Portrait of Federigo Gonzaga. 1510. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Vasari's Lives of the Artists
FRANCESCO FRANCIA, who was born in Bologna in the year 1450, of parents who were artisans, but honest and worthy enough, was apprenticed in his earliest boyhood to the goldsmith's art, in which calling he worked with intelligence and spirit; and as he grew up he became so well-proportioned in person and appearance, and so sweet and pleasant in manner and speech, that he was able to keep the most melancholy of men cheerful and free from care with his talk; for which reason he was beloved not only by all those who knew him, but also by many Italian princes and other lords. While working as a goldsmith, then, he gave attention to design, in which he took so much pleasure, that his mind began to aspire to higher things, and he made very great progress therein, as may be seen from many works in silver that he executed in his native city of Bologna, and particularly from certain most excellent works in niello. In this manner of work he often put twenty most beautiful and well-proportioned little figures within a space no higher than the breadth of two fingers and not much more in length. He also enamelled many works in silver, which were destroyed at the time of the ruin and exile of the Bentivogli. In a word, he did everything that can be done in that art better than any other man.
But that in which he delighted above all, and in which he was truly excellent, was the making of dies for medals, wherein he was the rarest master of his day, as may be seen in some that he made with a most lifelike head of Pope Julius II, which bear comparison with those of Caradosso; not to mention that he made medals of Signer Giovanni Bentivogli, in which he appears alive, and of an infinite number of princes, who would stop in Bologna on their way through the city, whereupon he would make their portraits in wax for medals, and afterwards, having finished the matrices of the dies, he would send them; for which, besides immortal fame, he also received very rich presents. As long as he lived he was ever Master of the Mint in Bologna, for which he made the stamps of all the dies, both under the rule of the Bentivogli and also during the lifetime of Pope Julius, after their departure, as is proved by the coins struck by that Pope on his entrance into the city, which had on one side his head portrayed from life, and on the other these word: BONONIA PER JULIUM A TYRANNO LiBERATA. So excellent was he held in this profession, that he continued to make the dies for the coinage down to the time of Pope Leo; and the impressions of his dies are so greatly prized, and those who have some hold them in such esteem, that money cannot buy them.
Now it came to pass that Francia, being desirous of greater glory, and having known Andrea Mantegna and many other painters who had gained wealth and honors by their art, determined to try whether he could succeed in that part of painting which had to do with color; his drawing was already such that it could well bear comparison with theirs. Thereupon, having made arrangements to try his hand, he painted certain portraits and some little things, keeping in his house for many months men of that profession to teach him the means and methods of coloring, insomuch that, having very good judgment, he soon acquired the needful practice. The first work that he made was a panel of no great size for Messer Bartolommeo* Felicini [* The text says " Messer Bart. ..." ], who placed it in the Misericordia, a church without Bologna; in which panel there is a Madonna seated on a throne, with many other figures, and the said Messer Bartolommeo portrayed from life. This work, which was wrought in oil with the greatest diligence, was painted by him in the year 1490; and it gave such satisfaction in Bologna, that Messer Giovanni Bentivogli, desiring to honor his own chapel, which was in S. Jacopo in that city, with works by this new painter, commissioned him to paint a panel with the Madonna in the sky, two figures on either side of her, and two angels below sounding instruments; which work was so well executed by Francia, that he won from Messer Giovanni, besides praise, a most honorable present. Wherefore Monsignore de' Bentivogli, impressed by this work, caused him to paint a panel containing the Nativity of Christ, which was much extolled, for the high altar of the Misericordia; wherein, besides the design, which is not otherwise than beautiful, the invention and the coloring are worthy of nothing but praise. In this work he made a portrait of Monsignore de' Bentivogli from the life (a very good likeness, so it is said by those who knew him), clothed in that very pilgrim's dress in which he returned from Jerusalem. He also painted a panel in the Church of the Nunziata, without the Porta di S. Mammolo, representing the Madonna receiving the Annunciation from the Angel, with two figures on either side, which is held to be a very well executed work.
Now that Francia's works had spread his fame abroad, even as his painting in oil had brought him both profit and repute, so he determined to try whether he would succeed as well at working in fresco. Messer Giovanni Bentivogli had caused his palace to be painted by diverse masters of Ferrara and Bologna, and by certain others from Modena; but, having seen Francia's experiments in fresco, he determined that this master should paint a scene on one wall of an apartment that he occupied for his own use. There Francia painted the camp of Holofernes, guarded by various sentinels both on foot and on horseback, who were keeping watch over the pavilions; and the while that they were intent on something else, the sleeping Holofernes was seen surprised by a woman clothed in widow's garments, who, with her left hand, was holding his hair, which was wet with the heat of wine and sleep, and with her right hand she was striking the blow to slay her enemy, the while that an old wrinkled handmaid, with the true air of a most faithful slave, and with her eyes fixed on those of her Judith in order to encourage her, was bending down and holding a basket near the ground, to receive therein the head of the slumbering lover. This scene was one of the most beautiful and most masterly that Francia ever painted, but it was thrown to the ground in the destruction of that edifice at the time of the expulsion of the Bentivogli, together with another scene over that same apartment, colored to look like bronze, and representing a disputation of philosophers, which was excellently wrought, with his conception very well expressed. These works brought it about that he was loved and honored by Messer Giovanni and all the members of his house, and, after them, by all the city.
In the Chapel of S. Cecilia, which is attached to the Church of S. Jacopo, he painted two scenes wrought in fresco, in one of which he made the Marriage of Our Lady with Joseph, and in the other the Death of S. Cecilia a work held in great esteem by the people of Bologna. And, indeed, Francia gained such mastery and such confidence from seeing his works advancing towards the perfection that he desired, that he executed many pictures, of which I will make no mention, it being enough for me to point out, to all who may wish to see his works, only the best and most notable. Nor did his painting hinder him from carrying on both the Mint and his other work of making medals, as he had done from the beginning. Francia, so it is said, felt the greatest sorrow at the departure of Messer Giovanni Bentivogli, for he had received such great benefits from Messer Giovanni, that it caused him infinite grief; however, like the prudent and orderly man that he was, he kept at his work. After his parting from his patron, he painted three panels that went to Modena, in one of which there was the Baptism of Christ by S. John; in the second, a very beautiful Annunciation; and in the last, which was placed in the Church of the Frati dell' Osservanza, a Madonna in the sky with many figures.
The fame of so excellent a master being spread abroad by means of so many works, the cities contended with one another to obtain his pictures. Whereupon he painted a panel for the Black Friars of S. Giovanni in Parma, containing a Dead Christ in the lap of Our Lady, surrounded by many figures ; which panel was universally held to be a most beautiful work ; and the same friars, therefore, thinking that they had been well served, induced him to make another for a house of theirs at Reggio in Lombardy, wherein he painted a Madonna with many figures. At Cesena, likewise for the church of these friars, he executed another panel, painting therein the Circumcision of Christ, with lovely coloring. Nor would the people of Ferrara consent to be left behind by their neighbors; nay, having determined to adorn their Duomo with works by Francia, they commissioned him to paint a panel, on which he made a great number of figures; and they named it the panel of Ognissanti. He painted one in S. Lorenzo at Bologna, with a Madonna, a figure on either side, and two children below, which was much extolled; and scarcely had he finished this when he had to make another in S. Giobbe, representing a Crucifixion, with that Saint kneeling at the foot of the Cross, and two figures at the sides.
So widely had the fame and the works of this craftsman spread throughout Lombardy, that even from Tuscany men sent for something by his hand, as they did from Lucca, whither there went a panel con- taining a S. Anne and a Madonna, with many other figures, and a Dead Christ above in the lap of His Mother; which work is set up in the Church of S. Fridiano, and is held in great price by the people of Lucca. For the Church of the Nunziata in Bologna he painted two other panels, which were wrought with much diligence; and in the Misericordia, likewise, without the Porta a Stra Castione, at the request of a lady of the Manzuoli family, he painted another, wherein he depicted the Madonna with the Child in her arms, S. George, S. John the Baptist, S. Stephen, and S. Augustine, with an angel below, who has his hands clasped with such grace, that he appears truly to belong to Paradise. He executed another for the Company of S. Francesco in the same city, and likewise one for the Company of S. Gieronimo. He lived in close intimacy with Messer Polo Zambeccaro, who, being much his friend, and wishing to have some memorial of him, caused him to paint a rather large picture of the Nativity of Christ, which is one of the most celebrated works that he ever made; and for this reason Messer Polo commissioned him to paint at his villa two figures in fresco, which are very beautiful. He also executed a most charming scene in fresco in the house of Messer Gieronimo Bolognino, with many varied and very beautiful figures.
All these works together had won him such veneration in that city, that he was held in the light of a god; and what made this infinitely greater was that the Duke of Urbino caused him to paint a set of horse's caparisons, in which he made a vast forest of trees that had caught fire, from which there were issuing great numbers of all sorts of animals, both of the air and of the earth, and certain figures a terrible, awful, and truly beautiful thing, which was held in no little esteem by reason of the time spent in painting the plumage of the birds, and the various sorts of terrestrial animals, to say nothing of the diversity of foliage and the variety of branches that were seen in the different trees. For this work Francia was rewarded with gifts of great value as a recompense for his labors, not to mention that the Duke ever held himself indebted to him for the praises that he received for it. Duke Guido Baldo, also, has in his guardaroba a picture of the Roman Lucretia, which he esteems very highly, by the same man's hand, together with many other pictures, of which mention will be made when the time comes.
After these things he painted a panel for the altar of the Madonna in SS. Vitale e Agricola; in which panel are two very beautiful angels, who are playing on the lute. I will not enumerate the pictures that are scattered throughout Bologna in the houses of gentlemen of that city, and still less the infinite number of portraits that he made from life, for it would be too wearisome. Let it be enough to say that while he was living in such glory and enjoying the fruits of his labors in peace, Raffaello da Urbino was in Rome, and all day long there flocked round him many strangers, among them many gentlemen of Bologna, eager to see his works. And since it generally comes to pass that every man extols most willingly the intellects of his native place, these Bolognese began to praise the works, the life, and the talents of Francia in the presence of Raffaello, and they established such a friendship between them with these words, that Francia and Raffaello sent letters of greeting to each other. And Francia, hearing such great praise spoken of the divine pictures of Raffaello, desired to see his works; but he was now old, and too fond of his comfortable life in Bologna.
Now after this it came about that Raffaello painted in Rome for Cardinal Santi Quattro, of the Pucci family, a panel picture of S. Cecilia, which had to be sent to Bologna to be placed in a chapel of S. Giovanni in Monte, where there is the tomb of the Blessed Elena dall' Olio. This he packed up and addressed to Francia, who, as his friend, was to have it placed on the altar of that chapel, with the ornament, just as he had prepared it himself. Right readily did Francia accept this charge, which gave him a chance of seeing a work by Raffaello, as he had so much desired. And having opened the letter that Raffaello had written to him, in which he besought Francia, if there were any scratch in the work, to put it right, and likewise, as a friend, to correct any error that he might notice, with the greatest joy he had the said panel taken from its case into a good light. But such was the amazement that it caused him, and so great his marvel, that, recognizing his own error and the foolish presumption of his own rash confidence, he took it greatly to heart, and in a very short time died of grief.
Raffaello's panel was divine, not so much painted as alive, and so well wrought and colored by him, that among all the beautiful pictures that he painted while he lived, although they are all miraculous, it could well be called most rare. Wherefore Francia, half dead with terror at the beauty of the picture, which lay before his eyes challenging comparison with those by his own hand that he saw around him, felt all confounded, and had it placed with great diligence in that chapel of S. Giovanni in Monte for which it was destined; and taking to his bed in a few days almost beside himself, thinking that he was now almost of no account in his art in comparison with the opinion held both by himself and by others, he died of grief and melancholy, so some believe, overtaken by the same fate, through contemplating too attentively that most lifelike picture of Raffaello's, as befell Fivizzano from feasting his eyes with his own beautiful Death, about which the following epigram was written:
Me veram pictor divinus mente recepit; Admota est operi deinde perita manus. Dumque opere in facto defigit lumina pictor, Intentus nimium, palluit et moritur. Viva igitur sum mors, non mortua mortis imago, Si fungor quo mors fungitur officio.
However, certain others say that his death was so sudden, that from many symptoms it appeared to be due rather to poison or apoplexy than to anything else. Francia was a prudent man, most regular in his way of life, and very robust. After his death, in the year 1518, he was honorably buried by his sons in Bologna.