Verrocchio: Sculptor and Painter of Renaissance Florence

Verrocchio: Sculptor and Painter of Renaissance Florence


Andrea del Verrocchio transformed the arts in Renaissance Florence. Born in the 1430s, he was the most inventive sculptor of his generation. He was also a superb painter, an innovative draftsman, and he was master of one of the busiest workshops in Florence. Many of his assistants would become the leading artists of the next generation– Pietro Perugino, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sandro Botticelli, and Leonardo da Vinci. Andrea del Verrocchio had the good fortune to be born in 15th century Florence during an extraordinary flowering of the arts. A self-governing republic for three centuries, the city was one of the richest on earth. During Verrocchio’s lifetime, a vast building campaign completely reshaped its appearance. New churches rose up, and old ones were expanded or renovated. Wealthy Florentines built palaces of great scale and ambition. Sculptures and paintings were needed for them all. Chief among the patrons who supported the flood of new art were the Medici, the most powerful family in 15th century Florence. Their family crest can still be seen on palaces and churches across the city. In 1397, Giovanni di Bicci de Medici founded the Medici Bank, which flourished under his son Cosimo. The family’s financial network spread throughout Europe. Their clients included the Papacy, one of the wealthiest organizations in the world. With money came power. Beginning in 1434, Cosimo served as Florence’s de facto ruler. His family dominated Florentine political and cultural life for most of the 15th century. Timothy Verdon: The Medici transformed themselves into the leaders of the Renaissance. They were deeply moved by the ancient classical texts. They loved the beauty of the works that they commissioned. And in the course of three generations, they also became extremely learned in these things. Narrator: Cosimo engaged the architect Michelozzo to design a new home for the family. A Florentine poet was amazed. Reader: “This is the palace full of marvels that cost and is worth more than a city. There is no emperor or king who has the like. There is a chapel so ornate that it has no equal in all the universe.” Narrator: The walls of the Chapel of the Magi are covered with frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli. They depict the Journey of the Magi and include portraits of Cosimo, his son Piero, and grandsons Lorenzo and Giuliano as participants in the sacred event. Medici patronage of the arts transformed the city. And Andrea del Verrocchio, just reaching his maturity, became their favorite sculptor. In the 1460s, Piero and Giovanni, Cosimo’s sons, commissioned Verrocchio to sculpt an image of David, the biblical shepherd boy who killed the giant Goliath, saving his people. David had become a potent symbol of strength, virtue, and good government for the Florentines. The Medici styled themselves protectors of Florence and adopted David as a symbol of their role in the city. About 20 years earlier, Cosimo had commissioned Donatello, the leading Florentine sculptor of the generation before Verrocchio, to sculpt a statue of David, the first free-standing life sized bronze sculpture cast in the Renaissance. Andrew Butterfield: There’s no question that Donatello was a major reference point throughout Verrocchio’s life. He was one of his heroes. The Donatello is seemingly in a more reflective or meditative state, almost as if he’s pausing to consider the significance of what has just transpired. Whereas the Verrocchio is more outward looking, as if attempting to engage us in the moment of his victory. Narrator: Workshop assistants often stood as models for their masters. It’s been suggested that the teenaged Leonardo, known for his beauty, might have posed for Verrocchio’s David. Now in his 30s, Verrocchio found himself in great demand. With Medici support, he won a commission to make a sculpture for Orsanmichele, the church of the Florentine guilds. The Florentine trade guilds included bankers, cloth finishers, and goldsmiths, and stone carvers. Each guild was given a niche on the outside of the church to fill with a sculpture of their patron saint. Where earlier sculptors created static compositions, Verrocchio would introduce movement and drama. Verrocchio’s sculpture was for the niche of the Mercanzia, a court the judge disputes between guild members. The agreed subject was Christ and the apostle Saint Thomas. Following the Crucifixion, Thomas doubted that Christ had truly died and been resurrected until he touched the wounds Jesus had suffered on the cross. It was an apt choice for a court. Jesus, the embodiment of mercy, and Thomas, the only apostle to insist on evidence before accepting Christ’s divinity. Verrocchio’s original is now housed inside the church. Butterfield: All of the drapery pattern throughout the entire sculpture from the tip of his foot up to his hand is organized to create this extraordinary sense of rising energy leading towards Christ. The two figures are moving towards each other, and there in this kind of intimate space that bonds them together and makes the emotional and spiritual connection between them clearer to the viewer. Narrator: At its unveiling in 1483, it was called “the most beautiful head of Christ ever made.” The variety of work offered to Verrocchio in the 1470s reflected his versatility in handling an unusually large number of media. And, rare among sculptors, he also won commissions as a painter. In his Madonna and Child, the Christ child is remarkable for its sense of volume as though the artist was translating sculpture into painting. He used his sculptor’s eye for light and shadow in the bold relief of the Madonna’s face and the child’s outstretched arms and in subtle touches, like the reflected light under her chin. His assistant, Leonardo da Vinci, likely had a hand in Verrocchio’s Tobias and the Angel. The fluffy little dog and the fish with its iridescent scales and liquid eye suggest the keen understanding of nature that would make Leonardo famous. In a biblical story, the Angel Raphael protected Tobias while on a mission for his father. Paintings of Tobias and the angel were commissioned by bankers and merchants who sent their sons abroad on business, and hoped that they too would find protectors to keep them safe. Leonardo’s touch is also present in Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ. In a 1550 biography of Verrocchio, Giorgio Vasari wrote– Reader: “In this work, he was assisted by Leonardo da Vinci– his disciple, then quite young– who painted an angel with his own hand, which was much better than the other parts of the work.” Butterfield: Leonardo lived and worked with Verrocchio from his mid-adolescence until his late 20s. And he was his pupil and learned many important aspects of his art and his artistic ambitions. He learned them from Verrocchio. Narrator: Leonardo’s Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci was cut down at an unknown date. Originally, it included her hands, and would have looked very much like Verrocchio’s Lady with Flowers. The two works were completed within a few years of each other in the 1470s, near the end of Leonardo’s apprenticeship with Verrocchio. Verrocchio, like many Renaissance artists, explored the imagery of ancient Greece and Rome. He created works that echo classical sculptures. His Putto with a Dolphin may have been inspired by a description found in a book belonging to the Medici of an ancient bronze of Eros, the child god of love. The Greek author, Callistratus, had written– Reader: “Though it was fixed solidly on a pedestal, it deceived one into thinking that it possessed the power to fly. It was filled with joy, even to laughter. The glance from the eyes was ardent and gentle.” Narrator: Putto with a Dolphin is the first Renaissance sculpture designed to be beautiful from all angles. Butterfield: Verrocchio wants the sculpture to work equally well from any point of view and to reveal more and more of its design to you as you move about it. Narrator: Originally a decoration for the fountain at a Medici family villa, it was moved to the courtyard at the Palazzo Vecchio, which housed the city council of Florence. [WATER TRICKLING GENTLY] A replica stands in its place. In 1476, Verrocchio received a commission from the Cathedral in Pistoia. It would honor Pistoia’s native son, Cardinal Niccolò Forteguerri. [GENTLE MUSIC PLAYING] Verrocchio conceived the work as an immense picture in marble, drawing on his experience as both a painter and a sculptor. He spent several years working on it before leaving the monument to be finished by members of his workshop. But Verrocchio’s original conception survives in a terra cotta model. Its subject is Christ in glory, supported by angels hovering above figures of the cardinal and the three theological virtues– Faith, Hope, and Charity. Verrocchio devised a new style of drapery using deep undercutting and crinkly surfaces to produce a dynamic sense of movement. [HYMNAL SINGING] And, as at Orsanmichele, he created a beautiful portrait of Christ. With downcast eyes and gentle expression, Jesus is the image of the compassionate savior. [GULLS CALLING] By the last decade of his life, Verrocchio’s fame had reached Venice. [BELL CHIMING] Around 1483, the Venetian authorities selected him to design an equestrian sculpture. [MUSIC PLAYING] It honored Bartolomeo Colleoni, commander-in-chief of the Venetian army. The horse is tensed in anticipation of battle. The general, full of fury, is eager for the attack. As he had with the sculpture of David, Verrocchio looked to his predecessor, Donatello. Donatello’s statue of Gattamelata, also a military hero, was completed in 1453 in Padua, then part of the Venetian Republic. It was derived from ancient works, such as the statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline Hill in Rome. These two monuments were among the very first free-standing, bronze equestrian statues cast since antiquity, launching a tradition that persisted for centuries. [SOFT MUSIC PLAYING] Verrocchio died in 1488 before the sculpture was finished. In 30 busy years, he changed the course of the Renaissance. He taught the young artists who worked and studied with him to make their figures monumental, sculptural, to capture the effects of light, to endow them with movement and expression. Ugolino Verino, tutor to Lorenzo de’ Medici’s son, wrote– Reader: “Whatever painters have that is good, they drank from Verrocchio’s spring.” Narrator: His sculptures, many of them made for the Medici, are masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance. They rival in their beauty and refinement the great works of antiquity. Verrocchio’s art is full of spontaneity and vivacity. They have this fire and dash about them that’s really quite extraordinary. The perfection that he achieves, it’s something that artists still admired fervently in the centuries after Verrocchio’s death. [MUSIC CONTINUES] [MUSIC PLAYING]

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