Few paintings and sculptures by Andrea del Verrocchio remain today, and yet his artwork is widely acknowledged to be highly influential and valuable. Verrochio worked for some of Florence’s most prestigious patrons, the Medici, and went on to inspire future artists after his death. Among his most famous works are the Baptism of Christ and David, which are considered masterpieces of the Early Italian Renaissance.
10. Verrocchio was born at a critical junction in the history of art
Born in Florence in roughly 1435, Andrea del Verrocchio was in prime position to witness the unfolding of European Renaissance. In the recent decades his city had been enriched both culturally and financially by a host of important figures, from Dante to Cosimo de’ Medici, putting it at the centre of the development in understanding, art, and technology. His formative years in such a fertile environment undoubtedly influenced the young Verrocchio, inspiring him to become the artist he eventually became.
9. Like most Italian artists of the period, Verrocchio began his career as an apprentice
Verrocchio was born into neither a noble nor impoverished family, and so an apprenticeship was the most suitable way for him to carve out a career for himself. He initially trained as a goldsmith, learning the art of molding and gaining an understanding of forms and fluidity.
Although the precise details about Verrocchio’s youth are obscure, there are also suggestions that he may have studied painting under some extremely significant masters: Donatello and Filippo Lippi. His presence in the studios and workshops of Florence’s craftsman equipped Verrocchio with many of the skills and connections that he would need to ascend to the peak of contemporary art.
8. Verrocchio also followed the general trend in producing mainly religious work
The vast majority of Verrocchio’s extant work centres around religious. Christian and Biblical imagery were in huge demand during this period, partly because the church, as one of the world’s richest institutions, always had the funds to commission new pieces of art. People would also have painted miniatures of a Madonna and child in their homes, and so these figures formed an important part of a young artist’s training.
Many of Verrocchio’s commissions came from the church, and his sculpture of Christ and St Thomas in Florence’s Orsanmichele stands beside the work of other eminent artists, including Ghiberti, Donatello and Brunelleschi.
His Baptism of Christ is among Verrocchio’s most interesting paintings, largely due to the assistance he received from a young Leonardo da Vinci, who was then an apprentice in his workshop. Da Vinci painted the angel to the left of Christ and parts of the background. It is said that after Verrocchio witnessed his pupil at work, he declared that his own artistic skills had already been surpassed.
7. Leonardo da Vinci was also involved in the making of one of Verrocchio’s most famous masterpieces
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Piero de’ Medici commissioned Verrocchio to make a bronze statue of David, perhaps to rival the sculpture produced several decades earlier for his father by Donatello. Unlike Donatello’s sensual, nude figure, Verrocchio ensured that his David was fully clothed.
The Biblical story of a young shepherd boy unexpectedly defeating a larger enemy was seen as an allegory for the rising power of Florence. Verrocchio’s David was also based on another star in ascent: the young Leonardo. The artist is thought to have used his apprentice as the model for his statue.
6. Sculpture was an important medium for Verrocchio
Despite his skill in painting, Verrocchio’s most important works were sculptures and statues. These mediums allowed him to combine the skills he had learnt as a goldsmith with the painter’s appreciation for fine details and embellishments. Unlike his paintings, his statues cover a wide range of subject-matters, from a marble female bust to the funerary monument of Cosimo de’ Medici, representations of Christ to a statue of a cherub riding a dolphin.
This last work was particularly significant because of its technical design. Freestanding sculptures were a relatively recent phenomenon, with Donatello having produced the first freestanding human statue since antiquity. Verrocchio’s Putto with Dolphin demonstrates a mastery in this field, with the boy standing precariously on a single leg. The statue is believed to have been made for a fountain in the Medici villa, but the family later placed it in a public fountain in Florence.
5. In fact, it was a sculpture that would prove the greatest project of Verrocchio’s career
As was the case with many public commissions at the time, a contest was held in Venice to select a sculptor to produce a statue of the victorious general, Bartolomeo Colleoni. Competing against two other craftsman from Venice and Padua, Verrocchio submitted a design made of wood and leather, which won the judges’ vote.
And so, Verrocchio opened up a new workshop in Venice and spent his final years toiling over the mould in which his work would be cast. Aware that he would die before the project reached completion, he requested that one of his own students should finish the task. The state of Venice, however, elected a Venetian sculptor to complete the statue. Nonetheless, the bronze statue still stands in the Basilica di San Giovanni e Paolo today, more as a monument to Verrocchio than to Colleoni.
4. His paintings remain important examples of the trend in European art at the time
Although there remain very few examples of Verrocchio’s paintings, his extant ouvre exhibits several important features. For one, his work demonstrates an understanding of depth and perception that serves as the hallmark of Renaissance art. The paintings of the Middle Ages had all too often been two-dimensional and static. Artists such as Verrocchio moved away from this style, incorporating a grasp of proportions and positioning that would go on to be developed by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci.
One way in which Verrocchio achieved a sense of depth in his portraits was through his use of a distant landscape, generating a tension between foreground and background. Variation in facial expression and bolder colours also put Verrocchio on the forwards trajectory towards the style of the High Renaissance.
3. Sadly, little is known about Verrocchio’s life outside of his work
In Florence during the 15th century, Verrocchio would surely have experienced a dizzying array of cultural, political and social changes, and yet his involvement in public life appears to have been limited to his art.
There is little evidence about Verrocchio as a person. It is widely believed that most of his extant work is the product of his later years, making it even harder to gain a general perspective on his life or development. Even the father of art history (and notorious embellisher) Giorgio Vasari has few comments to make. He notes that, while working on the statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni, Verrocchio ‘caught a chill and died in a few days’.
2. It was Verrocchio’s pupils who continued to develop his legacy after his death
Verrocchio’s work reflected the transition from Early to High Renaissance, a transition brought to fruition by his pupils. Despite not having any children of his own, Verrocchio did bequeath an important legacy to the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and Pietro Perugino, who came to be leading figures of the High Renaissance.
These men developed the skills they had learnt under Verrocchio and it is largely thanks to them that his memory and reputation were preserved. His influence can also be seen in the work of latter painters and sculptors, such as Botticelli, Francesco di Giorgio and Andrea Sansovino, who may have been in contact with Verrocchio during the final years of his career.
1. As a result, the paintings and sculptures that emerged out of Verrocchio’s workshop are still considered items of extraordinary value.
Verrocchio represents an important turning point in art, when technique, style and subject were all undergoing significant change. It is for this reason that his paintings are still considered essential to the history of Renaissance art and are, accordingly, in high demand with collectors.
In 2010 his Madonna and Child was sold at Sotheby’s for £780,450, and three years later the same auction house sold his Madonna and Child resting at a parapet for $842,500.