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Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574):

Lives of the Artists: Andrea della Cione Orcagna, Spinello, Dello, and Paolo Uccello

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IT is rarely the case that a man is excellent in one thing who could not easily learn another; and so we find that Orcagna the Florentine was painter, sculptor, architect, and poet. Born in Florence, he began as a boy the study of sculpture under Andrea Pisano; then he gave himself up to the study of drawing, and aided by Nature, who desired to make him a universal genius, he practised colouring in distemper and fresco, and succeeded so well with the aid of Bernardo, his brother, that this Bernardo took him with him to paint in S. Maria Novella, and by the works he painted in company with his brother, his fame spread so far that he was summoned to Pisa to paint in the Campo Santo.

Afterwards he gave himself with all his might to the study of architecture, thinking it might be of use to him. Nor was he mistaken, for in the year 1355 the commune of Florence, having bought some houses near the palace that they might enlarge the Piazza, and make a place where the citizens might retire under cover in wlnter and in time of rain, ordered designs to be made for a magnificent loggia near the palace. Among the designs made by the best masters in the clty Orcagna's was universally approved and accepted as the best, the most beautiful, and most magnificent. So he begin the work, and brought it to a conclusion in a little time

And a little after the company of Orsanmichele, having in their possession much money, chiefly from the alms presented to the Madonna there during the mortality of 1348, resolved to make over her a chapel, or rather a tabernacle, not only carved in marble and adorned with precious stones, but also with mosaics and bronzework so that it should surpass in material and in excellent work everything made before that time. And the charge being given to Orcagna, he made many designs for it, until one pleased the governors as better than all the others, and the whole matter was left to his judgment. And he giving to different masters from many countries the other parts, kept for himself and his brother all the figures in the work; and when it was finished he caused it to be built up and joined together without cement with fastenings of copper and lead, that the polished marble might not be stained, which succeeded so well that the whole chapel seems to be cut out of one piece of marble. But what great efforts he made in that dark age to display his subtle genius is chiefly seen in a great work in relief of the Twelve Apostles watching the Madonna borne up to heaven by angels. For one of the apostles he sculptured himself as he was, aged, with shaven face, with his cowl about his head. Below he wrote upon the marble these words, "Andreas Cionis pictor Florentinus Oratorii archimagister extitit hujus, MCCLIX." The building of the loggia and the tabernacle cost ninetysix thousand gold florins, which were very well spent, for whether as regards architecture, sculpture, or ornament, it is as beautiful as anything of those times, and such that it will always keep alive the name of Andrea Orcagna, who used on his paintings to write, "Fece Andrea di Cione scultore," and on his sculpture, "Fece Andrea di Cione pittore."

In the year 1350 was formed the Company and Fraternity of the Painters in Florence, for the masters were there in great numbers, and they considered that the arts of design had been born again in Tuscany, and indeed in Florence itself. They put their company under the protection of S. Luke the Evangelist, and their oratory was the larger chapel of S. Maria Nuova. The companywas ruled by two councillors and two treasurers, and when it was formed, Jacopo di Casentino painted the picture for their chapel representing S. Luke pourtraying the Virgin.

This Jacopo di Casentino had for his pupil the painter Spinello. For Luca Spinelli having gone to dwell at Arezzo at a time when the Ghibellines were driven out of Florence, there was born to him there a son to whom he gave the name of Spinello. He was so naturally inclined to painting that when he was a mere boy, and almost without teaching, he seemed to know much that those who have been under the discipline of the best masters do not know. Having formed a friendship with Jacopo di Casentino while he was working in Arezzo, he learned somewhat from him, but before he was twenty years old he became a far greater master than old Jacopo was.

Beginning soon then to acquire a name as a good painter, Spinello was called to Florence, and painted in the churches of S. Niccolo and S. Maria Maggiore, and in other places, until the sixty citizens who governed Arezzo recalled him, and gave him work in the old cathedral outside the city.

A little before this time a number of good and honourable citizens had begun to go round collecting alms for the poor to aid them in their need; and in the plague of the year 1348, the good men of this fraternity, called the Fraternity of S. Mary of Mercy, acquired so great a name by helping the poor and sick, burying the dead, and like works of charity, that gifts and legacies fell into their hands until they became possessors of the third part of the wealth of Arezzo. Spinello therefore, being of the fraternity, and having often to visit the sick and bury the dead, painted for the company in the church of S. Laurentino and Bergentino, a Madonna spreading her mantle over the people of Arezzo, among whom are many of the first men of the fraternity, painted from life, with the wallet on their shoulder, and the wooden mallet in their hands that they used in knocki~g at the doors when they went seeking alms.

In the church of S. Stefano he painted a Madonna giving the Child a rose, which was held in such veneration by the people of Arezzo that when the church was pulled down, regardless of difficulty and expense they cut it out of the wall, and carried it into the city and placed it in a chapel, that they might honour it with the same devotion as heretofore. Nor was this strange, for Spinello had a natural power of giving to his figures a certain simple grace, so that his saints, and especially his virgins, breathe a divine holiness, which draws men to hold them in the highest reverence. Having painted in many other cities whither his fame carried him, he returned to Arezzo, his home, or rather that which he considered his home, at the age of seventyseven, and was received by his friends and relatives with affection, and held in honour to the end of his life, which was in the ninetysecond year of his age. And although he was very old when he returned, and being rich, might have ceased from working, he knew not how to rest, but took upon him to paint for the Company of S. Agnolo the story of S. Michael. He painted the Fall of the Angels, who are changed into devils as they fall from heaven, and S. Michael in the air fighting with the old serpent with seven heads and ten horns, and Lucifer changed already into a horrible beast. And because Spinello took great pleasure in making him horrible and deformed, it is said that the figure as he had painted it appeared to him in a dream, demanding why he had made him so ugly and done him so much injury with his pencil. He then awaking from his sleep, could not cry from the greatness of his terror, but such a trembling fell upon him that his wife awoke and hastened to his succour. He was near dying of terror at the moment, and though he lingered a short time with an affrighted air and wide staring eyes, yet it led to his death. Such a sad event grieved the Aretines much, and they lamented him for his talents and goodness, although he was so old. He died at the age of ninety, and was buried in S Agostino, where may be seen a stone bearing his arms, designed by himself, containing a hedgehog.

Although Dello the Florentine has a name as a painter only, his first works were in sculpture. And it was not only that he was changeable by nature, he also perceived that he earned little, and that his poverty required him to change. So he applied himself to painting and succeeded, especially in little figures. At that time it was the custom of the people to have in their chambers great wooden chests of various forms, and every one used to have them painted with stories from the myths of Ovid and other poets, or hunting scenes, or jousts, or tales of love, according to the taste of each one. And in the same way were painted the beds and chairs and other furniture of the rooms. This practice was long in fashion, and the most excellent painters employed themselves in such work with no such sense of shame as many would feel now in painting and gilding such things. bello then, being a good painter and well skilled especially, as we have said, in little pictures, spent many years in painting chests and chairs and such things, and particularly he painted for Giovanni di Medici the whole filrniture of a room, which was considered marvellous and most beautiful of its klnd. lt is said that Donatello, then a youth, aided him, making with stucco, gesso, and paste ornaments in basrelief, which being gilded brought out well the painted pictures. Afterwards E)ello went to Spain into the king's service, where he obtained such favour that no artist could desire more. And though it is not known what works he did in those parts, yet as he returned very rich and with great honour, vve may suppose that they were many and fine and good. But after having been royally rewarded for his labours for some years, the desire arose within him to return to Florence, that he might show his. friends how from extreme poverty he had risen to great riches. He asked therefore leave of the king, and he not only granted it graciously, although he would willingly have retained him, but in gratitude for his service this most generous king made him a knight. So he returned to Florence and demanded his pension and the confirmation of his privileges, but they were refused him by Filippo Spano degli Scolari, who had just returned victorious over the Turks, as grand seneschal of the King of Hungary. Dello thereupon wrote in haste to the king complaining of the injury done him; and the king interceded for him with the Signory so warmly that the desired honour was granted him. It is said that Dello, returning to his house on horseback with his banner, and clad in brocade, as he passed along the Vacchereccia, where were then many goldsmiths' shops, was jeered at by certain who had known him familiarly in youth, and he turning to the side where he heard the voices, made a gesture of contempt, and without saying anything yassed on his way, so that none perceived it but those who had scoffed at him. But seeing by this And other signs that the envy felt towards him was as great as the unkindness shown him when he was poor, he determined to return to Spain. There he was received with great favour and looked upon kindly, and there he lived and laboured like a lord, painting always attired in a brocaded apron. Thus retreating before envy, he dwelt in honour with the king. He died at the age of fortynine, and was buried honourably. He was not a very good draughtsman, but was one of the first to show good judgment in the marking of the muscles in the human body. His portrait was painted by Paolo Uccello in S. Maria Novella, in the picture representing the drunkenness of Noah.

Paolo Uccello would have been the cleverest and most original genius since the time of Giotto if he would have studied figures and animals as much as he studied and wasted his time over perspective, for although it is an ingenious and fine science, yet he who pursues it out of measure throws away his time, makes his manner dry, and often himself becomes solitary and strange, melancholy and poor, as Yaolo Uccello did. Donatello, his great friend, many times said to him when Paolo showed him his circles and his squares and his balls with seventytwo faces, all drawn in perspective, and all the other fancies in which he wasted his time, "Eh, Paolo, this perspective of yours makes you leave what is certain for the uncertain; these are things which are no use except for men who make inlaid work." In S. Miniato, outside Florence, he painted the lives of the Fathers, in which pictures he made the fields azure, the cities red, and the buildings varied, according to his own pleasure; and in this he did wrong, for things that we suppose to be of stone ought not to be painted of any other colour. It is said that while Paolo was engaged on this work, the abbot of the place gave him scarcely anything but cheese to eat; and this thing becoming an annoyance, Paolo, who was timid, determined not to go there any more to work. And when the abbot sent for him, and he heard himself asked for by the friars, he always sent word that he was not at home; and if by chance he met a couple of that order in Florence he would set off running as hard as he could to escape them. But one day two of the youngest and more curious of them overtook him, and asked him why he did not come to finish the work he had begun, and why he took to flight whenever he met any of the friars. Paolo replied, "You have ruined me altogether, so that not only do I flee from you, but I dare not pass by any place where there are carpenters; for your abbot, with his tarts and soup all made of cheese, has so filled me with it that I am afraid of being boiled down for glue, and if I had gone on any longer I should have left off being Paolo and become cheese." The friars returned home in fits of laughter and told the abbot about it; whereupon he persuaded him to return to his work, promising that other food besides cheese should be supplied him.

He painted many pictures of animals, of which he was very fond. He made a great study of them, and had always in his house paintings of birds, cats, and dogs, and any kind of strange animal that he could get a drawing of, not being able to keep live animals because he was poor; and because he delighted most in birds (uccelli) he was surnamed Paolo Uccello. Among other pictures of animals he made some lions fighting together, which by their motions and terrible fierceness seem to be alive. But the most strange was a serpent fighting with a lion, exhibiting his fury in fierce contortions, with the poison issuing from his eyes and mouth, while a peasant woman who is present taking care of an ox, most beautifully foreshortened, is running away in terror.

In the cloister of S. Maria Novella also he painted the creation of the animals and the deluge. He was the first who gained a name for landscapes, carrying them to more perfection than any other painter before him. In S. Maria del Fiore he also made a monument to Sir John Hawkwood, the English captain of the Florentines, who died in the year 1393, a horse of extraordinary size, with the captain upon it. The work was considered and really is very fine for pictures of that sort, and if Paolo had not made the horse moving his legs on one side only, which horses do not naturally do or they would fall, the work would be perfect. Perhaps he made the mistake because he was not used to ride or study horses as he did other animals; but the foreshortening of the horse is very fine. Paolo was taken by Donatello to Padua where he was working, and there he painted some giants, which were so fine that Andrea Mantegna held them in the highest esteem. He also painted in fresco the loggia of the Peruzzi, introducing in the corners the four elements accompanied by an appropriate animal; for the earth there was a mole, for water a fish, for fire a salamander, and for air the chameleon, which lives upon it and takes every colour. And because he had never seen a chameleon, in his great simplicity he made in its stead a camel opening its mouth and swallowing the air to fill its stomach

Such great pains did Paolo take in his works that he left behind him chests full of drawings, as I have heard from his relatives themselves. In his house he had a picture of five men who had distinguished themselves in art: Giotto the painter, as the beginning and light of art, Filippo di Ser Brunellesco for architecture, Donatello for scu]pture, himself for perspective and animals, and for mathematics Giovanni Manetti, his friend.

It is said that being entrusted with the painting of S. Thomas over the gate of the church dedicated to that saint in the Old Market, he resolved to put into the work all he knew, and to show how much he was capable of; and so he made a screen round him that none might be able to see his work until it was fLnished. And one day Donatello, meeting him all alone, asked him, "What is this work of yours which you keep shut up so close?" To which Paolo replied, "You will see in time." Donatello would not urge him any more, expecting to see something marvellous. But one morning, going into the old market to buy fruit, he saw Paolo uncovering his work, and saluting him courteously, Paolo called upon him to say what he thought of his picture, eagerly desiring to know his opinion. Donatello, looking at the work carefillly, replied, "Ah, Paolo, now that it is time to cover it up you are uncovering it." Paolo was greatly afflicted, that by this his last effort he had earned much more blame than he hoped to have earned praise; and he shut himself up in his house as if he had disgraced himself, not having courage to walk abroad any longer, giving himself up to perspective, and remained poor and obscure until his death. His wife used to say that Paolo would sit studying perspective all night, and when she called him to come to bed he would answer, " Oh, what a sweet thing this perspective is!" And if it was sweet to him, his work has made it valuable and useful indeed to those who have studied it after him.


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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