Madonna and Child. 1405-1410. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, California.
Vasari's Lives of the Artists
WHEN MEN who are excellent in any honorable exercise whatsoever accompany their ability in working with gentle ways and good habits, and particularly with courtesy, serving readily and willingly all who have need of their assistance, they secure without fail, together with much praise and profit for themselves, everything that in a certain sense is desirable in this world; as did Lorenzo di Bicci, painter of Florence, who, being born in Florence in 1400, precisely when Italy was beginning to be harassed by the wars which shortly afterwards brought her to an evil pass, was in very good credit almost from his childhood, for the reason that, having learnt good ways under the discipline of his father and the art of painting from the painter Spinello, he had ever the name not only of an excellent painter, but of a most courteous and honourable and able man. Lorenzo, then, young as he was, having made some works in fresco both within and without Florence for the sake of practice, Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici, seeing his good manner, caused him to paint in the hall of the old house of the Medici which afterwards came into the possession of Lorenzo, brother of Cosimo the Elder, when the great palace was built all those famous men that are still seen there to-day, very well preserved. This work finished, seeing that Lorenzo di Bicci wished to exercise himself in his study of painting in places where work was not so minutely examined, as the doctors still do, who make experiments in their art on the hides of needy countrymen, for some time he accepted all the work that came to his hand, and therefore painted a shrine on the bridge of Scandicci, without the Porta a S. Friano, in the manner wherein it is still seen today, and at Cerbaia, on a wall below a portico, he painted many saints very creditably, together with a Madonna. Next, being commissioned by the family of the Martini to paint a chapel in S. Marco in Florence, he wrought in fresco on the walls many stories of the Madonna, and on the panel the Virgin herself in the midst of many saints; and in the same church, over the Chapel of S. Giovanni Evangelista, belonging to the family of the Landi, he painted in fresco an Angel Raphael with Tobias.
And afterwards, in the year 1418, for Ricciardo di Messer Niccolo Spinelli, on the facade of the Convent of S. Croce facing the square, he painted a large scene in fresco of S. Thomas looking for the wound in the side of Jesus Christ, and beside him and round him all the other Apostles, who, kneeling reverently, are watching this event. And beside the said scene he made, likewise in fresco, a S. Christopher twelve braccia and a half high, which is something rare, because up to then, excepting the S. Christopher of Buffalmacco, there had not been seen a greater figure, nor, for something so large, any image more creditable or better proportioned in all its parts than that one, although it is not in a good manner; not to mention that these pictures, both the one and the other, were wrought with so much mastery, that, although they have been exposed to the air for many years and buffeted by the rains and tempests, being turned to the North, yet they have never lost their vividness of coloring, nor have they been injured in any part. Within the door, moreover, which is between these figures, called the Martello door, the same Lorenzo, at the request of the said Ricciardo and of the Prior of the convent, made a Crucifixion with many figures, and, on the walls around, the confirmation of the Rule of S. Francis by Pope Honorius, and beside it the martyrdom of certain friars of that Order, who went to preach the Faith among the Saracens.
On the arches and on the vaulting he made certain Kings of France, friars and devout followers of S. Francis, and he portrayed them from nature; and likewise many learned men of that Order, and men distinguished for dignity of rank, such as Bishops, Cardinals, and Popes, among whom are portraits from nature, in two medallions on the vaulting, of Pope Nicholas IV and Pope Alexander V. In all these figures, although Lorenzo made their garments grey, he varied them, nevertheless, by reason of the good practice that he had in working, in a manner that they are all different one from the other; some incline to reddish, others to bluish, while some are dark and others lighter, and in short, all are varied and worthy of consideration; and what is more, it is said that he wrought this work with so great facility and readiness, that being called once by the Prior, who was bearing his expenses, to his dinner, at the very moment when he had made the intonaco for a figure and had begun it, he answered: "Pour out the soup. Let me finish this figure, and I'm with you." Wherefore it is with good reason that men say that Lorenzo had so great rapidity of hand, so great practice in coloring, and so great resolution, that no other man ever had more.
By his hand are the shrine in fresco which is on the corner of the Convent of the Nuns of Foligno, and the Madonna and some saints that are over the door of the church of that convent, among whom is a S. Francis who is espousing Poverty. In the Church of the Order of Camaldoli in Florence, also, he painted for the Company of the Martyrs some scenes of the martyrdom of some saints, and two chapels in the church, one on either side of the principal chapel. And because these pictures gave universal pleasure to the whole city, after he had finished them he was commissioned by the family of the Salvestrini which today is almost extinct, there being to my knowledge none left save a friar of the Angeli in Florence, called Fra Nemesio, a good and worthy churchman to paint a wall of the Church of the Carmine, whereon he made the scene when the martyrs, being condemned to death, are stripped naked and made to walk barefoot over spikes strewn by ministers of the tyrants, while they were going to be placed on the cross; and higher up they are seen placed thereon, in various extravagant attitudes.
In this work, which was the largest that had ever been made up to that time, everything is seen to have been done, according to the knowledge of those times, with much mastery and design, for it is all full of those various emotions that nature arouses in those who are made to die a violent death; wherefore I do not marvel that many able men have contrived to avail themselves of certain things that are seen in this picture. After these he made many other figures in the same church, and particularly in two chapels in the tramezzo. And about the same time he painted the shrine of the Canto alla Cuculia, and that which is on the house front in the Via de' Martelli; and, over the Martello door in S. Spirito, a S. Augustine in fresco presenting the Rule to his friars. In S. Trinita, in the Chapel of Neri Compagni, he painted in fresco the life of S. Giovanni Gualberto; and, in the principal chapel of S. Lucia in the Via de' Bardi, some scenes in fresco of the life of that Saint, for Niccolo da Uzzano, who was portrayed by him there from the life, together with some other citizens.
This Niccolo, with the direction and model of Lorenzo, built a palace for himself near the said church, and a magnificent beginning for a university, or rather, a school, between the Convent of the Servi and that of S. Marco namely, where there are now the Lions. This work, truly most praiseworthy and rather that of a magnanimous prince than of a private citizen, was never finished, for the very large sums of money that Niccolo left at the Monte in Florence for the building and maintenance of this school, were spent by the Florentines in certain wars or for other necessities of the city. And although Fortune will never be able to obscure the memory and the greatness of soul of Niccolo da Uzzano, it is none the less true that the public interest suffered very great harm from the fact that this work was not finished. Wherefore, if a man desires to benefit the world in similar ways, and to leave an honorable memorial of himself, let him do it by himself while he has life, and let him not put his trust in the good faith of posterity and of his heirs, since anything that has been left to be done by successors is rarely seen brought to perfect completion.
But returning to Lorenzo: he painted, besides what has been said, a Madonna and certain saints in fresco, passing good, in a shrine on the Ponte Rubaconte. And no long time after, Ser Michele di Fruosino, being Director of the Hospital of S. Maria Nuova in Florence which hospital was founded by Folco Portinari, citizen of Florence determined that, even as the wealth of the hospital had increased, so its church, which was then without Florence and very small, dedicated to S. Egidio, should be enlarged. Whereupon, having taken counsel thereon with Lorenzo di Bicci, who was very much his friend, on September 5, in the year 1418, he began the new church, which was finished in a year in the manner wherein it stands today, and was then solemnly consecrated by Pope Martin V at the request of the said Ser Michele, who was the eighth Director of the Hospital, and of the men of the family of Portinari. This consecration Lorenzo afterwards painted, according to the wish of Ser Michele, on the facade of that church, portraying there from life that Pope and some Cardinals; and this work, as something new and beautiful, was then much praised. Wherefore he obtained the honor of being the first to paint in the principal church of his city that is, in S. Maria del Fiore, where, beneath the windows of each chapel, he painted that Saint to whom it is dedicated, and then, on the pilasters and throughout the church, the twelve Apostles with the crosses of consecration; for that church had been most solemnly consecrated in that same year by Pope Eugenius IV, the Venetian. In the same church the Wardens of Works, by order of the State, caused him to paint in fresco, on one wall, a tomb in imitation of marble, in memory of Cardinal Corsini, who is portrayed there from nature on the sarcophagus; and above that he made a similar one in memory of Maestro Luigi Marsili, a very famous theologian, who went as ambassador, with Messer Luigi Guicciardini and Messer Guccio di Gino, most honorable cavaliers, to the Duke of Anjou.
Lorenzo was then summoned to Arezzo by Don Laurentino, Abbot of S. Bernardo, a monastery of the Order of Monte Oliveto, in the principal chapel of which he painted in fresco, for Messer Carlo Marsuppini, stories of the life of S. Bernard. But while planning to paint the life of S. Benedict in the cloister of the convent (I mean, after having painted for the elder Francesco de' Bacci the principal chapel of the Church of S. Francesco, where he wrought by himself the vaulting and half of the arch) he fell sick of a pleurisy; wherefore, having himself carried to Florence, he left directions that Marco da Montepulciano, his disciple, should paint the scenes of the life of S. Benedict in the said cloister, from the design that he had made and left with Don Laurentino; and this Marco did as best he knew, delivering the whole work finished in chiaroscuro on April 24, in the year 1448, as it may be seen written by his hand in verses and words that are no less rude than the pictures. Having returned to his country and being restored to health, Lorenzo painted, on the same wall of the Convent of S. Croce whereon he had made the S. Christopher, the Assumption into Heaven of Our Lady, surrounded by a choir of angels, and below her a S. Thomas, who is receiving the Girdle. In the execution of this work, being indisposed, Lorenzo caused Donatello, then a youth, to help him; wherefore, with assistance so able, it was finished in the year 1450, in such wise that I believe that it is the best work, both in design and in coloring, that was ever made by Lorenzo, who, no long time after, being old and worn out, died at the age of about sixty, leaving two sons who applied themselves to painting; one of whom, named Bicci, gave him assistance in making many works, while the other, who was called Neri, portrayed his father and himself in the Chapel of the Lenzi in Ognissanti, in two medallions with letters round them, which give the name of both one and the other.
In this chapel the same man, in painting some stories of the Madonna, strove to counterfeit many costumes of those times, both of men and of women; and he made the panel in distemper for the chapel. In like manner, he made some panels for the Abbey of S. Felice in Piazza at Florence, belonging to the Order of Camaldoli, and one for the high altar of S. Michele in Arezzo, a church of the same Order. And at S. Maria delle Grazie without Arezzo, in the Church of S. Bernardino, he made a Madonna that has under her mantle the people of Arezzo, and on one side that S. Bernardino kneeling with a wooden cross in his hand, such as he was wont to carry when he went preaching through Arezzo, and on the other side and about her S. Nicholas and S. Michelagnolo; and on the predella are painted stories of the acts of the said S. Bernardino, and of the miracles that he wrought, particularly in that place. The same Neri made the panel of the high altar of S. Romolo in Florence; and in S. Trinita, in the Chapel of the Spini, he painted in fresco the life of S. Giovanni Gualberto, and in distemper the panel that is over the altar. From these works it is recognized that if Neri had lived, and had not died at the age of thirty-six, he would have made more numerous and better works than did Lorenzo, his father, whose Life, seeing that he was the last of the masters of the old manner of Giotto, will also be the last of this First Part, which with the aid of the blessed God we have brought to conclusion.