“Verrocchio, Master of Leonardo” at Palazzo Strozzi

Exhibition review

On 9 March Palazzo Strozzi inaugurated the exhibition Verrocchio , Master of Leonardo, the first retrospective ever dedicated to this Florentine master who shaped the artistic life of the city during the one of the most prosperous periods in its history.

You can visit the show in Florence until 14 July. Then a part of the exhibit will travel to Washington DC to be displayed at National Gallery of Art between 19 September 2019 and 2 February 2020.

If you are in Florence this spring, do not forget to put this show on you schedule. The exhibition is definitely worth a visit.

Verrocchio, Heroes of Antiquity
View on one of the rooms.

Andrea di Michele di Francesco de’ Cioni, called Andrea del Verrocchio was undoubtedly one of the most important sculptors in fifteenth-century in Florence. He owned and managed a busy workshop and worked for both private and public commissioners such as the Medici family, the market tribunal (Tribunale della Mercatanzia) in Florence and the Republic of Venice. His workshop produced sculptures and paintings and many young artists started their brilliant careers as Verrocchio’s trainees. The most famous one is obviously Leonardo da Vinci who entered the workshop at the age of 14. However, among Verrocchio’s pupils we also find Lorenzo di Credi or Pietro Perugino. Verrocchio himself trained with Desiderio da Settignano and was strongly influenced by Donatello (his own workshop functioned in Donatello’s last studio located behind the cathedral[1]). Among Verrocchio’s masterpieces we have to mention the tomb of Piero and Lorenzo de’ Medici at San Lorenzo Basilica in Florence, the Incredulity of St. Thomas for Orsanmichele and the equestrian monument of Bartolomeo Colleoni commissioned by the Republic of Venice and standing in Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice. 
The Florentine exhibition, however, not only allows us to learn more about Verrocchio’s own production. Hundred and twenty works displayed on the show dialogue between each other. The show, in fact, offers a fascinating journey through art and culture of fifteenth-century Florence. Let’s start our trip!

The show starts with the three marble portraits of young women, one by Desiderio da Settignano and two by Verrocchio. One of them is the famous Lady with Flowers from the Bargello museum. The tree portraits amaze us with their elegance, charm and grace. I could look at them for hours, observing their hands, details of their dresses that seem made of muslin. In the same room you will find Leonardo’s study of female hands, clearly inspired by Verrocchio and Desiderio’s sculptural portraits.
In the second room you will find the figures of heroes: David, Scipio Africanus, Hannibal the Carthaginian and Heroines of Antiquity. We enter into the world of private commissioners who identified with these heroic figures and hoped that the effigies would represent some of their own qualities. Similar reliefs with the effigies of Alexander and Darius were donated by Laurence the Magnificent to Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary.  This gift was certainly well accepted, as who would not like to be compared to Alexander the Great?

Andrea del Verrocchio, Scipio Africanus, ca. 1465-8.
Andrea del Verrocchio, Scipio Africanus, ca. 1465-8.

Look at the beauty of Scipio and Hannibal’s helmets, at the force and violence of Gorgons’ heads at their chests. Here we are in front of some of the most exquisite examples of fifteenth-century sculpture.

In the third and the fourth rooms we find paintings of Madonna and Child by Verrocchio, Lippi, Botticelli and others. The works on display show how strong was Verrocchio’s influence on the Florentine artistic milieu in 1470s. This room testifies also a huge change in occurred in Christian devotion during the fourteenth century. Until mid-fourteenth century the Virgin Mary was most often represented in painting enthroned with the Baby Jesus on her laps, more like a queen rather than a mother. During the horrible years of the plague, the believers started to worship the Virgin as their tender mother hoping she would save them from death and suffering. Step by step the iconography of the Virgin changed and already in 1470s the Virgin was represented as an affectionate mother of her little child. On the show you will find painted panels and tabernacles in bas-relief used for private devotion by pious Florentines. We notice that on all off these paintings the Virgin is represented as a young, noble girl; she holds Jesus in front of her with tenderness and love. The emotions raised by the contemplation of these images were supposed to incite devotion and pious behaviours in their users.

Andrea del Verrocchio, Madonna and Child, 1470 or 1475.
Andrea del Verrocchio, Madonna and Child, 1470 or 1475.

In the fifth room you will find two marvellous works, which are for me the highlights of the show: Verrocchio’sBust of Giuliano di Piero de’ Medici and Francesco di Simone Ferrucci’s bas-relief Death of Francesca Pitti Tornabuoni. Giuliano’s effigy is made in terracotta, a humble by easy to model material. Look at the detail of Giuliano’s armour and at Gorgon’s head at his chest. Imagine this work painted and gilded. It definitely gave impression of realism and highly resembled Giuliano, who died aged twenty-four in the Pazzi Conspiration in 1478.

Andrea del Verrocchio, Bust of Giuliano de' Medici, ca. 1475.
Andrea del Verrocchio, Bust of Giuliano de’ Medici, ca. 1475.

Simone Ferrucci’s bas relief decorated the tomb of Francesca Pitti Tornabuoni placed in the family chapel in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome. The form of the relief is clearly inspired by Roman sarcophagi. The sculpture represents two scenes: on the right a suffering lady just gave birth to a child and on the left the servants present the child to the father. Francesca Tornabuoni and the new-born both died after the caesarean delivery. Giovanni suffered immensely the loss of his beloved wife and of his little child and to honour their memory he dedicated them a private chapel. Domenico Ghirlandaio decorated it with the frescoes, which are lost today, and Francesco di Simone Ferrucci sculpted this touching relief.

Francesco di Simone Ferrucci, Death of Francesca Pitti Tornabuoni, ca. 1480.
Francesco di Simone Ferrucci, Death of Francesca Pitti Tornabuoni, ca. 1480.

The sixth room allows a confront between two beautiful representations of children. We find here Desiderio da Settignano’s Little Boy and Verrocchio’s Winged Boy with Dolphin. In these two statues, the first one in marble, the latter in bronze, you can see all the creativity and tenderness of fifteenth-century sculpture. The Little Boy smiles to us and looks at us with a curious glance. Verrocchio’s Winged Boy fights against an invisible wind that blows in his hair and lift his dress revealing his naked buttocks. There is a lot of lightness and some sort of sense of humour in these images of children.

Andrea del Verrocchio,Winged Boy with Dolphin, c. 1470–75.
Andrea del Verrocchio,Winged Boy with Dolphin, c. 1470–75.

With these sculptures in mind, you can admire the Virgin with the Laughing Child from Victoria and Alberts Museum, attributed by Francesco Caglioti to Leonardo da Vinci and put on display in the last room of the show. This little terracotta statue overturns the traditional iconography of Madonna with Child. Have you ever seen before a statue of the Virgin who tickles Jesus and makes him laugh? If Caglioti’s intuitions are right, this would be the only surviving statue by Leonardo. However, we can only base our intuitions on stylistic analysis, which never give us certain answers. Here you can read Jonathan Jones’ article about this sculpture published by the Guardian.

Attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin with the Laughing Child, c. 1472.
Attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin with the Laughing Child, c. 1472.

This little masterpiece concludes the show at Palazzo Strozzi. At Bargello Museum you can find other two sections of the exhibition, with the Incredulity of St. Thomas, moved temporarily from Orsanmichele, wooden crucifixes and busts of Christ.

This show offers a really fascinating journey through the fifteenth-century art. I enjoyed more the parts dedicated to sculpture, but paintings on display also deserve our attention. Unfortunately, the explicative panels are not very exhaustive, therefore, if you want to learn more about the works on display, I would advice you to book a guided tour. Otherwise you risk going through the rooms looking at beautiful object, without understanding the context of their commission and execution.
In any case, the show is worth a visit.

Practical information:
Verrocchio, Master of Leonardo
Curated by Francesco Caglioti and Andrea de Marchi
Palazzo Strozzi, Florence: 9 March – 14 July
Opening hours: Open every day including holidays from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm, on Thursdays from 10:00 am to 11:00 pm.
Tickets: 13 €, reduced 10 € (over 65, under 26, groups of at least 10 people with a reservation). Full price list can be found here.

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC: 19 September 2019 – 2 February 2020.

[1] F. Caglioti, Verrocchio the Sculptor: Training, Figurative Genres, Pupils and Followers, in Verrocchio, Master of Leonardo, exhibition catalogue, ed. By F. Caglioti, A. De Marchi, Venezia 2019, pp. 29-30.

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