Portrait bust of Astorgio Manfredi, marble, 1455. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
WHEN OUR CRAFTSMEN seek to do no more in the works that they execute than to imitate the manner of their masters, or that of some other man of excellence whose method of working pleases them, either in the attitudes of the figures, or in the expressions of the heads, or in the folds of the draperies, and when they study these things only, they may with time and diligence come to make them exactly the same, but they cannot by these means alone attain to perfection in their art, seeing that it is clearly evident that one who ever walks behind rarely comes to the front, since the imitation of nature becomes fixed in the manner of a craftsman who has developed that manner out of long practice. For imitation is a definite art of copying what you represent exactly after the model of the most beautiful things of nature, which you must take pure and free from the manner of your master or that of others, who also reduce to a manner the things that they take from nature. And although it may appear that the imitations made by excellent craftsmen are natural objects, or absolutely similar, it is not possible with all the diligence in the world to make them so similar that they shall be like nature herself, or even, by selecting the best, to compose a body so perfect as to make art excel nature.
Now, if this is so, it follows that only objects taken from nature can make pictures and sculptures perfect, and that if a man studies closely only the manner of other craftsmen, and not bodies and objects of nature, it is inevitable that he should make works inferior both to nature and to those of the man whose manner he adopts. Where- fore it has been seen in the case of many of our craftsmen, who have refused to study anything save the works of their masters, leaving nature on one side, that they have failed to gain any real knowledge of them or to surpass their masters, but have done very great injury to their own powers; whereas, if they had studied the manner of their masters and the objects of nature together, they would have produced much greater fruits in their works than they did. This is seen in the works of the sculptor Mino da Fiesole, who, having an intelligence capable of achieving whatsoever he wished, was so captivated by the manner of his master Desiderio da Settignano, by reason of the beautiful grace that he gave to the heads of women, children, and every other kind of figure, which appeared to Mino's judgment to be superior to nature, that he practised and studied it alone, abandoning natural objects and thinking them useless; wherefore he had more grace than solid grounding in his art.
It was on the hill of Fiesole, a very ancient city near Florence, that there was born the sculptor Mino di Giovanni, who, having been apprenticed to the craft of stone cutting under Desiderio da Settignano, a young man excellent in sculpture, showed so much inclination to his master's art, that, while he was labouring at the hewing of stones, he learnt to copy in clay the works that Desiderio had made in marble ; and this he did so well that his master, seeing that he was likely to make progress in that art, brought him forward and set him to work on his own figures in marble, in which he sought with very great attention to reproduce the model before him. Nor did he continue long at this before he became passing skilful in that calling; at which Desiderio was greatly pleased, and still more pleased was Mino by the loving-kindness of his master, seeing that Desiderio was ever ready to teach him how to avoid the errors that can be committed in that art. Now, while he was on the way to becoming excellent in his profession, his ill luck would have it that Desiderio should pass to a better life, and this loss was a very great blow to Mino, who departed from Florence, almost in despair, and went to Rome. There, assisting masters who were then executing works in marble, such as tombs of Cardinals, which were placed in S. Pietro, although they have since been thrown to the ground in the building of the new church, he became known as a very experienced and capable master; and he was commissioned by Cardinal Guglielmo Destovilla, who was pleased with his manner, to make the marble altar where lies the body of S. Jerome, in the Church of S. Maria Maggiore, together with scenes in low relief from his life, which he executed to perfection, with a portrait of that Cardinal.
Afterwards, when Pope Paul II, the Venetian, was erecting his Palace of S. Marco, Mino was employed thereon in making certain coats of arms. After the death of that Pope, Mino was commissioned to make his tomb, which he delivered finished and erected in S. Pietro in the space of two years. This tomb was then held to be the richest, both in ornaments and in figures, that had ever been made for any Pontiff; but it was thrown to the ground by Bramante in the demolition of S. Pietro, and remained there buried among the rubbish for some years, until 1547, when certain Venetians had it rebuilt in the old S. Pietro, against a wall near the Chapel of Pope Innocent. And although some believe that this tomb is by the hand of Mino del Reame, yet, notwithstanding that these two masters lived almost at the same time, it is without doubt by the hand of Mino da Fiesole. It is true, indeed, that the said Mino del Reame made some little figures on the base, which can be recognized; if in truth his name was Mino, and not, as some maintain, Dino.
But to return to our craftsman; having acquired a good name in Rome by the said tomb, by the sarcophagus that he made for the Minerva, on which he placed a marble statue of Francesco Tornabuoni from nature, which is held very beautiful, and by other works, it was not long before he returned to Fiesole with a good sum of money saved, and took a wife. And no long time after this, working for the Nuns of the Murate, he made a marble tabernacle in half-relief to contain the Sacrament, which was brought to perfection by him with all the diligence in his power. This he had not yet fixed into its place, when the Nuns of S. Ambrogio who desired to have an ornament made, similar in design but richer in adornment, to contain that most holy relic, the Miracle of the Sacrament hearing of the ability of Mino, commissioned him to execute that work, which he finished with so great diligence that those nuns, being satisfied with him, gave him all that he asked as the price of the work. And a little after this he undertook, at the instance of Messer Dietisalvi Neroni, to make a little panel with figures of Our Lady with the Child in her arms, and S. Laurence on one side and S. Leonard on the other, in half-relief, which was intended for the priests or chapter of S. Lorenzo; but it has remained in the Sacristy of the Badia of Florence. For those monks he made a marble medallion containing a Madonna in relief with the Child in her arms, which they placed over the principal door of entrance into the church; and since it gave great satisfaction to all, he received a commission for a tomb for the Magnificent Chevalier, Messer Bernardo de' Giugni, who, having been an honorable man of high repute, rightly received this memorial from his brothers. On this tomb, besides the sarcophagus and the portrait from nature of the dead man, Mino executed a figure of Justice, which resembles the manner of Desiderio closely, save only that its draperies are a little too full of detail in the carving.
This work induced the Abbot and Monks of the Badia of Florence, in which place the said tomb was erected, to entrust Mino with the making of one for Count Ugo, son of the Marquis Uberto of Magdeburg, who bequeathed great wealth and many privileges to that abbey. And so, desiring to honor him as much as they could, they caused Mino to make a tomb of Carrara marble, which was the most beautiful work that Mino ever made; for in it there are some boys, upholding the arms of that Count, who are standing in very spirited attitudes, with a childish grace; and besides the figure of the dead Count, with his likeness, which he made on the sarcophagus, in the middle of the wall above the bier there is a figure of Charity, with certain children, wrought with much diligence and very well in harmony with the whole. The same is seen in a Madonna with the Child in her arms, in a lunette, which Mino made as much like the manner of Desiderio as he could; and if he had assisted his methods of work by studying from the life, there is no doubt that he would have made very great progress in his art. This tomb, with all its expenses, cost 1,600 lire, and he finished it in 1481, thereby acquiring much honor, and obtaining a commission to make a tomb for Lionardo Salutati, Bishop of Fiesole, in the Vescovado of that place, in a chapel near the principal chapel, on the right hand as one goes up; on which tomb he portrayed him in his episcopal robes, as lifelike as possible. For the same Bishop he made a head of Christ in marble, life-size and very well wrought, which was left among other bequests to the Hospital of the Innocenti; and at the present day the Very Reverend Don Vincenzio Borghini, Prior of that hospital, holds it among his most precious examples of these arts, in which he takes a delight beyond my power to express in words.
In the Pieve of Prato Mino made a pulpit entirely of marble, in which there are stories of Our Lady, executed with much diligence and put together so well, that the work appears all of one piece. This pulpit stands over one corner of the choir, almost in the middle of the church, above certain ornaments made under the direction of the same Mino. He also made portraits of Piero di Lorenzo de' Medici and his wife, marvellously lifelike and true to nature. These two heads stood for many years over two doors in Piero' s apartment in the house of the Medici, each in a lunette; afterwards they were removed, with the portraits of many other illustrious men of that house, to the guardaroba of the Lord Duke Cosimo. Mino also made a Madonna hi marble, which is now in the Audience Chamber of the Guild of the Masters in Wood and Stone; and to Perugia, for Messer Baglione Ribi, he sent a marble panel, which was placed in the Chapel of the Sacrament in S. Pietro, the work being in the form of a tabernacle, with S. John on one side and S. Jerome on the other good figures in half relief. The Tabernacle of the Sacrament in the Duomo of Volterra is likewise by his hand, with the two angels standing one on either side of it, so well and so diligently executed that this work is deservedly praised by all craftsmen.
Finally, attempting one day to move certain stones, and not having the needful assistance at hand, Mino fatigued himself so greatly that he was seized by pleurisy and died of it; and he was honorably buried by his friends and relatives in the Canon's house at Fiesole in the year 1486. The portrait of Mino is in our book of drawings, but I do not know by whose hand; it was given to me together with some drawings made with blacklead by Mino himself, which have no little beauty.