Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 3, 2020
Christina Neilson Practice and Theory in the Italian Renaissance Workshop: Verrocchio and the Epistemology of Making Art New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. 362 pp.; 90 color ills.; 52 b/w ills. Cloth $120.00 (9781107172852)

Andrea del Verrocchio is generally overshadowed by his famous pupils—particularly Leonardo da Vinci—a trend that began with Giorgio Vasari’s negative treatment of the older master in his book Lives of the Artists (first published in 1550). In response to this characterization, Christina Neilson seeks to “reassess Verrocchio’s accomplishments” in her book, Practice and Theory in the Italian Renaissance Workshop: Verrocchio and the Epistemology of Making Art (9). By examining Verrocchio’s unusual practices of making and their intended meanings, Neilson convincingly situates him as one of the most important sculptors working between the eras of Donatello and Michelangelo. The author presents her methodology in the introduction, focusing on four works made in different media, all produced in the 1470s. The case studies examine Verrocchio’s atypical and innovative practices of making—which included the transfer of techniques between media—and their intended meanings. Chapter 1 discusses the rich vernacular culture and competitive atmosphere of Florence that Neilson believes enabled Verrocchio’s innovative style. The artist repeatedly turned to vernacular traditions to provide the theoretical foundations that he expressed through his materials and processes of making. Neilson argues that the materials themselves helped shape Verrocchio’s final works, stating, “It was the artist’s engagement with matter that led him to realize his ideas (rather than forming them in the mind first), suggesting a degree of material agency” (14).

Chapter 2 examines Verrocchio’s Tomb of Piero and Giovanni de’ Medici (ca. 1473). The lavish monument was commissioned by Lorenzo il Magnifico and links the Chapel of Saints Cosmas and Damian with the Old Sacristy inside the church of San Lorenzo. Neilson presents a new interpretation of the tomb, arguing that it should be understood as an oration dedicated to the deceased and an endorsement of continued Medici rule. The author’s reading discusses the tomb’s shape and design, which draw on Verrocchio’s work as a goldsmith, before turning to its materials, especially bronze and porphyry. By investigating the symbolic significance of each, she applies their virtues to Piero, Giovanni, and Lorenzo de’ Medici. Neilson then links Verrocchio’s use of porphyry to the other Medici tombs in the church, as well as to Lorenzo’s collection of precious hardstone vases housed in the nearby Palazzo Medici. Bronze is investigated just as thoroughly, and Neilson describes the Renaissance belief that it was a petrified substance made of congealed water that was reinvigorated by artists during casting. Verrocchio’s processes become “metaphors of making” (74), reinforcing this belief in rejuvenation. For example, he cast the bronze fruits, leaves, and turtles from life, emphasizing themes of regeneration and resurrection appropriate for a tomb. A discussion of magnificence rounds out the chapter, as Neilson states, “Through its materials and iconography [the tomb] expressed ideas that could not be stated outright because of the political atmosphere of the time” (85). The tomb’s opulence raised questions of magnificence, but vernacular debates of the time claimed that even money gained through usury, such as the Medicis’, could produce spiritual benefit if it was transformed into something virtuous. Neilson convincingly concludes that Verrocchio’s masterful artistry and processes embody this idea. As Verrocchio converted unrefined matter into a noble work, he also transformed the Medicis’ unnaturally acquired fortune into a virtue.

The third chapter discusses Verrocchio’s Christ and Saint Thomas (1467–83), produced for the commercial tribunal of Florence known as the Mercanzia. Neilson draws attention to the unusual composition, in which Thomas does not touch Christ’s wound. Her argument hinges on this detail, which is described in vernacular Gospels. Neilson suggests that Verrocchio’s process of making should be understood as a meditation on faith exploring the issue known as absent presence. According to theological exegesis of the time, sight was considered superior to touch for knowing, but in the vernacular tradition they were often considered equal. Verrocchio’s sculpture draws on the latter, and “seems to suggest the possibility of a relationship between the two, where seeing is touching and knowing through touching is equivalent to knowing through sight” (138). The author argues that Thomas’s reaching gesture creates ambiguity, and so his knowing exists somewhere between the visual and tactile. Verrocchio’s sculptures demonstrate this “in-between-ness” via their processes—the works were made as giant reliefs rather than sculptures in the round, existing between two and three dimensions. In addition, Christ’s state after the Resurrection also exemplifies in-between-ness because he was remade into a new form. Vernacular writings used bronze casting as a metaphor for this phenomenon, where molten metal replaced a wax mold. The absent presence of the mold (Christ before Resurrection) still exists in the bronze (Christ after Resurrection) and represents a search for knowledge that is not based on touch.

Chapter 4 focuses on the same subjects of touch and sight but in relation to a drawing titled Ideal Head of a Woman (early 1470s). The author briefly acknowledges the connection with the previous chapter before stating that touch and sight operate differently in each case. This is the first example of Verrocchio recycling theories or techniques within his oeuvre; perhaps a brief comparison to past examples here would have provided further insight into the artist’s practices. According to Neilson, the work argues that perception through touch and sight is a form of cognition, a key concept for Renaissance theories of disegno (drawing and design) that recognize drawing as “an instrument both of knowing and investigating reality” (157). She describes Verrocchio’s novel stumping technique—in perhaps the earliest example of sfumato, he smudged the black chalk and added hatching with ink to create tonal range—which depicts a woman who is both flesh and marble, carved in low relief. Neilson believes that seeing the texture of marble or flesh portrayed in chalk causes one to imagine the sensation of feeling it, and in this way Verrocchio conflated touch and sight. The motif of an ideal lady who is turned into matter is common in vernacular love poetry, as Neilson shows throughout the chapter. For example, Petrarch describes how he stood among the cast shadows of a pine and, in his mind, drew his beloved’s face on a rocky cliff. Neilson connects Petrarch’s description of shadows, trees, and rocks with the origin of art as described by Pliny the Elder and Leon Battista Alberti, all of which “give meaning to the shading of Verrocchio’s drawing . . . suggesting how the artist’s stumping, through which he conjures up his figure of a woman, is equivalent to the poet’s process of imagination” (164). The chapter concludes by comparing Verrocchio’s technique to the refinement of an idea in the mind until it is noble. By presenting his refinement as a drawing, Verrocchio succeeded where poets could not and made the action of his Ideal Woman’s transformation permanent.

The final chapter investigates Verrocchio’s Crucifix (early to mid-1470s), discovered in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in the 1990s. Neilson argues that its unusual, hidden practices of making reflect Verrocchio’s interest in animation and are meant to mimic flagellation. Christ’s torso is made of limewood (another living material used in a similar fashion to the “petrified” bronze of the Medici tomb) that was hollowed out to resemble a bronze casting and then tied together with rope. The head and limbs are made of cork and attached to the torso with techniques used by armorers. Verrocchio created the flesh from stucco, applying it in thin layers as if working with wax, before painting the final surface. Neilson relates this process to the vernacular writings of Ugo Panziera da Prato, who described meditative levels in terms of different representational modes. As Verrocchio created and enlivened his artwork, he interacted with the dying body of his Crucifix like a devotee who was following Panziera’s meditation. In addition, the transformation of the materials is significant because “Verrocchio has created a Christ whose in-between-ness expressed a theological idea: that Christ was between life and death at the crucifixion” (195). The author concludes by explaining how the theological issues of visibility/invisibility surrounding transubstantiation influenced Verrocchio’s sculpture, as the transformed materials/meditative aspects are hidden beneath the surface.

Throughout her book, Neilson weaves together a tapestry of transformation, technique, materiality, and vernacular culture that produces a deeper understanding of Verrocchio and his practices. In some instances further comparison between works might have added to the discussion, such as the issues of in-between-ness and visibility in chapters 3, 4, and 5. Nonetheless, as Neilson aptly states at the close of her book, “By attending to the materiality of Verrocchio’s objects, we gain not only a better understanding of this underappreciated artist, we also come to understand how processes of making served as a form of communication during the Renaissance” (198).­ By utilizing Neilson’s methodology so that it functions in a broader spectrum, one can now investigate whether works produced before or after the 1470s, or those made in/for cities outside Florence, display the same sensitivity to materiality and processes. Verrocchio’s Venetian workshop might be a ripe starting point. By adapting to the cultural context of different locales or eras, one can apply the author’s methodology to Verrocchio’s contemporaries or even those beyond his temporal and geographical region. Through this final transformation, the larger merits of Neilson’s work will materialize.

Elizabeth Petersen Cyron
Independent Scholar