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"Leonardo: Discoveries from Verocchio's Studio," Yale University Art Gallery

The New Criterion, September 2018

The studio of Andrea del Verrocchio took on a great number of apprentices. As was typical of quattrocento studio practice, they were put to work on a large variety of surfaces ranging from altarpieces to linen cabinets. Some portion of the master's hand was in all of them. Just how much varied. He might have painted the central figures and left the backgrounds to students. He might have provided concept sketches and let able novices execute the whole job. A question remains as to what a pure Verrocchio painting might look like, so doubtful are we that one exists.

This would be of little interest outside the circle of experts who can read fifteenth-century Florentine Italian if not for the fact that one of the apprentices was the young Leonardo da Vinci. “Leonardo: Discoveries from Verrocchio's Studio” brings together two panels, an Annunciation from the Louvre (ca. 1475–79), and a rendering of one of the miracles of St. Donatus from the Worcester Museum of Art (ca. 1475–85). Both are a little over six inches high. They are fragments of a predella under an altarpiece that is a known Verrocchio commission. The former is wholly Leonardo. The latter is a collaboration with Lorenzo di Credi.

The exhibition supplements the panels with a sampling from Verrocchio's circle, notably more Lorenzo. Verrocchio sculptures, about which there is somewhat more certainty of authorship, make an appearance as well. They are situated around greatly magnified reproductions of various works, attached to the wall right along with the explanatory text. The goal is to tease out who did what, searching for the divine hand of Leonardo.

On some level, this is like analyzing discrete components of a Labradoodle and making an intricate case for their belonging to one breed or the other. A painting has a whole effect, after all, regardless of how many hands went into its manufacture. That said, the exhibition and its catalogue provide an interesting glimpse at life inside the art-historical mind. Experts on the traditional forms look at art objects harder than you and I look qualitatively at anything. The exhibition asks the viewer to compare one hand of an angel to the other, to contemplate the perspectival fidelity of wholly fictional interiors, to contrast a smear of paint in one part of an image with an unlike smudge a few inches away.

Laurence Kanter, the Chief Curator and Lionel Goldfrank III Curator of European Art at the Yale University Art Gallery, makes his case. Leonardo's drawing is so distinct, and his use of the oil medium so advanced, that his passages among those of dimmer lights are often obvious. The Worcester panel pairs Donatus with the tax collector whom he saved from a false charge of stealing his deceased wife's savings. (Prayer revealed the money's location.) The portrayal of the saint is masterly, and that's without adjusting for the fact that Leonardo may have been in his early twenties when he painted him. All figures look a little clunky at this diminutive scale, but the portrait is nonetheless starkly individual. The drapery hung upon the subject is otherworldly. Diaphanous lavender floats upon the umber shadows in its depths. Its interior is gold and seems to contain a warm chasm in its folds. Where light falls upon it, on the side towards the viewer, it effulges.

Lorenzo painted the facing figure. Kanter lets him have it:

The tax collector, by contrast, is shown in pure profile and from a lower viewpoint (waist height). His draperies are entirely schematic in rendering, and they are disposed on the ground before and behind him strictly parallel to the picture surface, belying the notional recession of his right leg, the foot of which is placed slightly backward in space relative to the knee. His torso, arms, and head are drawn on the same scale of those of Saint Donatus, yet his waist, legs, and feet are considerably smaller.

These are fair observations. But depending on the exact dates, Lorenzo might hardly have started shaving when he painted this.

The Donatus came to Worcester as a Leonardo. It was subsequently disattributed by Bernard Berenson and assigned to Lorenzo. Kanter made news earlier this year by reattributing it to Leonardo, at least in part, based on the scholarship leading up to this exhibition. Kanter has thought deeply about the differences between Leonardo and his contemporaries, which are considerable. He is wholly entitled to his opinion that Lorenzo was “charming but pedantic and unimaginative.”

Without contradicting Dr. Kanter, I wish to come to Lorenzo's defense. Robert Kulicke once said about Albert York that “What Al doesn't understand is that in art you never hit what you're aiming at, but the difference may not be downward.”

Certainly, Lorenzo was incapable of the kind of verisimilitude that gives Leonardo's works their scientific authority. Leonardo's capacities for achieving sculptural form in painting exceeded even Michelangelo's, and Michelangelo was an actual sculptor. In comparison, Lorenzo's figures tend to read flat, the drapery formulaic and the backgrounds routine. Sometimes his heads resemble boiled eggs. (Leonardo could run into that problem as well. See, for instance, the nevertheless magnificent Ginevra de' Benci at the National Gallery in Washington).

But the comparison doesn't always go in Leonardo's favor, at least given this selection. The Louvre panel is remarkable. Even at this early point in Leonardo's oeuvre, one can see that he has gotten it into his head that if he's going to paint wings on an angel, he had better go study a real bird. But Yale puts Leonardo's Annunciation near a Lorenzo version from around 1500, and the Lorenzo is preferable in its composition and hues. Leonardo recorded in his notebooks that illusionistic form and strong color were incompatible. He went for form, and for all its virtues, the shadows are on the muddy side. He left color to artists like Lorenzo. That color is lovely. The supernatural pinks and blues on Gabriel's wings only add to the effect. On the other side of the wall, the difference between the cool red of the robe and the warm red of the leggings on Lorenzo's Saint Quirinus of Neuss (ca. 1485–90) is hypnotic.

Granted, depending on how much fudging is in the date on that Lorenzo Annunciation, Leonardo might have painted the Virgin of the Rocks by then, and Lorenzo wasn't capable of such things. Still, neither was Verrocchio, whose influence was nonetheless enormous by dint of all the tutelage he issued over the course of his career. He favored tempera for his paintings, and his Virgin and Child (ca. 1465–70) gets a lot of mileage out of its idealization and linearity. Kanter traces the way this painting influenced a number of other compositions, including a mysterious Jacopo del Sellaio of the same subject from the Yale collection placed next to it.

Verrocchio's terracotta bust of Christ from a short while later is so full of sympathy, humanism, and softness of touch that it seems to come from a wholly different temperament. I would suggest that prior to Leonardo, an age of ideal forms still reigned—perfect Madonnas and crisp light and delineation. This was the world that Lorenzo remained in, despite being younger. Leonardo broke through to an age of real forms, studied from nature and captured via illusionism. Verrocchio was a bridge between the two, which is why his style never quite solidified, but also why he proved to be one of the great influences upon the course of Italian art. Lao Tzu said that the greatest form has no shape. That unshaped shape may be what makes the flowers of art bloom.

Word count: 1269

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