Morto da Feltre. Virgin and Child. Museo Civico, Feltre.
Vasari's Lives of the Artists
The painter Morto da Feltro [Feltre], who was as original in his life as he was in his brain and in the new fashion of grotesques that he made, which caused him to be held in great estimation, found his way as a young man to Rome at the time when Pinturicchio was painting the Papal apartments for Alexander VI, with the loggie and lower rooms in the Great Tower of the Castello di S. Angelo, and some of the upper apartments. He was a melancholy person, and was constantly studying the antiquities; and seeing among them sections of vaults and ranges of walls adorned with grotesques, he liked these so much that he never ceased from examining them. And so well did he grasp the methods of drawing foliage in the ancient manner, that he was second to no man of his time in that profession. He was never tired, indeed, of examining all that he could find below the ground in Rome in the way of ancient grottoes, with vaults innumerable. He spent many months in Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli, drawing all the pavements and grottoes that are there, both above ground and below. And hearing that at Pozzuolo, in the Kingdom of Naples, ten miles from the city, there were many walls covered with ancient grotesques, both executed in relief with stucco and painted, and said to be very beautiful, he devoted several months to studying them on the spot. Nor was he content until he had drawn every least thing in the Campana, an ancient road in that place, full of antique sepulchres; and he also drew many of the temples and grottoes, both above and below the ground, at Trullo, near the seashore. He went to Baia and Mercato di Sabbato, both places full of ruined buildings covered with scenes, searching out everything in such a manner that by means of his long and loving labour he grew vastly in power and knowledge of his art.
Having then returned to Rome, he worked there many months, giving his attention to figures, since he considered that in that part of his profession he was not the master that he was held to be in the execution of grotesques. And after he had conceived this desire, hearing the renown that Leonardo and Michelagnolo had in that art on account of the cartoons executed by them in Florence, he set out straightway to go to that city. But, after he had seen those works, he did not think himself able to make the same improvement that he had made in his first profession, and he went back, therefore, to work at his grotesques.
There was then living in Florence one Andrea di Cosimo Feltrini, a painter of that city, and a young man of much diligence, who received Morto into his house and entertained him with most affectionate attentions. Finding pleasure in the nature of Morto's art, Andrea also gave his mind to that vocation, and became an able master, being in time even more excellent than Morto, and much esteemed in Florence, as will be told later. And it was through Andrea that Morto came to paint for Piero Soderini, who was then Gonfalonier, decorations of grotesques in an apartment of the Palace, which were held to be very beautiful; but in our own day these have been destroyed in rearranging the apartments of Duke Cosimo, and repainted. For Maestro Valerio, a Servite friar, Morto decorated the empty space on a chairback, which was a most beautiful work; and for Agnolo Doni, likewise, in a chamber, he executed many pictures with a variety of bizarre grotesques. And since he also delighted in figures, he painted Our Lady in some round pictures, in order to see whether he could become as famous for them as he was (for his grotesques).
Then, having grown weary of staying in Florence, he betook himself to Venice; and attaching himself to Giorgione da Castelfranco, who was then painting the Fondaco de' Tedeschi, he set himself to assist him and executed the ornamentation of that work. And in this way he remained many months in that city, attracted by the sensuous pleasures and delights that he found there.
He then went to execute works in Friuli, but he had not been there long when, finding that the rulers of Venice were enlisting soldiers, he entered their service; and before he had had much experience of that calling he was made Captain of two hundred men. The army of the Venetians had advanced by that time to Zara in Sclavonia; and one day, when a brisk skirmish took place, Morto, desiring to win a greater name in that profession than he had gained in the art of painting, went bravely forward, and, after fighting in the melee, was left dead on the field, even as he had always been in name, at the age of forty-five. But in fame he will never be dead, because those who exercise their hands in the arts and produce everlasting works, leaving memorials of themselves after death, are destined never to suffer the death of their labors, for writers, in their gratitude, bear witness to their talents. Eagerly, therefore, should our craftsmen spur themselves on with incessant study to such a goal as will ensure them an undying name both through their own works and through the writings of others, since, by so doing, they will gain eternal life both for themselves and for the works that they leave behind them after death.
Morto restored the painting of grotesques in a manner more like the ancient than was achieved by any other painter, and for this he deserves infinite praise, in that it is after his example that they have been brought in our own day, by the hands of Giovanni da Udine and other craftsmen, to the great beauty and excellence that we see. For, although the said Giovanni and others have carried them to absolute perfection, it is none the less true that the chief praise is due to Morto, who was the first to bring them to light and to devote his whole attention to paintings of that kind, which are called grotesques because they were found for the most part in the grottoes of the ruins of Rome; besides which, every man knows that it is easy to make additions to anything once it has been discovered.
The painting of grotesques was continued in Florence by Andrea Feltrini, called Di Cosimo, because he was a disciple of Cosimo Rosselli in the study of figures (which he executed passing well), as he was afterwards of Morto in that of grotesques, of which we have spoken. In this kind of painting Andrea had from nature such power of invention and such grace that he was the first to make ornaments of greater grandeur, abundance, and richness than the ancient, and quite different in manner; and he gave them better order and cohesion, and enriched them with figures, such as are not seen in Rome or in any other place but Florence, where he executed a great number. In this respect there has never been any man who has surpassed him in excellence, as may be seen from the ornament and the predella painted with little grotesques in colour round the Pieta' that Pietro Perugino executed for the altar of the Serristori in S. Croce at Florence. These are heightened with various colours on a ground of red and black mixed together, and are wrought with much facility and with extraordinary boldness and grace.
Andrea introduced the practice of covering the facades of houses and palaces with an intonaco of lime mixed with the black of ground charcoal, or rather, burnt straw, on which intonaco, when still fresh, he spread a layer of white plaster. Then, having drawn the grotesques, with such divisions as he desired, on some cartoons, he dusted them over the intonaco, and proceeded to scratch it with an iron tool, in such a way that his designs were traced over the whole facade by that tool; after which, scraping away the white from the grounds of the grotesques, he went on to shade them or to hatch a good design upon them with the same iron tool. Finally, he went over the whole work, shading it with a liquid watercolor like water tinted with black. All this produces a very pleasing, rich, and beautiful effect; and there was an account of the method in the twenty-sixth chapter, dealing with sgraffiti, in the Treatise on Technique.
The first facades that Andrea executed in this manner were that of the Gondi, which is full of delicacy and grace, in Borg' Ognissanti, and that of Lanfredino Lanfredini, which is very ornate and rich in the variety of its compartments, on the Lungarno between the Ponte S. Trinita and the Ponte della Carraja, near S. Spirito. He also decorated in sgraffito the house of Andrea and Tommaso Sertini, near S. Michele in Piazza Padella, making it more varied and grander in manner than the two others. He painted in chiaroscuro the facade of the Church of the Servite Friars, for which work he caused the painter Tommaso di Stefano to paint in two niches the Angel bringing the Annunciation to the Virgin; and in the court, where there are the stories of S. Filippo and of Our Lady painted by Andrea del Sarto, he executed between the two doors a very beautiful escutcheon of Pope Leo X. And on the occasion of the visit of that Pontiff to Florence he executed many beautiful ornaments in the form of grotesques on the facade of S. Maria del Fiore, for Jacopo Sansovino, who gave him his sister for wife. He executed the baldachin under which the Pope walked, covering the upper part with most beautiful grotesques, and the hangings round it with the arms of that Pope and other devices of the Church; and this baldachin was afterwards presented to the Church of S. Lorenzo in Florence, where it is still to be seen. He also decorated many standards and banners for the visit of Leo, and in honor of many who were made Chevaliers by that Pontiff and by other Princes, of which there are some hung up in various churches in that city.
Andrea, working constantly in the service of the house of Medici, assisted at the preparations for the wedding of Duke Giuliano and that of Duke Lorenzo, executing an abundance of various ornaments in the form of grotesques; and so, also, in the obsequies of those Princes. In all this he was largely employed by Franciabigio, Andrea del Sarto, Pontormo, and Ridolfo Ghirlandajo, and by Granaccio for triumphal processions and other festivals, since nothing good could be done without him. He was the best man that ever touched a brush, and, being timid by nature, he would never undertake any work on his own account, because he was afraid of exacting the money for his labors. He delighted to work the whole day long, and disliked annoyances of any kind; for which reason he associated himself with the gilder Mariotto di Francesco, one of the most able and skilful men at his work that ever existed in the world of art, very adroit in obtaining commissions, and most dexterous in exacting payments and doing business. This Mariotto also brought the gilder Raffaello di Biagio into the partnership, and the three worked together, sharing equally all the earnings of the commissions that they executed; and this association lasted until death parted them, Mariotto being the last to die.
To return to the works of Andrea; he decorated for Giovanni Maria Benintendi all the ceilings of his house, and executed the ornamentation of the ante-chambers, wherein are the scenes painted by Franciabigio and Jacopo da Pontormo. He went with Franciabigio to Poggio, and executed in terretta the ornaments for all the scenes there in such a way that there is nothing better to be seen. For the Chevalier Guidotti he decorated in sgraffito the facade of his house in the Via Larga, and he also executed another of great beauty for Bartolommeo Panciatichi, on the house (now belonging to Ruberto de' Ricci) which he built on the Piazza degli Agli. Nor am I able to describe all the friezes, coffers, and strong-boxes, or the vast quantity of ceilings, which Andrea decorated with his own hand, for the whole city is full of these, and I must refrain from speaking of them. But I must mention the round escutcheons of various kinds that he made, for they were such that no wedding could take place without his having his workshop besieged by one citizen or another; nor could any kind of brocade, linen, or cloth of gold, with flowered patterns, ever be woven, without his making the designs for them, and that with so much variety, grace, and beauty, that he breathed spirit and life into all such things. If Andrea, indeed, had known his own value, he would have made a vast fortune; but it sufficed him to live in love with his art.
I must not omit to tell that in my youth, while in the service of Duke Alessandro de' Medici, I was commissioned, when Charles V came to Florence, to make the banners for the Castle, or rather, as it is called at the present day, the Citadel; and among these was a standard of crimson cloth, eighteen braccia wide at the staff and forty in length, and surrounded by borders of gold containing the devices of the Emperor Charles V and of the house of Medici, with the arms of his Majesty in the centre. For this work, in which were used forty-five thousand leaves of gold, I summoned to my assistance Andrea for the borders and Mariotto for the gilding; and many things did I learn from that good Andrea, so full of love and kindness for those who were studying art. And so great did the skill of Andrea then prove to be, that, besides availing myself of him for many details of the arches that were erected for the entry of his Majesty, I chose him as my companion, together with Tribolo, when Madama Margherita, daughter of Charles V, came to be married to Duke Alessandro, in making the festive preparations that I executed in the house of the Magnificent Ottaviano de' Medici on the Piazza di S. Marco, which was adorned with grotesques by his hand, with statues by the hand of Tribolo, and with figures and scenes by my hand. At the last he was much employed for the obsequies of Duke Alessandro, and even more for the marriage of Duke Cosimo, when all the devices in the courtyard, described by M. Francesco Giambullari, who wrote an account of the festivities of that wedding, were painted by Andrea with ornaments of great variety. And then Andrea--who, by reason of a melancholy humor which often oppressed him, was on many occasions on the point of taking his own life, but was observed so closely and guarded so well by his companion Mariotto that he lived to be an old man--finished the course of his life at the age of sixty-four, leaving behind him the name of a good and even rarely excellent master of grotesque-painting in our own times, wherein every succeeding craftsman has alalways imitated his manner, not only in Florence, but also in other places.