Laura's Blog

The Teacher Behind Leonardo

April 16, 2016

Behind almost every important thinker or artist is a nurturing teacher. Leonardo da Vinci is no exception. His all-important mentor was Andrea del Verrocchio.

Like Leonardo, Andrea di Michele di Francesco de’ Cioni was illegitimate. His father was a fornaciaio, a kiln worker, and Verrocchio may have worked with clay and stone as a young boy. Then he was apprenticed and adopted the name of his master—Giuliano Verrocchio—which translates to “true eye.”  He also studied with painter Filippo Lippi, and may have apprenticed for a time with the legendary Donatello.

Over the years, Verrocchio’s talents and accomplishments have been overshadowed by his famous student’s. But in the 1470s, Verrocchio was one of the most acclaimed and sought after artists in the city, remarkable in his output and diversity, a goldsmith, engineer, sculptor, and painter.  He was a favorite of the Medici, who commissioned many pieces from him over two decades.  As a result, his studio, or bottega, was the busiest in the city, nurturing many younger artists including Botticelli, Perugino, Lorenzo di Credi, and Ghirlandaio (who would later train Michelangelo).

In Verrocchio’s bottega, Leonardo would have learned all the basics—perspective, how to mix paints, sketch, caste bronzes, model in wax and clay, and to sculpt. He would have started as a dogsbody, sweeping the floors, crushing colors at a grindstone, making brushes with boar’s bristles, and stoking the fires that would melt gold, copy, and bronze for art pieces.

Orb_credit_National Geographic.jpg

Education in Renaissance studios was collaborative and hands-on, meaning apprentices worked side-by-side with the master artist, generating commissioned works as quickly as possible. When Leonardo was 19-years-old, Verrocchio created a gilded copper sphere, eight feet in diameter to crown the copula of the Duomo, one of the architectural and engineering wonders of Christendom.  (see my webpage for more about Brunelleschi and his dome ) That would have been an all-hands-on-deck project to fashion the mechanical hoist to lift the orb up 300 feet and safely secure it.

Banner pennant.png 

In his early 20s, Leonardo added many touches to Verrocchio’s paintings. Together they painted a banner for the Joust of 1475, (which opens the novel) and we do have the preliminary sketches for it. A consummate botanist, Leonardo probably created the millet stalks to the left of the sleeping nymph. (The plants symbolized fidelity).


In Tobias and the Angel, it is believed he painted Tobias’ curls, the little white Bolognese terrier prancing beside him, and the fish he held. (Art historians can make these attributions because of telltale left-handed brush-marks.)


In Baptism of Christ, Leonardo painted the subtler aspects of the landscape, the transparent water and plants below, and the angel on the far left, looking adoringly at Christ. Legend has it that after seeing Leonardo’s beautifully rendered angel Verrocchio gave up painting altogether.


 The Doubting Thomas.jpg

Verrocchio’s forte and fame rested largely in his sculpture, which had a palpable emotional life. Verrocchio believed that creating motion and realistic gestures conveyed thoughts, feelings, and drama.  Take one of his most famous bronze statutes, the Christ and St. Thomas (or “Doubting Thomas”). Through the figure’s movement, Verrocchio vividly shows the discipline’s crisis of faith.  Thomas reaches out to touch the gaping wound left by a soldier’s spear in Jesus’ side to prove to himself here indeed stands a resurrected Christ.  Jesus raises his arm to allow the inspection, in poignant patience with Thomas’ doubt. 

Verrocchio told his apprentices to “know the bones and muscles underlying the clothes” to build a body “from the inside out.”  And certainly the sweeping motion of Thomas’s robes, the hint of leg underneath, depicts a sudden, anxious movement.

Such artistic philosophies may have helped fuel Leonardo’s fascination with anatomy.

verrocchio bust ginevra.jpg    #1-Ginevra de' Benci-National Gallery of Art.jpg      #69-Leonardo study of hands-credit royal library, windsor castle (london).jpg

Verrocchio believed hands particularly expressive.  This is perhaps most beautifully displayed in Verrocchio’s marble sculpture, Lady with Primroses. He carved it about the time Leonardo painted Ginevra de’ Benci. Just as Leonardo’s portrait of the young poet was groundbreaking, so too was Verrocchio’s sculpture.

 Lady with Primroses was the first Italian portrait sculpture to extend below the shoulders, making it far more evocative of the lady’s heart and soul.  The figure appears to have just gathered up flowers in the way Verrocchio carved her hands and turned her shoulders. In a gesture of modesty? Surprise? Affection, if the flowers came from her lover?

Many suspect Ginevra de’ Benci might also have been the subject of this marble statue. The face, dress, and hairstyle of the two art pieces are strikingly similar, and the figure in the statue cradles blossoms that may have been referenced in one of the poems written about Ginevra, commissioned by Bernardo Bembo, the ambassador scholars now agree hired Leonardo to paint her portrait. Primroses were also part of Bembo’s family crest.

Strengthening the hypothesis that Ginevra was the model for both works is the fact Leonardo’s painted Ginevra may originally have held blossoms in a pose similar to Verrocchio’s statue. At some point, the bottom third of Ginevra’s portrait was cut off. A study of hands with a sprig of flowers sketched by Leonardo is the basis for the assumption the missing portion of the painting showed her holding blossoms.

#67-Vitruvian man sketch leonardo da vinci.jpg   Verrocchio Horse.png

Verrocchio’s influence on Leonardo was vast. Many scholars now speculate that several artistic innovations once credited solely to Leonardo—such as the subtle blending of light and shade called sfumato—might actually have been Verrocchio’s idea first. Leonardo’s famous Vitruvian Man—famous for the figure’s perfect proportions—followed Verrocchio’s sketch of a horse that included precise measurements of the steed’s limbs in proportion to one another.

 British Museum Andrea_Verrocchio_-_Head_of_a_Woman,_British_Museum.jpg Mary_Virgin_Vincis.jpg

Clearly Leonardo emulated the charming and lovingly animated faces of women Verrocchio drew.  And the statue Lady with the Primroses suggests shared inspiration, as do Verrocchio’s putto of a cherub hugging a dolphin and Leonardo’s toddler crushing a cat with affection.  

Leonardo_da_vinci,_Study_of_the_Madonna_and_Child_with_a_Cat.jpgVerrochio Putti.jpg 

The men must have been close friends. They had much in common—Verrocchio was also a musician, owned a lute, and sang. He was highly literate and owned a relatively large humanist library with works by Ovid and Petrarch. Leonardo eventually amassed quite a library himself and was a renowned musician.

The younger artist stayed in the master’s studio and home long beyond his apprenticeship. They both left Florence about the same time—Verrocchio heading to Venice to complete an enormous equestrian statue of Condottiere Bartolomeo Colleoni and Leonardo for Milan, at first perhaps as a court musician, sent as emissary to the Sforza court by Lorenzo de’ Medici.

I, for one, was grateful to learn about Verrocchio—the teacher behind our most revered Renaissance Man.  He was a man who worked hard to hone his skills and perfect his art if we are to believe the art biographer Vasari, who wrote that Verrocchio “acquired his talents rather by infinite study than by the facility of a natural gift.”  If so, I applaud his exquisite output even more.

Thank you, Andrea, for helping Leonardo find his artistic voice and express it so magnificently!


Other Blog Posts

Duck and Cover Mindset

Posted by laura on October 9, 2017

Happy Birthday Fahrenheit 451!

Posted by laura on October 4, 2017

Banned Books & President Eisenhower

Posted by laura on September 28, 2017

Knocked Over By a Feather: McCarthy and Book Burning

Posted by laura on September 24, 2017

Librarians in the Battle of “Fake News”

Posted by laura on September 21, 2017

McCarthy to Trump Connections

Posted by laura on September 19, 2017

Fourth of July....And Peggy!

Posted by laura on July 4, 2017

Coming September 2017: SUSPECT RED

Posted by laura on April 17, 2017

Thoughts on Veteran's Day

Posted by laura on November 11, 2016

Leonardo the Writer

Posted by laura on April 19, 2016

A Live Look at Verrocchio

Posted by laura on April 18, 2016

The Teacher Behind Leonardo

Posted by laura on April 16, 2016

Happy Birthday, Leonardo da Vinci!

Posted by laura on April 15, 2016

The Town of Vinci

Posted by laura on April 12, 2016

Leonardo’s Top 5 Most Imaginative Inventions

Posted by laura on April 11, 2016

Valentine's Day During the Renaissance

Posted by laura on February 14, 2016

Valentine's Day Activities!

Posted by laura on February 8, 2016

Historical #WCW: Artemisia Gentileschi

Posted by laura on February 3, 2016

Anniversary of the Joust

Posted by laura on January 29, 2016

Great Falls Friends & Neighbors Event

Posted by laura on January 14, 2016

My New Literary Friends to the North

Posted by laura on January 4, 2016

Ti Amo, Piombino

Posted by laura on December 28, 2015

The Holidays in Renaissance Florence

Posted by laura on December 23, 2015

Florentine Decorations

Posted by laura on December 15, 2015

Just in Time for Holiday Shopping!

Posted by laura on December 4, 2015

A Very Renaissance Thanksgiving

Posted by laura on November 26, 2015

NCTE Thanks

Posted by laura on November 23, 2015

#TBT: Another guest blog!

Posted by laura on November 19, 2015

Guest Blog: Researching DA VINCI'S TIGER

Posted by laura on November 17, 2015

NCTE 2015

Posted by laura on November 17, 2015

Exciting News!

Posted by laura on November 13, 2015

So What Did Leonardo Really Look Like and Act Like?

Posted by laura on November 9, 2015

Get Your Plato On!

Posted by laura on November 7, 2015

The Ambassador

Posted by laura on November 2, 2015

#TBT: My love of horses

Posted by laura on October 29, 2015

The Lady Behind the Portrait

Posted by laura on October 28, 2015

LORENZO, Il Magnifico: The defacto ruler of Florence

Posted by laura on October 26, 2015

Throwback Thursday: My first trip to Florence

Posted by laura on October 22, 2015

The Kick-Butt Abbess

Posted by laura on October 21, 2015

Santa Croce: The Site of the Joust!

Posted by laura on October 20, 2015

Meet Florence’s “Prince of Youth”

Posted by laura on October 19, 2015

Some Loves Start Early!

Posted by laura on October 15, 2015

The Duomo Bells

Posted by laura on October 14, 2015

Leonardo's Other Female Portraits

Posted by laura on October 14, 2015

6 Things You May Not Know About Leonardo Da Vinci

Posted by laura on October 12, 2015

Epic Reads Discussion Guide

Posted by laura on October 8, 2015

Talk at the National Gallery of Art!

Posted by laura on October 7, 2015

First Reviews for Da Vinci's Tiger!

Posted by laura on September 27, 2015


Posted by laura on August 13, 2015

YA Sync Free Download of Under a War Torn Sky LIVE!

Posted by laura on August 6, 2015

Mark Your Calendars

Posted by laura on July 6, 2015

The Beauty of Synchronicity

Posted by laura on May 18, 2015

70th Anniversary of VE Day

Posted by laura on May 8, 2015

Why Write A Trilogy?

Posted by laura on April 14, 2015

Valentine's Day

Posted by laura on February 8, 2015

Listening to the Audiobook of Under a War Torn Sky

Posted by laura on February 3, 2015

A Wonderful Fall

Posted by adminC on October 29, 2014