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Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574):

Lives of the Artists: Giorgione and Fra Sebastiano del Pombio

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AT the same time that Florence was acquiring such fame by the works of Lionardo, Venice received no little honour by the talents and excellence of one of its citizens, who far surpassed the Bellini, who were held in such esteem, and every other who had up to that time painted in their city. This was Giorgio, born at Castelfranco in the Trevisan in the year I478, afterwards called Giorgione, from his fine person and the greatness of his soul, for he, though of low birth, was all his life distinguished for his gentle manners. He was brought up in Venice, and sang and played so divinely that he was often invited to musical entertainments, and received by noble persons. He gave himself, however, to drawing, and was so favoured by nature that he, falling in love with her beauty, would never use anything in his works which he had not drawn from life; so that he acquired the reputation not only of having surpassed Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, but of having equalled those who worked in Tuscany, and were the authors of the modern manner. Giorgione had seen some things of Lionardo's worked with great depth of shadow but blended and softened, and this manner pleased him so much that all his life he used it and imitated it when painting in oil.

It was in 1504 that a great fire destroyed the German Exchange near the bridge of the Rialto, consuming all the merchandise, to the very great loss of the merchants. The Signory of Venice ordered that it should be rebuilt, and it was speedily completed, with greater accommodation and magnificence and beauty; and the fame of Giorgione having by this time grown great, it was decided by those in authority that he should paint it in fresco according to his own fancy, provided he displayed his utmost powers, and made an excellent work of it, for it was in the best situation, and the finest view of the whole city. Giorgione, setting to work, thought only how he could design figures that would best display his art; and in fact there is no story in it, nor does it represent the story of any person, ancient or modern. I for my part have never understood it, nor ~ave I ever found anybody who did; for here is a woman and there a man, in certain attitudes, one with the head of a lion near him, and the other with an angel in the guise of Cupid. In short, his figures look well together, and there are heads very well drawn and coloured, and all he did was evidently from life, and not in imitation of any manner.

There is a story that Giorgione was talking to some sculptors at the time that Andrea Verrocchio was making his bronze horse, and they contended that because sculpture showed in one figure different sides, and could be seen all round, it surpassed painting, which only showed one part. Giorgione argued that a picture could show all sorts of views of a man at one glance, without his having to walk round it, and he undertook to show in one picture the back and the front and the two sides of one single figure, a thing which puzzled them; but he did it in this way. He painted a man, turning his back to the spectators, and having at his feet some smooth water, in which the front view was reflected; on one side of him was a polished corslet which he had taken off, on which was plainly reflected his left profile, while on the other hand was a mirror, in which might be clearly seen his other side--a fanciful conceit which was highly admired.

He made many portraits of different Italian princes, and painted from life Caterina, Queen of Cyprus. But while he was expecting still to add to his honours and those of his country, he fell ill of the plague, in the year 1511, and at the age of thirtyfour passed to another life, to the infinite grief of his many friends and with damage to the world who lost him. Nevertheless there remained his two excellent pupils, Sebastiano Veniziano del Piombo and Titian, who not only equalled him but greatly surpassed him. Sebastiano's first profession was not painting but music, which made him very acceptable to the nobles of Venice, with whom he lived on intimate terms. But when still young, desiring to learn painting, he studied first with Giovanni Bellini, who was then an old man, and afterwards, when Giorgione had introduced a more modern manner, he left Bellini and joined Giorgione, and stayed with him until he had acquired his style so accurately that many who have no great knowledge of art mistake his works for Giorgione's.

A rich merchant of Sienna, Agostino Chigi, hearing of his fame, sought to persuade him to go to Rome, being pleased not only with his painting but also with his music and his agreeable conversation. It was not hard to persuade Bastiano to go, for he knew that that city had always been the protector of men of genius. So when he was come to Rome Agostino set him to work, and he did some things in Agostino's palace in the style that he had brought from Venice, very different from that which the best painters in Rome employed. Afterwards, Raffaello having painted the story of Galatea in the same place, Bastiano painted by the side of It a Polyphemus. He also painted some things in oil, and having learnt a soft style of colouring from Giorgione, he obtained by them a great reputation.

Raffaello by this time had earned such honour by his paintings that his friends and adherents said that they were better than Michael Angelo's, being pleasant in colouring, fine in invention, excellent in expression, and good in drawing, while Buonarroti's had none of these qualities but the drawing. And so they said that Raffaello was at least equal to him in drawing, and surpassed him in his colour. But Sebastiano was not of these, being a man of exquisite judgment. So Michael Angelo being drawn towards Sebastiano, and being pleased with his colouring and graceful style, took him under his protection, thinking that, if he aided Sebastiano in his drawing, he could through him contend with those who opposed him. Sebastiano's paintings being therefore more highly valued through the praise that Michael Angelo had given them, a gentleman from Viterbo much favoured by the Pope gave Sebastiano a picture of a dead Christ to paint for a chapel in San Francesco at Viterbo. But though Sebastiano carried it out with great diligence, the design was by Michael Angelo. The work was held by all who saw it to be most beautiful, and Sebastiano gained great credit by it. And Pier Francesco Borgherini, a Florentine merchant, having taken a chapel in S. Piero in Montorio, entrusted the painting of it to Sebastiano, thinking, as was indeed the case, that Michael Angelo would make the design. Sebastiano carried it out with great diligence and care, and thinking he had found a way of painting in oil on a wall, he covered the plaster with a suitable preparation, and all that part which has the scourging of Christ he painted in oil. Nor will I conceal that many think that Michael Angelo not only made a little drawing for the work, but that the figure of Christ was put in altogether by him, there being a great difference between that and the other figures. When Sebastiano had uncovered this work his enemies' tongues were silenced, and few ventured to attack him. Afterwards, when Raffaello painted for the Cardinal de' Medici that picture of the Transfiguration which was placed after his death in S. Piero in Montorio, Sebastiano painted another picture of the same size, as if in rivalry, representing the raising of Lazarus, and this also was worked under the guidance of Michael Angelo, and in some parts from his drawings. The two pictures when they were finished were exhibited together, and both received great praise1 for although Raffaello's works have no equals for grace and beauty, yet none the less Sebastiano's efforts were universally applauded.

This man had to labour greatly at all his works; they did not come with the facility that nature and study sometimes give. So in the chapel of Agostino Chigi, where Raffaello had made the sibyls and prophets, there was a niche below in which Bastiano undertook to paint something to surpass Raffaello, and set to work to prepare the wall; but he left it untouched when he died ten years after. Sebastiano indeed could draw quickly and easily from life, but it was just the contrary in subject pictures. Indeed portrait painting was his true work.

When Cardinal Giulio de' Medici was made Pope under the name of Clement VII., he intimated to Sebastiano that he would seek occasion to favour him. Therefore, upon the death of Fra Mariano Fetti, the Frate del Piombo, Sebastiano reminded him of his promise, and made request for the office of the Piombo. And although Giovanni da Udine, who had served his Holiness long, preferred the same request, the Pope gave orders that Sebastiano should have the office, on the agreement to pay to Giovanni a pension of three hundred crowns. So Sebastiano assumed the habit of a friar, and at the same time his nature seemed to change; for having wherewith to satisfy his desires without using his pencil, he let it repose, and made up for his laborious days by rest and ease. Thus the magnificent liberality of Clement VII rewarding Sebastiano too highly was the cause that from a hardworking, industrious man he became slothful and negligent, and having laboured constantly when he was competing with Raffaello and his fortune was low, he ceased to work as soon as he had enough. He had a very good house, which he had built himself, and in this he lived in the greatest contentment, without any wish to paint. He used to say that it was just as prudent to live a quiet life as to be ever struggling restlessly to leave a great name behind. And he acted according to his words, having always the best wines and rarest dainties he could get, taking more account of good living than of art. Being censured by some, who said it was a shame that now that he had the means of living he worked no more, he answered, "Now that I have the means of living I do no work, because there are clever men in the world now, who can do in two months as much as I used to do in two years, and I think if I live much longer everything will have been painted; so as these men do so much, it is a good thing that there should be some who do nothing, that they may have more to do." And in pleasantries of this kind he would run on, and indeed there was no better companion than he.

As we have said, Bastiano was much beloved by Michael Angelo, but when the Pope's chapel was to be painted, where now is Michael Angelo's Judgment, there was some illfeeling between them. For Fra Sebastiano had persuaded the Pope to make Michael Angelo paint it in oil, whereas he would not do it except in fresco. Michael Angelo therefore saying neither yes or no, the wall was prepared in Fra Sebastiano's way; Michael Angelo left it untouched for some months, and when they implored him to begin it, he said at last that he would not do it except in fresco, for oil painting was an art for women and lazy people like Fra Sebastiano. So the plaster being taken down it was prepared for working in fresco, and Michael Angelo set to work upon it, but never forgot the injury Fra Sebastiano had done him.

Fra Sebastiano, having brought himself to doing nothing whatever except the work of his office, and living well, fell sick at last of a violent fever and died. Art lost little by his death, for he might have been counted among those whom it had lost from the time he put on the friar's habit; but many of his friends mourn him still for his pleasant converse. He had at different times many young men with him to study art, but to no great profit, for they learnt little from him but how to live well.

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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