NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Despite how large Leonardo da Vinci looms in the cultural imaginary — he is, after all, the head Ninja Turtle — he didn’t make a lot of artworks, and even fewer of his works have survived. This makes his headlining appearance at an exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery, Leonardo: Discoveries from Verrocchio’s Studio, all the more surprising. In fact, this title would be more accurately rendered as Leonardo – Got Your Attention!: Actually, it’s about Discoveries from Verrocchio’s Studio.
Verrocchio is not a Ninja Turtle, but his contemporaries would be surprised, once duly informed of the nature of this honor, to hear it. He was renowned for both sculpting and painting, and he was patronized by Italy’s richest and most powerful elite. When Leonardo’s father, a titled nobleman, was looking to place his illegitimate son in an artist’s studio, he chose Verrocchio’s. Verrocchio operated workshops in both Venice and Florence and was assisted by numerous students and colleagues in his many commissions. Confusing to modern sensibilities, his brilliance was less that of a solitary genius than of a manager of talents.
Naturally, his subcontractors and apprentices were not credited neatly on the back of the artworks, and it is the goal of this exhibition’s curators to sort them out. Leonardo’s hand is flushed out, but so is that of Lorenzo di Credi, Jacopo del Sellaio, and other workshop assistants to whom no name can be attached. In this way, the goal of the exhibition is deeply, committedly unfashionable. There’s no agenda here except to determine who painted or carved what, and the criteria for determining this are based very much on quality. The good parts are assumed to be by the hand of the master; the less good are by assistants; and the great parts are by Leonardo.
This is connoisseurship, which might be out of style but is the oldest form of art historical scholarship of the modern age. Most artists before the 17th century — and plenty after — didn’t bother to sign their artworks. Early art historians like Giovanni Morelli and Bernard Berenson performed detailed analyses of artworks, relying on deep knowledge of their subjects, visual sensitivity, and gut instinct to attribute paintings to different artists. Connoisseurship still has its place in art history, and the curators of exhibition invite you to follow along as they make their case for their attributions. With only 12 paintings in the exhibition, you can take your time looking at the artworks and reading the finicky, at times even cantankerous, accompanying texts.
The first section concerns Leonardo and the assortment of paintings to which he likely contributed. The panel with the most Leonardo-per-square inch is a small Annunciation scene that was part of the predella (the separate lower section of an altarpiece) for the Madonna di Piazza in Pistoia. At first glance — especially at the rather formulaic faces — it seems an unimportant little thing, but close looking reveals its charms. The angel is swathed in a rich turbulence of robes, while the feathers in the wings that hover pertly behind him are softly brilliant. The Virgin’s hands are rendered with heartbreaking, delicate clarity and the whole composition, aided by a robust architectural setting, hums with the import of Christ’s conception.
The “Annunciation” is displayed without the frame that would have once integrated it with the larger altarpiece. As a result, you can see the thickness of the paint surface on its wooden panel. This texture is created with multiple coatings of gesso, followed by layers of semi-transparent oil paint — at the time still an experimental medium in Italy. The resulting surface is smooth and densely colored. Even a painting that is somewhat uninspiring overall, like Lorenzo di Credi’s “Saint Quirinus of Neuss,” offers a startling vista of reds and greens set against a black background.
Viewing these surfaces is especially striking in comparison to that of the surprisingly large number of photographs in the exhibition. The photos, all high quality and unframed, are clearly intended to be didactic. Next to the materiality of the paintings, however, they are a forgettable non-presence, and made me think that the show was either meant to be larger than it is but fell through, or was meant to be smaller and got inflated.
The exhibition’s other room includes some of Verrocchio’s sculptures, the art form for which he is best known. Verrocchio’s sculptural endeavors are represented by a bust of Christ and several high reliefs in stucco, including the utterly amiable “Virgin and Child” (ca. 1470–75) from the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Ohio. A relief ca. 1475–85, this one in marble from the Boston MFA, receives the harshest wall text; the hand of Mary on the leg of the infant Christ is described as “flat, dry, and schematic, and in some places barely competent.” Burn! Needless to say, this part is ascribed to a hand other than Verrocchio’s.
What is often troubling with connoisseurship is its relationship to the market. In seeking to recuperate lost authorship by identifying individual hands, connoisseurs give artworks new value. In the 19th century, this led to the disarticulation of numerous polyptychs, likely including the Piazza Altarpiece. (The Leonardo predella entered the Louvre in 1863, while the central panel remains in Pistoia.) More recent attributions to Leonardo have resulted in stratospheric revaluations of works of art, effectively taking them out of public view as they are purchased by the superrich. The overreaching title in this regard seems suspicious — is the title effectively attributing the show to Leonardo in order to sell it to the public? Maybe so. But admission to Yale Art Museums — are you listening, Harvard? — is free to all. And connoisseurship remains a vital part of art historical scholarship. Take that for what it’s worth.
Leonardo: Discoveries from Verrocchio’s Studio, organized by Laurence Kanter, continues at Yale University Art Gallery (1111 Chapel Street) through October 7.