It’s not hard to think of painters who took up sculpture: Raphael (probably), Guido Reni (at least once), Frederic Leighton, Degas, Renoir (unfortunately), Picasso. But sculptors have less frequently turned to painting, which may explain why many art historians have found it so difficult to believe that the Florentine sculptor and goldsmith Andrea Verrocchio (1435-88) took up painting relatively late in his career and then abandoned it on recognising the extraordinary ability of his pupil Leonardo. This is what Vasari claims in his biographical account of Verrocchio, and it makes perfect sense. Indeed, it may be the only way to explain the two paintings in the National Gallery that have long been associated with Verrocchio.
Tobias and the Angel (c.1470) may be an appealing composition, but it seems unlikely that ‘the image would have been wholly conceived and drawn by Verrocchio’, as the catalogue for Verrocchio, Master of Leonardo, the recent exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, claims (Marsilio, £40). How could the artist who created the bronze Boy with a Dolphin, an entirely convincing depiction of a body in movement, have devised the diagrammatic pose of Tobias, with front leg bent and back leg straight? How could the sculptor who created such finely articulated hands for his bronze David, and for the marble bust of a woman holding flowers, have been responsible for these wooden extremities, poorly adapted for their purpose and clumsily repeated? Parts of Tobias and the Angel are, however, of outstanding quality: Tobias’s lively features and waving hair; the fish with its glittering scales, so accurately recorded that it could only have been painted from life; and the little dog trotting alongside, which now consists mostly of flickering marks in white paint. It seems far more likely that one of the youths in Verrocchio’s workshop was responsible for the design of the painting and most of the execution, and a more talented student intervened at a late stage.
The second of the two paintings in the National Gallery, The Virgin and Child with Two Angels (c.1476), which may be the best preserved of all of the paintings attributed to Verrocchio, is regarded by Andrea De Marchi, a co-curator of the Palazzo Strozzi exhibition, as ‘probably one of the five most important paintings produced in Florence in the 15th century’. He baptises it (rather late in its public life) as the ‘Volterra Madonna’ and it is catalogued as ‘definitely autograph’. It has long been thought that the painting was made by more than one artist, however, and in the related exhibition, Verrocchio: Sculptor and Master of Renaissance Florence, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington they were named – with surprising confidence – as Verrocchio with Leonardo and Peugino. It is undeniable that parts of the panel are superbly painted but if Verrocchio was involved in a major way that would make him responsible for the composition. Yet one of the angels seems about to tumble out of the picture and the other (holding a lily as if he was Gabriel in the Annunciation) is uncomfortably situated in space. He also collides awkwardly with the feet of Christ – a very substantial infant implausibly floating on the Virgin’s lap, or, rather, on the ridges of stiff drapery that represent her lap.
Among the pictures included in these two exhibitions, the one that has the best claim to having been painted entirely by Verrocchio is the so-called Ruskin Madonna in the National Gallery of Scotland. It was not unusual to represent the stable in which Christ was born as part of a ruined Roman building, but the architectural setting here is of outstanding beauty, with the complex linear perspective of the geometric paving and the repeated plinths giving on to a landscape depicted with the most delicate aerial perspective. The setting does not distract from the Virgin kneeling in prayer: the receding diagonals align with her arms, shoulder and the tilt of her head, and the pilasters define a rectangle of wall which frames her head and hands. It is assumed by the curators of both exhibitions that the image was wholly or partly painted by the young Domenico Ghirlandaio when he was working in Verrocchio’s studio. But Ghirlandaio in his mature work makes an entirely practical use of linear perspective, and is never distracted by intellectual intricacies, nor attracted by such subtle effects of light. It is entirely consistent with Vasari’s account of Verrocchio that he should have applied himself to the science of linear perspective and then left this to Leonardo, whose fascination with it is so evident in the Uffizi’s great unfinished Adoration of the Kings.
Forty years earlier, in his treatise on painting, Alberti recommended that artists make preliminary studies from nude models, a practice that Verrocchio, together with many other Florentine artists, seems to have adopted. An indirect consequence of this was that artists began to make separate studies for ‘drapery’ – that is, for the impressive and often impracticably copious outer garments favoured for prophets, apostles and the like, the shape of which did not necessarily conform to the body within. When making such studies, Verrocchio employed cloth soaked in gesso or slip or glue, which was ‘thrown’ over some sort of lay figure or frame so that the folds, hollows and breaks took a ‘natural’ form. Once the cloth had stiffened it was moved to the right light and a painting of it made in black or dark brown and white pigment on fine linen. Beautiful examples of this type of picture, with remarkable effects of relief, can be convincingly associated with sculptures by Verrocchio and with paintings by two of his pupils, Lorenzo di Credi and Leonardo. (The practice is also an instance of the beneficial interchange between sister arts, because the stiffening of drapery was a technique that had previously been employed in finished works, notably for the loincloth given to wooden figures of the crucified Christ.)
In the Palazzo Strozzi exhibition a group of these drapery studies was displayed to stunning effect next to the small terracotta Virgin and Child lent by the Victoria and Albert Museum, in which the drapery is remarkably similar. This sculpture, which must have been preparatory for a much larger work (and is conceived almost as high relief: the body is flattened when seen from the side) has sometimes been attributed to Verrocchio, but in the catalogue Francesco Caglioti ascribes it to Leonardo, returning to a proposal first advanced by the art historian Claude Phillips more than 120 years ago. The infant Christ’s expression (perhaps the first successful representation of laughter in art) and the Virgin’s smile support this attribution, and only the extreme attenuation of her fingers seems to me unlikely in a work by Leonardo. It is certainly one of the most beautiful creations of the 15th century.
Although the drapery studies could not be included in the Washington exhibition, other drawings by Verrocchio were strongly represented. But the great revelation was the display of the National Gallery of Art’s own sculpture of a boy in motion – a very rare survival of an artist’s model in unbaked clay (terra cruda). The curators of the Washington show are surely right to suggest that the model was made by Verrocchio himself. If this is so, it must be somewhat later than the bronze Boy with a Dolphin, displayed beside it. There are no wings on the terra cruda boy, which suggests they may not have been part of Verrocchio’s original plan for the bronze. It is not of itself surprising that the wings were separately cast and attached, but Verrocchio paid little attention to the juncture of one wing with the infant’s bare shoulder and the way the other might project through the drapery.
Even if we agree that the terracotta group in the V&A is more likely to have been made by Leonardo than by Verrocchio, we must acknowledge that the child’s laughing expression is a natural development of the radiant face of the boy with a dolphin. Leonardo’s shouting warrior (a famous drawing made in preparation for his great mural of the Battle of Anghiari) was also made possible by the screaming heads that Verrocchio employed as ornaments on the breastplates of his sculptural warriors. He invented a whole range of expressive heads – more perhaps than any previous artist. That of Goliath at the feet of David, which he may have studied using his own face in the mirror, has an extraordinary pathos. All of the heads in the silver relief of the beheading of John the Baptist in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, which was not included in these exhibitions, are remarkable for their strong and varied expressions, especially the head of the executioner, which is well reproduced in the Washington catalogue (Princeton, £62). A double-sided drawing from the British Museum shows Verrocchio studying a beautiful woman from life and then, on the other side of the sheet, using chiaroscuro and sfumato to create his ideal of female beauty. He could also develop studies from life in the opposite direction, towards caricature and the grotesque – yet another of his innovations which have been pursued for more than five hundred years.