 2019, and remain on view through January 12, 2020.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 1, on page 47
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