LIFE OF DELLO DELLI (c. 1403- c. 1470)

Vasari's Lives of the Artists

ALTHOUGH DELLO THE FLORENTINE, while he lived, had only the name of painter, which he has had ever since, he applied himself none the less also to sculpture nay, his first works were in sculpture, seeing that, long before he began to paint, he made in terracotta a Coronation of Our Lady in the arch that is over the door of the Church of S. Maria Nuova, and, within the church, the twelve Apostles; and, in the Church of the Servi, a Dead Christ in the lap of the Virgin, with many other works throughout the whole city. But, being capricious, and also perceiving that he was gaining little by working in terracotta and that his poverty had need of some greater succour, he resolved, being a good draughtsman, to give his attention to painting; and in this he succeeded with ease, for the reason that he soon acquired a good mastery in coloring, as many pictures demonstrate that he made in his own city, and above all those with little figures, wherein he showed better grace than in the large. And this ability served him in good stead, because the citizens of those times used to have in their apartments great wooden chests in the form of a sarcophagus, with the covers shaped in various fashions, and there were none that did not have the said chests painted; and besides the stories that were wrought on the front and on the ends, they used to have the arms, or rather, insignia of their houses painted on the corners, and sometimes elsewhere. And the stories that were wrought on the front were for the most part fables taken from Ovid and from other poets, or rather, stories related by the Greek and Latin historians, and likewise chases, jousts, tales of love, and other similar subjects, according to each man's particular pleasure. Then the inside was lined with cloth or with silk, according to the rank and means of those who had them made, for the better preservation of silk garments and other precious things. And what is more, it was not only the chests that were painted in such a manner, but also the couches, the chair backs, the mouldings that went right round, and other similar magnificent ornaments for apartments which were used in those times, whereof an infinite number may be seen throughout the whole city.

And for many years this fashion was so much in use that even the most excellent painters exercised themselves in such labors, without being ashamed, as many would be today, to paint and gild such things. And that this is true has been seen up to our own day from some chests, chair backs, and mouldings, besides many other things, in the apartments of the Magnificent Lorenzo de' Medici, the Elder, whereon there were painted by the hand, not of common painters, but of excellent masters, and with judgment, invention, and marvellous art all the jousts, tournaments, chases, festivals, and other spectacles that took place in his times. Of such things relics are still seen, not only in the palace and the old houses of the Medici, but in all the most noble houses in Florence; and there are men who, out of attachment to these ancient usages, truly magnificent and most honorable, have not displaced these things in favor of modern ornaments and usages. Dello, then, being a very good and practised painter, and above all, as it has been said, in making little pictures with much grace, applied himself for many years, to his great profit and honor, to nothing else save adorning and painting chests, chair backs, couches, and other ornaments in the manner described above, insomuch that it can be said to have been his principal and peculiar profession. But since nothing in this world has permanence or can endure any long time, however good and praiseworthy it may be, it was not long before the refinement of men's intellects led them from that first method of working to the making of richer ornaments and of carvings in walnut wood overlaid with gold, which make a very rich adornment, and to the painting and coloring in oil of very beautiful stories on similar pieces of household furniture, which have made known, as they still do, both the magnificence of the citizens who use them and the excellence of the painters.

But to come to the works of Dello, who was the first who occupied himself with diligence and good mastery in such labors; for Giovanni de' Medici, in particular, he painted the whole furniture of an apartment, which was held something truly rare and very beautiful of its kind, as some relics demonstrate that are still left. And Donatello, then quite young, is said to have assisted him, making there by his own hand, with stucco, gesso, glue, and pounded brick, some stories and ornaments in low-relief, which, being afterwards overlaid with gold, made a beautiful accompaniment for the painted stories. Of this work and many others like it. Cennini makes mention in a long discourse in his work, whereof there has been enough said above; and since it is a good thing to maintain some memory of these old things, I have had some of them, by the hand of Dello himself, preserved in the Palace of the Lord Duke Cosimo, where they are, and they will be ever worthy of being studied, if only for the various costumes of those times, both of men and women, that are seen in them. Dello also wrought the story of Isaac giving his benediction to Esau, in fresco and with terra verde, in a corner of the cloister of S. Maria Novella.

A little after this work, being summoned to Spain to enter the service of the King, he came into so great credit that no craftsman could have desired much more; and although it is not known precisely what works he made in those parts, it may be judged, seeing that he returned thence very rich and highly honored, that they were numerous and beautiful and good. After a few years, having been royally rewarded for his labors, Dello conceived the wish to return to Florence, in order to show his friends how he had climbed from extreme poverty to great riches. Wherefore, having gone for permission to that King, not only did he obtain it readily (although the former would have willingly retained him, if Dello had been so minded), but he was also made chevalier by that most liberal King, as a greater sign of gratitude. Whereupon he returned to Florence in order to obtain the banners and the confirmation of his privileges, but they were denied him by the agency of Filippo Spano degli Scolari, who had just come back from his victories over the Turks as Grand Seneschal of the King of Hungary. But Dello having written immediately to the King of Spain to complain of this affront, the King wrote so warmly on his behalf to the Signoria that the due and desired honor was conceded to him without opposition. It is said that Dello, while returning to his house on horseback, with his banners, having been honored by the Signoria and robed in brocade, was mocked at, in passing through Vacchereccia, where there were then many goldsmiths' shops, by certain old friends, who, having known him in youth, did this either in scorn or in jest; and that he, turning in the direction whence he had heard the voice, made a gesture of contempt with both his hands and went on his way without saying a word, so that scarcely anyone noticed it save those who had derided him. By reason of this and other signs, which gave him to know that envy was no less active against him in his own country than malice had been formerly when he was very poor, he determined to return to Spain; and so, having written, and having received an answer from the King, he returned to those parts, where he was welcomed with great favor and ever afterwards regarded with affection, and there he devoted himself to work, living like a nobleman, and ever painting from that day onwards in an apron of brocade. Thus, then, he gave way before envy, and lived in honor at the Court of that King; and he died at the age of forty-nine, and was given honorable burial by the same man, with this epitaph:





H. S. E. 

S. T. T. L. 

Dello was no very good draughtsman, but was well among the first who began to show judgment in revealing the muscles in nude bodies, as it is seen from some drawings in our book, made by him in chiaroscuro. He was portrayed in chiaroscuro by Paolo Uccello in S. Maria Novella, in the story wherein Noah is made drunk by his son Ham.

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