Guide To Andre del Verrocchio's Sculptures In Florence
Here's my guide to seeing the masterpieces of sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence Italy.
Posterity knows Verrochio mostly as the teacher of the immortal Leonardo da Vinci. But Verrocchio is one of the most important and underrated artists of the Renaissance. Unless you're a Renaissance devotee, he may be the most influential artist you've never heard of.
Life and Influence of Verrochio
Andrea del Verrocchio was born Andrea di Michele Cioni in 1435 in Florence. He was an Italian Renaissance painter, sculptor, and goldsmith. He began his career as a brick and tile maker, trained by a goldsmith from whom he took the name Verrocchio.
Art historians don't know what precisely what formal training Verrocchio had. But they suspect he was trained by Donatello, the greatest sculptor of the early Renaissance. He certainly spent time in the workshop of Donatello's former pupil, Desiderio da Settignano. There's also some similarity in style between Verrocchio and Fra Filippo Lippi. So there might be a connection there.
Whatever his training, Verrocchio went on to become a versatile and highly skilled artist. He was an artistic polymath, producing impressive work in several mediums. But his strongest discipline was sculpture.
One of Verrocchio's greatest legacies was his powerhouse workshop. Over several decades, he had scores of talented pupils who became towering figures of the Renaissance.
Verrocchio taught Ghirladaio, the teacher of Michelangelo. His student Pietro Perugino taught the great Raphael. In other words, Verrocchio had a hand in shaping the holy trinity of the high Renaissance -- Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael.
Verrocchio's work in each art form stimulated creativity in the others. As a Florentine humanist wrote in the early 1500s: "Whatever painters have that is good, they drank from Verrocchio's spring."
Why Is Verrocchio Underrated?
So, why then, is Verrocchio so underrated? Sadly, it may be due to Renaissance art historian (and inveterate gossip) Giorgio Vasari. Our primary account of the Renaissance comes from his 1550 book, The Lives of the Artists. Vasari's work has some notoriously untrustworthy excerpts and embellishments, some of which have been disproved by scholars.
Vasari didn't think much of Verrocchio, relegating him to a lesser "craftsman" status. Vasasri was much more enamored with his pupil Leonardo and other high Renaissance artists. He elevates them, barely acknowledging Verrocchio's influence.
Vasari writes that Verrocchio's sculpture "tended to be hard and crude." Vasari opines that his art was the product of diligence and tenacity, not natural talent.
Why did Vasari diss him this way? Vasari saw himself as the definitive chronicler of the day. Knowing he would influence future generations and historians, Vasari manipulated the images of artists. He pumped up those he personally liked and downgraded those he didn't.
He clearly didn't want Verrochio to be on the same level as Leonardo or Michelangelo. And he wasn't, to be sure. But Verrocchio was a master in his own right, with an important artistic legacy. Just because he's not the great Leonardo, doesn't mean he's inconsequential.
Solid proof of Verrocchio's importance comes from another source: the Medici family. Early in his carer, Verrochio attracted the attention of Florence's ruling dynasty, who only hired the best and brightest. For the munificent Medici, Verrocchio was the artist on call, even unto death. Verrocchio designed their lavish tombs for the family church.
Guide To Verrocchio's Most Famous Sculptures
Let's take a tour of Verrochio's greatest masterpieces in Florence.
1. Bronze David, Bargello Museum, 1475
The Bargello houses Verrocchio's famous David, a bronze he carved in 1473-75. This was one of Verrocchio's first masterpieces. The Medici commissioned the piece. David was meant to be a symbol of their rising power.
Verrochio's David is very different than Donatello's Bronze David (in the same room at the Bargello). It's not nearly as erotic as Donatello's piece, aside from the skintight jerkin.
This idealized David is clothed and wields a sword. He appears confident, smiling, carefree, and graceful. The hand on the hip underscores his almost arrogant attitude. Only the severed head of Goliath at his feet makes clear that he just won a heroic battle.
Verrocchio likely used his young student, Leonardo da Vinci, as the model for David. Leonardo was celebrated for his dashing looks.
The sculpture is a study in realism, with even the veins visible. Restorers have determined that the sword isn't the original. David's gilding was uncovered during laser cleaning.
2. Putto with Dolphin, Palazzo Vecchio, 1476
This is one of the Renaissance's most famous sculptures. It was commissioned by the Lorenzo the Magnificent de Medici for the family's Careggi Villa. Later, Cosimo I moved it to the courtyard of Palazzo Vecchio.
The sculpture may have been designed as a fountain decoration. A copy is now in the Palazzo Vecchio courtyard. The original is housed inside the Palazzo Vecchio Museum.
Putto is a bronze statue in a spiral design depicting an adorable angel. The putto is embracing a stylized dolphin, which looks more like a fish. Putto is significant because it was the first Renaissance sculpture meant to be viewed "in the round," i.e., viewed from all sides.
The gently torqued putto is balanced on his left leg. His right leg is extended backward in space. The putto has incredibly beautiful wings with a high degree of almost filigreed detail. Instead of representing a profound religious moral, it's a playful statue.
3. Medici Tombs, Basilica of San Lorenzo
Upon the death of Cosimo the Elder, the leader of Florence for thirty years, Verrocchio was commissioned to create his floor tomb in the Basilica of San Lorenzo. The vast sepulcher was unprecedented in Florentine tomb sculpture for its scale and magnificence.
It consists of an abstract patterned floor slab in front of the high altar, connecting to a burial chamber in the crypt beneath. The artist used extraordinarily valuable materials — bronze, marble, red porphyry, and green serpentine — to suggest Cosimo’s rank and prestige. Interlocking ellipses within a circle and square evoke medieval diagrams, conflating Cosimo with the cosmos.
The Medici also hired Verrochio to design the tomb for Piero "the Gouty" de Medici. Piero was the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent. It's an exquisite piece, located in the Old Sacristy of the Basilica of San Lorenzo. Most people are busy admiring Brunelleschi's architecture and miss the Verrocchio.
It's an understated tomb set inside an arch space. It's made of white marble and porphyry, with an elaborate intertwined bronze grate and elaborate arch device. The marble plinth bears the inscription of the Medici family. The actual sarcophagus is supported by beautiful lion paws, which frame the corners.
4. Incredulity of St. Thomas, Orsanmichele Museum, 1467-83
Verrocchio's Doubting Thomas was designed for a niche on the facade of the guild church Orsanmichele, a must see site in Florence. Today, it's inside in the Museum of Orsanmichele.
It's an exquisite pair of statues, Jesus and his apostle St. Thomas, in a dramatic scene. Thomas is about to probe Jesus' wounds to test whether he's really alive and resurrected.
Jesus raises his right hand in a gesture of invitation. With his left, he pulls aside his drapery. The figure of Thomas is in near profile.
When the sculpture was unveiled in 1483, admirers described it as "the most beautiful work there is" and "the most beautiful head of Christ ever made." Jesus' face is full of both disappointment and forgiveness.
The amazing thing about this sculpture is that it occupied a niche meant for one sculpture. Verrocchio had to come up with a way to fit the sculpture inside. But the master craftsman found a way.
He used another trick, which was to make the shells shallow. They appear as sculptures in the round, but there's not much depth.
5. Lady With Flowers, Bargello Museum, 1475
This exquisite bust by Verrocchio is hidden up on the top floor of the Bargello Museum. Lady with Flowers, or Lady with the Primroses, was a pivotal Renaissance work.
It was the first bust to incorporate the arms of the sitter as well as the face, recalling the ancient Roman fashion. This compositional device allows the hands to express the mood or character of the sitter. It's much livelier than prior sculpture.
In the bust, the figure has a rather severe jawline, framed with curly hair. It's unclear who the woman is. Art historians speculate that it might be Lucrezia Donati (a love of Lorenzo the Magnificent) or the same woman from Leonardo's Portrait of Ginevere de' Benci.
The bust influenced a young Leonardo, who was then in Verrocchio's studio. If you look at the hands, they're quite similar to the elongated hands in Leonardo's The Lady with an Ermine.
6. Beheading of St. John the Baptist, Duomo Museum, 1477-80
Verocchio created this work in silver for Florence's Baptistery altar between 1477-80. Scholars suspect that Leonardo may have worked on this piece during his apprenticeship with Verocchio.
The fine design represents Verrocchio's only surviving work in silver. The background is executed in a repoussé technique, with the forms hammered outward from the reverse side of the sheet. The figures were made separately and attached to the surface.
There's also a terra-cotta bas relief of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist in the Duomo Museum. It was likely a preparatory model for the silver altar. The work was stolen by the Nazis in WWII for the Hitler museum. Today, it lacks three of the original seven figures.
7. Bartolomeo Colleoni, 1480-88, Venice
Verrochio's equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni is located in Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, Italy. Verrocchio won the commission over other significant artists.
Verrochio moved to Venice at the end of his life to create it. It was his final work. Verrochio died before it was completed. But the statue was finished based on Verrochio's models
The statue portrays the mercenary general Bartolomeo Colleoni, who fought for a long time under the Republic of Venice, riding his horse. It was the second major equestrian monument of the Italian Renaissance, after Donatello's 1453 equestrian statue of Gattamelata in Padua. And, late in his career, Leonardo would undertake another one for the Duke of Sforza in Milan.
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Perhaps what distinguishes Verrocchio's from Donatello's is the movement in the sculpture. It's not a static memorial. The whole statue is dramatic, imbued with a dynamism characteristic of the high Renaissance. You feel like he might really be headed into battle.
8. Bonus: Verrocchio's Baptism of Christ, 1472
Although known more for his sculpture than paintings, Verrocchio has one unanimously attributed painting in Florence's Uffizi Gallery. Commissioned by the Church of San Salvi in Florence, this painting depicts the Baptism of Christ. It's in the Leonardo Room of the Uffizi Gallery.
This painting represents the complexity of artistic collaboration in the Renaissance. Several artists contributed to the piece. At a certain point, however, Verrocchio simply ceased work on the monumental panel, leaving its completion to his assistants.
The painting is the subject of a legendary Giorgio Vasari anecdote. Vasari wrote that Leonardo worked on this painting, completing the angel in a 3/4 reverse profile in the bottom left side.
According to Vasari, Leonardo's angel was so beautiful that Verrochio self esteem was injured. Verrocchio said he would never touch "colors" again. More likely, Verrocchio had already stopped painting at this juncture of his career.
Other Leonardo scholars believe that Leonardo had a hand in creating the Jesus figure. The modeling is softer than Verrocchio's. The face, however, definitely isn't Leonardo, not nearly idealized enough.
I hope you've enjoyed my guide to the works of Verrochio in Florence. You may enjoy these other Florence travel guides and resources:
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