V. ARCHITECTURE AND SCULPTURE: THE AGE OF VERROCCHIO

Lorenzo continued enthusiastically the Medicean tradition of supporting art. “He was such an admirer of all the remains of antiquity,” wrote his contemporary Valor, “that there was nothing with which he was more delighted. Those who wished to oblige him were accustomed to collect, from every part of the world, medals, coins… statues, busts, and whatever else bore the stamp” of ancient Greece or Rome.24 Uniting his architectural and sculptural collections with those left by Cosimo and Piero, he placed them in a garden between the Medici palace and the monastery of San Marco, and admitted to them all responsible scholars and visitors. To students who showed application and promise—among whom was the young Michelangelo—he gave a stipend for their maintenance, and awards for special proficiency. Says Vasari: “It is highly deserving of notice that all those who studied in the gardens of the Medici, and were favored by Lorenzo, became excellent artists. This can only be ascribed to the exquisite judgment of this great patron… who could not merely distinguish men of genius, but had the will and power to reward them.”25

The key event in the art history of Lorenzo’s regime was the publication (1486) of Vitruvius’ treatise De architectura (first century B.C.), which Poggio had unearthed in the monastery of St. Gall some seventy years before. Lorenzo succumbed completely to that rigid classic, and used his influence to spread the style of Imperial Rome. Perhaps in this matter he did as much harm as good, for he discouraged in architecture what he was fruitfully practising in literature—the development of native forms. But his spirit was generous. Through his encouragement, and in many cases with his funds, Florence was now adorned with elegant civic buildings and private residences. He completed the church of San Lorenzo and the abbey at Fiesole, and he engaged Giuliano da Sangallo to design a monastery outside the San Gallo gate that gave the architect his name. Giuliano built for him a stately villa at Póggio a Caiano, and so handsomely that Lorenzo recommended him when King Ferdinand of Naples asked him for an architect. How well such artists loved him appears in the subsequent generosity of Giuliano, who sent as presents to Lorenzo the gifts that Ferrante gave him—a bust of the Emperor Hadrian, a Sleeping Cupid, and other ancient sculptures. Lorenzo added these to the collections in his garden, which were later to form the nucleus of the statuary in the Uffizi Gallery.

Other rich men rivaled—some surpassed—him in the splendor of their residences. About 1489 Benedetto da Maiano built for Filippo Strozzi the Elder the most perfect embodiment of that “Tuscan” style of architecture which Brunellesco had developed in the Pitti Palace—internal splendor and luxury behind a massive front of “rustic” or unfinished stone blocks. It was begun with careful astrological timing, with religious services in several churches, and with a conciliatory distribution of alms. After Benedetto’s death (1497) Simone Pollaiuolo* completed the building, and added a fine cornice on the model of one that he had seen in Rome. How excellent the interior of these seeming prisons might be we may surmise from their magnificent fireplaces—mighty marble entablatures supported by floral-carved pillars and surmounted with reliefs. Meanwhile the Signory continued to improve its unique and beautiful home, the Palazzo Vecchio.

Most of the architects were sculptors too, for sculpture played the leading part in architectural ornament, carving cornices and moldings, pilasters and capitals, door jambs and chimney pieces, wall reliefs, altars, choir stalls, pulpits, and baptismal fonts. Giuliano da Maiano carved the stalls in the sacristy of the cathedral and in the abbey at Fiesole. His brother Benedetto developed the art of intarsia, and became so famous for it that King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary ordered from him two coffers of inlaid wood, and invited him to his court. Benedetto went, and had the coffers sent after him; when these arrived at Budapest and were unpacked in the presence of the King the inlaid pieces fell out, the glue having been loosened by the damp sea air; and Benedetto, though he replaced the pieces successfully, took a distaste to marquetry, and devoted himself thereafter to sculpture. There are few sculptured Virgins lovelier than his Enthroned Madonna, few busts that surpass his honest and revealing Filippo Strozzi, few tombs so fine as that of the same Strozzi in Santa Maria Novella, no pulpit more elegantly carved than that which Benedetto made for the church of Santa Croce, and few altars so near perfection as that of Santa Fina in the Collegiate Church of San Gimignano.

Sculpture and architecture tended to run in families—the della Robbias, the Sangalli, the Rossellini, the Pollaiuoli. Antonio Pollaiuolo, uncle of Simone, learned accuracy and delicacy of design as a goldsmith in the studio of his father Iacopo. The bronze, silver and gold products of Antonio made him the Cellini of his time, and a favorite of Lorenzo, the churches, the Signory, and the guilds. Noting how rarely such small objects retained the name of their maker, and sharing the Renaissance mirage of immortal fame, Antonio turned to sculpture, and cast in bronze two magnificent figures of Hercules, rivaling the strained power of Michelangelo’s Captives, and the tortured passion of the Laocoön. Passing to painting, he told the story of Hercules in three murals for the Medici palace, challenged Botticelli in Apollo and Daphne, and equaled the absurdity of a hundred artists in showing how calmly St. Sebastian could receive into his flawless body the arrows launched at him by leisurely bowmen. In his final years Antonio returned to sculpture and cast for the old church of St. Peter in Rome two superb sepulchral monuments—of Sixtus IV and Innocent VIII—with a vigor of chiseling and a precision of anatomy again presaging Michelangelo.

Mino da Fiesole was not so versatile nor so tempestuous; he was content to learn the sculptor’s art from Desiderio da Settignano, and when his master died, to carryon his tradition of smooth elegance. If we may believe Vasari, Mino was so affected by Desiderio’s early death that he found no happiness in Florence, and sought new scenes in Rome. There he made a name for himself with three masterpieces: tombs of Francesco Tornabuoni and Pope Paul II, and a marble tabernacle for Cardinal d’Estouteville. His confidence and solvency restored, he returned to Florence, and adorned with exquisite altars the churches of Sant’ Ambrogio and Santa Croce, and the Baptistery. In the cathedral of his native Fiesole he set up in classical style an ornate tomb for Bishop Salutati, and for the abbey of Fiesole he molded a similar monument, more restrained in ornament, to commemorate the Count Ugo who had founded that monastery. The cathedral of Prato boasts a pulpit by him, and a dozen museums display one or more of the busts by which his patrons were less flattered than embalmed: the face of Niccolò Strozzi, swollen as with the mumps, the weak features of Piero the Gouty, the fine head of Dietisalvi Neroni, a pretty relief of Marcus Aurelius as a youth, a splendid bust of St. John the Baptist in infancy, and several lovely reliefs of the Virgin and Child. Nearly all these works have the feminine grace that Mino had learned from Desiderio; they are pleasing, but not arresting or profound; they do not grip our interest as do the sculptures of Antonio Pollaiuolo or Antonio Rossellino. Mino loved Desiderio too much; he could not turn his back upon his master’s exemplars and seek in the merciless neutrality of Nature the significant realities of life.

Verrocchio—“True Eye”—was brave enough to do this, and produced two of the greatest sculptures of his time. Andrea di Michele Cione (for that was his real name) was a goldsmith, a sculptor, a bell-caster, a painter, a geometrician, a musician. As a painter his chief claim to fame lies in having taught and influenced Leonardo, Lorenzo di Credi, and Perugino; his own paintings are mostly stiff and dead. There are few Renaissance pictures more unpleasant than the famous Baptism of Christ; the Baptist is a dour Puritan, Christ, presumably thirty, looks like an old man, and the two angels at the left are effeminately insipid, including the one traditionally ascribed to Leonardo. But Tobias and the Three Angels is excellent; the central angel foreshadows the grace and mood of Botticelli, and the young Tobias is so fair that we must either attribute him to Leonardo, or confess that da Vinci received more of his pictorial style from Verrocchio than we supposed. A drawing of a woman’s head, in Christ Church, Oxford, again suggests the vague and pensive ethereality of Leonardo’s women; and Verrocchio’s dark landscapes already feature the gloomy rocks and mystic streams of Leonardo’s dreamy masterpieces.

Probably there is mostly fable in Vasari’s tale that when Verrocchio saw the angel that Leonardo had painted in The Baptism of Christ he “resolved never to touch the brush again, because Leonardo, though so young, had so far surpassed him.”26 But though Verrocchio continued to paint after the Baptism, it is true that he gave most of his mature years to sculpture. He worked for a while with Donatello and Antonio Pollaiuolo, learned something from each of them, and then developed his own style of stern and angular realism. He took his career in his hands by molding in terra cotta an unflattering bust of Lorenzo—nose and bangs and worried brow. In any case II Magnifico was well pleased with two bronze reliefs—of Alexander and Darius—made for him by Verrocchio; he sent them to Matthias Corvinus of Hungary, and engaged the sculptor (1472) to design, in the church of San Lorenzo, a tomb for his father Piero and his uncle Giovanni. Verrocchio carved the sarcophagus in porphyry, and decorated it with bronze supports and wreaths in exquisite floral form. Four years later he cast a boyish David standing in calm pride over the severed head of Goliath; the Signory liked it so much that it placed the statue at the head of the main stairway in the Palazzo Vecchio. In the same year it accepted from him a bronze Boy Holding a Dolphin, and used it as a fountain spout in the courtyard of the palace. At the height of his powers Verrocchio designed, and cast in bronze for a niche on the exterior of Or San Michele, a group of Christ and Doubting Thomas (1483). The Christ is a figure of divine nobility, Thomas is portrayed with understanding sympathy, the hands are finished with a perfection seldom attained in statuary, the robes are a triumph of sculptural art; the whole group has a living and mobile reality.

So obvious was Verrocchio’s superiority in bronze that the Venetian Senate invited him (1479) to come to Venice and cast a statue of Bartolommeo Colleoni, the condottiere who had won so many victories for the island state. Andrea went, made a model for the horse, and was preparing to cast it in bronze when he learned that the Senate was considering the advisability of confining his commission to the horse and letting Vellano of Padua make the man. Andrea, according to Vasari, broke the head and legs of his model and returned to Florence in a rage. The Senate warned him that if he ever put foot on Venetian soil again he would lose his head in no figurative way; he replied that they should never expect him there, since senators were not as skillful as sculptors in replacing broken heads. The Senate thought better of the matter, restored the total commission to Verrocchio, and persuaded him to return at twice the original fee. He repaired the model of the horse, and cast it successfully; but in the process he became overheated, caught a chill, and died within a few days, at the age of fifty-six (1488). In his last hours a rude crucifix was placed before him; he begged the attendants to take it away and bring him one by Donatello, so that he might die, as he had lived, in the presence of beautiful things.

The Venetian sculptor Alessandro Leopardi completed the great statue in so vivid a style, with such mastery of motion and command, that the Colleoni suffered no loss by Verrocchio’s death. It was set up (1496) in the Campo di San Zanipolo—the Field of Sts. John and Paul; and it struts there to this day, the proudest and finest equestrian statue surviving from the Renaissance.

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