Day 42 – Some Virtues

Andrea del Verrocchio, Model for the Funeral Monument for Cardinal Niccolò Forteguerri, c. 1476, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Not exactly a request today, but I was asked to talk about some Virtues a while back, and this terracotta relief sprang to mind. I have since realised which Virtues had been requested, and why, and I will get back to them soon – but for now, a charming sketch which goes to show what a brilliant artist Andrea del Verrocchio was.   

Niccolò Forteguerri was born in Pistoia, not so terribly far from Florence, and rose through the church to become a Cardinal in 1460. It probably helped that his Uncle was Pius II, Pope from 1458-64. Niccolò was, therefore, his nephew, or, in Italian, nipote, from which, of course, we get the word ‘nepotism’ – jobs for the boys. He died in 1473, and was buried in Rome, in his titular church, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, but his hometown decided that they wanted to remember him, and held a competition to design a memorial. We know little about the process, apart from the fact that in 1476 Verrocchio was commissioned to execute the monument following the design of a bozzetto – or sketch – which he had presented to the steering committee.  It is generally assumed that this is the very bozzetto that Verrocchio submitted.

(c) Victoria and Albert Museum

Made out of terracotta – which translates literally as ‘cooked earth’ – the relief is both wonderfully realised and beautifully sketchy. It is evocative, rather than precise, but allows you to see the disposition of all of the figures, as well as giving a wonderful sense of character and mood. It is full of vibrant movement and flowing draperies, light and airy, as if the characters were out in the open on a windy day, flying or coming in to land, above a platform on which a man is kneeling. 

We are very familiar with the idea of a sketch as a drawing, but anything that is done quickly, or remains apparently unfinished, can be considered a sketch. It could be an oil painting (remind me to show you one of my favourites!) or, as here, a sculpture. They are sometimes also called modelli – or models – as this is what they are – a small version of something which, when finished, will be far larger. Given the vicissitudes through which all art has past, the survival of a clay model from the 15th century is quite remarkable. Admittedly, it has not come down to us unharmed – there are a few repairs visible at the bottom of the relief  (the man’s praying hands are made from red clay, for example) – but it is still in a wonderful condition.

At the top of the image, Christ appears in a mandorla. The word means ‘almond’, and is used to refer to the almond-shaped ‘glory’ held up by the angels. The stress should be on the first syllable, by the way – MANdorla – as so often with three syllable words in Italian (Medici, Cupola… but not modello, where the stress is on the second syllable). In religious dramas, whenever anyone descended from heaven, or was assumed, they did so in a mandorla which was physically winched up or down, to or from the roof of the church…  Jesus looks down, blessing those below with his right hand, while supporting an open book on his knee with his left: this is the image of Christ Pantocrator, or ruler over all (we’re all too familiar with ‘pan’ as a prefix these days), and is a slightly medieval feature of the monument. However, Verrocchio subverts this ‘medieval’ feel with a touch of proto-baroque humour. Although in other images Christ manages his own Ascension unaided, here four angels hold him aloft – although they do not seem entirely secure. The one at the bottom left may have lost his grip, and has had to adjust his hold, or maybe the one above him wasn’t pulling his own weight, I’m not sure, but they are not entirely in control of the mandorla. It has tipped sideways, as you can see from the winged cherub’s head at the top, which is not directly above its companion at the bottom, but some way to the left. This slight shift, with its sense of movement and asymmetry, can be seen in almost all of Verrocchio’s output, a sense of drama which, as I have suggested, prefigures the Baroque in an unprecedented way. 

Moving to the bottom of the bozzetto it is the Cardinal himself who we see. He is kneeling on a sarcophagus, praying, and looking up to Jesus, either witnessing a vision of Christ, or the real thing – it’s up to you to decide. A woman steps towards him, although she is not fully on the sarcophagus. Under her feet is what could be a small rock, but is meant to be a cloud – this was the standard, accepted ‘sign’ for clouds in sculpture at the time. In her left hand, and close to Forteguerri – almost as if she is handing it to him – is a cross. In her right is a chalice, held above her shoulder. These are both items of Faith, and that is indeed who she is: a personification of Faith. Her movement towards him is swift, her right leg stepping across and in front of her left, her drapery flying out behind – again we have a wonderful sense of movement and of asymmetry. The dress of the figure on the right also billows out behind her. More obviously standing on clouds – she is further from the sarcophagus, after all – it is almost as if she is swooning, the rapid movement inward combined with a lowering of the body as she leans forward. Her arms are crossed over her chest, and she looks upwards, her gaze parallel to the Cardinal’s own. Her prayer, like all requests, wants fulfilment – that is what she hopes for. Indeed, she represents the virtue of Hope. Notice how Faith’s chalice, the direction of her gaze, and her cross, form a diagonal leading our attention to Forteguerri, while the angle of his head makes us look towards Jesus: Verrocchio expertly directs our eyes around the surface of the relief. Hope’s trailing left leg, and her gaze, create a diagonal which is continued by the leg of a third Virtue who appears above them.

Given that we already have Faith and Hope, this can only be Charity. Together they are the three Virtues named by St Paul in the thirteenth chapter of his first Epistle to the Corinthians. This is verse 13:

And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; 
but the greatest of these is charity.

As they are in the Bible, they are often known as the Theological Virtues. Now more often translated as ‘Love’, Charity, or Caritas, is the boundless love of – or for – God, and is expressed in a number of ways. Love is like a burning fire, which is why she carries a flaming torch in her right hand. The love for one’s children is unqualified, and a baby sits on her left. Charity is often surrounded by three – or more – babies, clambering all over her, and you’d have to be really loving to put up with that. Here she has just one, held safe in the crook of her left arm, the torch held as far away as possible. Unusually, she is winged. Verrocchio seems to be equating her with the angels. She flies above the other two virtues, perhaps in line with Paul’s assertion that she is the greatest.

Niccolò Forteguerri kneels on his sarcophagus awaiting the life to come. Faith offers him the consolation of the Cross, Hope echoes his own yearning for Salvation, and there truly is Love between him and Jesus. These three Virtues gather round him – flock to him, even – and reassure us that his soul will be with Jesus in Heaven. What better way to remember a man of whom the city of Pistoia could be justly proud. And even if we thought he wasn’t that great, maybe this monument could persuade us we were wrong – that is the often the function of memorials, if we’re honest.

Sadly the commission did not proceed smoothly. There was disagreement among the commissioning body in Pistoia, and at one point they tried to replace Verrocchio with Piero del Pollaiuolo. But Verrocchio went straight to the Boss – who at this point was Lorenzo ‘the Magnificent’ de’ Medici – who sorted things out. Nevertheless, the monument hadn’t been completed by the time the sculptor headed to Venice in 1483 to complete a more prestigious commission.  The sculptures were completed by his assistants in Florence, and were finally taken to Pistoia five years later. Some were deemed to be substandard, and were re-worked, meaning that the monument wasn’t erected until 1514, more than 40 years after Forteguerri had died. By this time, the Pistoiesi were probably asking ‘Niccolò who’? And that’s not the end. In the 1750s the monument was moved, the figures altered and re-installed, bunched up and straitjacketed by an unimaginative Rococo frame. The kneeling effigy was replaced with a bust, and although it survives in the local museum, Verrocchio’s original intention is lost. There is ongoing scholarly debate about which bits of the sculpture Verrocchio had anything to do with, and to what extent the life, the energy, the vitality of the bozzetto ever made it into marble. What is certainly clear is that, in the monument as installed, Jesus is secure, and the angels are fully in control. I can’t imagine that the church would have allowed any doubt of that. But how wonderful that we still have this magical bozzetto free to see in the V&A.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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