“Verrocchio: Sculptor and Painter of Renaissance Florence” at the National Gallery of Art reveals the artist’s world of 15th-century Florentine culture, a network of brilliant artists, wealthy patrons and powerful guilds competing and collaborating for the glorification of God and their city.
A most fitting entrance to the exhibit is Andrea del Verrocchio’s bronze sculpture of “David with the Head of Goliath” (1465). David, the self-assured youthful conqueror of the giant, stands in triumph most appropriately before two terra-cotta busts, “Giuliano de’ Medici” (1475-78) and “Lorenzo de’ Medici” (1513-20). To this powerful de’ Medici family and to Florence, David was a symbol of their victories over more threatening forces and Verrocchio their favored sculptor. His work for them, such as the creation of Cosimo de’ Medici’s funerary monuments in their church of San Lorenzo, extends far beyond what can be included in this show.
Verrocchio’s very sculptural painting “Tobias and the Angel” (1470) is a glittering rendition of the Biblical story, in which Tobias is sent on a mission by his blind father to collect a debt, and is protected by the archangel Raphael. The story resonated with 15th-century merchants who sent their sons on arduous business journeys, with hopes that they would have guardian protectors.
Noting how Verrocchio related the arts of drawing to painting to sculpture, the exhibit includes a display of some of his few drawings in existence. While his delightful bronze “Putto with a Dolphin” (c. 1465/1480) for a fountain at a de Medici family villa was the first sculpture in the Renaissance planned to be viewed fully in the round, also important are his sketches and his models, which give clues to his thoughts on projects for larger monuments in Florence, such as funerary monuments for the Doge Andrea Vendramin Tomb and the Tartagni Tomb.
“Lady with Flowers” (c. 1475/1480) is a marble portrait, important as the first freestanding marble bust since antiquity to include arms and hands in a half-length figure. The noblewoman is possibly Lucrezia Donati. Loved by Lorenzo (the Magnificent) de’ Medici, she inspired his sonnets that compared how her hand plucked not only dear violets, but also his heart.
In the next gallery, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Ginevra de’ Benci” (c. 1474-1478) sits in the center of a room, surrounded by Madonnas by master artists. Just as the works by Lorenzo di Credi, Pietro Perugino, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Piermatteo d’Amelia are shown here together, one can for a moment imagine that they were once gathered working in Verrocchio’s studio.
A remarkable teacher, Verrocchio also was the connection between the following generations of Renaissance artists. While it has been suggested he was a student of Donatello and of Fra Filippo Lippi, it is known who his students were and those they in turn influenced.
The most celebrated of all, of course, da Vinci. The show suggests many connections between teacher and his famous student who was first brought to his studio by his friend, da Vinci’s father when Leonardo was around 14 years old, and where he would remain for over a decade.
We know that “Ginevra de’ Benci” with its visible comparisons to Verrocchio’s sculpture “Lady of the Flowers” probably begun when Leonardo was in Verrocchio’s studio. The fish with its shimmering scales that was given to Tobias to cure his father’s blindness was painted by da Vinci as his young apprentice. One of the most important connections in Verrocchio’s surviving drawings is a tempera on paper of “St Jerome” (1465), which is related to an unfinished da Vinci work “Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness” (1483, on temporary view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Da Vinci is also likely the handsome youth who was the model for David.
Yet the brilliance of Verrocchio’s diverse works did not impede his purposes which one writer has expressed, was like poetry, creating all things “ for sacred or household use … making them all fair to look upon, filling the common ways of life with the reflexion of some far-off brightness.”
One such example of this multifaceted artist who worked as a goldsmith is a small vase inscribed with the initials of his patron Lorenzo de’ Medici. De’ Medicis’ reputation has extended for centuries in any discussion of banking, political power and patronage of the arts. Theirs also was exceptional taste in what was their daily life and that we now treasure and remember as the beauty of Renaissance masterworks.Sheila Wickouski, a former Fredericksburg resident, is a freelance reviewer for The Free Lance–Star.