You may have read recently that an American specialist in the art of the Italian Renaissance is proposing a major reattribution. He’s arguing that two figures in a small 15th-century silver altarpiece by Andrea del Verrocchio were actually the work of Verrocchio’s precocious apprentice, Leonardo da Vinci. Any time I hear about reattributions I’m always a little skeptical. They can require from you an awful lot of faith in some expert’s ability to recognize “the unmistakable hand” of this or that master. Then other experts come along to disagree, which is why many reassigned works get squabbled over and re-reassigned again and again over time. But last week I talked to Gary Radke, the Syracuse University professor who’s making the claim about the Verrocchio altarpiece. I also listened to him give a presentation laying out the evidence, and I got a better understanding of why he’s persuaded these figures, both about eight inches high, might really be by Leonardo.
Radke is working with the High Museum in Atlanta to organize “Leonardo da Vinci: Hand of the Genius”, which opens at the High in October. It’s about Leonardo’s involvement in sculpture, a medium in which he actually left behind almost nothing. But he produced many studies and drawings for projects that were never completed, and by means of those he exerted an influence on the sculptors of his era, including perhaps even his great teacher Verrocchio.
The altarpiece scene in the Atlanta show, The Beheading of St. John the Baptist, is a tableaux in which five men look on as the Baptist kneels before an executioner whose sword is raised and ready. The figures were fashioned in three dimensions — like flattened dolls with pegs on one side that allowed them to be inserted into the background. When the altarpiece was cleaned and restored in preparation for the show, the figures were removed from the background, so that Radke had a chance to study them from all sides.
Around that time he had also been in London looking at the many Leonardo drawings in the Royal Windsor collection. One of them was a profile drawing of a helmeted soldier in which the filaments of his curling hair under the base of the helmet were each separately articulated in a way, Radke realized, that brought to mind some of the altarpiece figures. The light bulb moment followed.
Radke already suspected that Leonardo may have been responsible for two of the figures, a soldier seen from behind on the right of the scene…
……and a young man holding a plate on the left.
As Radke explained, the detailing of those figures was unusually subtle and intricate, much more so than on the other figures.
On the soldier whose back is turned to us, but who looks over his shoulder so that we see part of his face, his features are fluidly modeled in a way unlike anything on the other figures.
The same is true of his clothing — the little belts on his sleeve buckle and wave. Nothing like this happens on the other figures.
And when Radke examined the figures from the back, the parts that no one would see once they were attached to the scene, they had been finished in something like the same sinuous way, not so much as the facing sides, but unlike any of the other figures on the altarpiece, which were left dead plain on the unseen side. Somebody — was it You-Know-Who? — took unusual pains with these two.
So could these be by Leonardo? The handwork argument is persuasive. And every first-year art history student knows that Vasari, the Renaissance painter, biographer and gossip, wrote that the young Leonardo painted the angel in the lower left hand corner of Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ.
Vasari’s claim that Verrocchio took one look at that angel and decided to lay down his brushes for good is Renaissance baloney, but the attribution of the angel to Leonardo is well accepted. Radke’s proposed re-attribution of the altarpiece figures now has to run the gauntlet of art historians who didn’t think of it first.
Balls in their court.