Judgment of Solomon. 1508/1510. National Trust, Kingston Lacey, Wimburne (Dorsetshire).
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SEBASTIANO VENEZIANO DEL PIOMBO (SEBASTIANO DEL PIOMBO) (1485-1547)
PAINTER

Vasari's Lives of the Artists


The first profession of Sebastiano, so many declare, was not painting, but music, since, besides being a singer, he much delighted to play various kinds of instruments, and particularly the lute, because on that instrument all the parts can be played, without any accompaniment. This art made him for a time very dear to the gentlemen of Venice, with whom, as a man of talent, he always associated on intimate terms. Then, having been seized while still young with a desire to give his attention to painting, he learned the first rudiments from Giovanni Bellini, at that time an old man. And afterwards, when Giorgione da Castelfranco had established in that city the methods of the modern manner, with its superior harmony and its brilliancy of coloring, Sebastiano left Giovanni and placed himself under Giorgione, with whom he stayed so long that in great measure he acquired his manner. He thus executed in Venice some portraits from life that were very like; among others, that of the Frenchman Verdelotto, a most excellent musician, who was then chapel master in S. Marco, and in the same picture that of his companion Uberto, a singer, which picture Verdelotto took with him to Florence when he became chapel master in S. Giovanni; and at the present day the sculptor Francesco da San Gallo has it in his house. About that time he also painted for S. Giovanni Grisostomo at Venice an altarpiece with some figures which incline so much to the manner of Giorgione, that they have been sometimes held by people without much knowledge of the matters of art to be by the hand of Giorgione himself. This altarpiece is very beautiful, and executed with such a manner of coloring that it has great relief.

The fame of the abilities of Sebastiano thus spreading abroad, Agostino Chigi of Siena, a very rich merchant, who had many affairs in Venice, hearing him much praised in Rome, sought to draw him to that city, being attracted towards him because, besides his painting, he knew so well how to play on the lute, and was sweet and pleasant in his conversation. Nor was it very difficult to draw Sebastiano to Rome, since he knew how much that place had always been the benefactress and common mother-city of all beautiful intellects, and he went thither with no ordinary willingness. Having therefore gone to Rome, Agostino set him to work, and the first thing that he caused him to do was to paint the little arches that are over the loggia which looks into the garden of Agostino's palace in the Trastevere, where Baldassarre of Siena had painted all the vaulting, on which little arches Sebastiano painted some poetical compositions in the manner that he had brought from Venice, which was very different from that which was followed in Rome by the able painters of that day. After this work, Raffaello having executed a story of Galatea in the same place, Sebastiano, at the desire of Agostino, painted beside it a Polyphemus in fresco, in which, spurred by rivalry with Baldassarre of Siena and then with Raffaello, he strove his utmost to surpass himself, whatever may have been the result. He likewise painted some works in oils, for which, from his having learned from Giorgione a method of colouring of no little softness, he was held in vast account at Rome.

While Sebastiano was executing these works in Rome, Raffaello da Urbino had risen into such credit as a painter, that his friends and adherents said that his pictures were more in accord with the rules of painting than those of Michelagnolo, being pleasing in colour, beautiful in invention, and charming in the expressions, with design in keeping with the rest; and that those of Buonarroti had none of those qualities, with the exception of the design. And for such reasons these admirers judged that in the whole field of painting Raffaello was, if not more excellent than Michelagnolo, at least his equal; but in coloring they would have it that he surpassed Buonarroti without a doubt. These humours, having spread among a number of craftsmen who preferred the grace of Raffaello to the profundity of Michelagnolo, had so increased that many, for various reasons of interest, were more favorable in their judgments to Raffaello than to Michelagnolo. But Sebastiano was in no way a follower of that faction, since, being a man of exquisite judgment, he knew the value of each of the two to perfection. The mind of Michelagnolo, therefore, drew towards Sebastiano, whose coloring and grace pleased him much, and he took him under his protection, thinking that, if he were to assist Sebastiano in design, he would be able by this means, without working himself, to confound those who held such an opinion, remaining under cover of a third person as judge to decide which of them was the best.

While the matter stood thus, and some works that Sebastiano had executed were being much extolled, and even exalted to infinite heights on account of the praise that Michelagnolo bestowed on them, besides the fact that they were in themselves beautiful and worthy of praise, a certain person from Viterbo, I know not who, much in favor with the Pope, commissioned Sebastiano to paint a Dead Christ, with a Madonna who is weeping over Him, for a chapel that he had caused to be built in S. Francesco at Viterbo. That work was held by all who saw it to be truly most beautiful, for the invention and the cartoon were by Michelagnolo, although it was finished with great diligence by Sebastiano, who painted in it a dark landscape that was much extolled, and thereby Sebastiano acquired very great credit, and confirmed the opinions of those who favored him. Wherefore Pier Francesco Borgherini, a Florentine merchant, who had taken over a chapel in S. Pietro in Montorio, which is on the right as one enters the church, allotted it at the suggestion of Michelagnolo to Sebastiano, because Borgherini thought that Michelagnolo would execute the design of the whole work, as indeed he did. Sebastiano, therefore, having set to work, executed it with such zeal and diligence, that it was held to be, as it is, a very beautiful piece of painting. From the small design by Michelagnolo he made some larger ones for his own convenience, and one of these, a very beautiful thing, which he drew with his own hand, is in our book. Thinking that he had discovered the true method of painting in oils on walls, Sebastiano covered the rough-cast of that chapel with an incrustation which seemed to him likely to be suitable for this purpose; and the whole of that part in which is Christ being scourged at the Column he executed in oils on the wall.

Nor must I omit to tell that many believe not only that Michelagnolo made the small design for this work, but also that the above-mentioned Christ who is being scourged at the Column was outlined by him, for there is a vast difference between the excellence of this figure and that of the others. Even if Sebastiano had executed no other work but this, for it alone he would deserve to be praised to all eternity, seeing that, in addition to the heads, which are very well painted, there are in the work some hands and feet of great beauty; and although his manner was a little hard, on account of the labour that he endured in the things that he counterfeited, nevertheless he can be numbered among the good and praiseworthy craftsmen. Above this scene he painted two Prophets in fresco, and on the vaulting the Transfiguration; and the two Saints, S. Peter and S. Francis, who are on either side of the scene below, are very bold and animated figures. It is true that he labored for six years over this little work, but when works are executed to perfection, one should not consider whether they have been finished quickly or slowly, although more praise is due to him who carries his labours to completion both quickly and well; and he who pleads haste as an excuse when his works do not give satisfaction, unless he has been forced to it, is accusing rather than excusing himself. When this work was uncovered, it was seen that Sebastiano had done well, although he had oiled much over painting it, so that the evil tongues were silenced and there were few who found fault with him.

After this, when Raffaello painted for Cardinal de' Medici, for sending to France, that altarpiece containing the Transfiguration of Christ which was placed after his death on the principal altar of S. Pietro a Montorio, Sebastiano also executed at the same time another altarpiece of the same size, as it were in competition with Raffaello, of Lazarus being raised from the dead four days after death, which was counterfeited and painted with supreme diligence under the direction of Michelagnolo, and in some parts from his design. These altarpieces, when finished, were publicly exhibited together in the Consistory, and were vastly extolled, both the one and the other; and although the works of Raffaello had no equals in their perfect grace and beauty, nevertheless the labours of Sebastiano were also praised by all without exception. One of these pictures was sent by Cardinal Giulio de' Medici to his episcopal palace at Narbonne in France, and the other was placed in the Cancelleria, where it remained until it was taken to S. Pietro a Montorio, together with the ornamental frame that Giovan Barile executed for it. By means of this work Sebastiano became closely connected with the Cardinal, and was therefore honourably rewarded during his pontificate.

Not long afterwards, Raffaello having passed away, the first place in the art of painting was unanimously granted by all, thanks to the favor of Michelagnolo, to Sebastiano, and Giulio Romano, Giovan Francesco of Florence, Perino del Vaga, Polidoro, Maturino, Baldassarre of Siena, and all the others had to give way. Wherefore Agostino Chigi, who had been having a chapel and tomb built for himself under the direction of Raffaello in S. Maria del Popolo, came to an agreement with Sebastiano that he should paint it all; whereupon the screen was made, but the chapel remained covered, without ever being seen by anyone, until the year 1554, at which time Luigi, the son of Agostino, resolved that, although his father had not been able to see it finished, he at least would do so. And so, the chapel and the altarpiece being entrusted to Francesco Salviati, he carried the work in a short time to that perfection which it had not received from the dilatory and irresolute Sebastiano, who, so far as one can see, did little work there, although we find that he obtained from the liberality of Agostino and his heirs much more than would have been due to him even if he had finished it completely, which he did not do, either because he was weary of the labors of art, or because he was too much wrapped up in comforts and pleasures. And he did the same to M. Filippo da Siena, Clerk of the Chamber, for whom he began a scene in oils on the wall above the high altar of the Pace at Rome, and never finished it; wherefore the friars, in despair about it, were obliged to take away the staging, which obstructed their church, to cover the work with a cloth, and to have patience for as long as the life of Sebastiano lasted. After his death, the friars uncovered the work, and it was found that what he had done was most beautiful painting, for the reason that in the part where he represented Our Lady visiting S. Elizabeth, there are many women portrayed from life that are very beautiful, and painted with consummate grace. But it may be seen here that this man endured extraordinary labour in all the works that he produced, and that he was not able to execute them with that facility which nature and study are wont at times to give to him who delights in working and exercises his hand continually. And of the truth of this there is also a proof in the same Pace, in the Chapel of Agostino Chigi, where Raffaello had executed the Sibyls and Prophets; for Sebastiano, wishing to paint some things on the stone in the niche that remained to be painted below, in order to surpass Raffaello, caused it to be incrusted with peperino-stone, the joinings being filled in with fired stucco; but he spent so much time on cogitations that he left the wall bare, for, after it had remained thus for ten years, he died.

It is true that a few portraits from life could be obtained with ease from Sebastiano, because he could finish these with more facility and promptitude; but it was quite otherwise with stories and other figures. To tell the truth, the painting of portraits from life was his proper vocation, as may be seen from the portrait of Marc' Antonio Colonna, which is so well executed that it seems to be alive, and also from those of Ferdinando, Marquis of Pescara, and of Signora Vittoria Colonna, which are very beautiful. He likewise made a portrait of Adrian VI when he first arrived in Rome, and one of Cardinal Hincfort. That Cardinal desired that Sebastiano should paint for him a chapel in S. Maria de Anima at Rome; but he kept putting him off from one day to another, and the Cardinal finally had it painted by the Fleming Michael, his compatriot, who painted there in fresco stories from the life of S. Barbara, imitating our Italian manner very well; and in the altarpiece he made a portrait of the same Cardinal.

But returning to Sebastiano: he also took a portrait of Signor Federigo da Bozzolo, and one of a captain in armour, I know not who, which is in the possession of Giulio de' Nobili at Florence. He painted a woman in Roman dress, which is in the house of Luca Torrigiani; and Giovan Battista Cavalcanti has a head by the same master's hand, which is not completely finished. He executed a picture of Our Lady covering the Child with a piece of drapery, which was a rare work; and Cardinal Farnese now has it in his guardaroba. And he sketched, but did not carry to completion, a very beautiful altarpiece of S. Michael standing over a large figure of the Devil, which was to be sent to the King of France, who had previously received a picture by the hand of the same master.

Then, after Cardinal Giulio de' Medici had been elected Supreme Pontiff and had taken the name of Clement VII, he gave Sebastiano to understand through the Bishop of Vasona that the time to show him favour had come, and that he would become aware of this when the occasion arose. And in the meantime, while living in these high hopes, Sebastiano, who had no equal in portrait painting, executed many from life, and among others one of Pope Clement, who was not then wearing a beard, or rather, two of him, one of which came into the possession of the Bishop of Vasona, and the other, which is much larger, showing a seated figure from the knees upwards, is in the house of Sebastiano at Rome. He also painted a portrait of the Florentine Anton Francesco degli Albizzi, who happened to be then in Rome on some business, and he made it such that it appeared to be not painted but really alive; wherefore Anton Francesco sent it to Florence as a pearl of great price. The head and hands of this portrait were things truly marvellous, to say nothing of the beautiful execution of the velvets, the linings, the satins, and all the other parts of the picture; and since Sebastiano was indeed superior to all other men in the perfect delicacy and excellence of his portrait painting, all Florence was amazed at this portrait of Anton Francesco.

At this same time he also executed a portrait of Messer Pietro Aretino, and made it such that, besides being a good likeness, it is an astounding piece of painting, for there may be seen in it five or six different kinds of black in the clothes that he is wearing--velvet, satin, ormuzine, damask, and cloth--and, over and above those blacks, a beard of the deepest black, painted in such beautiful detail, that the real beard could not be more natural. This figure holds in the hand a branch of laurel and a scroll, on which is written the name of Clement VII; and in front are two masks, one of Virtue, which is beautiful, and another of Vice, which is hideous. This picture M. Pietro presented to his native city, and the people of Arezzo have placed it in their public Council Chamber, thus doing honor to the memory of their talented fellow citizen, and also receiving no less from him. After this, Sebastiano made a portrait of Andrea Doria, which was in like manner an admirable work, and a head of the Florentine Baccio Valori, which was also beautiful beyond belief.

In the meantime Fra Mariano Fetti, Friar of the Piombo, died, and Sebastiano, remembering the promises made to him by the above-mentioned Bishop of Vasona, master of the household to His Holiness, asked for the office of the Piombo; whereupon, although Giovanni da Udine, who had also done much in the service of His Holiness "in minoribus," and still continued to serve him, asked for the same office, the Pope, moved by the prayers of the Bishop, and also thinking that the talents of Sebastiano deserved it, ordained that Sebastiano should have the office, but should pay out of it to Giovanni da Udine an allowance of three hundred crowns. Thus Sebastiano assumed the friar's habit, and straightway felt his soul changed thereby, for, perceiving that he now had the means to satisfy his desires, he spent his time in repose without touching a brush, and recompensed himself with his comforts and his revenues for many misspent nights and laborious days; and whenever he happened to have something to do, he would drag himself to the work with such reluctance, that he might have been going to his death. From which one may learn how much our reason and the little wisdom of men are deceived, in that very often, nay, almost always, we covet the very opposite to that which we really need, and, as the Tuscan proverb has it, in thinking to cross ourselves with a finger, poke it into our own eyes. It is the common opinion of men that rewards and honors spur the minds of mortals to the studies of those arts which they see to be the best remunerated, and that, on the contrary, to see that those who labor at these arts are not recompensed by such men as have the means, causes the same students to grow negligent and to abandon them. And for this reason both ancients and moderns censure as strongly as they are able those Princes who do not support every kind of man of talent, and who do not give due honor and reward to all who labour valiantly in the arts. But, although this rule is for the most part a good one, it may be seen, nevertheless, that at times the liberality of just and magnanimous Princes produces the contrary effect, for the reason that many are more useful and helpful to the world in a low or mediocre condition than they are when raised to greatness and to an abundance of all good things. And here we have an example, for the magnificent liberality of Clement VII, bestowing too rich a reward on Sebastiano Viniziano, who had done excellent work as a painter in his service, was the reason that he changed from a zealous and industrious craftsman into one most idle and negligent, and that, whereas he labored continually while he was living in poor circumstances and the rivalry between him and Raffaello da Urbino asted, he did quite the opposite when he had enough for his contentment.

Be this as it may, let us leave it to the judgment of wise Princes to consider how, when, towards whom, in what manner, and by what rule, they should exercise their liberality in the case of craftsmen and men of talent, and let us return to Sebastiano. After he had been made Friar of the Piombo, he executed for the Patriarch of Aquileia, with great labour, Christ bearing the Cross, a h alf-length figure painted on stone--a work which was much extolled, particularly for the head and the hands, parts in which Sebastiano was truly most excellent. Not long afterwards the niece of the Pope, who in time became Queen of France, as she still is, having arrived in Rome, Fra Sebastiano began a portrait of her; but this remained unfinished in the guardaroba of the Pope. And a short time after this, Cardinal Ippolito de' Medici having become enamored of Signora Giulia Gonzaga, who was then living at Fondi, that Cardinal sent Sebastiano to that place, accompanied by four light horsemen, to take her portrait; and within a month he finished that portrait, which, being taken from the celestial beauty of that lady by a hand so masterly, proved to be a divine picture. Wherefore, after it had been carried to Rome, the labors of that craftsman were richly rewarded by the Cardinal, who declared that this portrait surpassed by a great measure all those that Sebastiano had ever executed up to that day, as indeed it did; and the work was afterwards sent to King Francis of France, who had it placed in his Palace of Fontainebleau.

This painter then introduced a new method of painting on stone, which pleased people greatly, for it appeared that by this means pictures could be made eternal, and such that neither fire nor worms could harm them. Wherefore he began to paint many pictures on stone in this manner, surrounding them with ornaments of variegated kinds of stone, which, being polished, formed a very beautiful setting; although it is true that these pictures, with their ornaments, when finished, could not be transported or even moved, on account of their great weight, save with the greatest difficulty. Many persons, then, attracted by the novelty of the work and by the beauty of his art, gave him earnest-money, in order that he might execute some for them; but he, delighting more to talk about such pictures than to work at them, always kept delaying everything. Nevertheless he executed on stone a Dead Christ with the Madonna, with an ornament also of stone, for Don Ferrante Gonzaga, who sent it to Spain. The whole work together was held to be very beautiful, and Sebastiano was paid five hundred crowns for the painting by Messer Niccolo' da Cortona, agent in Rome for the Cardinal of Mantua. In this kind of painting Sebastiano was truly worthy of praise, for the reason that whereas Domenico, his compatriot, who was the first to paint in oils on walls, and after him Andrea dal Castagno, Antonio Pollaiuolo, and Piero Pollaiuolo, failed to find the means of preventing the figures executed by them in this manner from becoming black and fading away very quickly, Sebastiano did find it; wherefore the Christ at the Column, which he painted in S. Pietro in Montorio, has never changed down to our own time, and has the same freshness of coloring as on the first day. For he went about the work with such diligence that he used to make the coarse rough-cast of lime with a mixture of mastic and colophony, which, after melting it all together over the fire and applying it to the wall, he would then cause to be smoothed over with a mason's trowel made red-hot, or rather white-hot, in the fire; and his works have therefore been able to resist the damp and to preserve their color very well without suffering any change. With the same mixture he worked on peperino-stone, white and variegated marble, porphyry, and slabs of other very hard kinds of stone, materials on which paintings can last a very long time; not to mention that this has shown how one may paint on silver, copper, tin, and other metals.

This man found so much pleasure in cogitating and discoursing, that he would spend whole days without working; and when he did force himself to work, it was evident that he was suffering greatly in his mind, which was the chief reason that he was of the opinion that no price was large enough to pay for his works. For Cardinal Rangoni he painted a picture of a nude and very beautiful S. Agatha being tortured in the breasts, which was an exquisite work, and this picture is now in the guardaroba of Signor Guidobaldo, Duke of Urbino, and is in no way inferior to the many other most beautiful pictures that are there, by the hands of Raffaello da Urbino, Tiziano, and others. He also made a portrait from life of Signor Piero Gonzaga, painted in oils on stone, which was a very fine work; but he toiled for three years over finishing it.

Now, when Michelagnolo was in Florence in the time of Pope Clement, engaged in the work of the new Sacristy of S. Lorenzo, Giuliano Bugiardini wished to paint for Baccio Valori a picture with the head of Pope Clement and that of Baccio himself, and another for Messer Ottaviano de' Medici of the same Pontiff and the Archbishop of Capua. Michelagnolo therefore sent to Sebastiano to ask him to despatch from Rome a head of the Pope painted in oils with his own hand; and Sebastiano painted one, which proved to be very beautiful, and sent it to him. After Giuliano had made use of the head and had finished his pictures, Michelagnolo, who was a close companion of the said Messer Ottaviano, made him a present of it; and of a truth, among the many heads that Fra Sebastiano executed, this is the most beautiful of all and the best likeness, as may be seen in the house of the heirs of Messer Ottaviano. The same master also took the portrait of Pope Paul Farnese, as soon as he was elected Supreme Pontiff; and he began one of the Duke of Castro, his son, but left it unfinished, as he did with many other works with which he had made a beginning.

Fra Sebastiano had a passing good house which he had built for himself near the Popolo, and there he lived in the greatest contentment, without troubling to paint or work any more. He used often to say that it was a great fatigue to have to restrain in old age those ardours which in youth craftsmen are wont to welcome out of emulation and a desire for profit and honor, and that it was no less wise for a man to live in peace than to spend his days in restless labor in order to leave a name behind him after death, for all his works and labors had also in the end, sooner or later, to die. And even as he said these things, so he carried them into practice as well as he was able, for he always sought to have for his table all the best wines and the rarest luxuries that could be found, holding life in more account than art. Being much the friend of all men of talent, he often had Molza and Messer Gandolfo to supper, making right good cheer. He was also the intimate friend of Messer Francesco Berni, the Florentine, who wrote a poem to him; to which Fra Sebastiano answered with another, passing well, for, being very versatile, he was even able to set his hand to writing humorous Tuscan verse.

Having been reproached by certain persons, who said that it was shameful that he would no longer work now that he had the means to live, Fra Sebastiano replied in this manner: "Why will I not work now that I have the means to live? Because there are now in the world men of genius who do in two months what I used to do in two years; and I believe that if I live long enough, and not so long, either, I shall find that everything has been painted. And since these stalwarts can do so much, it is well that there should also be one who does nothing, to the end that they may have the more to do." With these and similar pleasantries Fra Sebastiano was always diverting himself, being a man who was never anything but humorous and amusing; and, in truth, a better companion never lived.

Sebastiano, as has been related, was much beloved by Michelagnolo. But it is also true that when the front wall of the Papal Chapel, where there is now the Last Judgment by the same Buonarroti, was to be painted, there did arise some disdain between them, for Fra Sebastiano had persuaded the Pope that he should make Michelagnolo paint it in oils, whereas the latter would only do it in fresco. Now, Michelagnolo saying neither yea nor nay, the wall was prepared after the fashion of Fra Sebastiano, and Michelagnolo stood thus for some months without setting his hand to the work. But at last, after being pressed, he said that he would only do it in fresco, and that painting in oils was an art for women and for leisurely and idle people like Fra Sebastiano. And so, after the incrustation laid on by order of the friar had been stripped off, and the whole surface had been covered with rough-cast in a manner suitable for working in fresco, Michelagnolo set his hand to the work; but he never forgot the affront that he considered himself to have received from Fra Sebastiano, against whom he felt hatred almost to the day of the friar's death.

Finally, after Fra Sebastiano had come to such a state that he would not work or do any other thing but attend to the duties of his office as Friar of the Piombo, and enjoy the pleasures of life, at the age of sixty-two he fell sick of a most acute fever, which, being a ruddy person and of a full habit of body, threw him into such a heat that he rendered up his soul to God in a few days, after making a will and directing that his body should be carried to the tomb without any ceremony of priests or friars, or expenditure on lights, and that all that would have been spent thus should be distributed to poor persons, for the love of God; and so it was done. He was buried in the Church of the Popolo, in the month of June of the year 1547. Art suffered no great loss in his death, seeing that, as soon as he assumed the habit of Friar of the Piombo, he might have been numbered among those lost to her; although it is true that he was regretted for his pleasant conversation by many friends as well as craftsmen.

Many young men worked under Sebastiano at various times in order to learn art, but they made little proficience, for from his example they learned little but the art of good living, excepting only Tommaso Laureti, a Sicilian, who, besides many other works, has executed a picture full of grace at Bologna, of a very beautiful Venus, with Love embracing and kissing her, which picture is in the house of M. Francesco Bolognetti. He has also painted a portrait of Signor Bernardino Savelli, which is much extolled, and some other works of which there is no need to make mention.



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