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26 June, 2013
Lives of the Great Painters
Vasari's Ghirlandajo, Cosimo Roselli, and Piero di Cosimo


Domenico di Tommaso del Ghirlandajo was put by his father to his own art of a goldsmith. Tommaso had been the first to make those ornaments for the head which are worn by Florentine girls, and which are called garlands, whence he acquired the name of Ghirlandajo. But although Domenico was a goldsmith he was continually drawing, and became so quick and ready at it, that many say he could draw a likeness of any one who passed the shop; and this is the more readily to be believed as there are in his works a great number of lifelike portraits

Having brought himself into notice by his works, he was employed by Francesco Sassetti to paint a chapel with the story of S. Francesco, in which he introduced among many other noted citizens the magnificent Lorenzo de' Medici. Afterwards he was called to Rome to help in the painting of the Sistine Chapel, and while there was employed by Francesco Tornabuoni in painting the wall round the tomb of his wife which Andrea Verrocchio made. He painted here four pictures, with which Francesco was so pleased that when Domenico returned to Florence, he recommended him by letter to Giovanni, one of his relatives. When Giovanni heard it, he began to wish to employ him upon some magnificent work which would bring honour to his own memory and fame to Domenico. And at that time it happened that the principal chapel in S. Maria Novella, which had been painted by Andrea Orcagna, through a fault in the roof had been spoilt by water. Many of the citizens had been wishing to have it restored or repainted, but the owners, being the Ricci, would not agree, not being able to bear the expense themselves, and not willing that others should do it, lest they should lose their rights and their arms should be taken down. Giovanni, desiring to give it to Domenico to paint, set himself to obtain leave in some way or other, and at last promised the Ricci to bear all the expense himself, and to put their arms in the most conspicuous and honourable place in the chapel. So, having come to terms, and a contract being drawn up of very strict tenour, Giovanni set Domenico to work, the price to be twelve hundred ducats of gold, and if the work pleased him two hundred more.

So Domenico set to work and never rested till he had finished it in four years, which was in 1485, to the very great satisfaction of this Giovanni, who allowed that he had been well served, and confessed ingenuously that Domenico had earned the two hundred ducats extra, but said it would give him pleasure if he would be content with the first sum; and Domenico, who loved glory more than riches, gave up the remainder at once, saying he cared more to satisfy him than to have the money.

Then Giovanni had two great coats of arms made in stone, one of the Tornaquinci family and the other of the Tornabuoni, and set them up on piers outside the chapel, and in the arch, besides other arms of the same family with different names and different shields, the Giachinotti, Popoleschi, Marabottini, and Cardinali. And when Domenico made the altarpiece under an arch in the gilded ornament of the picture, he had a very beautiful tabernacle for the Sacrament made, and in the front of it he put a little shield blazoned with the arms of the Ricci. And the best of it was at the opening of the chapel, for the Ricci having sought with a great outcry for their arms, not being able to find them, went to the magistrates, taking the contract with them. But the Tornabuoni showed that their arms had been placed in the most conspicuous and the most honourable place in the chapel, and though they exclaimed that they could not be seen, they were told that they were wrong, and that as they had been placed in the most honourable place, near to the Holy Sacrament, they must be content. And so it was decided by the magistrates.

For the same Giovanni Tornabuoni Domenico painted a chapel in his house a little way from the city. He was so fond of work, and so anxious to please every one, that he used to tell his scholars to take any commission that was brought to the shop, if it were only the hoops for women's petticoat panniers, for if they would not do them he would paint them himself rather than that any one should go away from his shop discontented. He disliked greatly any domestic cares, and therefore left all the management to his brother David, saying, "Let me work and you see about providing everything, for now that I have begun to understand the methods of the art, I am sorry that they have not given me the whole circuit of the walls of Florence to paint." They say that when he was drawing the antiquities at Rome, arches, columns, coliseums, and amphitheatres, he did it all by eye, without rule or measurement. Drawing the Coliseum in this way, he put at the foot of it a figure erect, by measuring which you can find the measurement of the whole building, for, being tried by capable men after his death, it was found correct.

He painted some things at the Abbey of Passignano belonging to the monks of Vallombrosa, together with his brother David and Bastiano da S. Gimignano. Before the arrival of Domenico, the painters found themselves very ill entertained by the monks, so they requested the abbot to serve them better, saying it was not fair to treat them like labourers. The abbot promised to do so, and excused himself, saying it came from ignorance and not malice. But Domenico came, and all went on in the same way, so David, going to the abbot again, said he came not on his own account, but because of his brother's worth and talents. The abbot, being however an ignorant man, made a similar reply. In the evening, as they sat down to supper, the monk who had the charge of the strangers, came bringing a board with porringers and food fit only for coarse people just as before; upon which David, springing up in a rage, flung the soup over the friar's back, and taking up the loaf from the table attacked him with it, and struck him so fiercely that he was carried half dead to his cell. The abbot, who was already in bed, hearing the noise, sprang up and came out, thinking the monastery was falling into ruins, and finding the friar in bad case began to reproach David.

But he, being infuriated, bade him take himself off, for his brother Domenico was worth more than all the pigs of abbots that ever were in that monastery. And from that time the abbot took pains to treat them as they ought to have been treated.

Domenico had a pupil named Jacopo l'Indaco, who was a reasonably good master in his time. It is not strange that few works left his hands, for he was a merry, idle fellow, and would never work if he could help it. He used to say it was not a Christian thing to do nothing but labour and take no pleasure. He was very intimate with Michael Angelo, and that great artist, when he wanted recreation after his great labours of mind and body, could find no one more to his humour. And because he found pleasure in his chatter and his jokes, he used to have him constantly to dine with him. But one day, becoming wearisome, as such people generally do become to their friends by their continual chatter without discretion and at wrong times, Michael Angelo, to get rid of him, having something else to do, sent him out to buy some figs. And as soon as Jacopo was out of the house he fastened the door behind him, determined not to let him in when he came back. So when l'Indaco came back from the market, and found, after knocking at the door in vain for some time, that Michael Angelo would not open it, he took the figs and the leaves in which they were wrapped and strewed them all over the threshold. Then he went away, and for many months he would not speak to Michael Angelo; and though they afterwards made it up, they were never such friends as before.

Cosimo Rosselli was called to Rome at the same time as Domenico Ghirlandajo to paint in the Sistine Chapel, and there, working in company with Sandro Botticelli, Luca da Cortona, and Piero Perugino, he painted three pictures. There is a story told that the Pope had offered a prize to the painter who, according to the Pope's own judgment, should work best. When the pictures were finished, his Holiness went to see them, every painter having done his utmost to deserve the reward. Cosimo, knowing himself to be weak in invention and design, had sought to hide his defects by covering his picture with the finest ultramarine and other bright colours, and there was not a tree, or a blade of grass, or a garment, or a cloud that was not shining with gold for he thought that the Pope, understanding little of art, would give him the prize on that account. When the day was come that all their works were uncovered, and his was seen, it was received with great laughter and many scoffing jests by the other artists, who mocked him without pity. But in the end the laughter was turned against them, for, as Cosimo had imagined, the colours dazzled the eyes of the Pope, who did not much understand such matters, although he took great pleasure in them, and he decided that Cosimo had done much better than all the others. And having given him the prize, he commanded the others to cover their pictures with the best azure that could be found, and to touch them up with gold, that they might be like Cosimo's in colour and richness. So the poor painters, filled with despair at having to satisfy the Holy Father's small understanding, set themselves to spoil all their good work, and Cosimo laughed at those who a little before had laughed at him.

He afterwards returned to Florence with a little money, and lived comfortably there, having as his pupil Piero,who was always called Piero di Cosimo.

This Piero was the son of one Lorenzo, a goldsmith, but is never known under any other name than Piero di Cosimo. His father, seeing his inclination to drawing, gave him into Cosimo's care, who received him willingly, and loved him as his son; and always considered him as such. The boy had by nature a lofty spirit, being absentminded, and very different from the other boys who studied under Cosimo. He would get so intent on what he was doing that if a matter was being discussed with him it would sometimes be necessary to begin again, and go over the whole matter a second time, because his mind had gone away to something else. And he was so fond of solitude that he had no greater pleasure than going by himself to weave fancies and build castles in the air. His master Cosimo made great use of him, and could leave him to conduct matters of importance, knowing that Piero had a better manner and more judgment than himself. He took him with him to Rome when Pope Sixtus summoned him to work in his chapel, and in one of his pictures there Piero painted a most beautiful landscape. And because he drew well from nature he painted in Rome the portraits of many distinguished men.

After the death of Cosimo he shut himself up, and would let no one see him work, living more like a wild beast than a man. He would never have his rooms swept, eat just when he felt hungry, would not have his garden dug or the fruit trees pruned, but let the vines grow and their branches trail on the ground, and seemed to find pleasure in seeing everything as wild as his own nature, saying that things of this sort ought to be left to nature to take care of. He would often go to see any animal or plant that was made strangely, and would talk of it until he wearied his hearers.

He had seen some things of Lionardo's, finished with the extreme care that Lionardo would take when he wished to show his art, and this manner pleasing Piero, he sought to imitate it, though he was very far from attaining to Lionardo's skill, and was unlike him; indeed, he may be said to have changed his manner in almost everything he did. If he had not been so abstracted, and had taken more care of himself, he would have made his great genius known, so that he would have been adored; whereas he was generally held to be mad, though he did no harm except perhaps to himself, and did good to his art by his works.

I must not forget to say that Piero in his youth, having a fantastic and strange invention, was often employed in the masquerades at the carnival, and was therefore much in favour with the noble Florentine youths, greatly improving with his invention that pastime. Some say he was the first to turn them into a kind of triumphal procession; at any rate, he improved them, introducing music appropriate to the subjects represented, and adding pompous and splendid processions of men and horses in suitable habits and costumes. And certainly it was a fine thing to see at night twenty five or thirty pairs of horses, richly accoutred, with their masters attired according to the subject represented, six or eight attendants in livery following each cavalier, torch in hand, perhaps to the number of four hundred, and behind them the car with trophies and fantastical extravagances, all which things give great pleasure to the people. I will just touch briefly on one of his inventions in mature years, not because of its agreeableness, but, on the contrary, because by its strange and unexpected horror it gave no little pleasure to the people. This was the car of Death, made in such secrecy in the hall of the Pope that no one was allowed to see it. It was a triumphal car, hung in black and painted with dead men's bones and white crosses, and drawn by buffaloes; and on the car was a great figure of Death with a scythe in his hand, and all round were tombs. At the places where the triumphal procession was used to stop to sing, the tombs opened and there came out figures dressed in black, on which were painted the bones of the skeleton, horrible to look at, and they sang to the sound of muffled trumpets in melancholy music that noble song-

"Dolor, pianto e penitenza," &c.

Before and after the car rode a great number of the dead on horseback, singing in a trembling voice the Miserere.

This spectacle, from its novelty, satisfied all, and Piero, the author and inventor, was much praised and commended.

I heard Andrea di Cosimo, and Andrea del Sarto, his pupils, who aided him in the preparation, say that it was the opinion of the time that it was intended to signify the return of the house of Medici, for they were then exiles, or, as you may say, dead, and were soon to rise again; and so some of the words of the song were interpreted.

None could paint horrible dragons better than he, as may be seen from a sea monster which he presented to the magnificent Giuliano de' Medici. This monster is now in the Guardaroba of Duke Cosimo de' Medici, where is also a book of animals of the same kind, most beautiful and strange, and drawn with the greatest patience. Indeed, in all his works there is a spirit very different from that of others, and a certain subtilty in investigating nature regardless of time or fatigue, only for his own pleasure. And indeed it could not be otherwise, for, enamoured of nature, he cared not for his own comfort, but brought himself to living on hard eggs, which, to spare firing, he cooked when he boiled his varnishes, not six or eight at once, but by fifties, keeping them in a basket to consume by degrees. This sort of life he enjoyed so much that he thought all other to be mere slavery. He could not endure the crying of children, the sound of coughing, the ringing of bells, or the chanting of friars; but when the skies were pouring down rain he liked to see it rushing from the roofs and streaming down the streets. He had great fear of lightning, and when it thundered he would wrap himself in his cloak, and shutting his windows and the door of his room, would hide himself in a corner until it was over. His conversation was so varied that sometimeS he would say things that would make people shake with laughing. But with old age he grew more strange and fantastical, and would not even have his pupils near him. He wanted still to work, but could not, being paralysed, and in paroxysms of rage would try to force his hands to keep steady, and would drop now his mahlstick, and now his pencils, until it made one sad to see him. The flies and even the shadows irritated him. He would talk of the sufferings of those who have lingering diseases, and would accuse physicians and nurses of letting sick men die of hunger, besides torturing them with syrups and medicines. He would say that it was a fine thing to die by the hand of justice in the open air, with many people round you, supported by good words, and having the priest and the people praying for you, and going with the angels to Paradise. In such strange talk and ways he lingered on, till one morning he was found lying dead at the foot of the stairs.

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