The Dance of Salome. Detail from The Feast of Herod and the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. Tempera on panel, 1461-1462. NGA, Washington.
Vasari's Lives of the Artists
HE WHO PURSUES the path of excellence in his labors, although it is, as men say, both stony and full of thorns, finds himself finally at the end of the ascent on a broad plain, with all the blessings that he has desired. And as he looks downwards and sees the difficult and perilous way that he has come, he thanks God for having brought him out safely, and with the greatest contentment he blesses those labors that he has just been finding so burdensome. And so, recompensed for his past sufferings by the gladness of the happy present, he labors without fatigue, in order to demonstrate to all who see him how heat, cold, sweat, hunger, thirst, and all the other discomforts that are endured in the acquiring of excellence, deliver men from poverty, and bring them to that secure and tranquil state in which, with so much contentment, Benozzo Gozzoli enjoyed repose from his labors.
This man was a disciple of Fra Giovanni Angelico, by whom he was loved with good reason; and by all who knew him he was held to be a practiced master, very rich in invention, and very productive in the painting of animals, perspectives, landscapes, and ornaments. He wrought so many works in his day that he showed that he cared little for other delights; and although, in comparison with many who surpassed him in design, he was not very excellent, yet in this great mass of work he surpassed all the painters of his age, for in such a multitude of pictures he succeeded in making some that were good. In his youth he painted a panel for the altar of the Company of San Marco in Florence, and, in San Friano, a picture of the passing of St. Jerome, which has been spoilt in restoring the facade of the church along the street. In the Chapel of the Palace of the Medici he painted the Story of the Magi in fresco.
In the Araceli at Rome, in the Chapel of the Cesarini, he painted the stories of St. Anthony of Padua, wherein he made portraits from life of Cardinal Giuliano Cesarini and Antonio Colonna. In the Conti Tower, likewise, over a door under which one passes, he made in fresco a Madonna with many saints; and in a chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore, on the right hand as one enters the church by the principal door, he painted many figures in fresco, which are passing good.
After returning from Rome to Florence, Benozzo went to Pisa, where he worked in the cemetery called the Camposanto, which is beside the Duomo, covering the surface of a wall that runs the whole length of the building with stories from the Old Testament, wherein he showed very great invention. And this may be said to be a truly tremendous work, seeing that it contains all the stories of the Creation of the world from one day to another. After this came Noahs Ark and the inundation of the Flood represented with very beautiful composition and n abundance of figures. Then there follow the building of the proud Tower of Nimrod, the burning of Sodom and the other neighboring cities, and the stories of Abraham, wherein there are some very beautiful effects to be observed, for the reason that, although Benozzo was not remarkable for the drawing of figures, yet he showed his art effectually in the Sacrifice of Isaac, for there he painted an ass foreshortened in such a manner that it seems to turn to either side, which is held something very beautiful. After this comes the Birth of Moses, together with all those signs and prodigies that were seen, up to the time when he led his people out of Egypt and fed them for so many years in the desert. To these he added all the stories of the Hebrews up to the time of David and his son Solomon; and in this work Benozzo displayed a spirit truly more than bold, for, whereas so great an enterprise might very well have daunted a legion of painters, he alone wrought the whole and brought it to perfection. Wherefore, having thus acquired very great fame, he won the honor of having the following epigram placed in the middle of the work:QUID SPECTAS VLUCRES, PISCES, ET MONSTRA FERARUM, ET VIRIDES SILVAS AETHEREASQE DOMOS, ET PUEROS, JUVENES, MATRES, CANOSQUE PARETES, QUEIS SEMPER VIVUM SPIRAT IN ORE DECUS? NON HAEC TAM VARIIS FINXIT SIMULACRA FIGURIS NATURA, INGENIO FOETIBUS APTA SUO; O SUPERI, VIVOS FUDITE IN ORA SONOS.
Throughout this whole work there are scattered innumerable portraits from the life; but, since we have not knowledge of them all, I will mention only those that I have recognized as important, and those that i know by means of some record. In the scene of the Queen of Sheba going to visit Solomon there is the portrait of Marsilio Ficino among certain prelates, with those of Argiropolo, a very learned Greek, and of Batista Platina, whom he had previously portrayed in Rome; while he himself is on horseback, in the form of an old man shaven and wearing a black cap, in the fold of which there is a white paper, perchance as a sign, or because he intended to write his own name thereon.
In the same city of Pisa, for the Nuns of San Benedetto a Ripa dArno, he painted all the stories of the life of that Saint; and in the building of the Company of the Florentines, which then stood where the Monastery of San Vito now is, he wrought the panel and many other pictures. In the Duomo, behind the chair of the Archbishop, he painted a St. Thomas Aquinas on a little panel in distemper, with an infinite number of learned men disputing over his works, among whom there is a portrait of Pope Sixtus IV, together with a number of Cardinals and many Chiefs and Generals of various Orders. This is the best and most highly finished work that Benozzo ever made. In Santa Caterina, a seat of the Preaching Friars of the same city, he executed two panels in distemper, which are known very well by the manner; and he also painted another in the Church of San Niccola, with two in Santa Croce without Pisa. In his youth, Benozzo also painted the altar of San Sebastiano in the Pieve of San Gimignano, opposite to the principal chapel; and in the Hall of the Council there are some figures, partly by his hand, and partly old works restored by him. For the Monks of Monte Oliveto, in the same territory, he painted a Crucifix and other pictures; but the best work that he made in that place was the principal chapel of San Agostino, where he painted stories of St. Augustine in fresco, from his conversion to his death; of the whole of which work I have the design by his hand in my book, together with many drawings of the aforesaid scenes in the Camposanto of Pisa. In Volterra, likewise, he executed certain works, of which there is no need to make mention.
Now, while Benozzo was working in Rome, there was another painter there called Melozzo, who came from Forli; and many who know no more than this, having found the name of Melozzo written and having compared the dates, have believed that Melozzo stands for Benozzo; but they are mistaken, for the said painter was one who lived at the same time and was a very zealous student of the problems of art, devoting particular diligence and study to the making of foreshortenings, as may be seen in San Apostolo at Rome, in the tribune of the high altar, where, in a frieze drawn in perspective, as an ornament for that work, there are some figures picking grapes, with a cask, which show no little of the good. But this is seen more clearly in the Ascension of Jesus Christ, in the midst of a choir of angels who are leading him up to Heaven, wherein the figure of Christ is so well foreshortened that it seems to be piercing the ceiling, and the same is true of the angels, who are circling with various movements through the spacious sky. The Apostles, likewise, who are on the earth below, are so well foreshortened in their various attitudes that the work brought him much praise, as it still does, from the craftsmen, who have learnt much from his labors. He was also a great master of perspective, as is demonstrated by the buildings painted in this work, which he executed at the commission of Cardinal Riario, nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, by whom he was richly rewarded.
But to return to Benozzo: wasted away at last by length of years and by his labors, he went to his true rest, in the city of Pisa, at the age of seventy-eight, while dwelling in a little house that he had bought in Carraia di San Francesco during his long sojourn there. This house he left at his death to his daughter; and, mourned by the whole city, he was honorably buried in the Camposanto, with the following epitaph, which is still to be read there:HIC TUMULUS EST BENOTII FLORENTINI, QUI PROXIME HAS PINXIT HISTORIAS. HUNC SIBI PISANOR. DONAVIT HUMANITAS, MCCCCLXXVIII.
Benozzo ever lived the well-ordered life of a true Christian, spending all his years in honorable labor. For this and for his good manner and qualities he was long looked upon with favor in that city. The disciples whom he left behind him were Zanobi Machiavelli, a Florentine, and others of whom there is no need to make further record.
Return to Vasari's Lives of the Artists Return to Quattrocento Painting This Web Site Created and Maintained by Adrienne DeAngelis