8: The Master's Hands

It's just the story of a young man, barely more than a boy, and a small piece of wood that he may or may not have painted.

  The Miracle of Saint Donatus of Arrezo , Worcester Art Museum, 1940.29

The Miracle of Saint Donatus of Arrezo, Worcester Art Museum, 1940.29


Welcome to Accession. Today, we're at the Worcester Art Museum, taking a look at a piece that is on special exhibition. Go to the mosaic court and head up the stairs to the second floor. We're going to go to the side of this floor that is opposite the Shipwreck and the Golfe Juan, in through the first door in front of us, as we go in the direction of the woman with the cup on her ear. Just inside this door, we will be greeted by a knight, guarding some strange search for honey, but we want to head to the right, into the room with just two entries. Right now this room is set up with only three paintings, only two of which we are here to look at, and only one of which belongs to the museum. Around those two paintings are a lot of words. But for now, you can sit down, and listen, as I tell you the story of the piece of art in front of you. Today, we're looking at Worcester Art Museum, Accession Number 1940.29, The Miracle of Saint Donatus of Arrezo, painted by... well...

 

The story that I am about to tell is not the story of a painter whose name and works have echoed on throughout the centuries. It is not the story of a thinker who would shape not only their world, but every world that would come after. It is not the story of an genius, tortured by demons, driven to understand more deeply and create more beautifully so that they may dissuade them. No, this story is no such thing. The story that I am going to tell you today is just the story of a young man, barely more than a boy, and a small piece of wood that he may or may not have painted. But this story, like so many stories, is incomplete. I have only some of the facts to present to you today. The rest is shrouded in mystery and mythology. That doesn't mean it's not worth telling, but it will leave you, the listener, with a great responsibility. By the end of this story, you will have to make a choice: to answer the question of whether or not our young man painted that small piece of wood.

 

Our story begins in the middle of the 1400's, in a small town east of Florence, far from the small group of rich and creative types in this small sliver of the world that was experiencing a small rebirth of Greek and Roman art and philosophy. Far from all that lived a peasant girl, named Caterina. She was only sixteen, an orphan, and she lived with her little brother and her grandmother. After her grandmother passed away, she and her brother were left to take care of themselves. At that time, Caterina bore a child to a fairly well-to-do notary, a contract writer, named Piero. The child was born out of wedlock and thus would not be Piero's heir; would not have to take over the family business and become a notary. But this was no scandal. Piero was a good man, and he arranged for Caterina to be married and the child to be taken care of.  

 

The boy lived with his grandparents for part of the time and his mother and step-father the rest of the time, while Piero moved often between this small town and the city of Florence. When the boy was twelve, his stepmother, Piero's wife, died while giving birth to the child that would have been Piero's sought after heir. In the same year, Piero's father passed away as well. Now, probably feeling hopeless, and probably feeling a bit alone, Piero decided that he and the boy should move to Florence together, where the child could receive an education and learn some sort of trade. Whether the boy wanted to move... well... most children don't like having their life and comforts uprooted. Let's look on now as the boy looks out the back of the cart, at the ever shrinking town on the horizon, his whole wide world, however small it may have actually been, with so many questions still unanswered and stones still unturned.

 

And even though we look at the young boy, and can see that he is sad, we should keep in mind that Florence is going to be a much better place for him to live. There will be even more stones to turn and questions to answer. Florence was one of the most wealthy cities in Europe, with one of the highest literacy rates, and a system of patronage where by the wealthy could support the flourishing of arts and culture. The child was a curious one, like most children. He asked questions about everything, he drew everything, and he, like all children, wanted to know everything. But most children are eventually told to stop wanting to know everything about everything, and told that they instead need to know everything about the one thing that their father does, so that they can take up the family business. But our boy, not being an heir to his father, and not set to take up his family's business, was never told this, and so his curiosity continued on with him.

 

Before we move on with our story, before this boy begins down his fated path, I want you to hold onto this. So far, this has been the only difference between our young boy and any other young boy: He was allowed to keep his childhood curiosity. If ever our young boy goes on to do anything great, which he may or may not, this might be a moment to think back on.

 

At the age of fourteen, Piero saw the boy’s curiosity and his affinity for drawing, and not only allowed it to continue on, but encouraged it. He secured for him an apprenticeship at the studio of Andrea del Verrocchio, which was considered the best studio in all of Florence. They regularly received commision from the great patrons of the city, including the Sforza's and the Medici's. It attracted the greatest minds of this small sliver of the world, and it is said that when Pierro showed Verrocchio the work of the young boy, Verrocchio knew that he had to take him on as a student. It was here in this studio, that our young boy became a young artist, studying light, figure, motion, and craft. He learned to sculpt, to carve, to sketch, to paint. He modeled for others and in turn they modeled for him. He learned from his master and he learned from his peers, even those younger than him, such as one Lorenzo di Credi. This was the sort of place where a boy who has held onto his childlike curiosity might become a master if given enough time.

 

But we have to keep in mind that Verrocchio's studio, and indeed, all the studios of the time, were not so much focused on the creativity of the individual. They were production houses, where fine goods were made to be sold, like cobblers with shoes or haberdasheries with hats. The artists and craftsman worked in a large open space on the main floor, open to the public, easels and pottery wheels and metal grinders everywhere, each working on their part of works to be sold or pieces that had been commissioned. Their art was never signed, and a single piece was never made at the hands of a single artist. Many people would work on the same piece, each applying their own unique tallent. If you were good at catching the light as it danced across the folds of a draped cloak, you might run around and paint half a dozen cloaks on half a dozen pieces. Downstairs, during the day, they were not individual artists; they were a team, member's of Verrocchio's studio, the best studio in all of Florence. But upstairs, at night, the artists and apprentices would live and eat together, recounting their small triumphs and epiphanies, and telling each other of their progress on their work; their progress as individuals; their respective journeys towards being the best artists in all of Florence.

 

Now, I like to imagine that our young artist immediately excelled beyond his peers, much to their chagrin, and that he would leap from piece to piece, offering suggestions on how to make them better. I like to imagine that he didn't care for the mass produced works, that he reveled in the challenging pieces and was always begging Verrocchio to let him be a part of the bigger commissioned works. I liked to imagine that his imagination liked any piece that would help him get better as an artist or teach him something new about the world. I like to imagine these things, but the truth is that these are just myths, stories that fit into a larger narrative about the archetypal characters in our world. They are informed largely by a part of the story that hasn't happened yet.

 

But instead of those, I'd like you to imagine this: our young boy, the same young boy who looked out on his whole wide world shrinking on the horizon, sitting at an easel, looking at a painting, his painting, creating a whole new world, in color and line, with a depth and lucidity, finally realizing that worlds are not monumental things. They are small things that they can expand upon a canvas just as easily as they can shrink on the horizon. And with these brushstrokes, our young artist has taken the first step to not being a young boy, barely more than a boy, but certainly a young man.

 

And now that we know where our young man has coming from, it's time to introduce that small piece of wood. It's origin has been chronicled in far less detail, but we do know why it arrived one day in the best studio in all of Florence. When the young man was 23, Verrocchio was commissioned to make an altarpiece for a small private chapel attached to the cathedral in the small town of Pistoia, just north of where the young man was born. The altar would be made of wood and have important Christian stories painted on it, one larger image as the focal point, and three smaller images, called the predella, that would tell stories of a similar theme. Now it was not an uncommon thing in that time for a studio like Verrocchio's to receive a commission for an altarpiece like the one for Pistoia, and it was not an uncommon thing for Verrocchio to focus on the large central image, and to have his students design and paint the predella, instead of doing it himself. His artistic contribution was his oversight and helping where his more experienced hand was needed. And so it is not a wholly remarkable thing that both Lorenzo di Credi and the young man might have had a hand in painting the small pieces of wood that would be the predella.

 

The altarpieces main image was called the Madonna di Piazza, the Madonna and Child; Mary with the Baby Jesus, a common religious image for painters of the time; the young mother and the younger child, just a baby, sitting, looking out, not yet having started the life for which he would be mythologized. It is believed that after Verrocchio’s death, which occurred a few years into the project, Verrocchio left the remainder of painting the main image to Lorenzo di Credi, and that much of this piece as it currently exists is his work. As for the three smaller images of the predella, we only know the subject matter of two of them. One has been lost to history. The second was The Annunciation, the moment when the angel told Mary that she would have a child, the savior of mankind. The third would be the story of The Miracle of Saint Donatus of Arezzo, who is said to have prayed at the tomb of a tax collector's deceased wife, to discover where she had hid the money, and save the tax collector from the punishment for theft, which was death. In these stories, and implied by the young mother and the younger child, is the revelation of salvation through divine providence. When you need saving, God will provide you with a way.

 

Now at this point the story becomes the most unclear. It just simply wasn't recorded. And we can't blame them. It was just another small altar, made by the greatest studio in all of Florence. They had no idea why we would want to know its story, or even that we would want to know it's story. And so, instead of telling you what happened, I have to ask you to imagine this. Look upon that small piece of wood, unfinished, and do not glance away. A hand reaches, though you don't know whose, and begins to sand the wood. The lights around you brighten and dim with the passing of each day, as hand after hand is placed upon the wood, some sanding, some sketching, some painting. Now a large part of the piece is painted over and redone. Now a subtle detail is added, a robe changed to catch the light in a certain way, or a tree added in the horizon. And all these changes are made by hands, holding onto their tools, as the light of four years of days and nights ebb across the work, and the small piece of wood becomes a small piece of art.

 

Now had the artisans and apprentices at Verrocchio's studio made careful notes, connected names to the minds that controlled the hands that we just saw perform this masterful work, our story might go an entirely different direction. This might have become the story of a painter whose name and work have echoed on through the centuries. It might have been the story of a thinker who would shape not only his world, but the every world that would come after. This might have been the story of a genius, tortured by demons, driven to understand more deeply and create more beautifully so that they may dissuade them. But this is not that story. This is the story of a young man, barely more than a boy, and a small piece of wood that he may or may not have painted. And now that we've reached the conclusion of our young man's journey up to the point of him potentially having painted that small piece of wood, it is time to tell the story of what happened to that small piece of art after that.

 

For some time the small predella remained connected to the main image of the altar, and sat in the small private chapel connected to the main cathedral in Pistoia. But eventually, the main image was moved into the main cathedral, and the small piece of art and the small chapel lost their context. The predella was cut into three pieces and each piece was sold separately. The first piece was, as we mentioned before, lost to history. The second piece, The Annunciation, was acquired by the Musee du Louvre in 1863. And the third piece, The Miracle of Saint Donatus, was acquired in an art sale in 1933, in Paris, by Theodore T. and Mary G. Ellis, of Worcester, who later donated it to the Worcester Art Museum, along with many of the pieces in their private collection.

 

Now when both pieces were purchased, they were associated with the young artist, and the cards that sat by their display read as such. But once it had been discovered that they were both pieces of a predella, connected to the Madonna di Piazza, in the Pistoia Cathedral, the authorship of the paintings came into question. Most people believed that Lorenzo di Credi was responsible for the Madonna di Piazza, and if he had painted that, he must have painted the predella attached to it as well. That is, after all, how art is made today. A single artist paints a single piece. Viewers flocked from all over to see the piece for themselves, to speculate if it was, in all actuality, a painting by di Credi, or if it had been truly touched by the hands of a young man whose story would go on beyond it's painting.

 

Ultimately, after much debate, and by the use of the many resources and researchers at the Louvre's expenditure, the piece in the Louvre left the young man's name on the card that was attached to the wall beside it. But in the 1960's, when the Worcester Art Museum was assembling it's catalogue of European Paintings, a task they undertook precisely at a time when there was no European Art curator at the Worcester Art Museum, they had to call in an expert from England to evaluate their paintings. And as he looked at the small piece of wood, and the card with the young man's name beside it, he thought of the painter whose name and work had echoed on throughout the centuries, who would shape not only his world, but every world that would come after, and he scoffed. "There's no way that was the young man. Just think of the other paintings the young man painted. This must be a Lorenzo di Credi."

 

It's so easy to forget, when we talk about a young man, who eventually became an old man, that they had a start, a beginning, that once they were a child, and that sometimes they remained childlike, and that that is what made them great. You can look back on a man's life and judge his work. But you cannot pick a point in a young artist's life, even if they may someday be a genius, and judge it looking forwards. With no one to argue the opposite side, the WAM published it's catalogue, with the name Lorenzo di Credi on the work, and the card was changed.

 

The controversy died down; the people stopped flocking, and the small piece of wood sat there in the WAM, glanced at by a few, including myself, who saw the name Lorenzo di Credi, saw that he was 16 at the time of it's painting, and knowing nothing of his work, moved along, hoping to see the work of a true genius, not just a young man, in one of the rooms up ahead.  

 

But in 1995, one person, Laurence Canter, who was at the time the curator for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, did not move along. He stopped, and he looked carefully, and he thought about the young man, who was once a boy, a curious child, who had a moment of revelation, as he sat in front of an easel, and saw worlds shrink on the horizon and expand upon the canvas. And he saw the small piece of wood, and the hands working on it as the light of four years of nights and days ebbed across the piece of wood turned piece of art. And he saw those hands, and the arms attached to the hands, and he connected a name to the mind that controlled the hand that he saw perform this masterful work. And he said "It's extraordinary. It's definitely not Lorenzo di Credi. The hands that made those hands that point to the ground, the way the light is caught in the robes of the Saint, those trees that shrink into the horizon. Those hands were the master's hands. Those were the hands of Leonardo da Vinci."

 

Of course, this is not where the story ends. This is only the beginning. I've only just told you the myth. Now we have the task of figuring out the truth. We have yet to learn what Canter learned, to study the tests that they did on the paintings, and to look at the painting and judge for ourselves whether or not the piece of wood was painted by that young man. But those are questions we will answer next time. For in a few days, this piece is coming off the walls of the WAM, along with its counterpart from the Louvre, and heading down to the Yale University Art Gallery, where Laurence Canter is now the chief curator. And that is where we will go as well, when we once again pick up our story in part two of The Master's Hands.


Sources:

Information on the early life came from the biography Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. Information on the history of the piece's acquisition and reception came from this article in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, written by Nancy Sheehan and with quotes from Rita Albertson.

Music:

Lord Weasel from  Molerider by Blue Dot Sessions
Aime' Ch'a Torto by Anonymous, performed by Jon Sayles
Town Market from Onesuch Village by Blue Dot Session
Borough from Molerider by Blue Dot Sessions
Crions Nouel by Alexander Agricola, performed by Jon Sayles 
One Needle from Onesuch Village by Blue Dot Sessions
 

Special Thanks:

My special thanks this week goes out to Mr. Seiple, my high school art history teacher, who is the one most primarily responsible for my love of art history. He encouraged me to chase stories and ideas and helped me tell them in unique ways, and I we're seeing the product of that encouragement in this show. 

Credits:

Our theme music was performed by Mike Harmon, with recording, editing, and mixing from Casey Dawson. Our show art was made by V Silverman. The script is turned into a transcript by Amanda Borglund. Social media and marketing assistance comes from Lauren LaPorto. This episode was produced, written, recorded, and edited by T.H. Ponders