The corpuses of the Old Masters go through phases of expansion and contraction. Once most of the groundwork of scholarship is done – and with Renaissance painters, that material may be scanty and uninformative – the main work left to art historians is attribution. New historians prove themselves by revising established chronologies and corpuses. This is partly the process of bodies of knowledge evolving through incremental revision, addition and subtraction; it is partly a younger generation actively claiming status and authority by refuting the work of older generations. Thus we go through waves of attribution and de-attribution. Giorgione’s body of paintings was once counted close to three figures; now it consists of merely six paintings. Rembrandt’s oeuvre swells and contracts. When it deflates, the oeuvres of his students to inflate with rejected Rembrandts.
There is no more famous painter than Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), yet his painted oeuvre is tantalisingly small. Tales of unlocated, ruined and destroyed paintings torment our imaginations with treasures that have been lost to time. Leonardo worked notoriously slowly, finished little and undermined his only murals (The Last Supper and The Battle of Anghiari) through a predilection for reckless technical experimentation which caused the paintings to be declared ruins within his own lifetime. He was known during his time for devoting his time to invention, mathematics, architecture and anatomical study, neglecting his painting commissions. He is by some distance the least productive painter of the Italian High Renaissance. There is a natural urge to scour museums, churches and private collections for overlooked works by Leonardo. It is the dream of every art historian or picture dealer to identify a painting by the world’s most famous artist.
The current exhibition (29 June-7 October 2018, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven) (reviewed from the catalogue) examines Leonardo’s early work, at a time when he trained in the studio of Andrea del Verrocchio (c. 1435-1488) in Florence. Verrocchio was an acclaimed master whose busy studio produced sculpture, engraved goldware, paintings, decorative fittings and other art of the highest quality. The best known of his art is the bronzes, which rival Donatello’s for accomplishment, vigour and invention. Paintings of that time were collaborative works. The master would design the composition, draw some detail studies, draw a cartoon and assign pupils to transfer the cartoon to a panel, canvas or wall. More able assistants would be assigned roles to execute areas of the painting, with the master painting some parts himself. It is common to find Renaissance paintings which display a variety of styles, abilities and techniques.
Vasari recorded that Leonardo’s first painting in the studio was the head of an angel in The Baptism of Christ (c. 1470-5). The attribution is accurate but partial. Examination reveals some of the landscape was by Leonardo. Yet these passages are so accomplished that it is impossible this was his first painting. So, since Leonardo was apparently apprenticed to Verrocchio since the age of 16 (1468) or even 14 (1466), what had Leonardo painted before his contribution to the Baptism? As he was associated with Verrocchio until at least 1476, what did Leonardo paint in the studio after the Baptism?
The three best known painters in the studio (from our perspective) were Verrocchio, Leonardo and Lorenzo di Credi (1457/9-1536), who was nominated by Verrocchio as his successor and chief artist of his Florence studio when he relocated to Venice. Extensive space is given to discussion of a large altarpiece The Madonna di Piazza (c. 1475-85; Cathedral of San Zeno) and two small panels which formerly comprised part of its frame, A Miracle of Saint Donatus of Arezzo (c. 1475-85; Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts) and The Annunciation (c. 1475-9; the Louvre). The main painting seems typical of Verrocchio and Kanter assigns authorship to him, Lorenzo and Leonardo. Leonardo may have painted some of the drapery but the part of the painting that stands out as exceptional in quality – beyond both Verrocchio and the (young) Lorenzo – is the ornate rug. It crisp and clear; the foreshortening of design as it lies over the steps is faultless. It is on the level of Van Eyck and the Netherlandish masters. It is strange to think of a young man who would go on to become a polymath universal man, labouring over the recession of a carpet, but it could well be his work. In the Saint Donatus the robe of the saint and the landscape could be Leonardo’s. The gentle blue haze of the atmosphere occluding the mountains is something that Leonardo excelled in. In the Annunciation the wing of the angel and landscape are nominated. Considering that all three paintings (plus missing parts) were all painted in Verrocchio’s workshop over a ten-year period (delayed by a payment dispute) during Leonardo’s apprenticeship, the attributions seem strong.
Two battle scenes painted on panels – either parts of cassone (decorated garment chests) or wall panels – show touches of unusual subtlety. Kanter explains that the atmospheric recession seen in the landscapes and the realist light on battlements is typical of Leonardo and rare among Florentine art of the period. The Battle of Pydna (c. 1472) seems the more likely candidate for entry into the canon.
[Image: Leonardo da Vinci and collaborator, The Battle of Pydna (c. 1472), tempera on panel. Musée Jacquemart-André, Institut de France, Paris, inv. no. MJAP-P 1822.2. Photo: Hideaki Sugiura, Nagoya City Museum]
The painting medium is described as tempera – a medium in which Leonardo never used as a mature artist. Perhaps this is a one of Leonardo’s apprentice works made at time before he worked exclusively in oil. A possible companion work is National Gallery’s Tobias and the Angel (c. 1468), also painted in tempera. The dog and fish in the painting are painted in a much more sophisticated and lively manner than the rest of Verrocchio’s painting. This is not a new attribution, as this observation has long been in the Leonardo literature. This is a more secure addition to the Leonardo canon than the battle scenes.
Cleaning of a number of Verrochio paintings of Madonna and Child have revealed differences in paint handling, artistic concentration and technique. The two most likely contenders for partial authorship by Leonardo are in the National Gallery, London and the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. The delicacy of the veils and sleeves are signs of superior painter.
A less persuasive suggestion is the Edinburgh Madonna and Child (The Ruskin Madonna). Although linked through the Louvre Annunciation and preparatory drawings, the painting is very much weaker in design and execution than the others.
Kanter discusses the attribution of sculpture from the circle of Verrocchio, including bas reliefs of maternities and the standing Christ child. We know that Leonardo was an adept modeller of clay. He made a number of sculptures – including a giant equestrian statue for the Sforzas in Milan, which was destroyed by the invading French soldiers – but no single sculpture by Leonardo has been firmly identified. Some delicate heads of infants seem the most credible attributions. It is a little disappointing that Kanter does not address Leonardo’s involvement in the sculptural productions of Verrocchio’s workshop.
Two specialist essays examine of the Annunciation and Saint Donatus using technical analysis and a further essay draws conclusions. New scans reveal the underdrawing and how the paintings were created. Overall, the catalogue makes a fascinating glimpse into the origins of the world’s most celebrated painter and is sure to provoke debate and controversy for years to come.
As this catalogue and exhibition dwell upon Leonardo’s early years as a painter, it does not mention two recent controversial attributions to the mature Leonardo: La Bella Principessa and Salvator Mundi. In my view, both are stylistically inconsistent with the periods of Leonardo’s production to which they are assigned; neither has clear provenances (La Bella Principessa has no provenance before recent decades); ultimately, neither deserves acceptance. It is suggested that La Bella Principessa is a pastiche by a Nineteenth Century German artist but it may well be a modern forgery. Salvator Mundi is a design by Leonardo, possibly executed partly in his studio by assistants. The most credible attribution has been to one of Leonardo’s followers, Bernardino Luini (1480/2-1532), as Leonardo expert Mathew Landrus put forth. It has been extensively restored and was only attributed to Leonardo in order to increase its value. At $450 million, it is the most expensive Luini painting in history.
For an extensive discussion of both works, visit www.artwatch.org.uk
Laurence Kanter, Leonardo: Discoveries from Verrocchio’s Studio, Yale University Art Gallery (distr. Yale University Press), September 2018, cloth hardback, $35, ISBN 978 0 300 23301 8
© 2018 Alexander Adams
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