Antonio Rossellino. St. John the Baptist as a Boy. Marble, circa 1470. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
IT HAS EVER BEEN a truly laudable and virtuous thing to be modest and to be adorned with that gentleness and those rare qualities that are easily recognized in the honorable actions of the sculptor Antonio Rossellino, who put so much grace into his art that he was esteemed by all who knew him as something much more than man, and adored almost as a saint, for those supreme virtues that were united to his talent. Antonio was called Rossellino dal Proconsolo, because he ever had his shop in a part of Florence called by that name, He showed such sweetness and delicacy in his works, with a finish and a refinement so perfect, that his manner may be rightly called the true one and truly modern.
For the Palace of the Medici he made the marble fountain that is in the second court; in which fountain are certain children opening the mouths of dolphins that pour out water; and the whole is finished with consummate grace and with a most diligent manner. In the Church of Santa Croce, near the holy-water basin, he made a tomb for Francesco Nori, with a Madonna in low-relief above it; and another Madonna in the house of the Tornabuoni, together with many other things sent to various foreign parts, such as a tomb of marble for Lyons in France.
At San Miniato al Monte, a monastery of White Friars without the walls of Florence, he was commissioned to make the tomb of the Cardinal of Portugal, which was executed by him so marvelously and with such great diligence and art, that no craftsman can ever expect to be able to see any work likely to surpass it in any respect whatsoever with regard to finish or grace. And in truth, if one examines it, it appears not merely difficult but impossible for it to have been executed so well; for certain angels in the work reveal such grace, beauty, and art in their expressions and their draperies, that they appear not merely made of marble but absolutely alive. One of these is holding the crown of chastity of that Cardinal, who is said to have died celibate; the other bears the palm of victory, which he had won from the world. Among the many most masterly things that are there, one is an arch of grey-stone supporting a looped-back curtain of marble, which is so highly-finished that, what with the white of the marble and the grey of the stone, it appears more like real cloth than like marble. On the sarcophagus are some truly very beautiful boys and the dead man himself, with a Madonna, very well wrought, in a medallion. The sarcophagus has the shape of one made of porphyry which is in the Piazza della Ritonda in Rome.
This tomb of the Cardinal was erected in 1459; and its form, with the architecture of the chapel, gave so much satisfaction to the Duke of Malfi, nephew of Pope Pius II, that he had another made in Naples by the hand of the same master for his wife, similar to the other in every respect save in the figure of the dead. For this, moreover, Antonio made a panel containing the Nativity of Christ and the Manger, with a choir of angels over the hut, dancing and singing with open mouths, in such a manner, that he truly seems to have given them all possible movement and expression short of breath itself, and that with so much grace and so high a finish, that iron tools and manUs intelligence could effect nothing more in marble. Wherefore his works have been much esteemed by Michelagnolo and by all the rest of the supremely excellent craftsmen. In the Pieve of Empoli he made a St. Sebastian of marble, which is held to be a very beautiful work; and of this we have a drawing by his hand in our book, together with others of all the architecture and the figures in the said chapel in San Miniato al Monte, and likewise his own portrait.
Antonio finally died in Florence at the age of forty-six, leaving a brother called Bernardo, an architect and sculptor, who made a marble tomb in Santa Croce for Messer Lionardo Bruni of Arezzo, who wrote the History of Florence and was a very learned man, as all the world knows. This Bernardo was much esteemed for his knowledge of architecture by Pope Nichols V, who loved him dearly and made use of him in very many works that he carried out in his pontificated, of which he would have executed even more if death had not intervened to hinder the works that he had in mind. He caused him, therefore, according to the account of Giannozzo Manetti, to reconstruct the Piazza of Fabriano, in the year when he spent some months there by reason of the plague; and whereas it was narrow and badly designed, he enlarged it and brought it to a good shape, surrounding it with a row of shops, which were useful, very commodious, and very beautiful.
After this he restored and founded anew the Church of San Francesco in the same district, which was going to ruin. At Gualdo he rebuilt the Church of San Benedetto; almost anew, it may be said, for he added to it good and beautiful buildings. At Assisi he made new and stout foundations and a new roof for the Church of San Francesco, which was ruined in certain parts and threatened to go to ruin in certain others. At Civitavecchia he built many beautiful and magnificent edifices. At Civita Castellana he rebuilt more than a third part of the walls in a good form. At Narni he rebuilt the fortress, enlarging it with good and beautiful walls. At Orvieto he made a great fortress with a most beautiful palace--a work of great cost and no less magnificence. At Spoleto, likewise, he enlarged and strengthened the fortress, making within it dwellings so beautiful, so commodious, and so well conceived, that nothing better could be seen. He restored the baths of Viterbo at great expense and in a truly royal spirit, making certain dwellings there that would have been worthy not merely of the invalids who went to bathe there every day, but of the greatest of Princes. All these works were executed by the said Pontiff without the city of Rome, from the designs of Bernardo.
In Rome he restored, and in many places renewed, the walls of the city, which were for the greater part in ruins; adding to them certain towers, and enclosing within these some new fortifications that he built without the Castle of SantUAngelo, with many apartments and decorations that he made within. The said Pontiff also had a project in his mind, of which he brought the greater part nearly to completion, of restoring or rebuilding, according as it might be necessary, the forty Churches of the Stations formerly instituted by the Saint, Pope Gregory I, who received the surname of Great. Thus he restored Santa Maria Trastevere, Santa Prassedia, San Teodoro, San Pietro in Vincula, and many other minor churches. But it was with much greater zeal, adornment, and diligence that he did this for six of the seven greater and principal churches--namely, San Giovanni Laterano, Santa Maria Maggiore, Santo Stefano in Celio Monte, Sant'Apostolo, San Paolo, and San Lorenzo extra muros. I say nothing of San Pietro, for of this he made an undertaking by itself.
The same Pope was minded to make the whole of the Vatican into a separate city, in the form of a fortress; and for this he was designing three roads that should lead to San Pietro, situated, I believe, where the Borgo Vecchio and the Borgo Nuovo now are; and on both sides of these roads he meant to build loggie, with very commodious shops, keeping the nobler and richer trades separate from the humbler, and grouping each in a street by itself. He had already built the Great Round Tower, which is still called the Torrione di Niccola. Over these shops and loggie were to be erected magnificent and commodious houses, built in a very beautiful and very practical style of architecture, and designed in such a manner as to be sheltered and protected from all the pestiferous winds of Rome, and freed from all the inconveniences of water and garbage likely to generate unhealthy exhalations. All this the said Pontiff would have finished if he had been granted a little longer life, for he had a great and resolute spirit, and an understanding so profound, that he gave as much guidance and direction to the craftsmen as they gave to him. When this is so, and when the patron has knowledge of his own and capacity enough to take an immediate resolution, great enterprises can be easily brought to completion; whereas an irresolute and incapable man, wavering between yes and no in a sea of conflicting designs and opinions, very often lets time slip past unprofitably without doing anything. But of this design of Nicholas there is no need to say any more, since it was not carried into effect.
Besides this, he wished to build the Papal Palace with so much magnificence and grandeur, and with so many conveniences and such loveliness, that it might be in all respects the greatest and most beautiful edifice in Christendom; and he intended that it should not only serve for the person of the Supreme Pontiff, the Chief of all Christians, and for the sacred college of Cardinals, who, being his counselors and assistants, had always to be about him, but also that it should provide accommodation for the transaction of all the business, resolutions, and judicial affairs of the Court; so that the grouping together of all the offices and courts would have produced great magnificence, and, if such a word may be used in such a context, an effect of incredible pomp. What is infinitely more, it was meant for the reception of all Emperors, Kings, Dukes, and other Christian Princes who might, either on affairs of their own or out of devotion, visit that most holy apostolic seat.
It is incredible, but he proposed to make there a theatre for the crowning of the Pontiffs, with gardens, loggie, aqueducts, fountains, chapels, libraries, and a most beautiful building set apart for the Conclave. In short, this edifice--I know not whether I should call it palace, or castle, or city--would have been the most superb work that had ever been made, so far as is known, from the Creation of the world to our own day. What great glory it would have been for the Holy Roman Church to see the Supreme Pontiff, her Chief, gather together, as into the most famous and most holy of monasteries, all those ministers of God who dwell in the city of Rome, to live there, as it were in a new earthly Paradise, a celestial, angelic, and most holy life, giving an example to all Christendom, and awakening the minds of the infidels to the true worship of God and of the Blessed Jesus Christ! But this great work remained unfinished--nay, scarcely begun--by reason of the death of that Pontiff; and the little that was carried out is known by his arms, or the device that he used as his arms, namely, tow keys crossed on a field of red. The fifth of the five works that the same Pope intended to execute was the Church of San Pietro, which he had proposed to make so vast, so rich, and so ornate, that it is better to be silent than to attempt to speak of it, because I could not describe even the least part of it, and the rather as the model was afterwards destroyed, and others have been made by other architects. If any man wishes to gain a full knowledge of the grand conception of Pope Nicholas V in this matter, let him read what Giannozzo Manetti, a noble and learned citizen of Florence, has written with the most minute detail in the Life of the said Pontiff, who availed himself in all the aforesaid designs, as has been said, as well as in his others, of the intelligence and great industry of Bernardo Rossellino.
Antonio, brother of Bernardo (to return at length to the point whence, with so fair an occasion, I digressed), wrought his sculptures about the year 1490; and since the more menUs works display diligence and difficulties the more they are admired, and these two characteristics are particularly noticeable in AntonioUs works, he deserves fame and honor as a most illustrious example from which modern sculptors have been able to learn how those statues should be made that are to secure the greatest praise and fame by reason of their difficulties. For after Donatello he did most towards adding a certain finish and refinement to the art of sculpture, seeking to give such depth and roundness to his figures that they appear wholly round and finished, a quality which had not been seen to such perfection in sculpture up to that time; and since he first introduced it, in the ages after his and in our own it appears a marvel.