The lords of Venice asked Verrocchio to make them an equestrian statue of their hero Colleoni. They said they’d be honored to have such a distinguished sculptor execute their statue, which would be set up in the Piazza de SS. Giovanni e Paolo.
Equestrian statue of Colleoni by Verrocchio (Wikipedia photo)
Verrocchio arrived in Venice, rented a workshop, and set to work. When his model for the horse was almost finished, the lords sent him word that another sculptor would be collaborating with him. Vallano da Padova would model the hero and Verrocchio would just do the horse. “Oh,” said Verrocchio when he heard. And he smashed the legs and head of his model, grabbed his things, and went back to Florence.
When the lords heard what he had done, they sent word that he had better not come back to Venice or they would cut his head off.
Verrocchio wrote back to tell them not to worry: he would take care not to go back, seeing that they had no way of putting a head back on a man, at least not a head like his. Of course he could easily replace the horse’s head and with one twice as beautiful.
The cheek, no?
The lords smiled at his answer and begged him to come back and do the whole group himself, pretty please: “We’ll double your salary.”
Verrocchio returned, fixed up his smashed model, and cast the statue in bronze—the whole impressive thing, rider and all. But not quite. Just before it was finished he “caught a chill and died”. It was his last work and certainly the best thing he had ever done.
Plinth by Leopardi, Venice (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License photo by Peter J.StB.Green)
The world has since filled with equestrian statues and most of their sculptors have had a long look at this one before they modelled their own.
Rodin’s teacher Edouard Lanteri points to it as a good example of something he has observed:
“In works destined to stand out against the sky…all the parts which are detached from the principal mass, such as an arm, leg, etc., must be strengthened in their volume, under penalty of appearing meagre when the work is once in place…
“Indeed, the Colleoni statue is the most striking example of this principle, for if one has occasion to examine closely a reproduction, one is surprised at the heaviness of the legs and tempted to see in them a gross exaggeration, but if afterwards one chances to see this masterpiece in Venice, placed on its high pedestal and completely standing out against the sky, the proportions become admirable in their strength and their elegance—in thickening the legs the sculptor has avoided the appearance of thinness.” Modelling and Sculpture, A Guide for Artists and Students by Edouard Lanteri
Vol. III, p. 29, Dover Publications, Inc.