Vasari's Lives of the Artists

IN THE LAST AGE OF GOLD, as the happy age of Leo X might have been called for all noble craftsmen and men of talent, an honored place was held among the most exalted spirits by Polidoro da Caravaggio, a Lombard, who had not become a painter after long study, but had been created and produced as such by Nature. This master, having come to Rome at the time when the Loggie of the Papal Palace were being built for Leo under the direction of Raffaello da Urbino, carried the pail, or we should rather say the hod, full of lime, for the masons who were doing the work, until he had reached the age of eighteen. But, when Giovanni da Udine had begun to paint there, the building and the painting proceeding together, Polidoro, whose will and inclination were much drawn to painting, could not rest content until he had become intimate with all the most able of the young men, in order to study their methods and manners of art, and to set himself to draw. And out of their number he chose as his companion the Florentine Maturino, who was then working in the Papal Chapel, and was held to be an excellent draughtsman of antiquities. Associating with him, Polidoro became so enamored of that art, that in a few months, having made trial of his powers, he executed works that astonished every person who had known him in his former condition. On which account, the work of the Loggie proceeding, he exercised his hand to such purpose in company with those young painters, who were well-practised and experienced in painting, and learned the art so divinely well, that he did not leave that work without carrying away the true glory of being considered the most noble and most beautiful intellect that was to be found among all their number. Thereupon the love of Maturino for Polidoro, and of Polidoro for Maturino, so increased, that they determined like brothers and true companions to live and die together; and, uniting their ambitions, their purses, and their labors, they set themselves to work together in the closest harmony and concord. But since there were in Rome many who had great fame and reputation, well justified by their works, for making their paintings more lively and vivacious in color and more worthy of praise and favor, there began to enter into their minds the idea of imitating the methods of Baldassarre of Siena, who had executed several facades of houses in chiaroscuro, and of giving their attention thenceforward to that sort of work, which by that time had come into fashion.

They began one, therefore, on Montecavallo, opposite to S. Silvestro, in company with Pellegrino da Modena, which encouraged them to make further efforts to see whether this should be their profession; and they went on to execute another opposite to the side door of S. Salvatore del, and likewise painted a scene by the side door of the Minerva, with another, which is a frieze of marine monsters, above S. Rocco a Ripetta. And during this first period they painted a vast number of them throughout all Rome, but not so good as the others; and there is no need to mention them here, since they afterwards did better work of that sort. Gaining courage, therefore, from this, they began to study the antiquities of Rome, counterfeiting the ancient works of marble in their works in chiaroscuro, so that there remained no vase, statue, sarcophagus, scene, or any single thing, whether broken or entire, which they did not draw and make use of. And with such constancy and resolution did they give their minds to this pursuit, that they both acquired the ancient manner, the work of the one being so like that of the other, that, even as their minds were guided by one and the same will, so their hands expressed one and the same knowledge. And although Maturino was not as well assisted by Nature as Polidoro, so potent was the faithful imitation of one style by the two in company, that, wherever either of them placed his hand, the work of both one and the other, whether in composition, expression, or manner, appeared to be the same.

In the Piazza di Capranica, on the way to the Piazza Colonna, they painted a facade with the Theological Virtues, and a frieze of very beautiful invention beneath the windows, including a draped figure of Rome representing the Faith, and holding the Chalice and the Host in her hands, who has taken captive all the nations of the earth; and all mankind is flocking up to bring her tribute, while the Turks, overcome at the last, are shooting arrows at the tomb of Mahomet; all ending in the words of Scripture, "There shall be one fold and one Shepherd." And, indeed, they had no equals in invention; of which we have witness in all their works, abounding in personal ornaments, vestments, foot-wear, and things bizarre and strange, and executed with an incredible beauty. And another proof is that their works are continually being drawn by all the foreign painters; wherefore they conferred greater benefits on the art of painting with the beautiful manner that they displayed and with their marvellous facility, than have all the others together who have lived from Cimabue downwards. It has been seen continually, therefore, in Rome, and is still seen, that all the draughtsmen are inclined more to the works of Polidoro and Maturino than to all the rest of our modern pictures.

In the Borgo Nuovo they executed a faŤade in sgraffito, and on the Canto della Pace another likewise in sgraffito; with a facade of the house of the Spinoli, not far from that last-mentioned, on the way to the Parione, containing athletic contests according to the custom of the ancients, and their sacrifices, and the death of Tarpeia. Near the Torre di Nona, on the side towards the Ponte S. Angelo, may be seen a little facade with the Triumph of Camillus and an ancient sacrifice. In the road that leads to the Imagine di Ponte, there is a most beautiful faŤade with the story of Perillus, showing him being placed in the bronze bull that he had made; wherein great effort may be seen in those who are thrusting him into that bull, and terror in those who are waiting to behold a death so unexampled, besides which there is the seated figure of Phalaris (so I believe), ordaining with an imperious air of great beauty the punishment of the inhuman spirit that had invented a device so novel and so cruel in order to put men to death with greater suffering. In this work, also, may be perceived a very beautiful frieze of children, painted to look like bronze, and other figures. Higher up than this they painted the facade of the house where there is the image which is called the Imagine di Ponte, wherein are seen several stories illustrated by them, with the Senatorial Order dressed in the garb of ancient Rome. And in the Piazza della Dogana, beside S. Eustachio, there is a facade of battle-pieces; and within that church, on the right as one enters, may be perceived a little chapel with figures painted by Polidoro.

They also executed another above the Farnese Palace for the Cepperelli, and a facade behind the Minerva in the street that leads to the Maddaleni; and in the latter, which contains scenes from Roman history, may be seen, among other beautiful things, a frieze of children in triumph, painted to look like bronze, and executed with supreme grace and extraordinary beauty. On the facade of the Buoni Auguri, near the Minerva, are some very beautiful stories of Romulus, showing him when he is marking out the site of his city with the plough, and when the vultures are flying over him; wherein the vestments, features, and persons of the ancients are so well imitated, that it truly appears as if these were the very men themselves. Certain it is that in that field of art no man ever had such power of design, such practised mastery, a more beautiful manner, or greater facility. And every craftsman is so struck with wonder every time that he sees these works, that he cannot but be amazed at the manner in which Nature has been able in this age to present her marvels to us by means of these men.

Below the Corte Savella, also, on the house bought by Signora Costanza, they painted the Rape of the Sabines, a scene which reveals the raging desire of the captors no less clearly than the terror and panic of the wretched women thus carried off by various soldiers, some on horseback and others in other ways. And not only in this one scene are there such conceptions, but also (and even more) in the stories of Mucius and Horatius, and in the Flight of Porsena, King of Tuscany. In the garden of M. Stefano dal Bufalo, near the Fountain of Trevi, they executed some most beautiful scenes of the Fount of Parnassus, in which they made grotesques and little figures, painted very well in color. On the house of Baldassini, also, near S. Agostino, they executed scenes and sgraffiti, with some heads of Emperors over the windows in the court. On Montecavallo, near S. Agata, they painted a facade with a vast number of different stories, such as the Vestal Tuccia bringing water from the Tiber to the Temple in a sieve, and Claudia drawing the ship with her girdle; and also the rout effected by Camillus while Brennus is weighing the gold. On another wall, round the corner, are Romulus and his brother being suckled by the wolf, and the terrible combat of Horatius, who is defending the head of the bridge, alone against a thousand swords, while behind him are many very beautiful figures in various attitudes, working with might and main to hew away the bridge with pickaxes. There, also, is Mucius Scaevola, who, before the eyes of Porsena, is burning his own hand, which had erred in slaying the King's minister in place of the King; and in the King's face may be seen disdain and a desire for vengeance. And within that house they executed a number of landscapes.

They decorated the facade of S. Pietro in Vincula, painting therein stories of S. Peter, with some large figures of Prophets. And so widespread was the fame of these masters by reason of the abundance of their work, that the pictures painted by them with such beauty in public places enabled them to win extraordinary praise in their lifetime, with glory infinite and eternal through the number of their imitators after death. On a facade, also, in the square where stands the Palace of the Medici, behind the Piazza Navona, they painted the Triumphs of Paulus Emilius, with a vast number of other Roman stories. And at S. Silvestro di Montecavallo they executed some little things for Fra Mariano, both in the house and in the garden; and in the church they painted his chapel, with two scenes in colour from the life of S. Mary Magdalene, in which the disposition of the landscapes is executed with supreme grace and judgment. For Polidoro, in truth, executed landscapes and groups of trees and rocks better than any other painter, and it is to him that art owes that facility which our modern craftsmen show in their works.

They also painted many apartments and friezes in various houses at Rome, executing them with colors in fresco and in distemper; but these works were attempted by them as trials, because they were never able to achieve with colors that beauty which they always displayed in their works in chiaroscuro, in their imitations of bronze, or in terretta. This may still be seen in the house of Torre Sanguigna, which once belonged to the Cardinal of Volterra, on the facade of which they painted a most beautiful decoration in chiaroscuro, and in the interior some figures in color, the painting of which is so badly executed, that in it they diverted from its true excellence the good design which they always had. And this appeared all the more strange because of there being beside them an escutcheon of Pope Leo, with nude figures, by the hand of Giovan Francesco Vetraio, who would have done extraordinary things if death had not taken him from our midst. However, not cured by this of their insane confidence, they also painted some children in color for the altar of the Martelli in S. Agostino at Rome, a work which Jacopo Sansovino completed by making a Madonna of marble; and these children appear to be by the hands, not of illustrious masters, but of simpletons just beginning to learn. Whereas, on the side where the altar cloth covers the altar, Polidoro painted a little scene of a Dead Christ with the Maries, which is a most beautiful work, showing that in truth that sort of work was more their profession than the use of colors.

Returning, therefore, to their usual work, they painted two very beautiful facades in the Campo Marzio; one with the stories of Ancus Martius, and the other with the Festivals of the Saturnalia, formerly celebrated in that place, with all the two-horse and four-horse chariots circling round the obelisks, which are held to be most beautiful, because they are so well executed both in design and in nobility of manner, that they reproduce most vividly those very spectacles as representations of which they were painted. On the Canto della Chiavica, on the way to the Corte Savella, they painted a facade which is a divine thing, and is held to be the most beautiful of all the beautiful works that they executed; for, in addition to the story of the maidens passing over the Tiber, there is at the foot, near the door, a Sacrifice painted with marvellous industry and art, wherein may be seen duly represented all the instruments and all those ancient customs that used to have a place in sacrifices of that kind. Near the Piazza del Popolo, below S. Jacopo degli Incurabili, they painted a faŤade with stories of Alexander the Great, which is held to be very fine; and there they depicted the ancient statues of the Nile and the Tiber from the Belvedere. Near S. Simeone they painted the facade of the Gaddi Palace, which is truly a cause of marvel and amazement, when one observes the lovely vestments in it, so many and so various, and the vast number of ancient helmets, girdles, buskins, and barques, adorned with all the delicacy and abundance of detail that an inventive imagination could conceive. There, with a multitude of beautiful things which overload the memory, are represented all the ways of the ancients, the statues of sages, and most lovely women: and there are all the sorts of ancient sacrifices with their ritual, and an army in the various stages between embarking and fighting with an extraordinary variety of arms and implements, all executed with such grace and finished with such masterly skill, that the eye is dazzled by the vast abundance of beautiful inventions. Opposite to this is a smaller facade, which could not be improved in beauty and variety; and there, in the frieze, is the story of Niobe causing herself to be worshipped, with the people bringing tribute, vases, and various kinds of gifts; which story was depicted by them with such novelty, grace, art, force of relief and genius every part, that it would certainly take too long to describe the whole. Next, there follows the wrath of Latona, and her terrible vengeance on the children of the over-proud Niobe, whose seven sons are slain by Phoebus and the seven daughters by Diana; with an endless number of figures in imitation of bronze, which appear to be not painted but truly of metal. Above these are executed other scenes, with some vases in imitation of gold, innumerable things of fancy so strange that mortal eye could not picture anything more novel or more beautiful, and certain Etruscan helmets; but one is left confused by the variety and abundance of the conceptions, so beautiful and so fanciful, which issued from their minds. These works have been imitated by a vast number of those who labor at that branch of art. They also painted the courtyard of that house, and likewise the loggia, which they decorated with little grotesques in color that are held to be divine. In short, all that they touched they brought to perfection with infinite grace and beauty; and if I were to name all their works, I should fill a whole book with the performances of these two masters alone, since there is no apartment, palace, garden, or villa in Rome that does not contain some work by Polidoro and Maturino.

Now, while Rome was rejoicing and clothing herself in beauty with their labors, and they were awaiting the reward of all their toil, the envy of Fortune, in the year 1527, sent Bourbon to Rome; and he gave that city over to sack. Whereupon was divided the companionship not only of Polidoro and Maturino, but of all the thousands of friends and relatives who had broken bread together for so many years in Rome. Maturino took to flight, and no long time passed before he died, so it is believed in Rome, of plague, in consequence of the hardships that he had suffered in the sack, and was buried in S. Eustachio. Polidoro turned his steps to Naples; but on his arrival, the noblemen of that city taking but little interest in fine works of painting, he was like to die of hunger. Working, therefore, at the commission of certain painters, he executed a S. Peter in the principal chapel of S. Maria della Grazia; and in this way he assisted those painters in many things, more to save his life than for any other reason. However, the fame of his talents having spread abroad, he executed for Count ... [sic] a vault painted in distemper, together with some walls, all of which is held to be very beautiful work. In like manner, he executed a courtyard in chiaroscuro for Signor ... [sic] , with some loggie, which are very beautiful, rich in ornaments, and well painted. He also painted for S. Angelo, beside the Pescheria at Naples, a little panel in oils, containing a Madonna and some naked figures of souls in torment, which is held to be most beautiful, but more for the drawing than for the coloring; and likewise some pictures for the Chapel of the High Altar, each with a single full-length figure, and all executed in the same manner.

It came to pass that Polidoro, living in Naples and seeing his talents held in little esteem, determined to take his leave of men who thought more of a horse that could jump than of a master whose hands could give to painted figures the appearance of life. Going on board ship, therefore, he made his way to Messina, where, finding more consideration and more honor, he set himself to work; and thus, working continually, he acquired good skill and mastery in the use of color. Thereupon he executed many works, which are dispersed in various places; and turning his attention to architecture, he gave proof of his worth in many buildings that he erected. After a time, Charles V passing through Messina on his return from victory in Tunis, Polidoro made in his honor most beautiful triumphal arches, from which he gained vast credit and rewards. And then this master, who was always burning with desire to revisit Rome, which afflicts with an unceasing yearning those who have lived there many years, when making trial of other countries, painted as his last work in Messina a panel picture of Christ bearing the Cross, executed in oils with much excellence and very pleasing color. In it he made a number of figures accompanying Christ to His Death--soldiers, pharisees, horses, women, children, and the Thieves in front; and he kept firmly before his mind the consideration of how such an execution must have been marshalled, insomuch that his nature seemed to have striven to show its highest powers in this work, which is indeed most excellent. After this he sought many times to shake himself free of that country, although he was looked upon with favor there; but he had a reason for delay in a woman, beloved by him for many years, who detained him with her sweet words and cajoleries. However, so mightily did his desire to revisit Rome and his friends work in him, that he took from his bank a good sum of money that he possessed, and, wholly determined, prepared to depart.

Polidoro had employed as his assistant for a long time a lad of the country, who bore greater love to his master's money than to his master; but, the money being kept, as has been said, in the bank, he was never able to lay his hands upon it and carry it off. Wherefore, an evil and cruel thought entering his head, he resolved to put his master to death with the help of some accomplices, on the following night, while he was sleeping, and then to divide the money with them. And so, assisted by his friends, he set upon Polidoro in his first sleep, while he was slumbering deeply, and strangled him with a cloth. Then, giving him several wounds, they made sure of his death; and in order to prove that it was not they who had done it, they carried him to the door of the woman whom he had loved, making it appear that her relatives or other persons of the house had killed him. The assistant gave a good part of the money to the villains who had committed so hideous an outrage, and bade them be off. In the morning he went in tears to the house of a certain Count, a friend of his dead master, and related the event to him; but for all the diligence that was used for many days in seeking for the perpetrator of the crime, nothing came to light. By the will of God, however, nature and virtue, in disdain at being wounded by the hand of fortune, so worked in one who had no interest in the matter, that he declared it to be impossible that any other but the assistant himself could have committed the murder. Whereupon the Count had him seized and put to the torture, and without the application of any further torment he confessed the crime and was condemned by the law to the gallows; but first he was torn with red-hot pincers on the way to execution, and finally quartered.

For all this, however, life was not restored to Polidoro, nor was there given back to the art of painting a genius so resolute and so extraordinary, such as had not been seen in the world for many an age. If, indeed, at the time when he died, invention, grace, and boldness in the painting of figures could have laid down their lives, they would have died with him. Happy was the union of nature and art which embodied a spirit so noble in human form; and cruel was the envy and hatred of his fate and fortune, which robbed him of life with so strange a death, but shall never through all the ages rob him of his name. His obsequies were performed with full solemnity, and he was given burial in the Cathedral Church, lamented bitterly by all Messina, in the year 1543.

Great, indeed, is the obligation owed by craftsmen to Polidoro, in that he enriched art with a great abundance of vestments, all different and most strange, and of varied ornaments, and gave grace and adornment to all his works, and likewise made figures of every sort, animals, buildings, grotesques, and landscapes, all so beautiful, that since his day whosoever has aimed at catholicity has imitated him. It is a marvellous thing and a fearsome to see from the example of this master the instability of Fortune and what she can bring to pass, causing men to become excellent in some profession from whom something quite different might have been expected, to the no small vexation of those who have labored in vain for many years at the same art. It is a marvellous thing, I repeat, to see those same men, after much travailing and striving, brought by that same Fortune to a miserable and most unhappy end at the very moment when they were hoping to enjoy the fruits of their labours; and that with calamities so monstrous and terrible, that pity herself takes to flight, art is outraged, and benefits are repaid with an extraordinary and incredible ingratitude. Wherefore, even as painting may rejoice in the fruitful life of Polidoro, so could he complain of Fortune, which at one time showed herself friendly to him, only to bring him afterwards, when it was least expected, to a dreadful death.

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