Portrait of a Lady in Yellow. Circa 1465. National Gallery, London.
Vasari's Lives of the Artists
So great an attraction has the noble art of painting, that many eminent men have deserted the callings in which they might have become very rich, and, drawn by their inclination against the wishes of their parents, have followed the promptings of their nature and devoted themselves to painting, to sculpture, or to some similar pursuit. And, to tell the truth, if a man estimates riches at their true worth and no higher, and regards excellence as the end of all his actions, he acquires treasures very different from silver and gold; not to mention that he is never afraid of those things that rob us in a moment of those earthly riches, which are foolishly esteemed by men at more than their true valude. Recognizing this, Alesso Baldovinetti, drawn by a natural inclination, abandoned commerce--in which his relatives had ever occupied themselves, insomuch that by practising it honorably they had acquired riches and lived like noble citizens--and devoted himself to painting, in which he showed a peculiar ability to counterfeit very well the objects of nature, as may be seen in the pictures by his hand.
This man, while still very young, and almost against the wish of his father, who would have liked him to give his attention to commerce, devoted himself to drawing; and in a short time he made so much progress therein, that his father was content to allow him to follow the inclination of his nature. The first work that Alesso executed in fresco was in Santa Maria Nuova, on the front wall of the Chapel of San Gilio, which was much extolled at that time, because, among other things, it contained a Sant'Egidio that was held to be a very beautiful figure. In like manner he painted in Santa Trinita the chapel in fresco and the chief panel in distemper, for Messer Gherardo and Messer Bongianni Gianfigliazzi, most honorable and wealthy gentlemen of Florence. In this chapel Alesso painted some scenes from the Old Testament, which he first sketched in fresco and then finished on the dry, tempering his colors with yolk of egg mingled with a liquid varnish prepared over a fire. This vehicle, he thought, would preserve the paintings from the damp; but it was so strong that where it was laid on too thickly the work has peeled off in many places; and thus, whereas he thought he had found a rare and very beautiful secret, he was deceived in his hopes.
He drew many portraits from nature, and in the scene of the Queen of Sheba going to hear the wisdom of Solomon, which he painted in the aforesaid chapel, he portrayed the Magnificent Lorenzo de'Medici, father of Pope Leo X, and Lorenzo della Volpaia, a most excellent maker of clocks and a very fine astrologer, who was the man who made for the said Lorenzo de'Medici the very beautiful clock that the Lord Duke Cosimo now has in his palace; in which clock all th wheels of the planets are perpetually moving, which is a rare thing, and the first that was ever made in this manner. In the scene opposite to that one Alesso portrayed Luigi Guicciardini the elder, Luca Pitti, Diotisalvi Neroni, and Giuliano de'Medici, father of Pope Clement VII; and beside the stone pilaster he painted Gherardo Gianfigliazzi the elder, the Chevalier Messer Bongianni, who is wearing a blue robe, with a chain round his neck, and Jacopo and Giovanni, both of the same family. Near these are Filippo Strozzi the elder and the astrologer Messer Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli. On the vaulting are four patriarchs, and on the panel is the Trinity, with San Giovanni Gualberto kneeling, and another Saint. All these portraits are very easily recognized from their similarity to those that are seen in other works, particularly in the houses of their descendants, whether in gesso or in painting. Alesso gave much time to this work, because he was very patient and liked to execute his works at his ease and convenience.
He drew very well, as may be seen from a mule drawn from nature in our book, wherein the curves of the hair over the whole body are done with much patience and with beautiful grace. Alesso was very diligent in his works, and he strove to be an imitator of all the minute details that Mother Nature creates. He had a manner somewhat dry and harsh, particularly in draperies. He took much delight in making landscapes, copying them from the life of nature exactly as they are; wherefore there are seen in his pictures streams, bridges, rocks, herbs, fruits, roads, fields, cities, castles, sand, and an infinity of other things of the kind. In Ss Annunziata at Florence, in the court, exactly behind the wall where the Annunciation itself is painted, he painted a scene in fresco, retouched on the dry, in which there is a Nativity of Christ, wrought with so great labor and diligence that one could count the stalks and knots of the straw in a hut that is there; and he also counterfeited there the ruin of a house with the stones mouldering, all eaten away and consumed by rain and frost, and a thick ivy root that covers a part of the wall, wherein it is to be observed that with great patience he made the outer side of the leaves of one shade of green, and the under side of another, as Nature does, neither more nor less; and, in addition to the shepherds, he made a serpent, or rather, a grass-snake, crawling up a wall, which is most life-like.
It is said that Alesso took great pains to discover the true method of making mosaic, but that he never succeeded in anything that he wanted to do, until at length he came across a German who was going to Rome to obtain some indulgences. This man he took into his house, and he gained from him a complete knowledge of the method and the rules for executing mosaic, insomuch that afterwards, having set himself boldly to work, he made some angels holding the head of Christ over the bronze doors of San Giovanni, in the arches on the inner side. His good method of working becoming known by reason of this work, he was commissioned by the Consuls of the Guild of the Merchants to clean and renovate all the vaulting of that church, which had been wrought, as has been said, by Andrea Tafi; for it had been spoilt in many places, and was in need of being renewed and restored. This he did with love and diligence, availing himself for that purpose of a wooden staging made for him by Cecca, who was the best architect of that age. Alesso taught the craft of mosaic to Domenico Ghirlandajo, who portrayed him afterwards near himself in the Chapel of the Tornabuoni in Santa Maria Novella, in the scene where Joachim is driven from the Temple, in the form of a clean-shaven old man with a red cap on his head.
Alesso lived eighty years, and when he began to draw near to old age, as one who wished to be able to attend with a quiet mind to the studies of his profession, he retired to the Hospital of San Paolo, as many men are wont to do. And perhaps to the end that he might be received more willingly and better treated (or it may have been by chance), he had a great chest carried into his rooms in the said hospital, giving out that it contained a good sum of money. Wherefore the Director and the other officials of the hospital, believing this to be true, and knowing that he had bequeathed to the hospital all that might be found after his death, showed him all the attention in the world. But on the death of Alesso, there was nothing found in it save drawings, portraits on paper, and a little book that explained the preparation of the stones and stucco for mosaic and the method of using them. Nor was it any marvel, so men said, that no money was found there, because he was so open-handed that he had nothing that did not belong as much to his friends as to himself.
A disciple of Alesso was the Florentine Graffione, who wrought in fresco, over the door of the Innocenti, that figure of God the Father and those angels that are still there. It is said that the Magnificent Lorenzo de'Medici, conversing one day with Graffione, who was an original, said to him, "I wish to have all the ribs of the inner cupola adorned with mosaic and stucco work"; and that Graffione replied, "You have not the masters." To which Lorenzo answered, "We have enough money to make some." Graffione instantly retorted, "Ah, Lorenzo, 'tis not the money that makes the masters, but the masters that make the money." This man was a bizarre and fantastic person. In his house he would never eat off any tablecloth save his own cartoons, and he slept in no other bed than a chest filled with straw, without sheets.
But to return to Alesso: he took leave of his art and of his life in 1448, [SIC] and he was honorably buried by his relatives and fellow-citizens.
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