January• 27 • 2021

Jordan S. Sly
Exhibition Review: Verrocchio: Sculptor and Painter of Renaissance Florence
Screen Shot 2021-01-26 at 12.31.07 PM.pn

Andrea del Verrocchio, Giuliano de' Medici, c. 1475/1478, terracotta with traces of polychromy, National Gallery of Art, Washington. Image from the National Gallery of Art.

Andrea del Verrocchio (Andrea di Michele di Francesco) is a figure of immense importance to Renaissance art. To many visitors of Washington, D.C.'s National Gallery of Art, however, his name may lack the recognition of his more famous students like Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci. As Andrew Butterfield, the curator of the 2019–2020 Verrocchio exhibition discusses in an introductory video, Verrocchio was a member of the urbanized artisan guilds, an artist and craftsman to the powerful Medici family, and a teacher to many of the era's most famous artists. (1) As the exhibition argues, however, Verrocchio was an amazing artist in his own right. This exhibition—the first to focus primarily on Verrocchio in the United States— emphasizes this fact to indicate his lasting influence. This can be gleaned, in part, from the fact that the collection assembled for the exhibition contained art from museums from around the world. (2)

 

Giorgio Vasari, in his Lives of the Artists, noted Verrocchio as a studied artist of immense talent, though lacking true artistic gifts. Vasari's central notion was that Verrocchio was a craftsman and keen observer who could accurately reproduce moments from life but did so without artist flair or an artist’s eye for story, movement, or emotion. As Vasari noted, Verrocchio’s work was “hard and crude, since it was the product of unremitting study rather than of any natural gift or facility.”(3) This being said, Vasari placed him amongst the period’s most famous artists. This was primarily done, perhaps, because of Verrocchio’s association with the Medici family and his influence on the likes of Botticelli and da Vinci, whom he noted as directly surpassing the master’s craft. This coupling is evident in later scholarship, as well as in the layout of Butterfield’s exhibition.

        

The galleries flow in approximate alignment with the central strands of Butterfield’s argument that Verrocchio’s work as a sculptor, draftsman, craftsman, painter, and teacher prove his role as a vital artisan and artist of the Renaissance. The first gallery places Verrocchio at the center of Renaissance power as his commissioned work, created during his time as a court artist for the Medici family, is on full display. (4) As one enters the first of five gallery rooms, the emotion and realism of Verrocchi’'s sculptures immediately captures attention as his David stylishly pouts with his hands on his hips, flanked by two Medici princes—assertively staging a triptych of commissioned power.

Screen Shot 2021-01-26 at 12.12.13 PM.pn

Verrocchio: Sculptor and Painter of Renaissance Florence at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Photograph by Jordan S. Sly, 2019. 

Each room within this exhibition displays Verrocchio’s talent in diverse media and demonstrates a different aspect of his impact on the development of Renaissance art. Within the Medici sculpture room, we see Verrocchio as the commissioned artist, developing works that praised the Florentine rulers in life and death. More importantly, we see Verrocchio’s immense skill in displaying an almost uncanny and perhaps unsettling realness and attention to detail. Visitors are allowed to step close to the art in order to better appreciate these details. This is one of

the most important aspects of the exhibition for American audiences. For those able to see these works in their regular settings at the Uffizi or the Museo di Palazzo Vecchio, they will find the National Gallery exhibition to be far more direct, focused, and more demonstrative of Verrocchio’s skill. This is by design. In the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, for example, Verrocchio's David with the Head of Goliath (c. 1465) was presented alongside Donatello’s David (c. 1435–40) and other later representations of David, but with the spotlight on Donatello and bronze sculpture as a medium. Even in the NGA's permanent collection, the prominently displayed Medici busts become obscured amongst the sheer quantity of Renaissance sculptures. Verrocchio, as Butterfield argues, deserves to be featured for his own merits and not merely by association.

Other works shown in the gallery to highlight Verrocchio’s commissions included his grotesque Head of a Gorgon (c. 1480), curious Tobias and the Angel (c. 1470), and emotive Bust of Christ (c. 1470–83). Each piece demonstrates his well-earned place as the court artist for the Medici by directly linking Verrocchio’s artistic development with his commissions. For example, the exhibition placed his Head of a Gorgon directly between Tobias and the Angel and Giuliano de' Medici (c. 1475–78), whose armor features a similar gaunt and horrific face. Tobias and the Angel demonstrates, as the wall label described, a sculpture-like quality in the faces of the figures depicted. Here, Verrocchio skillfully represents a biblical scene that is favorable to merchants, as the Medici had been in the development of their wealth. The work in this gallery displayed Verrocchio’s artistic development and progression through each commission. From Tobias and the Angel to Giuliano de' Medici, the viewer sees the facial characteristics of Giuliano de’ Medici represented, and the movement and detail of Giuliano’s armor and adornment through painting and terra cotta sculpture. The viewer sees a mirror progression on the other side of the first room, from the bust of Lorenzo de' Medici (c. 1513–20), which is modeled after an original by Verrocchio, to the Bust of Christ, a sculpture known as one of the most beautiful representations of Christ in Renaissance art. In this series, Butterfield presented that Verrocchio had the ability to capture human emotion and life in terracotta in ways that his contemporaries and patrons distinctly appreciated.

 

This is also potentially an area of missed opportunity. As the dating on Lorenzo de' Medici indicates, this is a later sixteenth-century recasting of Verrocchio’s original. The neighboring exhibition Alonso Berruguete: First Sculptor of Renaissance Spain, curated by C.D. Dickerson III and Mark McDonald, discusses the impact of Berruguete’s travels to Italy in his development as a sculptor in the period following Verrocchio's death in 1488. (5) While direct linkage may be difficult to trace, it is clear that Berruguete was influenced by the works he was able to access during his stay in Florence, and there are tantalizing similarities in expressions and emotive movements between the two. (6) Some reference between the two international exhibitions would have been welcome if only to disprove these similarities or to expand on the greater influence of Verrocchio’s workshop outside of Florence. Additionally, given the artist’s skill in illustration and his early use of chiaroscuro shading, some tie-in to the recent exhibition The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy, curated by Naoko Takahatake, would be an interesting connection due to the fact that Verrocchio’s techniques as a sculptor shaped his methods of illustration and painting. (7) This, in turn, influenced later sixteenth-century artists who drew on the inspiration of Verrocchio’s students. (8)

 

In the second room of the exhibition, Verrocchio’s famous Putto with a Dolphin (c. 1465/80) and Putto Poised on a Globe (c. 1480) sit in the center of the room and are encased in glass, as are his beautiful and delicate Lady with Flowers (c. 1475–80) and Bust of a Young Woman (c. 1470) which sit directly behind the putti.

Screen Shot 2021-01-26 at 12.12.27 PM.pn

Verrocchio: Sculptor and Painter of Renaissance Florence at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Photograph by Jordan S. Sly, 2019.

Many smaller studies and works in silver and gold are placed behind glass in large display cases. While it is clear that these works are extremely precious, the glass cases may impact the visitor’s engagement with the works when compared to the open works in the abutting rooms. With these, their larger scale and position within Verrocchio’s development and his influence seem as hermetically sealed as the display cases. As Robert Hodge and Wilfred D'Souza note, “the glass barrier severely restricts the communication potential of object as artefacts.” (9) This is, of course, a paraphrase in a discussion about the emotional and physical knowledge barrier with regards to Indigenous objects, but there is a similar argument to be made for the works of Verrocchio that Butterfield made clear in the other areas of the exhibition. Visitors in the second room appeared to spend less time focusing on each work, and instead passed quickly through the room on the way to the more immediate works. This may be a result of the sudden introduction of glass display cases maintaining distance between the work and the visitor, or it may be the result of the room being situated in what could be seen as a passageway between the first and final rooms.

 

Branching from this middle section is a screening room playing a short video introducing visitors to the work of Verrocchio. A longer video is available on the ground floor strangely removed from the context of the exhibition. Opposite the screening room is a small gallery filled with drawings including an anatomical sketch of a horse thought to be a study for his large bronze equestrian statue of the Venetian Bartolomeo Colleoni in addition to other craftworks such as intricate metal workings. This room continues the central thesis surrounding the scope and variety of Verrocchio’s works and his place in the heart of Renaissance artistic development through a multitude of media.


The final room addresses Verrocchio as a teacher and seeks to further link his name with those of his more famous pupils. This is directly evident by the work in the center of the room. In the previous two rooms, Verrocchio’s most famous works were directly highlighted with David with the Head of Goliath taking center stage as one enters the exhibition through the archway from the grand atrium.

IMG_0344.jpeg

Gallery entrance of Verrocchio: Sculptor and Painter of Renaissance Florence at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Photograph by Jordan S. Sly, 2019. 

In the development of each room’s narrative, we see the centerpiece forming something of the penultimate expression of the artist’s craft. Here, functions as the emotive bronze surpassing Donatello’s stiff interpretation of the figure and as the height of Verrocchio’s work as a commissioned artist. His work for the Medici pushed Verrocchio’s talent and developed his sense of character as the patrons found their way into the artwork. This is evident in the second room, which highlighted his skill as an artist cognizant of visual display, as the Putto with a Dolphin was designed to be viewed with equal beauty from all angles. Similarly, it presented Verrocchio as a skilled artist with a sense of what encapsulated pure sensual and secular beauty, which can be seen in his Lady with Flowers—itself a feat of history because of its existence as a monument of beauty and its survival despite the purges of Savonarola. (10) In the third main gallery,

however, it is not Verrocchio’s work that is seated in the center of the room, but Leonardo da Vinci’s Ginevra de' Benci (c. 1474–78).

Screen Shot 2021-01-26 at 12.12.52 PM.pn

Verrocchio: Sculptor and Painter of Renaissance Florence at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Photograph by Jordan S. Sly, 2019. 

Andrew Butterfield's well-curated display made this culmination something of an inevitability and is consistent with the exhibition’s general thesis. Within the gallery, the curators shifted the focus away from Verrocchio as a creator and moved towards building his role as a teacher and influence on many important artists of the period. This case is quite clearly and convincingly made by direct example in the gallery space. Visitor attention was immediately drawn to the da Vinci in the center of the room, which features in large text along the back wall of the gallery a quote by Ugolino Verino: “Whatever painters have that is good, they drank from Verrocchio’s spring.” This is the only large format text in the exhibition. It is appropriately placed above da Vinci's Ginevra de' Benci which, as the accompanying label explains, was likely started while still in Verrocchio's workshop and bears a convincing resemblance to Lady with Flowers. Many of the paintings in this gallery demonstrate similar traits traceable through Verrocchio’s work on display in the adjoining rooms, giving the visitor cause to move back through the exhibition to review the source material. 

 

With one particularly strong example—that of the theme of Madonna and Child—the curators chose to group the works together in order to make a solid case for the undeniable influence of Verrocchio and the artistic development of later masters. Through this series, the viewer is shown how Verrocchio’s focus on minute facial features, emotionality, and realism are incorporated into the paintings of da Vinci and Botticelli. There are subtle changes each artist made in their interpretation, with da Vinci focusing more on realism and Botticelli on impressionism, for example. This again speaks to the aforementioned Vasari quote that seems to act as a thorn in Butterfield’s side as the viewer sees, in sharp contrast, the observer and craftsman overshadowed by the students. The power and influence of Verrocchio is inescapable, but the exhibition’s concluding focus on his more famous students is testament to their lasting impact on the general interest of museumgoers. For as much as Butterfield emphasized Verrocchio's artistic genius, there was something uncomfortable in the terminal sense of his role as the influential teacher that enabled the genius of others. This perhaps speaks more to the expectations of visitors questioning why Verrocchio should be given his own exhibition in the National Gallery of Art. Names like Botticelli and da Vinci transcend their fifteenth-century moment and their Florentine location to become part of a collective world heritage. Despite his importance to the development of Renaissance art, Verrocchio has not transcended his particular moment or location in the same way and therefore requires these anchors to prove the argument of his importance to the general public. Works by Verrocchio have been collected by the NGA and these works are on display in this exhibition, as are works from around the world. The scope of this collection and the diverse collections from which these pieces come from, too, point to Verrocchio's importance to the world of art.

 

This being the first major exhibition to focus on Verrocchio in the United States, the display in the grand gallery space is almost as important in establishing the artist’s importance and authority as the connection with da Vinci, Botticelli, and the Medici family. As Peter Higgins discusses in his essay in Suzanne MacLeod's work on museum architecture, space can act as a legitimating factor for the objects contained within by working with audience expectations of grandeur and tradition. (11) Suzanne MacLeod also discusses the notions of expectations and limitations with which space can imbue objects. (12) Additionally, Sophia Psarra has written about pedagogical architecture, or rather the ways in which spaces communicate notions of learning through expectations or through enhanced elements designed to increase learning. (13) In each of these examples, there is a level of theatre and science. However, the end result is a space of agreed-upon authority and learning either through the reinforcing of tradition (colonial or neoclassical architecture, for example) or in the development of carefully designed spaces (buildings designed to enhance the stories being told within and to add a layer of educational design into the architecture from the beginning). It is precisely these notions of performativity that complicate some of the central notions in practice, however. 

 

The exhibition spaces within the National Gallery are exceedingly traditional—and purposely so. As Helen Rees Leahy notes, the space itself is a destination, something unique and powerful which communicates a silent message that can be at odds with the exhibition or the visitors but is always reproduced in some manner by those engaging with it. (14) The traditional space for displaying Verrocchio creates an audience, as Leahy discusses, at turns legitimating his role in the Renaissance and creating space for appreciation. In certain areas of the exhibition, this works well. For instance, when visitors can stand close to the works, uninhibited by glass boxes, levels of engagement and curiosity of the artist’s methods rose. Additionally, the visual examples of Verrocchio's influence on various Madonna and Childs from his workshop, too, make a striking and interesting argument. This being said, the neighboring Berruguete exhibition used the space available in a more interesting and engaging way by utilizing the lofty ceilings, blank walls, and the authoritative secular-sacred space to recreate some of the spectacle of the works’ original locations.

Screen Shot 2021-01-26 at 12.13.05 PM.pn

This is not to say that the Berruguete exhibition is radical, but it utilizes the traditional space in ways that situate the art so that the visitor can imagine the original context. The display of Verrocchio’s work in a somewhat sterile and overly musified setting removes some of the excitement of the art in its original placement. The putti, for example, are placed at eye level, which allows visitors to comfortably view the statue. The intention of the piece in its original context, however, was to be seen from a lower level in which the beauty of the object could be beheld from any angle, therefore further proving Verrocchio’s genius. While educational in a traditional way, it is not clear if this exhibition engages Barbara Soren’s notions of a transformative experience despite what could be a revelation and a chance in thinking about the Renaissance for some visitors. (15)

Alonso Berruguete: First Sculptor of Renaissance Spain at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Photograph by Jordan S. Sly, 2019.

The exhibition sparing use of text allowed the visitor to glean the selective message of the curator’s central argument. To supposedly increase engagement with the exhibition and the longevity of its influence, the curators included the hashtag "#Verrocchio" to the gallery’s introductory text. (16) This hashtag has been used in other Verrocchio exhibitions internationally, so that scrolling through Twitter or Instagram posts using this hashtag produces many images from past exhibitions. These posts consist mainly of people (myself included) noting a particular work or commenting on the gallery using superlative and flowery language and performing the role of an art critic or other sophisticate. (17) 

   

Whether the visitor finds the setting for the exhibition sterile or stimulating, the authority of the space imbues the exhibition with an impressive weight that allows the curatorial team headed by Andrew Butterfield to argue their thesis convincingly. The scope of the exhibition and the international loans from other national museums and private collections indicate Verrocchio’s importance to a global understanding of art, but also speaks to the importance of NGA’s own pieces and maintaining their role in the national museum sphere. This exhibition is sponsored by Bank of America's cultural funding operation, which funds many art exhibitions of similar weight, scope, and importance internationally. Ultimately, however, these factors of sponsorship, elegant housing, and national status may play against Butterfield’s central notion. The scale of the exhibition may have forced the emphasis on Verrocchio’s students and his impact less as an artist, but, as Vasari emphasized, as a skilled and studied craftsman who influenced more well-known figures who might draw a larger crowd.    

• • •

Jordan S Sly is a research and instruction librarian at the University of Maryland in College Park. Additionally, Jordan is a Ph.D. student in the University of Maryland department of history focusing on seventeenth-century religious, intellectual, and political history. Finally, Jordan is an affiliated faculty member of the University's iSchool.

Endnotes

1. National Gallery of Art, “Verrocchio: Sculptor and Painter of Renaissance Florence," Online

 

2. These institutions include the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College; The British Museum, London; The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; The Frick Collection, New York; Galleria Regionale della Sicilia, Palermo; Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence; Hamburger Kunsthalle; Istituto Nazionale per la Grafica, Rome; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Musée du Louvre, Paris; Museo di Palazzo Vecchio, Florence; National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh; The National Gallery, London; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Nationalmuseum, Stockholm; Private Collections; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie; Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Skulpurensammlung und Musseen für Byzantinische Kunst; Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main; Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

3. Giorgio Vasari, "Life of Andrea Del Verrocchio: Florentine Painter, Sculptor, and Architect, C. 1435–88," in Lives of the Artists, vol. I., trans. and ed. George Bull (London: Penguin, 1987), 232.

 

 4. Charles Dempsey, "Verrocchio and the Humanist Culture of Medicean Florence," in Verrocchio: Sculptor and Painter of Renaissance Florence, ed. Andrew Butterfield (Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, 2019), 34.

 

5. National Gallery of Art, “Alonso Berruguete: First Sculptor of Renaissance Spain,” Online.

 

6. C.D. Dickerson III, "The Experience of Italy," in Alonso Berruguete: First Sculptor of Renaissance Spain, eds. C.D. Dickerson III and Mark McDonald (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2019), 18–36.

 

7. National Gallery of Art, “The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy,” Online.

 

8. Butterfield, Verrocchio: Sculptor and Painter, 16, 295–297.

 

9. Robert Hodge and Wilfred D'Souza, "The museum as a communicator: a semiotic analysis of the Western Australian Museum Aboriginal Gallery, Perth" in The Educational Role of the Museum, Eilean Hooper-Greenhill (London: Routledge, 1999), 58.

 

10. Butterfield, Verrocchio: Sculptor and Painter, 135.

 

11. Peter Higgins, "From Cathedral of Culture to Anchor Attractor," in Reshaping Museum Space, ed. Suzanne Macleod (London: Routledge, 2005).

 

12. Suzanne MacLeod, "Rethinking Museum Architecture: Towards a Site-Specific History of Production and Use," in Reshaping Museum Space, ed. Suzanne Macleod (London: Routledge, 2005).

 

13. Sophia Psarra, “Spatial Culture, Way-Finding and the Educational Message: The Impact of Layout on the Spatial, Social and Educational Experiences of Visitors to Museums and Galleries,” in Reshaping Museum Space, ed. Suzanne Macleod (London: Routledge, 2005). 

 

14. Helen Rees Leahy, "Producing a Public for Art: Gallery Space in the Twenty-First Century," in Reshaping Museum Space, ed. Suzanne Macleod (London: Routledge, 2005).

 

15. Barbara Soren, "Museum Experiences that Change Visitors," in Museum Management and Curatorship, 24 (3): 2009, 233–251.

 

16.  Twitter search results for #Verrocchio. Online.

  

17. Tweet by author. Posted on Twitter on November 5th, 2019. Online.