Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 21, 1999
Andrew Butterfield The Sculptures of Andrea del Verrocchio New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. 272 pp.; 200 color ills.; 60 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (0300071949)

As the author notes in his introduction, The Sculptures of Andrea del Verrocchio is preceded by nine major monographs on the artist. Without question, Butterfield’s reconsideration of the sculptural production of Verrocchio adds considerably to what remains a surprisingly uncertain chronology—despite the earlier monographs and countless other articles on individual works (including the essays published in 1992, Verrocchio and Late Quattrocento Italian Sculpture, ed. Steven Bule et al., Florence: Le Lettere).

Andrea del Verrocchio was born between 1434 and 1437 in Florence and died in 1488 in Venice. He produced some of the most important large-scale, public sculpture in Italy during the second half of the Quattrocento. Yet this artist and his sculptures continue to be overshadowed by his illustrious predecessor, Donatello, and even more famous successor, Michelangelo. Butterfield’s study acts as a welcome corrective to this imbalance, bringing together the collective wisdom of generations of scholars and adding significant refinements in dating, documentation, stylistic analysis, and interpretation. Butterfield is to be commended first and foremost for his commitment to a method of art history and a type of literary production that is tragically fading from our midst. The demise of the monograph, although much lamented in some circles, has seemed virtually certain. Most recent studies of a single artist are either packaged as focused considerations of a single work or the product of international exhibitions. One can point, for example, to the excellent catalogue produced by the Louvre on Titian, Le Siecle de Titien (1993), as well as the series of articles edited by Rona Goffen on Titian’s Venus of Urbino (Cambridge University Press, 1997). Obviously neither of these formats seem suited to Verrocchio. Butterfield’s treatment of Verrocchio amply demonstrates why monographs were and are so important: they allow both the writer and the reader to consider the entire output of a single artist not merely in stylistic terms but as a unified response to a particular culture and context.

Equally commendable is the author’s determination to consider each work of sculpture as an idea expressed through form. Although stylistic analysis, like the monograph itself, is much maligned today, the author’s meticulous observations, his scrupulous attention to formal and technical considerations, and his discerning explanations of meaning based on such readings, serve as an apologia for this method. Presumably an outgrowth of his dissertation, “The Major Sculptures of Andrea del Verrocchio,” completed at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University in 1992, this book covers more than the major sculptures. Organized in a series of chapters that alternatively focus on single commissions and related works, or on sculptures united by similar dating, the text moves carefully from considerations of Verrocchio’s earliest essays in sculpture to his final work, the bronze equestrian monument in Venice commemorating Bartolomeo Colleoni. Perhaps the most striking aspect of Butterfield’s text is the variety of evidence he marshals. Whereas, for example, the analysis of the floor tomb for Cosimo de’ Medici in San Lorenzo concentrates on essential aspects of its form and placement, most notably its typological antecedents, the discussion of the Colleoni monument balances information about Bartolomeo Colleoni and the Venetian senators who commissioned the work with a remarkably close reading of the details, facture, and organization of the statue. This latter argument leads, ultimately, to a highly satisfactory articulation of Verrocchio’s role in a work that was completed only after his death. The elegant consideration of the stance and movement of the bronze David, traditionally placed close to 1476, but here moved back in time to the middle of the 1460s, is matched by an equally articulate analysis of the various hands active on the marble Forteguerri monument in Pistoia.

Each of the major works receives a similar examination. By diverse means, including newly discovered documents and information from recent cleaning and restoration activities, Butterfield builds a fluid narrative of the career of one of the great sculptors of the Italian Renaissance. The generous and beautiful photographs strengthen his arguments at every turn. It is indeed a pleasure to see so many color images gathered in one place as well as so many different views of the same work. It is, however, disappointing that Butterfield fails to lavish this same attention on the sculptures of “lesser” importance or even on his new attributions. These include the recently discovered wooden Crucifix; the bronze statuette, attributed by Pope-Hennessy to Donatello, the so-called Il Pugilatore; the marble portrait bust of Francesco Sassetti traditionally ascribed to Antonio Rossellino; and a terra-cotta bust of Christ in the collection of Michael Hall.

What is so striking about this list is its diversity. If one accepts these works as by the hand of Verrocchio, one begins to see a pattern developing in what was undoubtedly an already eclectic career. There was no medium and no genre of sculpture employed or invented in the Quattrocento to which Verrocchio did not turn his attention. He worked in wood, painted terra-cotta, bronze, marble, and silver; he produced tombs, portrait busts, Madonna and Child reliefs, possibly the first bronze statuette, an equestrian monument, free-standing statues, fountains, a candlestick, and bells. This extraordinary inventiveness and variety of materials must have been inspired by the example of Donatello. By trying everything, Verrocchio set himself apart from his contemporaries in Florence who tended to work in only one medium. This strategy might well have influenced his best-known student, Leonardo da Vinci. Both artists’ eclecticism stands in marked contrast to Michelangelo’s often repeated desire to work only in marble and his equally insistent rejection, at least verbally, of such traditional genres as portraiture and narrative relief. Butterfield argues with great forcefulness for Verrocchio’s archetypal role in shaping Michelangelo’s aesthetic. Without denying this, it seems to have been an act of refutation as much as affirmation.

The text is supported by footnotes at the end of each chapter and separate catalogue entries for each of the works of sculpture. The catalogue succinctly outlines the historic arguments associated with each work, includes transcriptions of newly discovered documents, and provides a complete discussion of condition. An abbreviated chronological bibliography also appears at the end of each entry. This bibliography reflects only those publications directly related to the monument. The footnotes at the end of the chapters, however, are not much more expansive. The division of the source material in this manner, combined with the apparent decision to limit the notes in most cases to only one relevant source, leaves some odd gaps. While a monograph appropriately treats the work of a single artist, one of the virtues of this particular book is the author’s attempt to widen the scope of our understanding of Verrocchio by referring to possible classical sources as well as to other Renaissance precedents. It is, therefore, frustrating to read a sentence such as the following: “Recent research has shown that Renaissance sculptors often hired other artists on a temporary basis to help them with specific projects” (p. 154). No citation is provided for this sentence and, therefore, one has no clue as to which recent research Butterfield refers.

Those works presumably rejected by Butterfield are identified as “of uncertain authorship.” They are mentioned only in catalogue entries. Not even acknowledged in this manner is the restored Marsyas described at great length by Vasari in his life of Verrocchio. The solitary reference to the sculpture (not listed in the index) appears in the introduction (p. 6). Certainly Francesco Caglioti’s presentation of this complex issue deserves more than a single note. By ignoring the confrontation described by Vasari between the sculptor and an ancient fragment, Butterfield avoids dealing directly with the thorny problem of Verrocchio’s activity in Rome. Mentioned on more than one occasion in the text, there is no confirming evidence for such a trip and, therefore, for what Butterfield assumes to be an essential ingredient in Verrocchio’s aesthetic.

Butterfield explains at the beginning that he chose to concentrate on Verrocchio’s sculptures because they are, unlike the paintings, none of which can be securely dated, “extremely well-documented and present few serious problems of attribution” (p. 1). A brief discussion of Verrocchio’s activity as a painter, draughtsman, and teacher appears only at the end of the book. By calling this chapter an appendix the author makes no claims to be doing anything but conceding to the existence of this other facet of Verrocchio’s career. Recent succor in this regard is offered by David Alan Brown in his Leonardo da Vinci: Origins of a Genius (Yale University Press, 1998). While clearly beyond the stated goals of this monograph, even so partisan a champion for the primacy of sculpture as this reviewer can admit to missing a fuller treatment of the many issues associated with Verrocchio’s workshop. The two processes—painting and sculpture—might not be so easily divorced. The undeniable value of this monograph, and especially its clear and cogent arguments for the pivotal importance of Verrocchio’s sculpture, would have been served by greater attention to this confluence.