Relief from an Altar or Tabernacle, 1507/1512 circa. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.
Vasari's Lives of the Artists
GREAT, I THINK, must be the displeasure of those who, having executed some work of genius, yet, when they hope to enjoy the fruits of this in their old age, and to see the beautiful results achieved by other intellects in works similar to their own, and to be able to perceive what perfection there may be in that field of art that they themselves have practised, find themselves robbed by adverse fortune, by time, by a bad habit of body, or by some other cause, of the sight of their eyes; whence they are not able, as they were before, to perceive either the deficiencies or the perfection of men whom they hear of as living and practising their own professions. And even more are they grieved to hear the praises of the new masters, not through envy, but because they are not able to judge, like others, whether that fame be well-deserved or not.
This misfortune happened to Benedetto da Rovezzano, a sculptor of Florence, of whom we are now about to write the Life, to the end that the world may know how able and practised a sculptor he was, and with what diligence he carved marble in strong relief against its ground in the marvellous works that he made. Among the first of many labors that this master executed in Florence, may be numbered a chimney-piece of greystone that is in the house of Pier Francesco Borgherini, wherein are capitals, friezes, and many other ornaments, carved by his hand in open-work with great diligence. In the house of Messer Bindo Altoviti, likewise, is a chimney-piece by the same hand, with a lavatory of marble, and some other things executed with much delicacy; but everything in these that has to do with architecture was designed by Jacopo Sansovino, then a young man.
Next, in the year 1512, Benedetto received the commission for a tomb of marble, with rich ornaments, in the principal chapel of the Carmine in Florence, for Piero Soderini, who had been Gonfalonier in that city; and that work was executed by him with incredible diligence, seeing that, besides foliage, carved emblems of death, and figures, he made therein with basanite, in low-relief, a canopy in imitation of black cloth, with so much grace and such beautiful finish and lustre, that the stone appears to be exquisite black satin rather than basanite. And, to put it in a few words, for all that the hand of Benedetto did in this work there is no praise that would not seem too little.
And since he also gave his attention to architecture, there was restored from the design of Benedetto a house near S. Apostolo in Florence, belonging to Messer Oddo Altoviti, Patron and Prior of that church. There Benedetto made the principal door in marble, and, over the door of the house, the arms of the Altoviti in greystone, with the wolf, lean, excoriated, and carved in such strong relief, that it seems to be almost separate from the shield; and some pendant ornaments carved in open-work with such delicacy, that they appear to be not of stone, but of the finest paper. In the same church, above the two chapels of Messer Bindo Altoviti, for which Giorgio Vasari of Arezzo painted the panel picture of the Conception in oils, Benedetto made a marble tomb for the said Messer Oddo, surrounded by an ornament full of most masterly foliage, with a sarcophagus, likewise very beautiful.
Benedetto also executed, in competition with Jacopo Sansovino and Baccio Bandinelli, as has been related, one of the Apostles, four and a half braccia in height, for S. Maria del Fiore-- namely, a S. John the Evangelist, which is a passing good figure, wrought with fine design and skill. This figure is in the Office of Works, in company with the others.
Next, in the year 1515, the chiefs and heads of the Order of Vallombrosa, wishing to transfer the body of S. Giovanni Gualberto from the Abbey of Passignano to the Church of S. Trinita', an abbey of the same Order, in Florence, commissioned Benedetto to make a design, upon which he was to set to work, for a chapel and tomb combined, with a vast number of lifesize figures in the round, which were to be suitably distributed over that work in some niches separated by pilasters filled with ornaments and friezes and with delicately carved grotesques. And below this whole work there was to be a base one braccio and a half in height, wherein were to be scenes from the life of the said S. Giovanni Gualberto; while endless numbers of other ornaments were to be round the sarcophagus, and as a crown to the work. On this tomb, then, Benedetto, assisted by many carvers, laboured continually for ten years, with vast expense to that Congregation; and he brought the work to completion in their house of Guarlondo, a place near San Salvi, without the Porta alla Croce, where the General of the Order that was having the work executed almost always lived. Benedetto, then, carried out the making of that chapel and tomb in such a manner as amazed Florence; but, as Fate would have it--for even marbles and the finest works of men of excellence are subject to the whims of fortune--after much discord among those monks, their government was changed, and the work remained unfinished in the same place until the year 1530.
At which time, war raging round Florence, all those labors were ruined by soldiers, the heads wrought with such diligence were impiously struck off from the little figures, and the whole work was so completely destroyed and broken to pieces, that the monks afterwards sold what was left for a mere song. If any one wishes to see a part of it, let him go to the Office of Works of S. Maria del Fiore, where there are a few pieces, bought as broken marble not many years ago by the officials of that place. And, in truth, even as everything is brought to fine completion in those monasteries and other places where peace and concord reign, so, on the contrary, nothing ever reaches perfection or an end worthy of praise in places where there is naught save rivalry and discord, because what takes a good and wise man a hundred years to build up can be destroyed by an ignorant and crazy boor in one day. And it seems as if fortune wishes that those who know the least and delight in nothing that is excellent, should always be the men who govern and command, or rather, ruin, everything: as was also said of secular Princes, with no less learning than truth, by Ariosto, at the beginning of his seventeenth canto. But returning to Benedetto: it was a sad pity that all his labors and all the money spent by that Order should have come to such a miserable end.
By the same architect were designed the door and vestibule of the Badia of Florence, and likewise some chapels, among them that of S. Stefano, erected by the family of the Pandolfini. Finally, Benedetto was summoned to England into the service of the King, for whom he executed many works in marble and in bronze, and, in particular, his tomb; from which works, through the liberality of that King, he gained enough to be able to live in comfort for the rest of his life. Thereupon he returned to Florence; but, after he had finished some little things, a sort of giddiness, which even in England had begun to affect his eyes, and other troubles caused, so it was said, by standing too long over the fire in the founding of metals, or by some other reasons, in a short time robbed him completely of the sight of his eyes; wherefore he ceased to work about the year 1550, and to live a few years after that. Benedetto endured that blindness during the last years of his life with the patience of a good Christian, thanking God that He had first enabled him, by means of his labors, to live an honorable life.
Benedetto was a courteous gentleman, and he always delighted in the society of men of culture. His portrait was copied from one made, when he was a young man, by Agnolo di Donnino. This original is in our book of drawings, wherein there are also some drawings very well executed by the hand of Benedetto, who deserves, on account of all those works, to be numbered among our most excellent craftsmen.