Venus and Cupid. "Late 1520s". Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
SO POTENT ARE MASTERY AND EXCELLENCE, even when seen in only one or two works executed to perfection by a man in the art that he practises, that, no matter how small these may be, craftsmen and judges of art are forced to extol them, and writers are compelled to celebrate them and to give praise to the craftsman who has made them; even as we are now about to do for the Venetian Palma. This master, although not very eminent, nor remarkable for perfection of painting, was nevertheless so careful and diligent, and subjected himself so zealously to the labors of art, that a certain proportion of his works, if not all, have something good in them, in that they are close imitations of life and of the natural appearance of men.
Palma was much more remarkable for his patience in harmonizing and blending colors than for boldness of design, and he handled color with extraordinary grace and finish. This may be seen in Venice from many pictures and portraits that he executed for various gentlemen; but of these I shall say nothing more, since I propose to content myself with making mention of some altarpieces and of a head that I hold to be marvellous, or rather, divine. One of the altarpieces he painted for S. Antonio, near Castello, at Venice, and another for S. Elena, near the Lido, where the Monks of Monte Oliveto have their monastery. In the latter, which is on the high altar of that church, he painted the Magi presenting their offerings to Christ, with a good number of figures, among which are some heads truly worthy of praise, as also are the draperies, executed with a beautiful flow of folds, which cover the figures. Palma also painted a lifesize S. Barbara for the altar of the Bombardieri in the Church of S. Maria Formosa, with two smaller figures at the sides, S. Sebastian and S. Anthony; and the S. Barbara is one of the best figures that this painter ever executed. The same master also executed another altarpiece, in which is a Madonna in the sky, with S. John below, for the Church of S. Moise', near the Piazza di S. Marco. In addition to this, Palma painted a most beautiful scene for the hall wherein the men of the Scuola of S. Marco assemble, on the Piazza di SS. Giovanni e Paolo, in emulation of those already executed by Giovanni Bellini, Giovanni Mansueti, and other painters.
In this scene is depicted a ship which is bringing the body of S. Mark to Venice; and there may be seen counterfeited by Palma a terrible tempest on the sea, and some barques tossed and shaken by the fury of the winds, all executed with much judgment and thoughtful care. The same may be said of a group of figures in the air, and of the demons in various forms who are blowing, after the manner of winds, against the barques, which, driven by oars, and striving in various ways to break through the dangers of the towering waves, are like to sink. In short, to tell the truth, this work is of such a kind, and so beautiful in invention and in other respects, that it seems almost impossible that brushes and colors, employed by human hands, however excellent, should be able to depict anything more true to reality or more natural; for in it may be seen the fury of the winds, the strength and dexterity of the men, the movements of the waves, the lightning flashes of the heavens, the water broken by the oars, and the oars bent by the waves and by the efforts of the rowers. Why say more? I, for my part, do not remember to have ever seen a more terrible painting than this, which is executed in such a manner, and with such care in the invention, the drawing, and the coloring, that the picture seems to quiver, as if all that is painted therein were real. For this work Jacopo Palma deserves the greatest praise, and the honor of being numbered among those who are masters of art and who are able to express with facility in their pictures their most sublime conceptions. For many painters, in difficult subjects of that kind, achieve in the first sketch of their work, as though guided by a sort of fire of inspiration, something of the good and a certain measure of boldness; but afterwards, in finishing it, the boldness vanishes, and nothing is left of the good that the first fire produced. And this happens because very often, in finishing, they consider the parts and not the whole of what they are executing, and thus, growing cold in spirit, they come to lose their vein of boldness; whereas Jacopo stood ever firm in the same intention and brought to perfection his first conception, forwhich he received vast praise at that time, as he always will.
But without a doubt, although the works of this master were many, and all much esteemed, that one is better than all the others and truly extraordinary in which he made his own portrait from life by looking at himself in a mirror, with some camel-skins about him, and certain tufts of hair, and all so lifelike that nothing better could be imagined. For so much did the genius of Palma effect in this particular work, that he made it quite miraculous and beautiful beyond belief, as all men declare, the picture being seen almost every year at the Festival of the Ascension. And, in truth, it well deserves to be celebrated, in point of draughtsmanship, colouring, and mastery of art--in a word, on account of its absolute perfection--beyond any other work whatsoever that had been executed by any Venetian painter up to that time, since, besides other things, there may be seen in the eyes a roundness so perfect, that Leonardo da Vinci and Michelagnolo Buonarroti would not have done it in any other way. But it is better to say nothing of the grace, the dignity, and the other qualities that are to be seen in this portrait, because it is not possible to say as much of its perfection as would exhaust its merits. If Fate had decreed that Palma should die after this work, he would have carried off with him the glory of having surpassed all those whom we celebrate as our rarest and most divine intellects; but the duration of his life, keeping him at work, brought it about that, not maintaining the high beginning that he had made, he came to deteriorate as much as most men had thought him destined to improve. Finally, content that one or two supreme works should have cleared him of some of the censure that the others had brought upon him, he died in Venice at the age of forty-eight.
A friend and companion of Palma was Lorenzo Lotto, a painter of Venice, who, after imitating for some time the manner of the Bellini, attached himself to that of Giorgione, as is shown by many pictures and portraits which are in the houses of gentlemen in Venice. In the house of Andrea Odoni there is a portrait of him, which is very beautiful, by the hand of Lorenzo. And in the house of Tommaso da Empoli, a Florentine, there is a picture of the Nativity of Christ, painted as an effect of night, which is one of great beauty, particularly because the splendour of Christ is seen to illuminate the picture in a marvellous manner; and there is the Madonna kneeling, with a portrait of Messer Marco Loredano in a full-length figure that is adoring Christ. For the Carmelite Friars the same master painted an altarpiece showing S. Nicholas in his episcopal robes, poised in the air, with three Angels; below him are S. Lucia and S. John, on high some clouds, and beneath these a most beautiful landscape, with many little figures and animals in various places. On one side is S. George on horseback, slaying the Dragon, and at a little distance the Maiden, with a city not far away, and an arm of the sea. For the Chapel of S. Antonino, Archbishop of Florence, in SS. Giovanni e Paolo, Lorenzo executed an altarpiece containing the first-named Saint seated with two priests in attendance, and many people below.
While this painter was still young, imitating partly the manner of the Bellini and partly that of Giorgione, he painted an altarpiece, divided into six pictures, for the high altar of S. Domenico at Recanati. In the central picture is the Madonna with the Child in her arms, giving the habit, by the hands of an Angel, to S. Dominic, who is kneeling before the Virgin; and in this picture are also two little boys, one playing on a lute and the other on a rebeck. In the second picture are the Popes S. Gregory and S. Urban; and in the third is S. Thomas Aquinas, with another saint, who was Bishop of Recanati. Above these are the three other pictures; and in the centre, above the Madonna, is a Dead Christ, supported by an Angel, with His Mother kissing His arm, and S. Magdalene. Over the picture of S. Gregory are S. Mary Magdalene and S. Vincent; and in the third--namely, above the S. Thomas Aquinas--are S. Gismondo and S. Catharine of Siena. In the predella, which is a rare work painted with little figures, there is in the centre the scene of S. Maria di Loreto being carried by the Angels from the regions of Sclavonia to the place where it now stands. Of the two scenes that are on either side of this, one shows S. Dominic preaching, the little figures eing the most graceful in the world, and the other Pope Honorius confirming the Rule of S. Dominic. In the middle of this church is a figure of S. Vincent, the Friar, executed in fresco by the hand of the same master. And in the Church of S. Maria di Castelnuovo there is an altarpiece in oils of the Transfiguration of Christ, with three scenes painted with little figures in the predella-- Christ leading the Apostles to Mount Tabor, His Prayer in the Garden, and His Ascension into Heaven.
After these works Lorenzo went to Ancona, at the very time when Mariano da Perugia had finished a panel picture, with a large ornamental frame, for the high altar of S. Agostino. This did not give much satisfaction; and Lorenzo was commissioned to paint a picture, which is placed in the middle of the same church, of Our Lady with the Child in her lap, and two figures of Angels in the air, in foreshortening, crowning the Virgin.
Finally, being now old, and having almost lost his voice, Lorenzo made his way, after executing some other works of no great importance at Ancona, to the Madonna of Loreto, where he had already painted an altarpiece in oils, which is in a chapel at the right hand of the entrance into the church. There, having resolved to finish his life in the service of the Madonna, and to make that holy house his habitation, he set his hand to executing scenes with figures one braccio or less in height round the choir, over the seats of the priests. In one scene he painted the Birth of Jesus Christ, and in another the Magi adoring Him. Next came the Presentation to Simeon, and after that the Baptism of Christ by John in the Jordan. There was also the Woman taken in Adultery being led before Christ, and all these were executed with much grace. Two other scenes, likewise, did he paint there, with an abundance of figures; one of David causing a sacrifice to be offered, and in the other was the Archangel Michael in combat with Lucifer, after having driven him out of Heaven.
These works finished, no long time had passed when, even as he had lived like a good citizen and a true Christian, so he died, rendering up his soul to God his Master. These last years of his life he found full of happiness and serenity of mind, and, what is more, we cannot but believe that they gave him the earnest of the blessings of eternal life; which might not have happened to him if at the end of his life he had been wrapped up too closely in the things of this world, which, pressing too heavily on those who put their whole trust in them, prevent them from ever raising their minds to the true riches and the supreme blessedness and felicity of the other life.
There also flourished in Romagna at this time the excellent painter Rondinello, of whom we made some slight mention in the Life of Giovanni Bellini, whose disciple he was, assisting him much in his works. This Rondinello, after leaving Giovanni Bellini, labored at his art to such purpose, that, being very diligent, he executed many works worthy of praise; of which we have witness in the panel picture of the high altar in the Duomo at Forli', showing Christ giving the Communion to the Apostles, which he painted there with his own hand, executing it very well. In the lunette above this picture he painted a Dead Christ, and in the predella some scenes with little figures, finished with great diligence, representing the actions of S. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, in the finding of the Cross. He also painted a single figure of S. Sebastian, which is very beautiful, in a picture in the same church. For the altar of S. Maria Maddalena, in the Duomo of Ravenna, he painted a panel picture in oils containing the single figure of that Saint; and below this, in a predella, he executed three scenes with very graceful little figures. In one is Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene in the form of a gardener, in another S. Peter leaving the ship and walking over the water towards Christ, and between them the Baptism of Jesus Christ; and all are very beautiful. For S. Giovanni Evangelista, in the same city, he painted two panel pictures, one with that Saint consecrating the church, and in the other three martyrs, S. Cantius, S. Cantianus, and S. Cantianilla, figures of great beauty. In S. Apollinare, also in that city, are two pictures, highly extolled, each with a single figure, S. John the Baptist and S. Sebastian. And in the Church of the Spirito Santo there is a panel, likewise by his hand, containing the Madonna placed between the Virgin Martyr S. Catharine and S. Jerome. For S. Francesco, likewise, he painted two panel pictures, one of S. Catharine and S. Francis, and in the other Our Lady with S. James the Apostle, S. Francis, and many figures. For S. Domenico, in like manner, he executed two other panels, one of which, containing the Madonna and many figures, is on the left hand of the high altar, and the other, a work of no little beauty, is on a wall of the church. And for the Church of S. Niccolo', a convent of Friars of S. Augustine, he painted another panel with S. Laurence and S. Francis. So much was he commended for all these works, that during his lifetime he was held in great account, not only in Ravenna but throughout all Romagna. Rondinello lived to the age of sixty, and was buried in S. Francesco at Ravenna.
This master left behind him Francesco da Cotignola, a painter likewise held in estimation in that city, who painted many works; in particular, for the high altar of the Church of the Abbey of Classi in Ravenna, a panel picture of some size representing the Raising of Lazarus, with many figures. There, opposite to that work, in the year 1548, Giorgio Vasari executed for Don Romualdo da Verona, Abbot of that place, another panel picture containing the Deposition of Christ from the Cross, with a large number of figures. Francesco also painted a panel picture of the Nativity of Christ, which is of great size, for S. Niccolo', and likewise two panels, with various figures, for S. Sebastiano. For the Hospital of S. Catarina he painted a panel picture with Our Lady, S. Catharine, and many other figures; and for S. Agata he painted a panel with Christ Crucified, the Madonna at the foot of the Cross, and a good number of other figures, for which he won praise. And for S. Apollinare, in the same city, he executed three panel pictures; one for the high altar, containing the Madonna, S. John the Baptist, and S. Apollinare, with S. Jerome and other saints; another likewise of the Madonna, with S. Peter and S. Catharine; and in the third and last Jesus Christ bearing His Cross, but this he was not able to finish, being overtaken by death.
Francesco was a very pleasing colorist, but not so good a draughtsman as Rondinello; yet he was held in no small estimation by the people of Ravenna. He chose to be buried after his death in S. Apollinare, for which he had painted the said figures, being content that his remains, when he was dead, should lie at rest in the place for which he had labored when alive.