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Leonardo, Donatello & Verrocchio at the High

da Vinci's detail of Youth from "Beheading of St. John the Baptist."

“Leonardo da Vinci: Hand of the Genius”
Oct 6-Feb. 21, 2010. $18; $15, seniors and students with IDs; $11,
children 6-17; free for members and children 5 and under. 10 a.m.-5
p.m., Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays; until 8 p.m.
Thursdays; 12-5 p.m. Sundays. High Museum of Art. 1280 Peachtree St.
404-733-4444. www.high.org.

By Catherine Fox
Leonardo da Vinci is one of the great renaissance men of all time. Not only a peerless artist, he was also a skilled engineer, avant-garde scientist and inventor. There’s no hyperbole in the title of the High Museum of Art’s new exhibition: “Leonardo da Vinci: Hand of the Genius.”
Yet, as you’ll see when the show opens on Tuesday, genius doesn’t germinate in a vacuum.
Leonardo came of age in one of the most glorious periods in western culture, when knowledge expanded, humanism took hold and culture bloomed. His artistic brilliance was rooted in his times and grounded in the artists who preceded him.
As guest curator Gary Radke wrote in his book “Art in Renaissance Italy,” this was a period where art mattered. Civic pride, piety, appreciation of beauty and, of course, the status of patronage found voice in an outpouring of art. The Florence of Leonardo’s youth was a creative hotbed. He could absorb the lessons of the best and brightest merely by walking its streets and visiting its churches.
Since Leonardo’s contribution to sculpture is the focus of this exhibition, Radke has included works by sculptors Donatello and Andrea del Verrocchio to set the stage. Art giants themselves, both had a great impact on the young Leonardo.
Donatello, represented by “Bearded Prophet,” a six-foot-tall figure commissioned for Florence’s Campanile, was one of the early adopters of the values and aesthetics of antiquity, which were catalysts for Renaissance art. He married the celebration of the human body with an empathy for the human psyche.
The Renaissance chronicler Vasari recounts a story in which Donatello, who was standing in front of one of this sculptures, was heard to mutter, “Speak, damn you, speak.”
Verrocchio was Leonardo’s teacher. As an apprentice in the sculptor’s studio, he learned the nuts and bolts of his craft. Verrocchio made use of a team of apprentices to fulfill complex and numerous commissions that came out of his atelier. He required not only a competent staff, but also one trained to mimic his style.
This leads to some interesting problems of attribution. When an apprentice surpasses his teacher, as did Leonardo, scholarly efforts to discern his hand in workshop pieces become more than a parlor game.
Radke made news recently when he proposed that two of the figures in the “Beheading of the Baptist” (1477–1483) relief for Verrocchio’s Silver Altar of the Florentine Baptistery are the work of Leonardo.
That relief, which has never left Florence, is on exhibit at the High.
If Radke’s supposition bears out, you’ll be getting the first stateside look at the hand of genius-in-the-making.

Catherine Fox blogs about art and architecture at www.ArtscriticAtl.com

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[...] Critic Catherine Fox wrote of the show: Leonardo came of age in one of the most glorious periods in western culture, when knowledge [...]