His name was Verrocchio (sounds like Pinocchio). That’s the short answer to our title question. Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-1488) was a Florentine master of arts and the tutor to the young Leonardo da Vinci.
The longer description of Verrocchio is quite engaging. He was a man who had an enormous influence on the world and changed it for the better, something that cannot be said of all Renaissance figures. Like many Italian greats, however, he is known to history simply by his last name.
If you had lived in Florence in the mid- to late-1400s you would have heard the name of Verrocchio in everyday conversation. He was the personal painter and sculptor to the famous Renaissance rulers Piero and Lorenzo de’ Medici, a position he assumed in 1466 after the other great Medici favorite, Donatello, had passed away.
The reason you may never have heard of Verrocchio is because of the shining star that emerged from his Florentine studio. Leonardo was like the sun that eclipses the light of the moon when it rises.
There is a famous story (probably apocryphal) which is relevant to the image we will examine below. When Verrocchio assigned his pupil from the little Tuscan village of Vinci to paint an angel on Verrocchio’s larger canvas of The Baptism of Christ, it is said that the student’s angel so surpassed the master in skill and artistic grace that the old man vowed never to paint again. We can hear shades of John the Baptist himself in reference to the appearance of the Messiah: “He must increase while I must decrease” (John 3:30).
That’s the pious legend anyway. It’s more likely that Verrocchio simply changed his focus to sculpting at that point in his career!
An amazing man
There is a certain humility and quality of character about Verrocchio that one finds when reading his story. Rather than use his own name, which was Andrea di Michele di Francesco de’ Cioni, he preferred to be known professionally by the name of his own mentor, a Florentine goldsmith by the name of Giuliano Verrocchio.
The symbolism of this name is not lost on lovers of Italian art and language: Verrocchio means “true eye”.
Verrocchio never married but dedicated himself to producing his art and mentoring future artists. His sacrifice of marriage and family left the world with one of the greatest teaching legacies known to history because Verrocchio remained free his entire adult life to ply and pass on his trade. On that matter, Leonardo da Vinci, while his most celebrated pupil, was not his only top performing student.
The list of famous painters apprenticed in Verrocchio’s studio reads like a Renaissance Hall of Fame: Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), Pietro Perugino (1450-1523), Lorenzo di Credi (1459-1537), Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494), and the Sienese painter, Francesco di Giorgio (1439-1502), as well as prominent Florentine sculptors Benedetto da Maiano (1442-1497) and Andrea Sansovino (1467-1529).
It is hard to imagine such a gathering of talent in one place and time in history!
The reason I’m not overstating things when I say that Verrocchio changed the world is because his students ushered in the High Renaissance, and many of them set up their own studios and taught students what they learned from their master.
The ripple effect from just two of these famous artists is astonishing: Perugino was the mentor of Raphael and Ghirlandaio tutored Michelangelo!
In what I’ve read of Verrochio’s life, there seems to be no scandal, no temperamental fits, and no immoral lifestyles so often associated with artistic types. He lived out his years in the home of his sister helping to care for her large family and was generous to a fault in meeting their needs. When he died at the young age of 53, he left his precious studio to Lorenzo di Credi, who built upon the accomplishments of his master.
Verrocchio’s productive years were mostly confined to the two decades from the late 1460s until his death in 1488. As a sculptor, his two most famous statues are a young David and the incredible Doubting Thomas sculpture (left insert), which were both displayed by the National Gallery in Washington DC in a 2019 exhibition.
Of his paintings, the most famous is probably Raphael and the Young Tobias (right insert), which offers a delightful snapshot of the Archangel in his human disguise walking and talking with Tobias on their journey to Media (recounted in Tobit 6 and 10). It is a classic Renaissance work, echoes of which we find later in many of Botticelli’s paintings.
The Baptism of Christ
We mentioned above that the young Leonardo painted an angel on the canvas of Verrocchio’s other famous work, The Baptism of Christ (1470-1474). The noteworthy angel is one of two that grace the lower left-hand corner of the painting. The angels are witnesses to the awesome event: one was painted by Verrocchio (or possibly another pupil) and the other by Leonardo.
Before I tell you which is which, look closely at a detail of the two angels and see if you can figure out the respective artists. (Hint: pay close attention to the hair, garments and facial features of the angels.)
First clue: extreme delicacy
It should become clear that the angel on the left, gazing admiringly up at his Lord receiving baptism, is Leonardo’s. This angel looks, well, angelic!
He has extremely fine and detailed hair, eyes and facial features as well as crisp and clearly-defined fold lines in the clothing. He is dressed in at least four different colored garments while holding what looks like a baptismal robe of a fifth color. The garments contain subtle shading that combines with color and line to make this tiny visitor from heaven into a shimmering vision of grace and loveliness.
In contrast, Verrocchio’s angel is somewhat homely with matted hair and one eye larger than the other. He looks rather like a little boy dressed for a school play. There is very little to admire about this plain tunic of a single hue with very little shading. This angel’s face and hands have less clarity of detail, less crispness of line and radiance. It is overall a rather unimpressive figure.
Second clue: position
Consider also the positioning of Leonardo’s angel. If you were to try to strike a pose like that you would need a chiropractor!
It is owing to his precocious skill that the young Leonardo could depict the angel kneeling in one direction, while at the same time turning his face sideward and upward with an otherworldly glance toward the two standing figures. Only a great master could make the positioning look entirely natural, or supernatural, as the case may be.
Third clue: halo
We also get a unique side view of a golden halo on this angel that foreshadows changes to come in later Renaissance religious art. Prior to this period, artists largely portrayed the holiness of saints and angels with large, round, flat halos encompassing their heads, similar to what we see on Verrocchio’s angel (as also the larger halos on Christ and John the Baptist.) The angel’s halo is opaque and without nuance.
Leonardo’s halo breaks new ground. Because of the tilt of the angel’s head, Leonardo has accurately skewed the halo to our view, making it a much finer and gentler symbol of sanctity, which seems to hover delicately above the flowing curls. Other artists like Botticelli, and later Raphael, taking their cue from Leonardo, will remove the solid gold halo altogether and depict it as a delicate line or trace of light around the holy figure’s head. Leonardo paved the way for this remarkably subtle advancement in the religious art of his era.
If Verrocchio, upon seeing Leonardo’s angel, actually did throw his hands up and declaim, “I shall never paint again!” he would have had good reason. The coming solar eclipse by his brilliant student was on the horizon.
However, if this master of the great masters was the kind of authoritative teacher it seems he was, it is more likely that he gazed in admiration at his pupil’s work and encouraged him to paint more!
As I said, Verrocchio changed the world.
Think of all the teachers you have had in your life. Few of us will be apprenticed to great and world-renowned masters of their fields, but all of us will look back over the course of our lives, up to and including the present moment, and recognize those generous souls who have contributed to our learning and development.
We must not see human development only in terms of skill improvement either. People who give us tangible examples of virtue are our moral mentors. They inspire us just as clear-minded leaders give us courage to find our paths and knowledgeable artisans of our trades influence us positively at every point along the way.
Identify two or three of your most beloved teachers and thank God for the blessings they brought (or still bring) into your life. While you are at it, also take a moment to acknowledge those people by whose negative example you have learned something. People like that usually need the generous prayers of their forgiving students.