Detail. St. Sebastian. 1490s. Misericordia, Florence.
Vasari's Lives of the Artists
BENEDETTO DA MAIANO, a sculptor of Florence, who was in his earliest years a wood carver, was held the most able master of all who were then handling the tools of that profession; and he was particularly excellent as a craftsman in that form of work which, as has been said elsewhere, was introduced at the time of Filippo Brunelleschi and Paolo Uccello--namely, the inlaying of pieces of wood tinted with various colors, in order to make views in perspective, foliage, and many other diverse things of fancy. In this craft, then, Benedetto da Maiano was in his youth the best master that there was to be found, as is clearly demonstrated by many works of his that are to be seen in various parts of Florence, particularly by all the presses in the Sacristy of Santa Maria del Fiore, the greater part of which he finished after the death of his uncle Giuliano; these are full of figures executed in inlaid work, foliage, and other devices, all wrought with great expense and craftsmanship.
Having gained a very great name through the novelty of this art, he made many works, which were sent to diverse places and to various Princes; and among others King Alfonso of Naples had the furniture for a study, made under the direction of Giuliano, uncle of Benedetto, who was serving that King as architect. Benedetto himself went to join him there; but, being displeased with the position, he returned to Florence, where, no long time after, he made for Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary, who had many Florentines in his court and took delight in all rare works, a pair of coffers inlaid in wood with difficult and most beautiful craftsmanship. He then determined, being invited with great favor by that King, to consent to go thither at all costs; and so, having packed up his coffers and embarked with them on board ship, he set off for Hungary.
There, after doing obeisance to that King, by whom he was received most graciously, he sent for the said coffers and had them unpacked in the presence of the monarch, who was very eager to see them; whereupon he saw that the damp from the water and the exhalations from the sea had so softened the glue, that, on the opening of the waxed cloths, almost all the pieces which had been attached to the coffers fell to the ground. Whether Benedetto, therefore, in the presence of so many nobles, stood in dumb amazement, everyone may judge for himself. However, putting the work together as well as he was able, he contrived to leave the King well enough satisfied; but in spite of this he took an aversion to that craft and could no longer endure it, through the shame that it had brought upon him.
And so, casting off all timidity, he devoted himself to sculpture, in which art he had already worked at Loreto while living with his uncle Giuliano, making a lavatory [ie, wash basin] with certain angels of marble for the sacristy. Laboring at this art, before he left Hungary he gave that King to know that if he had been put to shame at the beginning, the fault had lain with that craft, which was a mean one, and not with his intellect, which was rare and exalted. Having therefore made in those parts certain works both in clay and in marble, which gave great pleasure to that King, he returned to Florence; and he had no sooner arrived there than he was commissioned by the Signori to make the marble ornament for the door of their Audience Chamber.
For this he made some boys supporting with their arms certain festoons, all very beautiful; but the most beautiful part of the work was the figure in he middle, two braccia in height, of a young St. John, which is held to be a thing of rare excellence. And to the end that the whole work might be by his own hand, he made by himself the wood-work that closes the said door, and executed a figure with inlaid woods on either part of it, that is, Dante on one and Petrarca on the other; which two figures are enough to show to any man who may have seen no other work of that kind by the hand of Benedetto, how rare and excellent a master he was of that craft. This Audience Chamber has been painted in our own day by Francesco Salviati at the command of Lord Duke Cosimo, as will be told in the proper place.
In Santa Maria Novella at Florence, where Filippino painted the chapel, Benedetto afterwards made a tomb of black marble, with a Madonna and certain angels in a medallion, with much diligence, for the elder Filippo Strozzi, whose portrait, which he made there in marble, is now in the Strozzi Palace. The same Benedetto was commissioned by the elder Lorenzo de'Medici to make in Santa Maria del Fiore a portrait of the Florentine painter Giotto, which he placed over the epitaph, of which enough has been said above in the Life of Giotto himself. This piece of marble sculpture is held to be passing good.
Having afterwards gone to Naples by reason of the death of his uncle Giuliano, who heir he was, Benedetto, besides certain works that he executed for that King, made a marble panel of the the Count of Terranuova in the Monastery of the Monks of Monte Oliveto, containing an Annunciation with certain saints, and surrounded by very beautiful boys, who are supporting some festoons; and in the predella of the said work he made many low relief carvings in a good manner. In Faenza he made a very beautiful tomb of marble for the body of St. Savino, and on this he wrought six scenes in low relief from the life of that Saint, with much invention and design both in the buildings and in the figures; insomuch that both from this work and from others by his hand he was recognized as a man excellent in sculpture. Wherefore, before he left Romagna, he was commissioned to make a portrait of Galeotto Malatesta. He also made one, I know not whether before this or after, of Henry VII, King of England, after a drawing on paper that he had received from some Florentine merchants. The studies for these two portraits, together with many other things, were found in his house after his death.
Having finally returned to Florence, he made in Santa Croce, for Pietro Mellini, a citizen of Florence and a very rich merchant at that time, the marble pulpit that is seen there, which is held to be a very rare thing and more beautiful than any other that has ever been executed in that manner, since the marble figures that are to be seen therein, in the stories of St. Francis, are wrought with so great excellence and diligence that nothing more could be looked for in marble. For with great art Benedetto carved there trees, rocks, houses, views in perspective, and certain things in marvelously bold relief; not to mention a projection on the ground below the said pulpit, which serves as a tombstone, wrought with so much design that it is not possible to praise it enough. It is said that in making this work he had some difficulty with the Wardens of Works of Santa Croce, because, while he wished to erect the said pulpit against a column that sustains some of the arches which support the roof, and to perforate that column in order to accommodate the steps and the entrance to the pulpit, they would not consent, fearing lest it might be so weakened by the hollow required for the steps as to collapse under the weight above, with great damage to a part of that church. But Mellini having guaranteed that the work would be finished without any injury to the church, they finally consent. Having, therefore, bound the outer side of the column with bands of bronze (the part, namely, from the pulpit downwards, which is covered with hard stone), Benedetto made within it the steps for ascending to the pulpit, and in proportion as he hollowed it out within, so did he strengthen the outer side with the said hard stone, in the manner that is still to be seen. And he brought this work to perfection to the amazement of all who see it, showing in each part and in the whole together the utmost excellence that could be desired in such a work.
Many declare that the elder Filippo Strozzi, when intending to build his palace, sought the advice of Benedetto, who made him a model, according to which it was begun, although it was afterwards carried on and finished by Cronaca on the death of Benedetto. The latter, having acquired enough to live upon, would do no more works in marble after those described above, save that he finished in Santa Trinita the St. Mary Magdalene begun by Desiderio da Settignano, and made the Crucifix that is over the altar of Santa Maria del Fiore, with certain others like it.
As for architecture, although he put his hand to but few works, yet in these he showed no less judgment than in sculpture; particularly in three ceilings which were made at very great expense, under his guidance and direction, in the Palace of the Sigornia at Florence. The first of these was the ceiling of the hall that is now called the Sala deUDugento, over which it was proposed to make, not a similar hall, but two apartments, that is, a hall and an audience chamber, so that it was necessary to make a wall, and no light one either, containing a marble door of reasonable thickness; wherefore, for the execution of such a work, there was need of intelligence and judgment no less than those possessed by Benedetto.
Benedetto, then, in order not to diminish the said hall and yet divide the space above into two, went to work in the following manner. On a beam one braccio in thickness, and as long as the whole breadth of the hall, he laid another consisting of two pieces, in such a manner that it projected with its thickness to the height of two-thirds of a braccio. At the ends, these two beams, bound and secured together very firmly, gave a height of two braccia at the edge of the wall on each side; and the said two ends were grooved with a claw-shaped cut, in such a way that there could be laid upon them an arch of half a braccio in thickness, made of two layers of bricks, with its flanks resting on the principal walls. These two beams, then, were dove-tailed together with tenon and mortise, and so firmly bound and united with good banks of iron, that out of two there was made one single beam.
Besides this, having made the said arch, and wishing that these timbers of the ceiling should have nothing more to sustain than the wall under the arch, and that the arch itself should sustain he rest, he also attached to this arch two great supports of iron, which, being firmly bolted to the said beams below, upheld and still uphold them; while, even if they were not to suffice by themselves, the arch would be able--by means of the said supports which encircle the beams, one on one side of the marble door and one on the other--to support a weight much greater than that of the partition wall, which is made of bricks and half a braccio in thickness. What is more, he had the bricks in the said wall laid on edge and in the manner of an arch, so that the pressure came against the solid part, at the corners, and the whole was thus more stable. In this manner, by means of the good judgment of Benedetto, the said Sala de'Dugento remained as large as before, and over the same space, with a partition wall between, were made the hall that is called the Sala dell'Orivolo and the Audience Chamber wherein is the Triumph of Camillus, painted by the hand of Salviati. The soffit of this ceiling was richly wrought and carved by Marco del Tasso and his brothers, Domenico and Giuliano, who likewise executed that of the Sala dell'Orivolo and that of the Audience Chamber. And since the said marble door had been made double by Benedetto, on the arch of the inner door--we have already spoken of the outer one--he wrought a seated figure of Justice in marble, with the globe of the world in one hand and a sword in the other; and round the arch run the following words:The whole of this work was executed with marvelous diligence and art.
DILIGITE JUSTITIAM QUI JUDICATIS TERRAM
For the church of the Madonna delle Grazie, which is a little distance outside the city of Arezzo, the same man made a portico with a flight of steps in front of the door. In making the portico he placed the arches on the columns, and right round alongside the roof he made an architrave, frieze, and great cornice; and in the latter, by way of drip, he placed a garland of rosettes carved in grey stone, which jut out to the extent of one braccio and a third, insomuch that between the projection of the front of the cyma above to the dentils and ovoli below the drip there is a space of two braccia and a half, which, with the half braccio added by the tiles, makes a projecting roof all round of three braccia in width, beautiful, rich, useful, and ingenious.
In this work there is a contrivance worthy to be well considered by craftsmen, for, wishing to give this roof all that projection without modillions or corbels to support it, he made the slabs, on which the rosettes are carved, so built into the solid wall; wherefore, being thus counterpoised, they were able to support the rest and all that was laid upon them, as they have done up to the present day, without any danger to that building. And since he did not wish this roof to appear to be made, as it was, of pieces, he surrounded it all, piece by piece, with a molding made of sections well dovetailed and let into one another, which served as a ground to the garland of rosettes; and this united the whole work together in such a manner that all who see it judge it to be of one piece. In the same place he had a flat ceiling made of gilded rosettes, which is much extolled.
Now Benedetto had bought a farm outside of Prato, on the road from the Porta Fiorentina in he direction of Florence, and no more than half a mile from that place. On the main road, beside the gate, he built a most beautiful little chapel, with a niche in which he placed a Madonna with the Child in her arms, so well wrought in terracotta, that even as it is, with no color, it is as beautiful as if it were of marble. So are two angels that are above by way of ornament, each with a candelabrum in his hand. On the predella of the altar there is a Pieta with Our Lady and St. John, made of marble and very beautiful. At his death he left in his house many things begun both in clay and in certain drawings in our book. Finally he died in 1498, at the age of fifty-four, and was honorably buried in San Lorenzo; and he left directions that all of his property, after the death of certain of his relatives, should go to the Company of the Bigallo.
While Benedetto in his youth was working as a joiner and at the inlaying of wood, he had among his rivals Baccio Cellini, piper to the Signoria of Florence, who made many very beautiful inlaid works in ivory, and among others an octagon of figures in ivory, outlined in black and marvelously beautiful, which is in the guardaroba of the Duke. In like manner, Girolamo della Cecca, a pupil of Baccio and likewise piper to the Signoria, also executed many inlaid works at that same time. A contemporary of these was David Pistoiese, who made a St. John the Evangelist of inlaid work at the entrance to the choir of San Giovanni Evangelista in Pistoia--a work more notable for great diligence in execution than for any great design. There was also Geri Aretino, who wrought the choir and the pulpit of Sant'Agostino at Arezzo with figures and views in perspective, likewise of inlaid wood. This Geri was a very fanciful man, and he made with wooden pipes an organ most perfect in sweetness and softness, which is still at the present day over the door of the Sacristy of the Vescovado at Arezzo, with its original goodness as sound as ever--a work worthy of marvel, and first put into execution by him.
But not one of these men, nor any other, was as excellent by a great measure as was Benedetto; therefore he deserves to be ever numbered with praise among the best craftsmen of his professions.