Verrocchio, Leonardo's Master. Postilla, or considerations on the Palazzo Strozzi exhibition.

The following text is a preview of scholar Gigetta Dalli Regoli's article that will be published soon in the scholarly journal Critica darte: considerations on the exhibition "Verrocchio, Leonardo's Master" at Palazzo Strozzi, from March 9 to July 14, 2019.

The valuable set of materials brought together for the exhibition Verrocchio, Leonardo’s Master offered an opportunity for reflection and further insights, as is the case with any event of a high scholarly level.

The documentation related to Verrocchio’s personality and work is quite substantial, although discontinuous, and the relevant critical debate has been long and lively. I have already expressed some appreciations and some perplexities about the exhibition, and nevertheless I would like to better clarify the reasons for my reservations: not in order to elaborate a review, which would entail a consideration of all the issues addressed by the exhibition, but rather to point out some still open problems and some gaps. The Palazzo Strozzi exhibition in any case allowed me a unique experience, and for this I can only be grateful to the curators and organizers.

The comparisons between works of a sublime level, the evocation of the different phases of the historical-critical debate, the updating of information in relation to the vicissitudes of the individual works and the outcome of the restorations, undoubtedly constitutes a title of merit; moreover, the very exceptionality of the initiative pushes those who, in various capacities and at different times, have participated in the progress of the research, to intervene; other hypotheses and alternatives will make the exhibition live beyond the time of the exhibition.

The key topic underlying the Florentine exhibition offered an opportunity to study a very active and open type of workshop, a crossroads and branching system for artists of different temperaments and aptitudes: the outcome involved various forms of valorization and offered a number of clarifications and novelties, but in some areas the opportunity cannot be said to have been fully utilized; in the face of a broadly agreeable picture, too narrow and apodictic the pool of collaborations, too peremptory the polarization on Andrea, who would have drawn, worked metals (in the monumental dimensions of the Incredulity of St. Thomas and the Ball for the dome of Florence cathedral), sculpted marble, modeled terracotta, painted on panel and in fresco, restored ancient pieces... in relation to all this, some questioning would have been appropriate. Especially when one considers the dates, one finds oneself compressing so much industriousness into a fairly limited time: Andrea was active in the mid-1460s, working during the next decade and little beyond, for around 1485 he was engaged in Venice to correspond to the flattering commission of the Colleoni Monument, and, in the very act of lavishing himself on the monument, he died in 1488, at just over fifty years of age. In any case, the review reveals a wise management on the part of the workshop leader, skillful in identifying the most gifted and promising young men and securing their collaboration, especially (and significantly) in the area of painting: some permanent collaborators (Leonardo and Lorenzo di Credi) and others ’flying’ (Botticelli, Perugino, Ghirlandaio, Bartolomeo della gatta, Piermatteo d’Amelia, Francesco di Simone Ferrucci, Botticini, Biagio d’Antonio.....), all chosen with great foresight.

I return to retrace some features of the exhibition, moreover within the limits of my subjects of study and expertise, adding to the reservations expressed in the recent past other observations: in the interest of art history studies and of those who will pursue this kind of research.

The Drawings. Those that can be referred with certainty to Verrocchio can be distinguished in relation to technique, depending on whether they are made with pen, or with charcoal and black pencil, generally on white paper or with light-colored preparation; concise and effective the former, often containing inscriptions from which the Catalogue has drawn significant novelties; in the case of the others, the relief, compact on the inside, is diluted at the margins where the graphic sign dominates, with refined effects set on gradations of black/white. Prominent among the pen drawings is the Study of a Horse (Metropolitan Musuem, Catalogue 7.10), aimed at providing a metrical survey of the animal based on triangulation, and which Verrocchio himself accompanied with verbal indications expressed in a limpid mercantile handwriting: evidence of a complex culture and a qualified familiarity with architecture; as much as Carmen Bambach’s record is entirely exhaustive, it seems appropriate to make mention of this imprint, in support of what I will say below. Still in relation to the pen drawings, I would add that it would also have been appropriate to call attention to a sheet in the Uffizi Cabinet (212 F) that is perhaps inconspicuous but of sublime quality: a Head of a teenager with delicate features, perhaps crowned with laurel, which introduces one more element in relation to the eminent role of the bronze David.

The group of pencil drawings traceable to Andrea with a good margin of certainty is organized around a small compact core, including the female Heads from the British Museum (not shown, Catalogue fig.2) and the Fitzwilliam Museum, the BerlinAngel, and the Head of a Putto again from the Fitzwilliam Museum (Catalogue 7.8, 9.1, 9.2): the drafting done by a loose hand, confident in giving body to the modeling, fully befits the mentality and dexterity of a sculptor. Not congruent with this series, on the other hand, seems to be the celebrated Female Head on orange-red paper largely illuminated in white lead (Louvre 18965, Catalogue 3.6)), which has a persuasive iconographic match in the Vincian Madonna in the Munich Picture Gallery and a stylistic match in the even more famous Female Head “quasi ch’en profilo” in the Uffizi (not exhibited, Leonardo 428 E, Catalogue fig.12): in the Louvre drawing card Carmen Bambach does not rule out a reference to Leonardo, which I have personally advanced several times and would like to strongly reiterate today.

A sinistra: Attribuita al Verrocchio (Leonardo?), Testa femminile (Parigi, Louvre, Département des Arts Graphiques). A destra: Leonardo, Madonna col Bambino, parti colare (Monaco, Alte Pinakothek)
Left: Attributed to Verrocchio (Leonardo?), Female Head (Paris, Louvre, Département des Arts Graphiques). Right: Leonardo, Madonna and Child, detail (Munich, Alte Pinakothek).

It did not find a place among those I have mentioned, a sheet preserved in Rome (National Institute for Graphics, 130520), moreover neglected since time immemorial: it is a Study of drapery on a headless figure, of considerable size, that belongs to the Corsini Fund; instead, it would have merited some reflection that in the collection collected by Cardinal Neri Corsini, probably coming from the Baldinucci collection, there is a large representation of drawings that came out of the Verrocchio area. The Studio in question shows a vigorously modeled draped robe (perhaps in places weighted down by retouching from the ancient period), succinct under the breast, and pertaining to a female figure: the strong foreshortening from below and the feet shod in an ’old-fashioned’ sandal constitute significant clues for recognizing the figure, which in fact evokes a series of paintings marginally connected with Verrocchio’s activity, the seven Virtues executed for the Merchants’ Guild, now in the Uffizi. Six of these were executed by Piero Pollaiolo, only one by Botticelli, whom critics unanimously assign to 1470, the year in which the 25-year-old Sandro owns his own workshop (Covi 2005, pp. 236-240 and passim).

Combining the data provided on this issue from ancient documents and sources, it is possible, albeit with inevitable simplifications, to reconstruct a significant event: the commission of the Virtues, entrusted to Piero Pollaiolo (c. 1469), was changed in favor of Verrocchio, who was to execute two of the seven Virtues; for one of these Andrea (who was already working on the Incredulity of St. Thomas on behalf of the same Arte dei Mercanti) presented a drawing paid a modest sum, eight lire, identifiable with a Uffizi drawing (204 E, Study for a Faith, not exhibited, Catalogue fig.19), also depreciated by critics and unexpectedly assigned to Biagio d’Antonio (see the remarks of Bartoli 1999, pp.30-31). The only Virtue not executed by Pollaiolo was, however, painted by Botticelli, and in a form that critics believe to be related to Verrocchio’s style: today a renewed consideration of the problem seems to indicate that in the years 1465-70 there was a close connection between Andrea and the young Sandro, to whom the commission for the only Virtue taken from Piero Pollaiolo was passed. An episode that leads me to transfer the discussion to the subject of the painter Verrocchio.

A sinistra: Verrocchio?, Studio di drappeggio su figura seduta (Virtů?) (Roma, Istituto Nazionale della Grafica). A destra: Sandro Botticelli, Fortezza (Firenze, Uffizi)
Left: Verrocchio?, Study of drapery on seated figure (Virtue?) (Rome, Istituto Nazionale della Grafica). Right: Sandro Botticelli, Fortress (Florence, Uffizi).

The Paintings. A pivotal point in the question pertaining to Verrocchio’s responsibilities in the field of painting sees at its center the Baptism of Christ in the Uffizi (not exhibited, Catalogue fig. 1), absent from the exhibition for reasons of protection and conservation; however, it is a crucial work, which has always been at the center of a heated debate (Natali 1998), and in which at least one fact is certain: the presence of a primitive drafting based on symmetry, and therefore on a correspondence between two masses of stratified rocks located on the sides: one still existing on the right, while the other was erased by an intervention by Leonardo, who covered the drafting already traced by modifying the left side of the painting; the aggressiveness of the vincian intervention is attested by the famous Angel quoted by Vasari, who is shown in an unusual version from behind, and who takes space away from his submissive companion, turning his head back with unprecedented foreshortening; connected to the right-hand Angel is a Head of a Young Boy from the Uffizi 130 E (Catalogue 3.8), which shows explicit connections with Botticelli’s angelic types. The possibility of Botticelli’s role in the elaboration of the painting (Ragghianti 1954) can be accepted or rejected, but it is based on a usually ignored datum. In the vincian notes and in the Treatise on Painting, Leonardo mentions only one artist from the Florentine area with whom he good-naturedly debates: on the subject of perspective (“Sandro tu non dici perchè le cose seconde...) and landscape (”as if one does not like the countries... as our Botticella says... “). And it is Sandro, though not named, who is the recipient of another passage that rejects the autonomous value of the contour line: ”do not make li termini d’altro colore... ". Well, where would the direct contact between the two have taken place if not in Andrea’s workshop ? Hence the most conspicuous lacuna in the Palazzo Strozzi exhibition, where Botticelli is a rather labile presence (a youthful Madonna, Catalogue 3.2, finely analyzed, does not turn out to be contextualized within the series). Among the few paintings assigned to other flying collaborators of the workshop (Perugino, Ghirlandaio, Piermatteo d’Amelia) there is no room for Sandro, to whom instead well would converge the Metropolitan Museum’s Madonna of the Cherries (not exhibited) and the Berlin Madonna 104 a (Catalogue 3.3), steeped in Lepesque formulas (the Virgin’s hairstyle, the Child opening his arms addressing his mother).

Other uncertainty hangs over the Ruskin Madonna at the National Gallery in Edinburgh (Catalogue 5.4). As much as the rich backdrop (unique in the series of Madonnas dispersed between European and American venues) is dutifully appreciated, its detachment from the figural group is not grasped; there is no mediating element between the monumental ruined temple and the characters, so much so as to suggest a ’prepared’ background in priority, leaving the outline of the characters blank, painted later by another collaborator. In the perspective outline that supports the structure of the temple from the rigorously foreshortened planes, precious also in the material that defines the marbles worn down by time and attacked by weeds, one might detect that graphic-design predisposition of Verrocchio’s to which I alluded in the opening: a counterpoint is found in the Beheading of the Baptist made for the silver Altar of S.John, in the square and the trabeated loggia delimiting the space, especially if one considers the photographic documentation made during a restoration, when the figures were temporarily detached from the panel. As for the figural part of the Madonna Ruskin, dressed simply and devoid of jewels, seems to fit not so much Ghirlandaio, prone to various forms of ornamentation, but Piermatteo d’Amelia, a discontinuous painter but one who in the rare autograph works of later years (see the dismembered polyptych of the Augustinians) shows that he assimilated well both the style and the specific formulations that characterized the language elaborated in Andrea’s workshop.

It is singular that in the labored defense of Verrocchio’s intervention expanded like wildfire, no consideration was given to the rigorous construction of the perspective frame supporting the Sacred Conversation in Pistoia, originally the protagonist of a sacellum located outside the cathedral (Dalli Regoli 1984, Catalogue 8.10). The graphic scheme I published many years ago creates a perfectly measurable space around the characters, and projects the viewer’s gaze to more indefinite distances, continuing beyond the innovative openings of the backdrop. Lorenzo di Credi would not take up this extraordinary solution in the altarpieces of his maturity, and so it is in this articulated proscenium that Andrea’s concrete contribution might be recognized, far more than in the sketch of the figures traced by the reflectographs. The pictorial elaboration, and not only the surface elaboration, as critics have long acknowledged, is Lorenzo di Credi’s, evident even in the structure of the protagonists placed on the floor grid: in the conventional gestures, in the realistic cadences of the cloths, even in certain tender clumsiness (the legs of the Baptist are of different lengths, as much in the Louvre preparatory study as in the painting). And the sketch with the head of Bishop Donato de’Medici, rightly called by De Marchi a “cryptor-portrait” in the wake of an opinion by Anna Padoa Rizzo (Catalogue 8.7), is evidently an effigy executed from life (see the warts, the wrinkles on the neck, the hair and the incanutite eyebrows, expunged in the altarpiece): and it is verisimilar that Andrea’s most docile pupil, Lorenzo, whose skills as a portraitist were evidently known, was sent to Pistoia for the task; numerous drawings that have come down to us, certainly autograph, bear witness to this.

Equally unlikely it seems that Verrocchio stayed in Pistoia to execute the demanding fresco in the church of San Domenico there: probably a Holy Conversation with Four Saints, of which only the fragmentary figure of Saint and a penitent Saint Jerome remain (Catalogue 4.1). Yet the exhibition considers a passage of Bartolomeo della gatta in Verrocchio’s workshop, documenting that presence with the great altarpiece in Cortona. Who better than the versatile Camaldolese friar, an expert in fresco painting and involved in the Sistine wall stories, could have fulfilled the task, which must have involved several days of work ? The accentuated characterization of the face, the body exhausted by the Saint’s deprivations, and the Pierfrancesque architectural framing show stringent affinities with Bartholomew’s orientations.

The reference to Bartolomeo della Gatta completes the pinwheel of Andrea’s temporary collaborators, and also closes the circle on the complex of panels (Catalogue, Section 3) where beautiful-faced women and young men appear, adorned in precious robes of silk and brocade, coiffed with veils and jewels; brooches, real or designed, must have been part of the workshop’s furnishings, for they appear several times with rare variations; and in the rooms where masters and pupils worked must have circulated a tawny-haired, blue-eyed child, who as the infant Jesus appears in many paintings in the series. It was a complex unified by Andrea’s solid direction and mostly dated before 1470, but in which far wider than is proposed in the exhibition was the contribution of Perugino, Botticelli and Ghirlandaio, supported by Longhi, Ragghianti, Zeri; it seems that in this sphere the adolescent Leonardo had no part, except for the possibility of limited but splendid finishing. After this date the paintings of sacred subjects that came out of the workshop belong to Vinci and Lorenzo di Credi: there is a lessening, especially in the Madonnas, of the splendor of the robes as well as of the iconic layout (the Blessing Child exposed on the windowsill), replaced by an exclusive relationship between mother and child, innovative in the warmth of affection; for Leonardo see the Dreyfuss, Benois, and Carnation Madonnas, for Credi the small-medium sized tablets such as the one in Dresden.

Terracotta sculptures. In a workshop that supplied metal artifacts derived from casting, working with earth must have been central. Significant space the exhibition devotes to this kind of imagery, enhancing pieces to which only the most alert critics had paid attention. Among other things by focusing on the Berlin Deposition, present through the cast and positively compared with the original fortunately returned to light (Catalogue 10.4). In relation to this relief, it will be appropriate to recall that list of works that Leonardo took with him leaving Florence and leaving for Milan; it is now established that Leonardo also wrote (albeit rarely) with his right hand, and this supports the documentary value of the List. Well among the images, especially drawings, “A Passion Story Made in Form” is mentioned, and this gives substance to the hypothesis that Leonardo worked as a sculptor, participating in a series of reliefs made by several hands. As was previously speculated, the Sleeping Young Man in Berlin (Catalogue 6.3) could be a sketch, or even a variation, related to a detail of the Resurrection of Christ from Careggi (Bargello Museum) and the sleeping soldier located in the foreground. Leonardo has been mentioned several times in relation to the Lunetta.

I have already mentioned that the two reliefs with Angels holding up angels from the Louvre (Catalogue 8.3) seem to be of different setting and may have been executed ’in competition’ within the workshop. The one on the right is of strict Verrocchio observance, and may belong to Andrea himself, or to Ferrucci (Pisani 2007), the dedicated collaborator in sculpture to whom a certain personality may be attributed, but who, at least in part of his career, diligently interpreted the ’Verrocchio style’ (see the pose of the arms, firmly locked in the function of support, and the fluttering ribbons, an authentic trademark of the workshop); the one on the left, lighter in build, aerial I would say, wrapped in equally light cloths, is depicted according to a marked diagonal foreshortening that accentuates its momentum and not so much the action of support as the act of taking flight: a reference to the adolescent Leonardo would not seem far-fetched.

Finally, the Madonna at the Victoria and Albert Museum (Catalogue 9.9), not a real scoop, since the image appeared among the hypotheses of attribution to Leonardo in the volume of a series devoted to popularization, nonetheless qualified.

A sinistra: Verrocchio, Madonna col Bambino benedicente, particolare (Firenze, Museo del Bargello). A destra: Attribuita A Leonardo, Madonna col Bambino ridente, particolare (Londra, Victoria and Alberet Museum)
Left: Verrocchio, Madonna and Child Blessing, detail (Florence, Bargello Museum). Right: Attributed To Leonardo, Madonna and Child Laughing, detail (London, Victoria and Alberet Museum)

As I have already explained, the precious little Madonna is, in my opinion, the work of a sculptor of great depth, but one who still reveals a strong connection with 15th-century sculpture: to it the artist remains adherent by training, iconographic and stylistic choices, looking explicitly to Donatello and Desiderio, both in the Virgin’s clothing and hairstyle and in the frank, almost Dionysian, laughter of the Child; and yet Francesco Caglioti has rightly identified in the work the impetus of a sculptor who also tends to go beyond those same experiences and open a new discourse. However, I remain of the opinion that the reasons given to justify the attribution to Leonardo are insufficient (the hands with tapered fingers, the smile... ). The presence of a peculiar symbolic ornament such as the cherub, located on the Madonna’s head, is also puzzling: it seems to me that there are no traces of winged heads in the Da Vinci repertoire, which were very popular in 15th-century sculpture as a Marian attribute, from Donatello, Desiderio, Luca della Robbia, up to a master of conservative imprint such as Francesco di Simone, who applied it to the Virgin’s neckline (Catalogue 3.13, 3.14).

Finally, the Rappresi cloths, investigated with great attention and on several occasions by Carmen Bambach (Catalogue, Section 9). Legitimate to compare them with the indications expressed by Leonardo in his writings, but it must be warned that the artist, when acting as a treatiseist, intervenes ex cathedra, and in this specific case contradicts the intensely creative moment of the youthful Drappeggi. Moreover, dividing the execution of the so-called Linens between Verrocchio and Leonardo, juxtaposing some of them with the terracotta Madonna to strengthen their attribution, is hardly tenable on a morphological level; but above all it muddies the waters in relation to the series, which in my opinion has an autonomous experimental matrix, closely linked to Leonardo. The Rappresi Panni are not preparatory drawings in the strict sense, although many correspond to common types (the seated, upright, kneeling figure), and presenting them as part of a heterogeneous legacy of the Verrocchio workshop compromises their original value. It was probably Domenico Ghirlandaio who had the good fortune to preserve those youthful proofs, and he used them without too many variations , appreciating their quality but neglecting their subversive scope; after him Fra Bartolomeo drew inspiration from them, but to give them more incisive interpretations; in both cases, evidence of a persistent and unmistakable Vincian aura. To reiterate their exceptionality, consider the most significant (Catalogue 9.11), which assumes the powerful physique of a figure whose torso thrusts far beyond its center of gravity, and which Dominic trivialized, adapting it to the figure of a static enthroned Madonna.

Caglioti’s proposal in favor of Leonardo contains elements of certain interest, but like other changes of name and date advanced by brilliant connoisseurs it will have to stand up to the passage of time: in the past there have been numerous confirmations, corrections and adjustments made to the variations, not to mention that a few isolated subversions of opinion, albeit from accredited sources, have not been followed up.


  • Roberta Bartoli, Biagio d’Antonio, Milan 1999, pp. 31-33
  • Dario A. Covi, Andrea del Verrocchio, Life and Work, Florence 2005, pp.237-239 and passim
  • Gigetta Dalli Regoli, La Madonna di Piazza. Writings in honor of F.Zeri, Milan 1984, I, pp.213-32
  • Antonio Natali, Lo sguardo degli angeli. Milan 1998
  • Anna Padoa Rizzo, Ancora sulla Madonna di Piazza, I Medici, il Verrocchio e Pistoia, edited by Franca Falletti, Livorno 1996
  • Linda Pisani, Francesco di Simone Ferrucci...,Florence 2007
  • Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti,Leonardo’s Beginning, “Critica d’arte” 1954, pp.102-118, 302-316