Portrait of a Young Man. 1509. Louvre, Paris. 

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FRANCIABIGIO (1484-1525)
PAINTER OF FLORENCE

Vasari's Lives of the Artists



The fatigues that a man endures in this life in order to raise himself from the ground and protect himself from poverty, succouring not only himself but also his nearest and dearest, have such virtue, that the sweat and the hardships become full of sweetness, and bring comfort and nourishment to the minds of others, insomuch that Heaven, in its bounty, perceiving one drawn to a good life and to upright conduct, and also filled with zeal and inclination for the studies of the sciences, is forced to be benign and favorably disposed towards him beyond its wont; as it was, in truth, towards the Florentine painter Francia. This master, having applied himself to the art of painting for a just and excellent reason, labored therein not so much out of a desire for fame as from a wish to bring assistance to his needy relatives; and having been born in a family of humble artisans, people of low degree, he sought to raise himself from that position. In this effort he was much spurred by his rivalry with Andrea del Sarto, then his companion, with whom for a long time he shared both workroom and the painter's life; on account of which life they made great proficience, one through the other, in the art of painting.

Francia learned the first principles of art in his youth by living for some months with Mariotto Albertinelli. And being much inclined to the study of perspective, at which he was always working out of pure delight, while still quite young he gained a reputation for great ability in Florence. The first works painted by him were a S. Bernard executed in fresco in S. Pancrazio, a church opposite to his own house, and a S. Catharine of Siena, executed likewise in fresco, on a pilaster in the Chapel of the Rucellai; whereby, exerting himself in that art, he gave proofs of his fine qualities. Much more, even, was he established in repute by a picture which is in a little chapel in S. Pietro Maggiore, containing Our Lady with the Child in her arms, and a little S. John caressing Jesus Christ. He also gave proof of his excellence in a shrine executed in fresco, in which he painted the Visitation of Our Lady, on a corner of the Church of S. Giobbe, behind the Servite Convent in Florence. In the figure of that Madonna may be seen a goodness truly appropriate, with profound reverence in that of the older woman; and the S. Job he painted poor and leprous, and also rich and restored to health. This work so revealed his powers that he came into credit and fame; whereupon the men who were the rulers of that church and brotherhood gave him the commission for the panel picture of their high altar, in which Francia acquitted himself even better; and in that work he painted a Madonna, and S. Job in poverty, and made a portrait of himself in the face of S. John the Baptist.

There was built at that time, in S. Spirito at Florence, the Chapel of S. Niccola, in which was placed a figure of that Saint in the round, carved in wood from the model by Jacopo Sansovino; and Francia painted two little angels in two square pictures in oils, one on either side of that figure, which were much extolled, and also depicted the Annunciation in two round pictures; and the predella he adorned with little figures representing the miracles of S. Nicholas, executed with such diligence that he deserves much praise for them. In S. Pietro Maggiore, by the door, and on the right hand as one enters the church, is an Annunciation by his hand, wherein he made the Angel still flying through the sky, and the Madonna receiving the Salutation on her knees, in a most graceful attitude; and he drew there a building in perspective, which was a masterly thing, and was much extolled. And, in truth, although Francia had a somewhat dainty manner, because he was very laborious and constrained in his work, nevertheless he showed great care and diligence in giving the true proportions of art to his figures.

He was commissioned to execute a scene in the cloister in front of the Church of the Servites, in competition with Andrea del Sarto; and there he painted the Marriage of Our Lady, wherein may be clearly recognized the supreme faith of Joseph, who shows in his face as much awe as joy at his marriage with her. Besides this, Francia painted there one who is giving him some blows, as is the custom in our own day, in memory of the wedding; and in a nude figure he expressed very happily the rage and disappointment that drive him to break his rod, which had not blossomed, the drawing of which, with many others, is in our book. In the company of Our Lady, also, he painted some women with most beautiful expressions and headdresses, things in which he always delighted. And in all this scene he did not paint a single thing that was not very well considered; as is, for example, a woman with a child in her arms, who, turning to go home, has cuffed another child, who has sat down in tears and refuses to go, pressing one hand against his face in a very graceful manner. Certain it is that he executed every detail in this scene, whether large or small, with much diligence and love, on account of the burning desire that he had to show therein to craftsmen and to all other good judges how great was his respect for the difficulties of art, and how successfully he could solve them by faithful imitation.

Not long after this, on the occasion of a festival, the friars wished that the scenes of Andrea, and likewise that of Francia, should be uncovered; and the night after Francia had finished his with the exception of the base, they were so rash and presumptuous as to uncover them, not thinking, in their ignorance of art, that Francia would want to retouch or otherwise change his figures. In the morning, both the painting of Francia and those of Andrea were open to view, and the news was brought to Francia that Andrea's works and his own had been uncovered; at which he felt such resentment, that he was like to die of it. Seized with anger against the friars on account of their presumption and the little respect that they had shown to him, he set off at his best speed and came up to the work; and then, climbing on to the staging, which had not yet been taken to pieces, although the painting had been uncovered, and seizing a mason's hammer that was there, he beat some of the women's heads to fragments, and destroyed that of the Madonna, and also tore almost completely away from the wall, plaster and all, a nude figure that is breaking a rod. Hearing the noise, the friars ran up, and, with the help of some laymen, seized his hands, to prevent him from destroying it completely. But, although in time they offered to give him double payment, he, on account of the hatred that he had conceived for them, would never restore it. By reason of the reverence felt by other painters both for him and for the work, they have refused to finish it; and so it remains, even in our own day, as a memorial of that event. This fresco is executed with such diligence and so much love, and it is so beautiful in its freshness, that Francia may be said to have worked better in fresco than any man of his time, and to have blended and harmonized his paintings in fresco better than any other, without needing to retouch the colors; wherefore he deserves to be much extolled both for this and for his other works.

At Rovezzano, without the Porta alla Croce, near Florence, he painted a shrine with a Christ on the Cross and some saints; and in S. Giovannino, at the Porta a S. Piero Gattolini, he executed a Last Supper of the Apostles in fresco.

No long time after, on the departure for France of the painter Andrea del Sarto, who had begun to paint the stories of S. John the Baptist in chiaroscuro in a cloister of the Company of the Scalzo at Florence, the men of that Company, desiring to have that work finished, engaged Francia, to the end that he, being an imitator of the manner of Andrea, might complete the paintings begun by the other. Thereupon Francia executed the decorations right round one part of that cloister, and finished two of the scenes, which he painted with great diligence. These are, first S. John the Baptist obtaining leave from his father Zacharias to go into the desert, and then the meeting of Christ and S. John on the way, with Joseph and Mary standing there and beholding them embrace one another. But more than this he did not do, on account of the return of Andrea, who then went on to finish the rest of the work.

With Ridolfo Ghirlandajo he prepared a most beautiful festival for the marriage of Duke Lorenzo, with two sets of scenery for the dramas that were performed, executing them with much method, masterly judgment, and grace; on account of which he acquired credit and favor with that Prince. This service was the reason that he received the commission for gilding the ceiling of the Hall of Poggio a Caiano, in company with Andrea di Cosimo. And afterwards, in competition with Andrea del Sarto and Jacopo da Pontormo, he began, on a wall in that hall, the scene of Cicero being carried in triumph by the citizens of Rome. This work had been undertaken by the liberality of Pope Leo, in memory of his father Lorenzo, who had caused the edifice to be built, and had ordained that it should be painted with scenes from ancient history and other ornaments according to his pleasure. And these had been entrusted by the learned historian, M. Paolo Giovio, Bishop of Nocera, who was then chief in authority near the person of Cardinal Giulio de' Medici, to Andrea del Sarto, Jacopo da Pontormo, and Franciabigio, that they might demonstrate the power and perfection of their art in the work, each receiving thirty crowns every month from the magnificent Ottaviano de' Medici. Thereupon Francia executed on his part, to say nothing of the beauty of the scene, some buildings in perspective, very well proportioned. But the work remained unfinished on account of the death of Leo; and afterwards, in the year 1532, it was begun again by Jacopo da Pontormo at the commission of Duke Alessandro de' Medici, but he lingered over it so long, that the Duke died and it was once more left unfinished.

But to return to Francia; so ardent was his love for the matters of art, that there was no summer day on which he did not draw some study of a nude figure from the life in his workroom, and to that end he always kept men in his pay. For S. Maria Nuova, at the request of Maestro Andrea Pasquali, an excellent physician of Florence, he executed an anatomical figure, in consequence of which he made a great advance in the art of painting, and pursued it ever afterwards with more zeal. He then painted in the Convent of S. Maria Novella, in the lunette over the door of the library, a S. Thomas confuting the heretics with his learning, a work which is executed with diligence and a good manner. There, among other details, are two children who serve to uphold an escutcheon in the ornamental border; and these are very fine, full of the greatest beauty and grace, and painted in a most lovely manner.

He also executed a picture with little figures for Giovanni Maria Benintendi, in competition with Jacopo da Pontormo, who painted another of the same size for that patron, containing the story of the Magi; and two others were painted by Francesco d' Albertino.[12] In his work Francia represented the scene of David seeing Bathsheba in her bath; and there he painted some women in a manner too smooth and dainty, and drew a building in perspective, wherein is David giving letters to the messengers, who are to carry them to the camp to the end that Uriah the Hittite may meet his death; and under a loggia he painted a royal banquet of great beauty. This work contributed greatly to the fame and honor of Francia, who, if he had much ability for large figures, had much more for little figures.

Francia also made many most beautiful portraits from life; one, in particular, for Matteo Sofferroni, who was very much his friend, and another for a countryman, the steward of Pier Francesco de' Medici at the Palace of S. Girolamo da Fiesole, which seems absolutely alive, with many others. And since he undertook any kind of work without being ashamed, so long as he was pursuing his art, he set his hand to whatever commission was given to him; wherefore, in addition to many works of the meanest kind, he painted a most beautiful "Noli me tangere" for the clothweaver Arcangelo, at the top of a tower that serves as a terrace, in Porta Rossa; with an endless number of other trivial works, executed by Francia because he was a person of sweet and kindly nature and very obliging, of which there is no need to say more.

This master loved to live in peace, and for that reason would never take a wife; and he was always repeating the trite proverb, "The fruits of a wife are cares and strife." He would never leave Florence, because, having seen some works by Raffaello da Urbino, and feeling that he was not equal to that great man and to many others of supreme renown, he did not wish to compete with craftsmen of such rare excellence. In truth, the greatest wisdom and prudence that a man can possess is to know himself, and to refrain from exalting himself beyond his true worth. And, finally, having acquired much by constant work, for one who was not endowed by nature with much boldness of invention or with any powers but those that he had gained by long study, he died in the year 1524 at the age of forty-two.

One of Francia's disciples was his brother Agnolo, who died after having painted a frieze that is in the cloister of S. Pancrazio, and a few other works. The same Agnolo painted for the perfumer Ciano, an eccentric man, but respected after his kind, a sign for his shop, containing a gipsy woman telling the fortune of a lady in a very graceful manner, which was the idea of Ciano, and not without mystic meaning. Another who learnt to paint from the same master was Antonio di Donnino Mazzieri, who was a bold draughtsman, and showed much invention in making horses and landscapes. He painted in chiaroscuro the cloister of S. Agostino at Monte Sansovino, executing therein scenes from the Old Testament, which were much extolled. In the Vescovado of Arezzo he painted the Chapel of S. Matteo, with a scene, among other things, showing that Saint baptizing a King, in which he made a portrait of a German, so good that it seems to be alive. For Francesco del Giocondo he executed the story of the Martyrs in a chapel behind the choir of the Servite Church in Florence; but in this he acquitted himself so badly, that he lost all his credit and was reduced to undertaking any sort of work.

Francia taught his art also to a young man named Visino, who, to judge from what we see of him, would have become an excellent painter, if he had not died young, as he did; and to many others, of whom I shall make no further mention. He was buried by the Company of S. Giobbe in S. Pancrazio, opposite to his own house, in the year 1525; and his death was truly a great grief to all good craftsmen, seeing that he had been a talented and skilful master, and very modest in his every action.

FOOTNOTE:

[12] Francesco Ubertini, called Il Bacchiacca.


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