Discovering Leonardo’s hand in landmark Yale Art Gallery exhibition

A small late 15th-century oil painting portrays two kneeling men facing each other. The figures are framed together, but their quality is worlds apart.  

The man on the left appears slightly off-kilter. The positioning of his legs is difficult to discern. His reddish robes seem flat, the folds mere zigzags. By contrast, the figure on the right perfectly occupies his space in the picture. Light breaks across his body realistically. His robes are textured and pooled around him on the floor, adding depth.

The painting, “A Miracle of Saint Donatus of Arrezo,” is the work of two artists — one far more talented than the other — says Laurence Kanter, chief curator and the Lionel Goldfrank III Curator of European Art at the Yale University Art Gallery.

That’s not an artist on a good day and a bad day,” Kanter said. “There are two different minds at work in this picture, one of whom is ultra competent and the other one should be embarrassed to be seen in his company.”

He has concluded only one artist of the period could have rendered a figure in such precise and exquisite detail: Leonardo da Vinci.

The painting is featured in “Leonardo: Discoveries from Verrocchio’s Studio,” an exhibition on view at the Yale University Art Gallery through Oct. 7 that examines Leonardo’s early career in Florence as an apprentice in the studio of Andrea del Verrocchio, a noted sculptor, painter, and goldsmith.

Laurence Kanter, chief curator and the Lionel Goldfrank III Curator of European Art, at the Yale University Art Gallery.
Laurence Kanter, chief curator and the Lionel Goldfrank III Curator of European Art, at the Yale University Art Gallery. (Credit: Jessica Smolinski.)

Kanter, an expert in 15th-century Italian painting, has spent years trying to identify Leonardo’s hand in paintings produced in Verrocchio’s workshop, where teacher and students often collaborated on commissioned works. The exhibition invites visitors to closely inspect the pieces on view — both reproductions and originals — and distinguish the work of a singular genius from that of his talented, but more conventional, contemporaries.

The exhibition’s centerpiece pairs “A Miracle of Saint Donatus of Arrezo,” on loan from the Worcester Museum of Art in Massachusetts, beside “The Annunciation,” a small oil painting on loan from the Louvre.  Both paintings are fragments of an altarpiece, “The Madonna di Piazza,” that hangs in a dark chapel at the Cathedral of San Zeno in Pistoia, Italy. Documentary evidence shows the altarpiece was commissioned to Verrocchio and it has been attributed to his pupil, Lorenzo di Credi. The two smaller works, along with a third lost painting, were part of the altarpiece’s predella — a series of narrative paintings that runs along the bottom — and were likewise attributed to Lorenzo, who produced hundreds of paintings over his career.  

The Annunciation,” which illustrates the moment when the angel Gabriel informs the Virgin Mary that she will conceive and become the mother of Jesus, is entirely Leonardo’s work, Kanter said.

This painting sings its own praises,” he said.

He notes the realistic use of light and shadows, and the painstaking detail of the angel’s wings, in which primary and secondary feathers are carefully delineated, and the fine moldings on benches lining the walls behind Mary.

You’d almost need a single-hair brush to render that detail,” he said. “You’d almost have to ask yourself, ‘Why bother? Does it make a difference to the story? Will anyone notice it?’ It’s not a screamingly important detail, but for Leonardo, every touch that adds to the realism of a picture is screamingly important.”

A transparent cloth hanging from the Virgin’s reading table caught Kanter’s eye when he first laid his eyes on the painting at the Louvre, he said.

That’s just some of the most beautiful painting you could imagine,” he said.

Visitors to the exhibition can compare the quality of Leonardo’s work to a depiction of the same scene painted by Lorenzo that is displayed on an adjacent wall. Lorenzo’s work lacks Leonardo’s imaginative detail and brilliant use of optics and light, Kanter said.

Lorenzo di Credi wasn’t a bad painter; he was a really good painter and, one of the most cherished today amongst his Florentine contemporaries,” Kanter said. “It’s just that nobody could hold a candle to Leonardo.”   

A photo-reproduction of the “The Madonna di Piazza” gives visitors a chance to determine which portions of the altarpiece Leonardo painted and which Lorenzo or Verrocchio produced. Kanter notes the carpet in the foreground. Its complex pattern foreshortens but never breaks as it ascends two steps. The light breaks perfectly off the tasseled fringe at the carpet’s edge. 

That’s certainly not Lorenzo di Credi,” Kanter said. “And frankly, from what we know of Verrocchio, it’s not him either. There’s only one painter in the entire 15th century who could paint like that, and that’s Leonardo da Vinci.”

Kanter has identified nine works from Verrocchio’s studio that contain Leonardo’s hand but have not been widely attributed to him. He describes his findings in a companion book to the exhibition.

He acknowledges that scholars will never be in complete agreement over attribution of paintings produced in a workshop setting in which the paintings themselves are the only evidence of authorship. He insists that close inspection of the paintings, reading them as one would a text, is the only way to advance scholarship.

My argument here is not that this is Leonardo because it matches this drawing or that document,” he said. “It’s Leonardo because it is a brilliant work of art in a way that no one else was brilliant at that moment — certainly not Lorenzo di Credi.”

Kanter argues that Leonardo’s genius is apparent in a pair of painted fronts to a cassone — an upscale decorative chest — produced in Verrocchio’s workshop and dated to about 1473. One of the panels, “Triumph of Aemilius Paulus,” is included in the exhibition. On loan from the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris, the egg tempera painting depicts the triumphal return of Roman general Aemilius Paulus after defeating the Macedonian armies at the Battle of Pydna in 168 B.C. The accompanying panel, which portrays a scene from the battle, is on loan to another institution, although a photo-reproduction is displayed.

The panels’ “breathtakingly original” landscapes possess a filmy quality and a deep sense of space that are more commonly created with oils than tempera, Kanter said.

The artist who conceived that landscape could be of only one mind. It was an artist who could push tempera as far as it could go to achieve these effects,” he said. “This is what Leonardo looked like before he learned to paint in oil.”

Kanter contends that the two panels represent another Verrocchio project that paired young Leonardo with a less-talented contemporary.

Pointing to the original panel on view, Kanter noted the fine details of the left side of the picture’s foreground, in which whites horses pull the triumphant general’s carriage alongside dozens of marching soldiers. Leonardo captured the horses’ musculature and the intensity of their effort, he said.

Two of them have all four feet on the ground and they’re straining forward,” he said. “Their eyes are bulging out with the effort.”

By contrast, horses on the less-accomplished right half of the painting show little strain and appear to be prancing. The soldiers in the painting’s left half are carefully studied individual portraits — the shape and texture of each suit of armor is expertly rendered — while their comrades on the right constitute a crowd of helmeted heads, Kanter said.

Two other major paintings, “Virgin and Child with Two Angelsin the National Gallery, London, and the “Virgin with the Seated Childin the Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, are also identified as collaborations between Leonardo and another artist, likely Verrocchio. The paintings could not travel but photo-reproductions are included in the show.

The exhibition’s final portion examines the work of Verrocchio, Leonardo’s teacher, a savvy businessman, and one of the greatest sculptors of his time.

A core challenge of unraveling the mystery of Leonardo’s artistic development is the absence of information about Verrocchio as a painter, Kanter said.

The problem we confront with Leonard in Verrocchio’s studio is we don’t have any idea what Verrocchio looks like as a painter,” he said. “All we know is that he was a famous painter. There are no surviving documents to tell us which paintings are his. There is no fingerprint of forensic evidence that tells us what a Verrocchio painting looks like.”

Verrocchio achieved fame as a sculptor. His masterworks include the bronze equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni, who was a prominent military leader in Venice; a bronze statue of David standing over the decapitated head of Goliath; and “The Doubting of Saint Thomas,” a bronze group that shows the incredulous apostle inspecting Jesus’ wounds.  Verrocchio’s portrayal of Christ in the latter work provided the model for innumerable bust-length copies in terracotta and plaster. A copy by Verrocchio is on display.

The sculptor cast the head and shoulders in a mold and then painstakingly carved its extremely fine details, Kanter explained.

It required very careful but very confident work with carving tools after the plaster comes out of the mold,” he said. “If you look at the fingernails, for example, you’ll see that each one is just a stroke of a chisel. It’s a brilliant work of art — a truly brilliant work of art.”

Media Contact

Mike Cummings: michael.cummings@yale.edu, 203-432-9548