Leonardo the Apprentice: Verrocchio’s pupils

Pietro Perugino (1448–1523), Portrait of Francesco delle Opere (detail) (1494), oil on panel, 52 x 44 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

There is little doubt that Leonardo da Vinci was apprenticed to the Florentine painter and sculptor Andrea Verrocchio (1435–1488), in whose workshop he learned to paint. Leonardo may have been Verrocchio’s most famous pupil, but there were others who went on to make great art too.

Lorenzo di Credi (1459–1537)

Di Credi started his apprenticeship in the mid 1470s, when Leonardo had already been admitted to the Guild of Saint Luke as a master in his own right, but was still collaborating with his teacher. After 1480, di Credi became Verrocchio’s senior assistant, and when his master moved to Venice in the mid 1480s, it was he who was put in charge of the workshop in Florence. Then in 1488 following Verrocchio’s death, di Credi inherited the workshop in Florence, where he worked until his own death in 1537.

Andrea Verrocchio (1435–1488) and Lorenzo di Credi (1459–1537), Madonna Enthroned between John the Baptist and Saint Donatus (Madonna di Piazza) (c 1490), media and dimensions not known, Duomo, Pistoia, Italy. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

After Verrocchio’s death, di Credi completed his master’s Madonna Enthroned between John the Baptist and Saint Donatus, known as the Madonna di Piazza, for the cathedral in Pistoia. John is shown in traditional garb, pointing at the infant Christ, at the left, and Donatus, patron saint of Arezzo, in his bishop’s rig at the right. The floor is tiled to emphasise the perspective, with a richly decorated carpet sweeping down the steps.

Lorenzo di Credi (1459–1537), Madonna Adoring the Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist and an Angel (c 1492), tempera on wood, diameter 91.4 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Di Credi continued to paint in his master’s style, and in egg tempera, in works such as his Madonna Adoring the Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist and an Angel from about 1492. This lacks the ornate decoration more typical of Verrocchio’s works.

Although di Credi is neglected today, experts have pointed out similarities between his later portrait of Caterina Sforza and Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, but whether there is any connection is far from clear.

Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449–1494)

Like Verrocchio, Ghirlandaio is reported to have been apprenticed first to a goldsmith, but is reputed to have worked later in Verrocchio’s workshop, and was certainly close to Perugino. Being only three years older than Leonardo, the two trainees may well have worked side by side in the late 1460s.

Ghirlandaio’s reputation was mainly founded on his extensive fresco cycles, but he also painted some smaller easel works.

Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449–1494), Madonna and Child (c 1470-75), tempera on panel transferred to hardboard, dimensions not known, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

His Madonna and Child from about 1470-75 was painted in egg tempera, and shows similar decoration in the lining of the Madonna’s cloak, although its modelling of the figures is less advanced.

Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449–1494), Adoration of the Shepherds (1485), media not known, 167 x 167 cm, Santa Trinita, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Later, Ghirlandaio painted more populated scenes, such as this Adoration of the Shepherds from 1485, which he made for the church of Santa Trinita in Florence. The faces of his shepherds are here starting to come to life, and appear to have been painted from models.

Most important of all, in 1488, when he was just thirteen, Michelangelo was apprenticed to Ghirlandaio, in whose workshop he learned to paint.

Pietro Perugino (1448–1523)

After Leonardo, Perugino was probably Verrocchio’s most successful former pupil. There isn’t agreement over when Perugino joined the workshop in Florence, though: some consider it was in 1466, the same year that Leonardo started there, but others claim it was later, even though Perugino enrolled as a master with the Guild of Saint Luke in 1472. Given the latter date, it is almost certain that Perugino and Leonardo were contemporaries in the workshop during the late 1460s.

Pietro Perugino (1448–1523) (attr), formerly Andrea Verrocchio (1435–1488), Madonna and Child (c 1475-80), tempera and oil on panel, dimensions not known, Courtauld Institute of Art, London. Wikimedia Commons.

This Madonna and Child from about 1475-80 had previously been attributed to Verrocchio, but more recently it has been proposed that it was painted by Perugino, soon after he became a master in his own right. It lacks the ornate decorative details of Verrocchio’s Madonnas, though.

Pietro Perugino (1448–1523), Portrait of a Boy (c 1480), oil on panel, 37 x 26 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Perugino was an early adopter of oil painting, and by about 1480 was achieving some remarkable results, such as this Portrait of a Boy (c 1480). His modelling of the face is very advanced, and more typical of portraits from the sixteenth century.

Pietro Perugino (1448–1523), Portrait of Francesco delle Opere (1494), oil on panel, 52 x 44 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

In his portraits, Perugino was less distracted by clothing and decoration. In this superb Portrait of Francesco delle Opere painted in oils in 1494, beret and jacket are executed simply, with the powers of the new medium being used to the full in the face (detail below), hair and hands.

Pietro Perugino (1448–1523), Portrait of Francesco delle Opere (detail) (1494), oil on panel, 52 x 44 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Perugino’s most famous pupil was Raphael, although there is doubt about when this took place. Vasari claimed that Raphael’s apprenticeship started at the age of eight, in 1491, but that seems unbelievable, and it is now thought more likely that Raphael worked as Perugino’s assistant later in his training, from about 1500.

It is sometimes claimed that Sandro Botticelli (c 1445-1510) was a pupil of Verrocchio, but it’s far more credible that he was apprenticed to Fra Filippo Lippi from the early 1460s until about 1467, after which Botticelli may well have come into contact with Verrocchio, but probably as a fellow master.

Verrocchio’s works may not be well known now, but his influence, both directly on his former pupils and their pupils in turn, was great: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Perugino, Ghirlandaio, di Credi and doubtless others besides.