BARNA DA SIENA (active ca. 1340-1350s)

Vasari's Lives of the Artists

IF THOSE WHO LABOR to become excellent in some art did not very often have the thread of life cut by death in their best years, I have no doubt that many intellects would arrive at that rank which is most desired both by them and by the world. But the short life of men and the bitterness of various accidents, which threaten them from all sides, snatch them from us sometimes prematurely, as could be seen in poor young Berna of Siena, who, although he died young, nevertheless left so many works that he appears to have lived very long ; and those that he left were made in such a way, that it may well be believed from this showing that he would have become excellent and rare if he had not died so soon. In two chapels of S. Agostino in Siena there are seen some little pictures with figures in fresco, by his hand; and in the church, on a wall now pulled down in order to make chapels there, was a scene of a youth led to execution, as well made as it could possibly be imagined, there being seen expressed in it the pallor and fear of death, in so lifelike a manner that he deserved therefore the highest praise. Beside the said youth was a friar painted in a very fine attitude, and, in short, everything in that work is so vividly wrought that it appears, indeed, that in this work Berna imagined this event as most horrible, as it must be, and full of most bitter and cruel terror, seeing that he portrayed it so well with the brush that the same scene appearing in reality would not stir greater emotion.

In the city of Cortona, also, besides many other works scattered in many places in that city, he painted the greater part of the vaulting and of the walls of the Church of S. Margherita, where today is the seat of the Frati Zoccolanti. From Cortona he went to Arezzo in the year 1369, exactly when the Tarlati, formerly Lords of Pietramala, had caused Moccio, a sculptor and architect of Siena, to finish the Convent and the body of the Church of S. Agostino in that city, in the lesser aisles of which many citizens had caused chapels and tombs to be made for their families; and there, in the Chapel of S. Jacopo, Berna painted in fresco some little scenes of the life of that Saint, and especially vivid is the story of Marino the swindler, who, having by reason of greed of gold given his soul to the Devil and made thereunto a written contract in his own hand, is making supplication to the Saint to free him from this promise, while a Devil, showing him the contract, is pressing him with the greatest insistence in the world. In all these figures Berna expressed the emotions of the mind with much vivacity, and particularly in the face of Marino, which shows on one side fear, and on the other the faith and trust that make him hope for his liberation from S. James, although opposite there is seen the Devil, hideous to a marvel, who is warmly speaking and declaring his rights to the Saint, who, after having instilled into Marino extreme penitence for his sin and for the promise made, is liberating him and leading him back to God.

This same story, says Lorenzo Ghiberti, by the hand of the same man, was in a chapel of the Capponi, dedicated to S. Nicholas, in S. Spirito at Florence, before that church was burnt down. After this work, then, Berna painted a great Crucifix in a chapel of the Vescovado of Arezzo for Messer Guccio di Vanni Tarlati da Pietramala, and at the foot of the Cross a Madonna, S. John the Evangelist, and S. Francis, in most sorrowful attitudes, together with a S. Michelagnolo, with so much diligence that it merits no small praise, and above all by reason of having been so well preserved that it appears made only yesterday. Below, moreover, is the portrait of the said Guccio, kneeling in armor at the foot of the Cross. In the Pieve of the same city, in the Chapel of the Paganelli, he painted many stories of Our Lady, and portrayed there after the life the Blessed Rinieri, a holy man and prophet of that house, who is giving alms to many beggars who are round him. In S. Bartolommep, also, he painted some stories of the Old Testament and the story of the Magi; and in the Church of Spirito Santo he painted some stories of S. John the Evangelist, and in certain figures the portrait of himself and of many of his friends, nobles of that city.

Returning after these works to his own country, he made on wood many pictures both small and great; but he made no long stay there, because, being summoned to Florence, he painted in S. Spirito the Chapel of S. Niccold, which we have mentioned above, and which was much extolled, and other works that were consumed in the miserable burning of that church. In the Pieve of San Gimignano in Valdelsa he wrought in fresco some stories of the New Testament, which he had already very nearly brought to completion, when, falling by a strange accident from his scaffolding to the ground, he bruised himself internally in such a manner, and injured himself so grievously, that in the space of two days, with greater loss to art than to himself, who went to a better place, he passed from this life. And the people of San Gimignano, honouring him much in the way of obsequies, gave to his body honorable burial in the aforesaid Pieve, holding him after death in the same repute wherein they had held him in life, and not ceasing for many months to attach round his tomb epitaphs both Latin and Italian, by reason of the men of that country being naturally given to fine letters. So, then, they conferred a suitable reward on the honest labors of Berna, celebrating with their pens him who had honored them with his pictures.

Giovanni da Asciano, who was a pupil of Berna, brought to completion the remainder of that work; and he painted some pictures in the Hospital of the Scala at Siena, and also some others in the old houses of the Medici at Florence, which gave him considerable fame. The works of Berna of Siena date about 1381. And because, besides what has been said, Berna was passing dexterous in draughtsmanship and was the first who began to portray animals well, as bears witness a drawing by his hand that is in our book, all full of wild beasts of diverse sorts, he deserves to be consummately praised and to have his name held in honor by !; [sic] craftsmen. His disciple, too, was Luca di Tome of Siena, who painted many works in Siena and throughout all Tuscany, and in particular the panel and the chapel that are in S. Domenico at Arezzo, belonging to the family of the Dragomanni; which chapel, German in architecture, was very well adorned, by means of the said panel and of the work that is therein in fresco, by the hand and by the judgment and genius of Luca of Siena.

Above: The predella (lower) panel of Barna's Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine, circa 1340.

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