In large part Brunelleschi is endowed with the training of the best sculptor of the time, called Donato, or more familiarly Donatello, who accompanied him in at least one trip to Rome, around 1404, with the aim to study Classical antiquity. Donatello would have been 20 years old at that time, since he must have been born around 1386, and a whole legend has been created around this trip of Brunelleschi and Donatello to Rome. To afford this trip, which lasted a whole year, Brunelleschi sold a farm he had in Settignano, and when they ran out of money, in order to get some cash, both used their free time to make jewelry. They even had the good fortune to discover a small treasure of ancient coins, or so the story goes.
Back in Florence, Donatello began to carve out the statues for the cathedral; a first payment for this commission dates from November 1406. Then he worked on those for the campanile and for the Orsanmichele including St. George (ca. 1415-1417), when Donatello was in his thirties. Vasari describes the beautiful Saint George carved for the Orsanmichele as follows: “The saint has a very lively expression, and his head reflects the beauty of youth and the courage of weapons, with a truly terrible liveliness and a marvelous gesture as if he was moving within the block of marble. And certainly” -continues Michelangelo’s contemporary- “among modern statues it has not been seen as much liveliness or spirit as nature and art, working through Donatello’s hands, have achieved in this statue”. The Saint George of Florence has been compared to the noble medieval knight of Chartres Cathedral, the beautiful Saint Theodore, one of the most delicate works of Gothic sculpture; but the French warrior, with his pious expression of a crusader, is a calm spirit that reflects a specified ideal; instead, the young Saint George by Donatello is agitated inside his armor, with a youthful spirit, while exploring an undefined horizon.
An entire essay will be dedicated exclusively to Donatello and his work. Now, let’s refer to other Tuscan sculptors of the 15th century, and in the first place to another Florentine, Andrea di Michele di Francesco de’ Cioni, nicknamed the Verrocchio, who lived between 1435–1488 and was a master of an important workshop in Florence. He was the maker of the jewels, trophies and allegories used and worn by the Medici in the festivals that took place in Florence during the middle of the century. His bronze statue of David, representing a younger boy than that by Donatello’s, can be compared to it in technical perfection. Commissioned by the Medici family, it was made between 1473-1475. The statue depicts a youthful David (future king of the Israelites), posing triumphantly and showing the severed head of the giant Goliath. This bronze was originally installed in the Palazzo Vecchio (Florence’s town hall) in 1476. In this work, Verrocchio is obsessed, above all, with surpassing the artistic creation of the great master Donatello. But while the young shepherd by Donatello shows all the graceful ingenuity of an innocent and humble shepherd boy, Verrocchio’s David is, on the contrary, a nervous young man who is encouraged by an extraordinary dynamism due to the ambition for glory, he is handsome and very elegant, and shows off his finely embroidered leather breastplate. David was seen as a representation of Florence, showing that both were in fact more powerful than they appeared to be, and both the shepherd boy and Florence could be viewed as rising powers.
Additionally, Verrocchio carved several tombs commissioned by Lorenzo de’ Medici: he began working in the tomb of Giovanni and Piero de’ Medici (Lorenzo’s father and uncle respectively) that Donatello was unable to execute because of his advance age. This tomb is simple in its elegance, and bears this sober inscription: PATRI PATRUO QUE (“for his father and paternal uncle”). This monument, with a highly original layout, was placed in 1472 in the Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo built by Brunelleschi in an arch between the Old Sacristy and the former Chapel of Sacrament, where is still today. It consists of a red porphyry sarcophagus with green serpentine medallions on both sides (as the tomb is double sided) and a white Carrara marble lid, decorated with bronze motifs in the form of luscious Acanthus leaves covering the sides and corners of the tomb. The sarcophagus rests on lion’s paws sprouting from the Acanthus leaves on the corners and stands on a white Carrara marble base, this base is inset with porphyry and serpentine design, making it similar to the slab tomb of Cosimo located on the floor. The marble base in turn rests on top of small turtles placed at the corners. The tomb was placed under an open arcade with a curious grille formed by a lattice of interwoven strings. There are no figures of any kind in this tomb (neither the deceased, nor sacred representations), only exquisite decorative themes alluding to the Medici: cornucopias*, the diamond point, etc., and the brief cited inscription. This tomb was followed by those for the sons and wife of Lorenzo de’ Medici himself, and by the tomb of Giovanni Tornabuoni, Lorenzo’s relative and agent in Rome.
The bronze sculpture of “Putto* with Dolphin” (also known as “Little Angel with Dolphin”) dates back to before 1476 and is one of the most famous Renaissance sculptures of the XVth century. This bronze was made at Lorenzo de’ Medici’s request for a fountain in the Medici villa of Careggi, but was later brought to Florence for a fountain in the Palazzo della Signoria (Palazzo Vecchio). The original, replaced with a copy by Bruno Bearzi, has been kept since 1959 in a room in the Palazzo Vecchio. This is a free-standing sculpture with a spiral design. It depicts a little, naked baby boy with wings, holding a dolphin in his hands. One of his feet is lifted off the surface on which he stands, represented by a partial sphere. His body is turned in gentle contrapposto. Verrocchio designed this sculpture with multiple points of view, its spiral design provides the viewer with an interesting view of the boy from all angles. It is possible that Verrocchio designed it in this way so that the pressure of water in the fountain would turn it as the water comes out from a spout located in the dolphin’s mouth. This bronze is an early example of the resuscitation of the motif of the ancient fountains.
Other sculpture by Verrocchio is the famous “Woman with Flowers” (“Dama col mazzolino“), a marble bust today in the Bargello Museum in Florence, and which -among others- is generally supposed to represent Lucrezia Donatti, the platonic love of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Her subtle lyrics and her beautiful modeled hands, delicately crossed on her chest, have served as a basis for some critics to suggest that this work was the result of Verrocchio’s collaboration with his young disciple, Leonardo da Vinci on the basis of its affinity with Leonardo’s oil on panel “Portrait of Ginevra de ‘Benci (ca. 1474) which shows similarities in her hair style and general appearance. Even, it’s thought that this bust influenced Leonardo’s “Study of Hands” (silverpoint* on paper, ca. 1474). This sculpture is also known in Italian as “Gentildonna dalle belle mani” (“Lady of the beautiful hands”). This marble is an emblematic example of the style of portrait bust that developed in Florence in the second hand of the XVth century, and represented an innovative work in the Italian sculpture of the time because the bust was cut at the level of the navel, but over all, for the presence of the hands of the sitter, the most famous feature of this bust. Botticelli also would immortalize the beauty of her hands in his paintings, with similar gesture and modeling. These features, together with a meticulous description of dress and hairstyle, are all found in contemporary Flemish portraiture, which was well known and appreciated in the artistic circles of Florence at the time. Verrocchio’s worked the bust on all sides, presumably to be enjoy and observed all-round, and avoided a rigid frontal view of the sitter, with the woman’s face slightly turned.
Between 1476-1483, Verrocchio worked on the sculptural group in bronze of “The Doubt of Saint Thomas” (or “Christ and St. Thomas”), commissioned by the Tribunale della Mercanzia (then the judicial organ of the Guilds in Florence). This statue was intended to be located in the center tabernacle that the Tribunale had recently purchased on the east facade of the Orsanmichele. Verrocchio then faced the difficulty of placing two statues more than life size in height in a tabernacle originally intended for one. In these two figures of Christ and Saint Thomas is interesting to notice the psychological relationship established between the two characters showing a strong sense of movement and even dialogue, as well as the lavish draping of their clothing that may imply a faint Flemish influence, a non-uncommon feature in all Florentine artists of the time after the arrival in Florence of the influential “Portinari Triptych ” by Hugo van der Goes. The sculpture represents the Christian episode of the Incredulity of Thomas, who refused to believe that the resurrected Jesus had appeared to the apostles, until he could see and feel the wounds received by Jesus on the cross. This episode was attractive to the Merchant’s guild since, being a judicial overseeing body, it concerned with proof and the presentation of reliable evidence. Verrocchio’s interest in physiognomy and detailed drapery was passed on to Leonardo. Many scholars have pointed out the striking resemblance between Verrocchio’s Christ in this bronze and Leonardo’s Christ in The Last Supper mural painting (ca. 1494). The Doubt of St. Thomas has been acclaimed since the day of its unveiling and to this day is still recognized as a masterpiece.
But the work that highlights all of Verrocchio’s achievements as a great sculptor is his equestrian statue of the condottiero* Bartolomeo Colleoni (between 1480-1488), in Venice, a work of such expressive force that has been compared to that of condottiero Gattamelata by Donatello, in Padua, but that shows more arrogance and theatrical composition than the cunning condottiero immortalized by Donatello. In 1475, the Condottiero Bartolomeo Colleoni (a Captain General of the Republic of Venice) died and left a big part of his estate to the Republic with the condition that a statue of himself should be commissioned and placed in the Piazza San Marco. Since statues were not permitted in the Piazza, the statue had to be placed in the open space in front of the Scuola of San Marco. For commissioning the statue, the city arranged a competition to select the sculptor responsible for the work. From the three sculptors who competed, Verrocchio won the commission and was awarded the contract. In order to work on this assignment, he opened a workshop in Venice and made the final wax model which was ready to be cast in bronze, but he died in 1488, before this was done. After some time has passed, the Venetian state commissioned Alessandro Leopardi to finalize the casting, and in 1496, the statue was erected on a pedestal made by the same Leopardi in the Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo, where it stands today. For the design of this statue, Verrocchio was inspired in the equestrian statue of Gattamelata (1453) by Donatello, as well as on the ancient equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome (from which he took the similar position of rider and horse), the St. Mark’s Horses (Venice), the Regisole (a late antiquity work in Pavia, now lost), and on the frescoes of the Funerary Monument to Sir John Hawkwood by Paolo Uccello and of the Equestrian Monument of Niccolò da Tolentino by Andrea del Castagno (both frescoes in the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence).
In this work, Verrocchio made use of his skills as a silversmith, and trimmed the elegant horse with a richly inlaid belt and saddle; meanwhile the warrior, armed from head to toes, looks arrogant, convinced of his power. His head is far from being a portrait full of psychology as Donatello’s Gattamelata: looking at it very closely, it’s coarse and hardly modeled, without details, but it’s necessary to observe the whole group with the horse and its rider sitting on a beautiful marble pedestal all placed in one of those small squares in Venice where the horse seems to be enlarged while its rider seems taller on its back. Verrocchio’s equestrian statue only surpasses Donatello’s in the circumstance that it fits better in the place where it is located, the square of the Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice: the rider of Padua seems to be lost, placed as it is in a corner of an irregular plaza. In addition, there’s a different emotional climax between both: Donatello’s Gattamelata is a calm, abstract, dignified and universal vision, confined to a plane, while Verrocchio’s Colleoni, in contrast, is personal, individual, and it seems a tormented figure, despite his gallantry, doubting his own survival, standing erect in his stirrups in a violent contrapposto, while his horse turns and raises one hoof without support rendering a sense of movement and energy. It has been thought that Colleoni’s grimly determined visage with its furrowed brow, staring eyes and intense expression may have influenced the “terribilità*” of Michelangelo’s David.
Curiously, the only two surviving equestrian statues by Florentine sculptors are located far from Florence, both in northern Italy: in Padua and in Venice. When years later another Florentine, Leonardo da Vinci, intended in turn to carve an equestrian statue, he also did it in northern Italy, in Milan, where he was called exclusively to erect this work. In Milan Leonardo traced the designs and models for his famous horse, which however remained unfinished. In fact, the more energetic men from Northern Italy identified with the heroic ideal reflected by the condottieros and chiefs of troops; in contrast, for the Florentines was enough to contemplate the young figure of David knocking down the giant Goliath, or simply Love, or Judith, or Perseus.
Verrocchio died in Venice in 1488, the labors and efforts he went through in order to cast his Colleoni helped to shorten his days… His works are relatively few; but due to his double character as painter and sculptor, he exerted great influence on the following generation of artists (Verrochio’s achievements as a painter will be presented in other essay when discussing the Renaissance painting in Italy). On him depended, as a teacher, great geniuses of Italian painting: first of all Leonardo da Vinci, who collaborated with him painting the beautiful panel of the Baptism of Christ (today in the Uffizi Gallery), then came Lorenzo de Credi, Perugino, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Francesco Botticini. Even Botticelli, Luca Signorelli, and a young Filippino Lippi also visited or worked in Verrocchio’s studio.
Condottiero: Historically, it refers to Italian captains contracted to command mercenary companies during the Middle Ages. The term condottiero in medieval Italian originally meant “contractor”, given that the condotta was the contract by which the condottieri put themselves in the service of a city or of a lord, but became a synonym of “military leader” during the Renaissance and Reformation era.
Cornucopia: (From Latin cornu copiae). Also called the Horn of Plenty. In Classical antiquity was a symbol of abundance and nourishment, commonly a large horn-shaped container overflowing with produce, flowers, or nuts.
Putto: (From Latin putus, meaning “boy” or “child”; plural putti). A figure in a work of art depicted as a chubby male child, usually naked and sometimes winged. In the ancient classical world of art, Putti were winged infants that were believed to influence human lives. Originally limited to profane passions in symbolism, the putto came to represent the sacred cherub (plural cherubim), and in Baroque art the putto came to represent the omnipresence of God.
Silverpoint: A traditional drawing technique first used by medieval scribes on manuscripts. A silverpoint drawing is made by dragging a silver rod or wire across a surface. Silverpoint is one of several types of metalpoint used by scribes, craftsmen and artists since ancient times. For drawing purposes, the essential metals used were lead, tin and silver.
Terribilità: A quality of provoking terror, awe, or a sense of the sublime, in the viewer, that is ascribed particularly and specifically to Michelangelo’s art. It is perhaps especially applied to his sculptures, such as his figures of David or Moses.