Friday, 22 February 2013

Origins of Verrocchio’s Studio in Florence

Andrea del Verrocchio, David, Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, 1473-5, bronze, height, 125 cm.

Andrea was the son of Michele di Francesco di Cione, a tax official. The artist’s first apprenticeship was with the goldsmith Andrea Dei from 1453 to 1456. In 1457, he became affiliated with Francesco di Luca Verrocchio, thus inheriting his patronymic. Verrocchio’s birth date is the subject of discussion, but he was probably born in 1435 and lived until the age of 53- he was only 17 years older than Leonardo. An unfortunate accident had determined the course of his life. As a result of a tragic stone-throwing game with his Florentine compatriots, Verrocchio killed Antonio di Domenico, a woodworker aged 14. The taxman’s son was Imprisoned and tried for involuntary manslaughter, but Verrocchio was released soon afterward, the judges being used to stone-throwing cases, not unusual in in Florence. Verrocchio was guilt-stricken for the rest of his life, and it’s thought the accidental death was the reason he didn’t put a stone in the hand of his celebrated David, thought by some to have been modelled by the young Leonardo. To add to Verrocchio’s troubles, his father died shortly afterwards, leaving a widow, Nannina, 6 children, and a multitude of debts. Andrea inherited the task of supporting his family, but on the positive side, his financial misfortune drove his artistic career. When Leonardo started in Verrocchio’s workshop- after Abbacus School, reckoning school- Andrea was still supporting his family. 

What made Verrocchio’s name was a commission for the tombstone of the “father of the state”, Cosimo de’ Medici. Most of Verrocchio’s identified works were completed in the last 25 years of his life, and more mainly connected to Medici commissions- his career thus owed a great deal to the Medici. Verrocchio’s workshop would also have been under the protection of the Medici. As Serge Bramley says, we shouldn’t picture Verrocchio’s workshop in the Via de Agnolo as a 19th century painter’s studio. It was a bottega, and hence more likely resembled a shop like a shoemaker’s, a butchers or tailor’s. It was probably a set of ground floor premises opening onto the street, where children played and animals wandered.  It would have been able to handle all commissions since Verrocchio advertised himself as a painter, decorator, sculptor and goldsmith.[1] Vasari’s reading of Verrocchio is incorrect. Bramley sees him as a “pioneer” whose dogged determination fascinated his pupils.  The accidents of history have not helped either since only a few works by Verrocchio have survived; thirty have been listed of which are uncertain.[2] 

Leonardo would have entered Verrocchio’s studio in 1466 or 1467 as apprentice or discepolo, where he would have learnt how to make paintbrushes, prepare glazes, stretch canvas onto panels, recognize and prepare pigments, freshly ground and mixed every day. Once he had mastered this basic training, Leonardo would have progressed to taking an active hand in the “firm’s” activities, especially when he became a journeyman (garzone). During this stage the master might entrust him with decoration or backgrounds; he might have let him handle architectural sections, plants, or garments and background figures, depending on the garzone’s skill or aptitude for the task. As a trained goldsmith Verrocchio would have drawn in pen and ink, though many of his pupils like Lorenzo di Credi and Leonardo used silverpoint in their figure studies.  

Lorenzo di Credi, Bust of a Boy Wearing a Cap, c. 1480, Metalpoint with white highlights on pale brownish pink prepared paper, 245 x 188 mm, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Maso Finguerra, Ragozzo intent al disegno, (Boy busy drawing) Florence, Uffizi, pen and ink.
 Leonardo da Vinci, Profile of Man in Armour, London, British Museum, 1475-80, silverpoint, 211.000 mm.

[1] Serge Bramley, Leonardo: The Artist and the Man, (1988), 65.
[2] See James Fenton’s “Verrocchio: The New Cicerone” in Leonardo’s Nephew: Essays on Art and Artists, 1998, 50-68.

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