Detail. The Apostles from The Last Judgment, Sta Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome. Fresco, 1295/1300.
FOR MANY CENTURIES Rome had been deprived not only of fine letters and of the glory of arms but also of all the sciences and fine arts, when, by the will of God, there was born Pietro Cavallini, in those times when Giotto, having, it may be said, restored painting to life, was holding the sovereignty among the painters in Italy, He, then, having been a disciple of Giotto and having worked with Giotto himself on the Navicella in mosaic in San Pietro, was the first who, after him, gave light to that art, and he began to show that he had been no unworthy disciple of so great a master when he painted, over the door of the sacristy of the Araceli, some scenes that are today eaten away by time, and very many works colored in fresco throughout the whole church of Santa Maria in Trastevere. Afterwards, working in mosaic on the principal chapel and on the facade of the church, he showed in the beginning of such a work, without the help of Giotto, that he was no less able in the execution and bringing to completion of mosaics than he was in painting.
Making many scenes in fresco, also, in the Church of San Grisogono, he strove to make himself known both as the best disciple of Giotto and as a good craftsman. In like manner, also in Trastevere, he painted almost the whole church of Santa Cecilia with his own hand, and many works in the church of San Francesco appresso Ripa. He then made the facade of mosaic in San Paolo without Rome, and many stories of the Old Testament for the central nave. And painting some works in fresco in the chapterhouse of the first cloister, he put therein so great diligence that he gained thereby from men of judgment the name of being a most excellent master, and was therefore so much favored by the prelates that they commissioned him to do the inner wall of San Pietro, between the windows. Between these he made the four Evangelists, wrought very well in fresco, of extraordinary size in comparison with the figures that at that time were customary, with a St. Peter and a St. Paul, and a good number of figures in a ship, wherein, the Greek manner pleasing him much, he blended it ever with that of Giotto; and since he delighted to give relief to his figures, it is recognized that he used thereunto the greatest efforts that can be imagined by man.
But the best work he made in that city was in the said church of Araceli on the Campidoglio, where he painted in fresco, on the vaulting of the principal apse, the Madonna with the Child in her arms, surrounded by a circle of sunlight, and beneath is the Emperor Octavian, to whom the Tiburtine Sibyl is showing Jesus Christ, and he is adoring Him; and the figures in this work, as it has been said in other places, have been much better preserved than the others, because those that are on the vaulting are less injured by dust than those that are made on the walls.
After these works Pietro went to Tuscany, in order to see the works of the other disciples of his master Giotto and those of Giotto himself; and with this occasion he painted many figures in San Marco in Florence, which are not seen today, the church having been whitewashed, except the Annunciation, which stands covered beside the principal door of the church. In San Basilio, also, in the Canto alla Macine, he made another Annunciation in fresco on a wall, so like to that which he had made before in San Marco, and to another one that is in Florence, that some believe, and not without probability, that they are all by the hand of this Pietro; and in truth they could not be more like, one to another, than they are. Among the figures that he made in the said San Marco in Florence was the portrait of Pope Urban V from the life, with the heads of St. Peter and St. Paul; from which portrait Fra Giovanni da Fiesole copied that one which is in a panel in San Domenico, also of Fiesole; and that was no small good fortune, seeing that the portrait which was in San Marco and many other figures that were about the church in fresco were covered with whitewash, as it has been said, when that convent was taken from the monks who occupied it before and given to the Preaching Friars, the whole being whitewashed with little attention and consideration.
Passing afterwards, in return to Rome, through Assisi, not only in order to see those buildings and those notable works made there by his master and by some of his fellow disciples, but also to leave something there by his own hand, he painted in fresco in the lower Church of San Francesco--namely, in the transept that is on the side of the sacristy--a Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, with men on horseback armed in various fashions, and with many varied and extravagant costumes of diverse foreign peoples. In the air he made some angels, who, poised on their wings in diverse attitudes, are in a storm of weeping; and some pressing their hands to their breasts, others wringing them, and others beating the palms, they are showing that they feel the greatest grief at the death of the Son of God; and all, from the middle backwards, or rather from the middle downwards, melt away into air.
In this work, well executed in the coloring, which is fresh and vivacious and so well contrived in the unctions of the plaster that the work appears all made in one day, I have found the coat of arms of Gualtieri, Duke of Athens; but by reason of there not being either a date or other writing there, I cannot affirm that it was caused to be made by him. I say, however, that besides the firm belief of everyone that it is by the hand of Pietro, the manner could not be more like his than it is, not to mention that it may be believed, this painter having lived at the time when Duke Gualtieri was in Italy, that it was made by Pietro as well as by order of the said Duke. At least, let everyone think as he pleases, the work, as ancient, is worthy of nothing by praise, and the manner, besides the public voice, shows that it is by the hand of this man.
In the church of Santa Maria at Orvieto, where there is the most holy relic of the Corporal, the same Pietro wrought in fresco certain stories of Jesus Christ and of the Host, with much diligence; and this he did, so it is said, for Messer Benedetto, son of Messer Buonconte Monaldeschi and lord at that time, or rather tyrant, of that city. Some likewise affirm that Pietro made some sculptures, and that they were very successful, because he had genius for whatever he set himself to do, and that he made the Crucifix that is in the great church of San Paolo without Rome; which Crucifix, as it is said and may be believed, is the one that spoke to St. Brigida in the year 1370.
By the hand of the same man were some other works in that manner, which were thrown to the ground when the old church of San Pietro was pulled down in order to build the new. Pietro was very diligent in all his works, and sought with every effort to gain honor and to acquire fame in the art. He was not only a good Christian, but most devout and very much the friend of the poor, and he was beloved by reason of his excellence not only in his native city of Rome but by all those who had knowledge of him or of his works. And finally, he devoted himself at the end of his old age to religion, leading an exemplary life, with so much zeal that he was almost held a saint. Wherefore there is no reason to marvel not only that the said Crucifix by his hand spoke to the Saint, as it has been said, but also that innumerable miracles have been and still are wrought by a certain Madonna by his hand, which I do not intend to call his best, although it is very famous in all Italy and although I know very certainly and surely, by the manner of the painting, that it is by the hand of Pietro, whose most praiseworthy life and piety towards God were worthy to be imitated by all men. Nor let anyone believe, for the reason that it is scarcely possible and that experience continually shows this to us, that it is possible to attain to honorable rank without the fear and grace of God and without goodness of life. A disciple of Pietro Cavallino was Giovanni da Pistoia, who made some works of no great importance in his native city.
Finally, at the age of eighty-five, he died in Rome of a colic caught while working in fresco, by reason of the damp and of standing continually at this exercise. His pictures date about the year 1364, and he was honorably buried in San Paolo without Rome, with this epitaph:
QUANTUM ROMANAE PETRUS DECUS ADDIDIT URBI
PICTURA, TANTUM DAT DECUS IPSE POLO.
His portrait has never been found, for all the diligence that has been used; it is therefore not included.