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Medieval Sourcebook:

Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574):

Lives of the Artists: Piero della Francesca and Luca Signorelli

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THERE ARE some unhappy men who, having striven by labour and study to produce work profitable to others which will keep their names in memory, are prevented by infirmity or death from bringing their work to perfection. And often it happens that their works left unfinished are appropriated by others, who seek thus to hide their ass's hide under the lion's skin. So it befell Piero della Francesca dal Borgo S. Sepolcro, a great master in perspective, arithmetic, and geometry, who was prevented by blindness in his old age from bringing to light the books he had written. And he who, having learnt all he knew from him, ought to have used all his powers to win for him glory and a great name, sought instead to conceal the name of Piero his preceptor, and to usurp his honour, by publishing the good old man's works under his own name, that of Fra Luca dal Borgo.

Piero was born in Borgo S. Sepolcro, now a city, but not so at that time, and he was called della Francesca after his mother, because his father was dead before he was born, and it was she who brought him up, and aided him to attain to the rank he reached. Piero studied mathematics in his youth, and although from the age of fifteen he became a painter, he never gave up his mathematical studies, and his productions brought him so much credit that he was employed by the Duke of Urbino, and left in that place many of his writings on geometry and perspective, which are inferior to none of his time.

Afterwards, being fetched to Rome by Nicholas V, he painted in his palace two pictures, which were afterwards destroyed by Pope Julius II, that Raffaello might paint there the imprisonment of S. Peter. Thence ~e went to Loreto, and painted there in company with Domenico Veneziano; but the plague breaking out, he left his work unfinished, and it was afterwards completed by Luca of Cortona his pupil. From Loreto he went to Arezzo, where he painted the whole history of the Cross, from the time when the sons of Adam, laying him in the tomb, placed under his tongue the seeds of the tree from which the cross sprang, to the exaltation of the Cross by the Emperor Heraclius.

Piero was, as we have said, most studious in his art, and had a good knowledge of Euclid, so that Maestro Luca dal Borgo, who wrote on geometry, was his pupil. Lorentino d'Angelo was also his pupil, and finished the works that he left incomplete at his death. There is a story told of this Lorentino that once when the carnival was near his children kept begging him to kill a pig, as the custom was in those parts. Then, remembering that he had no money, they said, "What will father do to buy the pig without money?" To which he replied "Some saint will help us." But when he had said this many times and no pig appeared, their hopes began to fail. But at last there came a countryman who, to fulfil a vow, wanted a S. Martin painted, but had nothing to give for the picture but a pig that was worth five lire. When Lorentino heard this he said he would paint the picture, and would take nothing but the pig for it. Lorentino painted the saint, and the countryman brought the pig, and so the saint provided the pig for the poor children.

Piero Perugino was also his pupil, but the one who did him most honour was Luca Signorelli of Cortona. For Luca Signorelli was in his time as famous a painter in Italy as any one has ever been. While he worked in Arezzo with Piero, dwelling in the house of Lazzaro Vasari his uncle, he imitated the manner of Piero his master, so that one could be hardly known from the other. His first works were in Arezzo, where he painted in many churches. There is a S. Michael weighing souls, which is admirable, and in which may be seen his power in painting the splendour of armour with all the reflections of light. Having come to Florence to see the works of the masters there, he painted on a canvas some of the old gods, which were much admired, and a picture of our Lady, and presented them both to Lorenzo, who would never be surpassed by any one in magnificent liberality.

In the principal church of Orvieto he completed the chapel begun by Fra Giovanni da Fiesole, painting the story of the end of the world with a strange and fantastical imagination; with angels, demons, earthquakes, fire, and ruin, together with many beautiful figures, and essaying to represent the terror of the last tremendous day. So that I do not marvel that Luca's works were always highly praised by Michael Angelo, nor that some things in his own divine Judgment were taken in part from Luca, such as angels, demons, the order of the heavens, and other things in which he imitated him, as any one can see.

It is told of him that when one of his sons whom he loved much was killed at Cortona, being very beautiful in face and form, Luca in the midst of his grief set himself with great constancy to paint his portrait, shedding no tears, nor giving way to grief, that he might always see through the work of his hands him whom nature had given to him and adverse fortune taken from him.

At last, having produced works for almost all the princes of Italy, he returned to Cortona, and in his last years worked rather for pleasure than anything else. Thus in his old age he painted a picture for the nuns of Santa Margherita in Arezzo, and another for the company of S. Girolamo, which was borne from Cortona to Arezzo on the shoulders of men of the company. Luca, old as he was, came to put it up, desiring again also to see his friends and relations. He lodged in the house of the Vasari; I was then a little boy of eight years old, and I remember how the good old man, who was very courteous and gracious, having heard from the master who gave me my first instruction that I attended to nothing at school but drawing figures, I remember, I say, how he turned to Antonio, my father, and said, "Antonio, let Giorgino learn to draw by all means, for even if later he takes to literature, drawing will still be of use and honour and profit to him, as it is to all men." Then turning to me, as I was standing in front of him, he said, "Study, little kinsman," adding many other things of which I will say nothing, because I know I have not confirmed the opinion which the good old man had of me. When he heard that I suffered from noscbleeding to such a degree that I was often left half dead, he with great tenderness hung a piece of jasper round my neck, and this remembrance of Luca is for ever fixed in my mind.

So having put the picture in its place, he returned to Cortona, accompanied for a great distance by many of the citizens and of his friends and relatives.

Source. These texts were at,but vanished from the net, and so they have been restored here.

Vasari, Giorgio, 1511-1574. Lives of the most eminent painters, sculptors & architects, by Giorgio Vasari: newly tr. by Gaston du C. de Vere. With five hundred illustraiions, London, Macmillan and & The Medici society, 1912-15.

Other translations include:

Vasari, Giorgio, 1511-1574. The lives of the painters, sculptors and architects. London, J. M. Dent; New York, Dutton [1949-50]).

Vasari, Giorgio, 1511-1574.  Lives of the most eminent painters, sculptors, and architects. Abridged from the translation by Gaston DuC. DeVere. Edited, with an introd., by Robert N. Linscott. New York, Modern Library [1959].

Vasari, Giorgio, 1511-1574. Lives of the artists. Selected and translated by E.L. Seeley. Introd. by Alfred Werner. (New York, Noonday Press, [1965, c1957]).

Vasari, Giorgio, 1511-1574. Lives of the artists; a selection translated by George Bull. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Eng. : Penguin Books, 1987.

Vasari, Giorgio, 1511-1574. The lives of the artists; translated with an introduction and notes by Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella. (Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1991.).

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