Medieval History

Selected Sources Full Text Sources Saints' Lives Law Texts Maps Medieval Films Search Help

Selected Sources Sections Studying History End of Rome Byzantium Islam Roman Church Early Germans Anglo-Saxons Celtic World Carolingians 10 C Collapse Economic Life Crusades Empire & Papacy France England Celtic States Nordic Europe Iberia Italy Eastern Europe Intellectual Life Medieval Church Jewish Life Social History Sex & Gender States & Society Renaissance Reformation Exploration
IHSP Credits

Medieval Sourcebook:

Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574):

Lives of the Artists: Parmagiano

Back to Index to Vasari's Lives

AMONG the many in Lombardy who have been endowed with a gift for drawing and a spirit of invention and a talent for painting beautiful landscapes, none is to be put before Francesco Mazzuoli Parmigiano. If he had only kept to the study of painting, and not gone after the nonsense of congealing mercury to make himself rich, he would have been without compare. Francesco was born in Parma in 1504, and his father dying when he was a child of tender age, he was left in the custody of two old uncles, both painters, who brought him up with the tenderest love, and taught him all that a Christian and a citizen ought to know. He had no sooner taken a pen in his hand to learn to write than he began to draw marvellously, and his master, perceiving this, persuaded his uncles to let him apply himself to painting. They, although they were old, and painters of no great fame, were men of good judgment, and placed him under excellent masters. And because they found that he had been born, as they say, with a pencil in his hand, sometimes they urged him on, and sometimes, fearing that too much study would injure his health, they restrained him. At length, having reached the age of sixteen, he completed a picture of S. John baptizing Christ, which even now causes astonishment that a boy could have done such a thing.

Many others he painted before he attained the age of nineteen. Then came upon him the desire to see Rome, hearing men greatly praise the works of the masters there, especially of Raffaello and Michael Angelo, and he told his desire to his old uncles. They, seeing nothing in the desire that was not praiseworthy, agreed, but said that it would be well to take something with him which would gain him an introduction to artists. And the counsel seeming good to Francesco, he painted three pictures, two small and one very large. Besides these, inquiring one day into the subtleties of art, he began to draw himself as he appeared in a barber's convex glass. He had a ball of wood made at a turner's and divided in half, and on this he set himself to paint all that he saw in the glass, and because the mirror enlarged everything that was near and diminished what was distant, he painted the hand a little large. Francesco himself, being of very beautiful countenance and more like an angel than a man, his portrait on the ball seemed a thing divine, and the work altogether was a happy success, having all the lustre of the glass, with every reflection and the light and shade so true, that nothing more could be hoped for from the human intellect.

The picture being finished and packed, together with the portrait, he set out, accompanied by one of his uncles, for Rome; and as soon as the Chancellor of the Pope had seen the pictures, he introduced the youth and his uncle to Pope Clement, who seeing the works produced and Francesco so young, was astonished, and all his court with him. And his Holiness gave him the charge of painting the Pope's hall.

Francesco studying in Rome wished to see everything, ancient and modern, sculpture and painting, that there was in the city; but he held in special veneration the works of Michael Angelo and Raffaello da Urbino, and people said when they saw a youth of such rare art and such gentle, graceful manners, that the spirit of Raffaello had passed into the body of ' Francesco, seeing also that he strove to imitate him in everything, especially in painting, and not in vam.

But while he was painting a picture for S. Salvadore del Lauro came the ruin and the sack of Rome, which not only banished all art for the time, but cost the lives of many artists, and Francesco was very near losing his; for at the beginning of the tumult he was so intent on his work that when the soldiers began entering the houses-- and some Germans were already in his-he, for all the noise they made, did not move from his place. But they, coming suddenly upon him, and seeing his painting, were so astonished by it that, like good fellows, they let him alone. And while the poor city was ruined by the impious cruelty of the barbarians, sacred and profarle things alike suffering, without respect to God or man, he was taken care of by these Germans, and honoured and defended from injury. All the annoyance that he suffered from them was that, one of them being a great connoisseur in painting, he was forced to make a number of drawings in watercolour or in pen and ink, which were taken as the payment of his ransom. But on the soldiers being changed, Francesco fell into trouble, for while he was going to look for some friends, he was made prisoner by some other soldiers, and obliged to give up the few crowns he had. His uncle, seeing that all hope of Francesco's acquiring knowledge, fame, and wealth was cut off, and that Rome was little less than ruined, and the Pope a prisoner in the hands of the Spaniards, determined to take him back to Parma.

But having reached Bologna, and meeting there many friends, he stayed some months in that city, and caused some of his works to be engraved, having with him for that purpose one Antonio da Trento. But this Antonio one morning when Francesco was in bed opened a chest, took out all the engravings and woodcuts, and whatever drawings he could find, and took himself off it was never known where; and tho~lgh Francesco recovered the engravings, which the fellow had left with a friend, intending probably to get them when it was convenient, he never saw his drawings again. Half desperate, he returned to his painting, and was forced for the sake of earning some money to paint the portrait of some Bolognese Count or other.

When the Emperor Charles V. came to Bologna that Clement VII might crown him, Francesco went to see him dine, and without drawing his portrait painted a very large picture of this Ca~sar, with Fame crowing him with laurel. And when it was finished, he showed it to Pope Clement, and it pleased him so much that he sent both the picture and Francesco to the emperor, accompanied by the Bishop of Verona. The picture pleasing his Majesty also, he gave him to understand that he was to leave it; but Francesco, by the counsel of a not very faithful or not very wise friend, ssid it wss not finished, and so his Majesty did not have it, and he was not rewarded as he certainly would have been.

So Francesco, after many years' absence from his home, having gained experience in art, and acquired friends but no wealth, returned at last to Parma. And immediately he was set to paint in fresco in the church of S. Maria della Steccata. He was also employed in painting a picture for a gentleman of Parma, and for the church of S. Maria de' Servi. But it soon appeared that he was neglecting the work in the Steccata, or at least taking it very easily; it was evident things were going badly with him; and the reason was that he had begun to study alchemy, and to put aside painting for it, hoping to enrich himself quickly by congealing mercury. He used his brains no longer for working out fine conceptions with his pencils and colours, but wasted all his days instead over his charcoal and wood and glass bottles and such trash, spending more in a day than he earned in a week by his painting in the Steccata. Having no other means, he began to find that his furnaces were ruining him little by little, and what was worse still, the company of the Steccata, seeing that he neglected his work, and having perhaps paid him beforehand, began a suit against him. He therefore fled by night with some of his friends to Casal Maggiore, where putting his alchemy for a while out of his head, he returned to his painting, and made a Lucretia, which was the best thing that had ever been seen from his hand. But his mind was constantly turning to his alchemy, and he himself was changed from the gentle, delicate youth to a savage with long, illkept hair and beard, and in this melancholy state he was attacked by a fever, which carried him off in a few days.

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.).

This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

Electronic fotmat © Paul Halsall, May 2019

The Internet Medieval Sourcebook is part of the Internet History Sourcebooks Project. The Internet History Sourcebooks Project is located at the History Department of  Fordham University, New York. The Internet Medieval Sourcebook, and other medieval components of the project, are located at the Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies.The IHSP recognizes the contribution of Fordham University, the Fordham University History Department, and the Fordham Center for Medieval Studies in providing web space and server support for the project. The IHSP is a project independent of Fordham University.   Although the IHSP seeks to follow all applicable copyright law, Fordham University is not the institutional owner, and is not liable as the result of any legal action.

© Site Concept and Design: Paul Halsall created 26 Jan 1996: latest revision 6 October 2023