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Leonardo da Vinci

Books: Leonardo's beginnings

This study maintains that Verrocchio’s “Tobias and the angel” in London is the first example of the artist’s hand

The Leonardo da Vinci literature is so vast that one sometimes wonders if anything more can be said about him. Yet so complex was his multi-faceted genius that there is always space for new interpretations and the difficulties posed by his origins as a painter offer particularly fertile ground. David Alan Brown’s book tackles in original ways the problems of defining Leonardo’s role and activity in the workshop of his master, Andrea del Verrocchio, and of identifying and dating his earliest independent paintings.

The appendix energetically sets out the contentious history of the definition of Leonardo’s earliest works. Dr Brown shows how specialists have gradually reached near unanimous agreement on the corpus of surviving works painted by Leonardo before he left the Verrocchio workshop. This group of paintings–the Uffizi “Annunciation”, the portrait of Ginevra de’Benci in Washington DC, and the Munich “Madonna of the carnation”—leads up to Leonardo’s contribution (notably the angel on the lower left) to Verrocchio’s Uffizi “Baptism”.

But distinguishing the collaborators’ activities in Verrocchio’s painting workshop is much more difficult. Dr Brown has to attempt this, however, because the case he is constructing of Leonardo’s special contribution to Verrocchio’s output depends on his understanding of Verrocchio’s individual activity and concerns as a painter.

Dr Brown starts with the premise that to meet the growing challenge posed by the all round productivity of the Pollaiuolo brothers, the goldsmith and sculptor Verrocchio had to produce paintings. To this end, he assembled a number of brilliant young assistants, such as Ghirlandaio, Perugino and later Lorenzo di Credi. These were able to make works based on Verrocchio’s designs and executed within the fairly closely drawn parameters of his style. Dr Brown carefully analyses the works executed by Verrocchio and by each of his assistants individually and separates them into coherent (but not necessarily conclusive) groups.

Thus reconstructed, Verrocchio’s own corpus revolves around a “Madonna and Child” in Berlin which shows his limitations as a painter—limitations that he himself seems to have recognised. Primarily a sculptor, he had little feel for the forms of nature—landscape, animals, plants, for instance; and as a painter he worked exclusively in the traditional, but limited, egg-tempera technique. Pollaiuolo, however, was painting in oil already by the later 1460s and became a master of atmospheric landscape painting. What Verrocchio needed—and what he found in Leonardo—was an imaginative, technically innovative assistant with an extraordinary sensitivity to every facet of the natural world.

To distinguish Leonardo’s contribution to workshop paintings, Dr Brown searches for signs of pictorial naturalism beyond the powers of Verrocchio. Building on a reconstruction of Leonardo’s crucial contribution to his master’s output, Dr Brown demonstrates how Leonardo’s developing concern with nature and with man’s position within the natural world shows in his early independent paintings.

He works with a full range of material, analysing many drawings for the evidence they provide of the styles, concerns and practices of the painters of Verrocchio’s equipe; he argues in favour of unusual hypotheses about Leonardo’s work as a sculptor; and he judiciously uses the latest scientific and technical evidence to characterise the development of Leonardo’s individual handling of the oil painting technique. Dr Brown’s discussion is therefore very thorough, but he writes with a light touch. As he says, “The text can be read by non-specialist and scholar alike” with ease and pleasure, while for the specialist the apparatus is exemplary. Finally, the colour plates are beautiful.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'In his beginning is his end'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 86 November 1998