14: The Master's Teacher
While Leonardo da Vinci was an apprentice in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio, what exactly did Leonardo learn from Andrea? What did Andrea have to teach him?
Welcome to Accession. Today we’re at the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut. Once you’re in the lobby, head to your right and work your way up to the fourth floor, either by the triangular staircase with the chain barrier that makes a delightful noise when you drag your finger along it, or by the giant elevator. Once you’re up there you should see it, in giant letters just as you might expect “Leonardo.” Now if you look to your left, you should see some familiar paintings that we’ve visited before at the WAM. But we’re not here for them. The piece we’re looking for is on the other side of the gallery, and we’re going to take our time getting there. Today, we’re looking at Yale University Art Gallery accession number 1871.45, The Adoration of the Christ Child with Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata, Tobias and the Angel, Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness, and the Penitent Saint Jerome, by Andrea del Verrocchio.
Part One: The Teacher Quits
When we left Leonardo, or rather, when we left those familiar paintings to your left, a young Dr. Laurence Kanter was walking around the Worcester Art Museum, when he was struck by the realization that The Miracle of Saint Donatus, a piece of the predella of the Pistoia altarpiece, had almost certainly been created, at least in part, by the hands of the young Leonardo da Vinci. That was 20 years ago, and in the intervening years, Dr. Kanter has spent his time researching these pieces, the studio where they came from, and trying to understand more about these formative years in Leonardo’s life, a process which resulted in an excellent book, and the exhibit that you are standing in today.
In turn, we are going to begin where he begins, with a story from Vasari's Lives of the Artists, a contemporary biography of the Renaissance painters.
If you look to your right, this very panel, this very piece, has been printed and blown up, as the original hangs in the Uffizi Gallery. Once again, just like in The Miracle of Saint Donatus and The Annunciation from the predella, we can see that this is the work of multiple artists, and that some parts of this painting contain the work of an artist who is markedly above the others. Look at the angel on the left: the detail in her golden curls, the soft yet visible definition between her cheek and her neck. Even more, look at the way the light glints off of her eyes, reflecting light back, rather than simply being a solid color, like the other angels eyes. Of course, it’s good. But it’s not quite abandon painting out of anger good.
In truth, there are a number of flaws in Vasari's tale. Upon further inspection, art historians have determined that a number of other elements in this painting done by Leonardo. There’s also not a very clear historical record of this piece, and so there is no way of knowing precisely when it was made, or where in the many years that Leonardo apprenticed and worked with Verrocchio it might fall. And even though it’s a fun story to tell, one that delightfully subverts our idea of the teacher-student relationships, Verrocchio almost certainly did not give up painting after collaborating with Leonardo. This is the kind of story that arises from the notion that all artists, even all people, are working for the explicit goal of their own success narrative. Which, as we talked about last time, wasn’t really how Verrocchio’s workshop was organized.
But this kind of story can prompt us to a more important question, one that again helps us better understand the young Leonardo and his development as an artist in this workshop. Since Leonardo was an apprentice in the workshop, what exactly did Leonardo learn from Andrea? What did Andrea have to teach him?
Part Two: The Teacher Passes On
Let’s head over to the two paintings that sparked this whole study, The Annunciation, which belongs to the Louvre, and The Miracle of Saint Donatus, which belongs to the Worcester Art Museum. Both are parts of the predella of the Pistoia Altarpiece. The main image of the altarpiece has been enlarged and printed to your right. Additionally, on either side of the two predella pieces are originals that are solely attributed to Lorenzo di Credi, the artists that was originally attributed to the Worcester part of the Pistoia Altarpiece. But for now let’s hone in on these two pieces, and really understand the research conducted by Dr. Laurence Kanter and Rita Albertson, the chief conservator at the Worcester Art Museum, that can help us untangle what is di Credi and what is da Vinci.
One of the major pieces of evidence comes from the results of IRR or infrared reflectography, which allows the researcher to look below the top level of paint to see preparatory sketches made with carbon black, or any changes that may have occurred during the paintings life. In doing so, Albertson uncovered two distinct hands working on the preparatory sketches. And when we compare one of those, the one who sketched Mary in The Annunciation, to the many sketches that we have that are attributed to Leonardo, it is an almost perfect match.
The other evidence that comes to bear is the use of oil paints, as opposed to the egg tempera that was most common at the time. Oil was a relatively new development in the history of painting, and it provided artists with a whole new way of approaching their craft. Namely, egg tempera paints and frescos dry very quickly, meaning the artist only has a limited time to paint. Oil’s dry over a much longer period of time, allowing the artist to continue mixing colors, even after the paint is on the canvas.
Eventually oil paints would come to change the world of painting for ever, and it would be an older Leonardo leading many of those charges, but here, we can begin to see the effects in play that he would later master. Look at the weight of the fabric as it falls on the floor, the way the light and shadow interplay across the folds in Saint Donatus’ cloak, and across his face to show the intense focus of the man deep in prayer. This same effect is accomplished in the cloak of Mary, and it’s done by painting the structures underneath the cloak, like her right knee, which we can see upon the floor, and then painting the fabric over it, so that it may feel the pressure of the knee pressing against it from underneath. This interplay of light and shadow, and the proper weight of objects accomplished with it, would eventually become a technique known as chiarurosco, which Leonardo is considered the founder of in oil painting. And it’s origins are clearly in play in these two panels.
Where they are not observable is in the two paintings to either side of these, both of which are the hand of di Credi alone. Lorenzo is certainly accomplishing a degree more depth than art from the period that came before, but ultimately, this is accomplished more by technique in depth of field than it is by the employ of color mixing and control of light. Look for example at Lorenzo’s Annunciation. The depth of the scene is accomplished by fairly pronounced diagonals moving towards a vanishing point on the horizon. But as much detail and light is given to the plants beneath the angels feet as the plants in the background. The scene in the Pistoia Annunciation uses the same diagonals to the vanishing point, but also gives the background a different level of light, detail and focus. Where Leonardo accomplished a wide range of gradation in light across the color in an object, giving it realism and weight, Lorenzo would give his colors a specific depth and only change that depth in minor ways, leading to a largely planar, or two-dimensional feel.
But as you are looking at The Miracle of Saint Donatus and The Annunciation, we have to keep in mind that these works were most likely completed after the death of Andrea del Verrocchio, and that while he likely had a hand in designing and planning the altarpiece, these panels are probably almost entirely the work of Lorenzo and Leonardo, but not the work of Leonardo alone. These pieces then represent and incredible point on the timeline of Leonardo’s development as an artist: Leonardo collaborating with his fellow artists based on what he had learned while working in Verrocchio’s studio.
Part Three: The Teacher Passes Off
But now, let’s move away from The Annunciation and The Miracle of Saint Donatus, and around the corner from the cassones directly behind you, until we are in the next room, looking at four different renditions of the Madonna and Child, three painted and one relief sculpture.
For those not familiar, the Madonna and Child was a very popular motif in Christian art, showing the Mary with her infant child; an image that has been echoed and repeated throughout the centuries. As such, a workshop in Florence would have had many, many paintings of the Madonna and Child commissioned, including the three in front of you. The originals of these paintings are currently hanging in Edinburgh, London, and Berlin as you move from left to right, but we are just going to focus on the central image, the one which is currently on display at the National Gallery in London, The Virgin and Child with Two Angels.
When analyzed with x-ray and IRR, the National Gallery concluded that this piece was completed as a joint venture between two artists. Sound familiar? One artist, the better of the two, was responsible for Mary, the angel with the lilly on the left, and the details of the landscape, while the second artist was responsible for the Christ child and the boy supporting him. For a while it was though that the better painter may well be Andrea del Verrocchio, with the second painter being Lorenzo di Credi. But, this analysis is based primarily on the assumption that the first painter, the better of the two artists, would necessarily be Verrocchio, seeing as he was the head of the studio.
Dr. Kanter contests that Lorenzo di Credi, as we have seen, is an artist who is predominantly planar, where the hand that painted the boy and the child came from an imagination that was not strictly planar. If you look to your left, at the marble relief, you’ll see an example of an artist who was capable of thinking both planar and multidimensionally. Looking back at the boy and the child, it’s entirely probable that those could have been the work of Andrea del Verrocchio, which would mean that the more accomplished painter here is, you guessed it, Leonardo.
But we don’t just have to take Dr. Kanter’s word for it. Look closely at the angel, the details in the hair and the light reflecting off the eye. These are the same details we see in the angel Leonardo painted in the baptism. Look also to the subtle definition of the tendons on the back of the hand, and the way that the fabric of the veil brings through just a hint of the color behind it, giving it just a bit of volume and a weightlessness. These are techniques that Leonardo would later revolutionize with oil paints, here done with egg tempera. With these details, it’s not so hard to believe that this is a collaboration between Leonardo and Andrea, rather than Andrea and Lorenzo.
Kanter makes the same argument not only for this piece, but the two pieces adjacent to it, both also Madonna and Child scenes. And if that’s the care, what we can see in the three prints on this wall are a collaborative effort between Andrea and Leonardo, painting the same scene, but in different arrangements, with different palettes, and forms, with some elements consistent between them, but others drastically different. This is not a wall of paintings that supports the narrative of a genius who showed up and was smarter than the teacher and had nothing to learn. This wall tells the story of a teacher, who saw potential greatness in a student, and worked and did all he could to nurture that greatness and enhance his gifts.
Part Four: The Teacher Creates
And that narrative shouldn’t be too surprising. It’s probably the narrative you think I’ve been getting at this whole time. But we have one last painting to visit. Go around the corner from the relief, and on the very back wall, you should see a painting on a plank of wood with a curved top. This is The Adoration of the Christ Child with Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata, Tobias and the Angel, Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness, and the Penitent Saint Jerome, by Andrea del Verrocchio. (Alright, I swear that’s the last time I’m giving the complete name.)
Now obviously there is a lot going on here. In the background, up the hill is Saint Francis of Assisi, receiving the stigmata, or the five wounds that Christ received on the cross, which he had and remained open for the last two years of his life. When he received these wounds, he saw a vision of Christ upon the cross, being received into heaven, hence the flying cross and the hands coming out of the thunder cloud. In front of St. Francis is Tobias, who has just met an angel but has no idea that it’s an angel. Honestly, the story of Tobias is kind of a big fish story, so we won’t get into it. Then in front of them is St. John the Baptist, who is wandering through the wilderness, preaching that the son of God is soon to return, and baptising people. Eventually, he will baptise the older Christ, as we saw in the first piece we looked at. On the opposite side of Mary is St. Jerome, in a cave with a lion, because he also spent an expansive period of time wandering around the wilderness and preaching the good word. He is also known for his translation of the Bible into Latin, known as the Vulgate, which greatly expanded the Bible’s readership. And there in the foreground is Mary and her Child, the same image that is painted over and over again. Of course, this piece was commissioned from Verrocchio’s workshop by some church, and it’s clear that they were trying to pack as many stories into the one painting that they could afford, as they possibly could.
But all of these great stories and details are not why I’ve brought you to this image. This was painted while Leonardo was most likely an apprentice with Verrocchio, but earlier than the other works. It looks nothing like the works that we see in the next room. It is much more flat, almost the same kind of planar nature that we see in the Lorenzo di Credi paintings. It is certainly in line with the other paintings of the time in it’s style, form, and use of depth and light. This is may even be what some art historians would call early Renaissance, before the introduction of oil paints and the advances that Leonardo and the others would bring to painting.
But this is Verrocchio without Leonardo. Still Verrocchio collaborating, but to this project he brings most of the major figures and the design. This is Verrocchio’s skills as an artist, what he brings to the table when he is asked to be the master to Leonardo, his young apprentice.
Part Five: The Teacher and The Master
So now, before we go, hold that image of Mary, and the image of the child in your head. Walk back the way we came, still thinking about those two, and look at the way that the same man who painted those two sculpted them in this relief. Look back at the Two Angels with Mother and Child and see the child, painted by the same artist who not a few years before painted a much more planar image. This new image of the child is much more delicately rounded, and realistically portrayed. Then look at the mother, not painted by Verrocchio, but by his student, Leonardo, as the two paint together, working on this painting, informing each others process. Then hold this image of Mary in your head, as we walk back out to the Annunciation from the Pistoia altarpiece, and see the same artist make the same figure again only smaller, and with this new kind of paint, and without his master by his side.
Having moved forward through the narrative, we have arrived at the point where Verrocchio truly has given up painting, not out of any kind of anger or jealousy, but as a result of passing away, and leaving the completion of the altarpiece to his students.
Looking at all these paintings, we don’t see one artist who is developing and learning, but two. Verrocchio’s style, probably informed by Leonardo, changes dramatically from piece to piece in this gallery, till we look at the giant print of the Pistoia altarpiece and wonder if that could truly have been worked on by the same artist who painted that small wooden scene with the lives of all those saints in the background.
So what is our story then? It’s not the story of a student who toiled to learn everything he could from his teacher and never developed beyond that. And it’s not the story of a genius who came in and outperformed his teacher, infuriating him so much that he gave up painting.
In fact there are many ways that you can poke holes in Vasari's story, but I think all the evidence we need lies in the paintings we’ve seen today. This is the story of a master and a master, a teacher and a teacher, a painter and a painter, two artists, who worked together, making each other better at art and raising the medium of painting to newer heights. If there is a lesson that we can suppose that young Leonardo learned from Andrea it must be this: improve, innovate, change, learn, adapt, art is not a stagnant thing, and even though we may paint the same woman and the same child over and over again, each new canvas is a chance to say something new and to say it in a new way.
In truth, if Vasari's story was true, if Andrea had given up paints the day he first saw the boy paint better than he, and that was the lesson that the young Leonardo learned, we would probably know neither of their names today. Without the lessons that Leonardo learned from Andrea, we would never have had the Leonardo who went on to change the world. But that Leonardo, and how exactly he changed the world, will be where we go, when we come back to Leonardo’s story in Part Three of The Master’s Hands.
If you like the ideas put forth in this episode, please go buy a copy of Dr. Kanter’s excellent book on Leonardo and Verrocchio’s workshop, “Leonardo: Discoveries from Verrocchio’s Studio” which you can purchase a copy of here.
My special thanks this week goes out to Charles Gustine of ICONography Pod, for his incredible voice work as Vasari, and to @WEhitman_elite and @kaitlyna94 for regularly sharing and shouting out the show on Twitter!
Our theme music was performed by Mike Harmon, with recording, editing, and mixing from Casey Dawson. Our show art was made by V Silverman. This episode was produced, written, recorded, and edited by T.H. Ponders.