Detail. The Last Supper. 1481/1482. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.
Vasari's Lives of the Artists
MANY MEN take an unholy delight in covering others with ridicule and scorn, a delight which generally turns to their own confusion, as it came to pass in the case of Cosimo Rosselli, who threw back on their own heads the ridicule of those who sought to vilify his labors. This Cosimo, although he was not one of the rarest or most excellent painters of his time, nevertheless made works that were passing good. In his youth he painted a panel in the Church of S. Ambrogio in Florence , which is on the right hand as one enters the church; and three figures over an arch for the Nuns of S. Jacopo delle Murate. In the Church of' the Servi, also in Florence, he painted the panel of the Chapel of S. Barbara; and in the first court, before one enters into the church, he wrought in fresco the story of the Blessed Filippo taking the Habit of Our Lady. For the Monks of Cestello he painted the panel of their high altar, with another in a chapel in the same church; and likewise that one which is in a little church above the Bernardino, beside the entrance to Cestello. He painted a standard for the children of the Company of the said Bernardino, and likewise that of the Company of S. Giorgio, on which there is an Annunciation.
For the aforesaid Nuns of S. Ambrogio he painted the Chapel of the Miracle of the Sacrament, which is a passing good work, and is held the best of his in Florence; in this he counterfeited a procession on the piazza of that church, with the Bishop bearing the Tabernacle of the said Miracle, accompanied by the clergy and by an infinity of citizens and women in costumes of those times. Here, among many others, is a portrait from life of Pico della Mirandola, so excellently wrought that it appears not a portrait but a living man. In the Church of San Martino in Lucca, by the entrance into the church through the lesser door of the principal facade, on the right hand, he painted a scene of Nicodemus making the statue of the Holy Cross, and then that statue being brought by sea in a boat and by land to Lucca. In this work are many portraits, and in particular that of Paolo Guinigi, which he copied from one done in clay by Jacopo della Fonte [Jacopo della Quercia] when the latter made the tomb of Paolo's wife. In San Marco at Florence, in the Chapel of the Cloth Weavers, he painted a panel with the Holy Cross in the middle, and, at the sides, St. Mark, St. John the Evangelist, St. Antonino, Archbishop of Florence, and other figures.
Being afterwards summoned, with the other painters, to execute the work that Pope Sixtus IV had undertaken in the Chapel of the Palace, he labored there in company with Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio , the Abbot of San Clemente, Luca da Cortona, and Pietro Perugino, and painted three scenes with his own hand, wherein he depicted the Submersion of Pharaoh in the Red Sea, the Preaching of Christ to the people on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias, and the Last Supper of the Apostles with the Savior. In this last scene he made an octagonal table drawn in perspective, with the ceiling above it likewise octagonal, the eight angles of which he foreshortened so well as to show that he had as good a knowledge of this art as any of the others. It is said that the Pope had offered a prize, which was to be given to the man who, in the judgment of the Pontiff himself, should turn out to have done the best work in these pictures.
The scenes finished, therefore, His Holiness went to see them; and each of the painters had done his utmost to merit the said prize and honor. Cosimo, feeling himself weak in invention and draughtsmanship, had sought to conceal his shortcomings by covering his work with the finest ultramarine blues and other lively colors, and had illuminated his scenes with a plentiful amount of gold, so that there was no tree, or plant, or drapery, or cloud, that was not thus illuminated; for he was convinced that the Pope, like a man who knew little of that art, must therefore give him the prize of victory. When the day arrived on which the works of all were to be unveiled, that of Cosimo was seen with the rest, and was scorned and ridiculed with much laughter and jeering by all the other craftsmen, who all mocked him instead of having compassion on him. But the scorners turned out to be the scorned, for, as Cosimo had foreseen, those colors at the first glance so dazzled the eyes of the Pope, who had little knowledge of such things, although he took no little delight in them, that he judged the work of Cosimo to be much better than that of the others. And so, causing the prize to be given to him, he bade all the others cover their pictures with the best blues that could be found, and to pick them out with gold, to the end that they might be similar to those of Cosimo in coloring and in richness. Whereupon the poor painters, in despair at having to satisfy the small intelligence of the Holy Father, set themselves to spoil all the good work that they had done; and Cosimo laughed at the men who had just been laughing at his methods.
Afterwards, returning to Florence with some money, he set himself to work as usual, living much at his ease, and having as his companion that Piero, his disciple, who was ever called Piero di Cosimo, and who assisted him in his labors in the Sistine Chapel at Rome, and painted there, besides other things, a landscape in the picture of the Preaching of Christ, which landscape is held to be the best thing there. Andrea di Cosimo also worked with him, occupying himself much with grotesques. Finally, having reached the age of sixty-eight, Cosimo died in the year 1484, wasted away by a long infirmity; and he was buried in Santa Croce by the Company of Bernardino.
Cosimo took so much delight in alchemy that he wasted therein all that he possessed, as all do who meddle with it, insomuch that it swallowed up all his means and finally reduced him from easy circumstances to the greatest poverty. He was a very good draughtsman, as may be seen in our book, not only from the drawing of the aforesaid story of the Preaching which he painted in the Sistine Chapel, but also from many others made with the style and in chiaroscuro. And in the said book we have his portrait by the hand of Agnolo di Donnino, a painter who was much his friend. This Agnolo showed great diligence in his works, as may be seen, not to mention his drawings, in the loggia of the Hospital of Bonifazio, where, upon the corbel of a vault, there is a Trinity in fresco by his hand; and beside the door of the said hospital, where the foundlings now live, there are certain beggars painted by the same man, with the Director receiving them, all very well wrought, and likewise certain women. This man spent his life laboring and wasting all his time over drawings, without putting them into execution; and at length he died as poor as he could well be. But to return to Cosimo; he left only one son, who was a builder and a passing good architect.