Baldo Magini with a model of the Church of San Fabiano. 1522, Prato Cathedral.
AMONG THE MANY who were disciples of Pietro Perugino, there was not one, after Raffaello da Urbino, who was more studious or more diligent than Niccolo' Soggi, whose Life we are now about to write. This master was born in Florence, the son of Jacopo Soggi, a worthy person, but not very rich; and in time he entered the service of M. Antonio dal Monte in Rome, because Jacopo had a farm at Marciano in Valdichiana, and, passing most of his time there, associated not a little with that same M. Antonio dal Monte, their properties being near together.
Jacopo, then, perceiving that this son of his was much inclined to painting, placed him with Pietro Perugino; and in a short time, by means of continual study, he learned so much that it was not long before Pietro began to make use of him in his works, to the great advantage of Niccolo', who devoted himself in such a manner to drawing in perspective and copying from nature, that he afterwards became very excellent in both the one field and the other. Niccolo' also gave much attention to making models of clay and wax, over which he laid draperies and soaked parchment: which was the reason that he rendered his manner so dry, that he always held to the same as long as he lived, nor could he ever get rid of it for all the pains that he took.
The first work that this Niccolo' executed after the death of his master Pietro was an altarpiece in oils in the Hospital for Women, founded by Bonifazio Lupi, in the Via San Gallo at Florence--that is, the side behind the altar, wherein is the Angel saluting Our Lady, with a building drawn in perspective, in which there are arches and a groined vaulting rising above pilasters after the manner of Pietro. Then, in the year 1512, after having executed many pictures of Our Lady for the houses of citizens, and other little works such as are painted every day, hearing that great things were being done in Rome, he departed from Florence, thinking to make proficience in art and also to save some money, and went off to Rome. There, having paid a visit to the aforesaid M. Antonio dal Monte, who was then a Cardinal, he was not only welcomed warmly, but also straightway set to work to paint, in those early days of the pontificate of Leo, on the facade of the palace where there is the statue of Maestro Pasquino, a great escutcheon of Pope Leo in fresco, between that of the Roman People and that of the Cardinal. In that work Niccolo' did not acquit himself very well, for in painting some nude figures and others clothed that he placed there as ornaments for those escutcheons, he recognized that the study of models is bad for him who wishes to acquire a good manner. Thereupon, after the uncovering of that work, which did not prove to be of that excellence which many expected, Niccolo' set himself to execute a picture in oils, in which he painted the Martyr S. Prassedia squeezing a sponge full of blood into a vessel; and he finished it with such diligence that he recovered in part the honor that he considered himself to have lost in painting the escutcheons described above. This picture, which was executed for the above-mentioned Cardinal dal Monte, who was titular of S. Prassedia, was placed in the centre of that church, over an altar beneath which is a well of the blood of Holy Martyrs--a beautiful idea, the picture alluding to the place where there was the blood of those Martyrs. After this Niccolo' painted for his patron the Cardinal another picture in oils, three-quarters of a braccio in height, of Our Lady with the Child in her arms, S. John as a little boy, and some landscapes, all executed so well and with such diligence, that the whole work appears to be done in miniature, and not painted; which picture, one of the best works that Niccolo' ever produced, was for many years in the apartment of that prelate. Afterwards, when the Cardinal arrived in Arezzo and lodged in the Abbey of S. Fiore, a seat of the Black Friars of S. Benedict, in return for the many courtesies that were shown to him, he presented that picture to the sacristy of that place, in which it has been treasured ever since, both as a good painting and in memory of the Cardinal.
Niccolo' himself went with the Cardinal to Arezzo, where he lived almost ever afterwards. At the time he formed a friendship with the painter Domenico Pecori, who was then painting an altarpiece with the Circumcision of Christ for the Company of the Trinita'; and such was the intimacy between them that Niccolo' painted for Domenico in that altarpiece a building in perspective with columns and arches supporting a ceiling full of rosettes, according to the custom of those days, which was held at that time to be very beautiful. Niccolo' also painted for the same Domenico a round picture of the Madonna with a multitude below, in oils and on cloth, for the baldachin of the Confraternity of Arezzo, which was burned, as has been related in the Life of Domenico Pecori, during a festival that was held in S. Francesco. Then, having received the commission for a chapel in that same S. Francesco, the second on the right hand as one enters the church, he painted there in distemper Our Lady, S. John the Baptist, S. Bernard, S. Anthony, S. Francis, and three Angels in the air who are singing, with God the Father in a pediment; which were executed by Niccolo' almost entirely in distemper, with the point of the brush. But since the work has almost all peeled off on account of the strength of the distemper, it was labor thrown away. Niccolo' did this in order to try new methods; and when he had recognized that the true method was working in fresco, he seized the first opportunity, and undertook to paint in fresco a chapel in S. Agostino in that city, beside the door on the left hand as one enters the church. In this chapel, which was allotted to him by one Scamarra, a master of furnaces, he painted a Madonna in the sky with a multitude beneath, and S. Donatus and S. Francis kneeling; but the best thing that he did in this work was a S. Rocco at the head of the chapel.
This work giving great pleasure to Domenico Ricciardi of Arezzo, who had a chapel in the Church of the Madonna delle Lagrime, he entrusted the painting of the altar-piece of that chapel to Niccolo', who, setting his hand to the work, painted in it with much care and diligence the Nativity of Jesus Christ. And although he toiled a long time over finishing it, he executed it so well that he deserves to be excused for this, or rather, merits infinite praise, for the reason that it is a most beautiful work; nor would anyone believe with what extraordinary consideration he painted every least thing in it, and a ruined building, near the hut wherein are the Infant Christ and the Virgin, is drawn very well in perspective. In the S. Joseph and some Shepherds are many heads portrayed from life, such as Stagio Sassoli, a painter and the friend of Niccolo', and Papino della Pieve, his disciple, who, if he had not died when still young, would have done very great honor both to himself and to his country; and three Angels in the air who are singing are so well executed that they would be enough by themselves to demonstrate the talent of Niccolo' and the patience with which he laboured at this work up to the very last. And no sooner had he finished it than he was requested by the men of the Company of S. Maria della Neve, at Monte Sansovino, to paint for that Company an altar-piece wherein was to be the story of the Snow, which, falling on the site of S. Maria Maggiore at Rome on the 5th of August, was the reason of the building of that temple. Niccolo', then, executed that altar-piece for the above-mentioned Company with much diligence; and afterwards he executed at Marciano a work in fresco that won no little praise.
Now in the year 1524, after M. Baldo Magini had caused Antonio, the brother of Giuliano da San Gallo, to build in the Madonna delle Carceri, in the town of Prato, a tabernacle of marble with two columns, architrave, cornice, and a quarter-round arch, Antonio resolved to bring it about that M. Baldo should give the commission for the picture which was to adorn that tabernacle to Niccolo', with whom he had formed a friendship when he was working in the Palace of the above-mentioned Cardinal dal Monte at onte Sansovino. He presented him, therefore, to M. Baldo, who, although he had been minded to have it painted by Andrea del Sarto, as has been related in another place, resolved, at the entreaties and advice of Antonio, to allot it to Niccolo'. And he, having set his hand to it, strove with all his power to make a beautiful work, but he did not succeed; for, apart from diligence, there is no excellence of design to be seen in it, nor any other quality worthy of much praise, because his hard manner, with his labors over his models of clay and wax, almost always gave a laborious and displeasing effect to his work. And yet, with regard to the labors of art, that man could not have done more than he did or shown more lovingness; and since he knew that none ... for many years he could never bring himself to believe that others surpassed him in excellence. In this work, then, there is a God the Father who is sending down the crown of virginity and humility upon the Madonna by the hands of some Angels who are round her, some of whom are playing various instruments. Niccolo' made in the picture a portrait from life of M. Baldo, kneeling at the feet of S. Ubaldo the Bishop, and on the other side he painted S. Joseph; and those two figures are one on either side of the image of the Madonna, which worked miracles in that place. Niccolo' afterwards painted a picture three braccia in height of the same M. Baldo Magini from life, standing with the Church of S. Fabiano di Prato in his hand, which he presented to the Chapter of the Canons of the Pieve; and this Niccolo' executed for that Chapter, which, in memory of the benefit received, caused the picture to be placed in the sacristy, an honour well deserved by that remarkable man, who with excellent judgment conferred benefits on that church, the principal church of his native city, and so renowned for the Girdle of the Madonna, which is preserved there. This portrait was one of the best works that Niccolo' ever executed in painting. It is also the belief of some that a little altarpiece that is in the Company of S. Pier Martire on the Piazza di S. Domenico, at Prato, in which are many portraits from life, is by the hand of the same Niccolo'; but in my opinion, even if this be true, it was painted by him before any of the other pictures mentioned above.
After these works, Niccolo'--under whose discipline Domenico Giuntalodi, a young man of excellent ability belonging to Prato, had learned the rudiments of the art of painting, although, in consequence of having acquired the manner of Niccolo', he never became a great master in painting, as will be related--departed from Prato and came to work in Florence; but, having seen that the most important works in art were given to better and more eminent men than himself, and that his manner was not up to the standard of Andrea del Sarto, Pontormo, Rosso, and the others, he made up his mind to return to Arezzo, in which city he had more friends, greater credit, and less competition. Which having done, no sooner had he arrived than he made known to M. Giuliano Bacci, one of the chief citizens of that place, a desire that he had in his heart, which was this, that he wished that Arezzo should become his country, and that therefore he would gladly undertake to execute some work which might maintain him for a time in the practice of his art, whereby he hoped to demonstrate to that city the nature of his talents. Whereupon Messer Giuliano, an ingenious man who desired that his native city should be embellished and should contain persons engaged in the arts, so went to work with the men then governing the Company of the Nunziata, who in those days had caused a great vaulting to be built in their church, with the intention of having it painted, that one arch of the wall-surface of that vaulting was allotted to Niccolo'; and it was proposed that he should be commissioned to paint the rest, if the irst part, which he had to do then, should please the men of the aforesaid Company. Having therefore set his hand to this work with great diligence, in two years Niccolo' finished the half, but not more, of one arch, on which he painted in fresco the Tiburtine Sibyl showing to the Emperor Octavian the Virgin in Heaven with the Infant Jesus Christ in her arms, and Octavian in reverent adoration. In the figure of Octavian he portrayed the above-mentioned M. Giuliano Bacci, and his pupil Domenico in a tall young man draped in red, and others of his friends in other heads; and, in a word, he acquitted himself in this work in such a manner that it did not displease the men of that Company and the other men of that city.
It is true, indeed, that everyone grew weary of seeing him take so long and toil so much over executing his works; but notwithstanding all this the rest would have been given to him to finish, if that had not been prevented by the arrival in Arezzo of the Florentine Rosso, a rare painter, to whom, after he had been put forward by the Aretine painter Giovanni Antonio Lappoli and M. Giovanni Pollastra, as has been related in another place, much favour was shown and the rest of that work allotted. At which Niccolo' felt such disdain, that, if he had not taken a wife the year before and had a son by her, so that he was settled in Arezzo, he would have departed straightway. However, having finally become pacified, he executed an altarpiece for the Church of Sargiano, a place two miles distant from Arezzo, where there are Frati Zoccolanti; in which he painted the Assumption of Our Lady into Heaven, with many little Angels supporting her, and S. Thomas below receiving the Girdle, while all around are S. Francis, S. Louis, S. John the Baptist, and S. Elizabeth, Queen of Hungary. In some of these figures, and particularly in some of the little Angels, he acquitted himself very well; and so also in the predella he painted some scenes with little figures, which are passing good. He executed, likewise, in the Convent of the Nuns of the Murate, who belong to the same Order, in that city, a Dead Christ with the Maries, which is wrought with a high finish for a picture in fresco. In the Abbey of S. Fiore, a seat of Black Friars, behind the Crucifix that is placed on the high altar, he painted in oils, on a canvas, Christ praying in the Garden and the Angel showing to Him the Chalice of the Passion and comforting Him, which was certainly a work of no little beauty and excellence. And for the Nuns of S. Benedetto, of the Order of Camaldoli, at Arezzo, on an arch above a door by which one enters the convent, he painted the Madonna, S. Benedict, and S. Catharine, a work which was afterwards thrown to the ground in order to enlarge the church.
In the township of Marciano in Valdichiana, where he passed much of his time, living partly on the revenues that he had in that place and partly on what he could earn there, Niccolo' began an altarpiece of the Dead Christ and many other works, with which he occupied himself for a time. And meanwhile, having with him the above-mentioned Domenico Giuntalodi of Prato, whom he loved as a son and kept in his house, he strove to make him excellent in the matters of art, teaching him so well how to draw in perspective, to copy from nature, and to make designs, that he was already becoming very able in all these respects, showing a good and beautiful genius. And this Niccolo' did, besides being moved by the love and affection that he bore to that young man, in the hope of having one who might help him now that he was nearing old age, and might give him some return in his last years for so much labor and lovingness. Niccolo' was in truth most loving with every man, true by nature, and much the friend of those who labored in order to attain to something in the world of art; and what he knew he taught to them with extraordinary willingness.
No long time after this, when Niccolo' had returned from Marciano to Arezzo and Domenico had left him, the men of the Company of the Corpo di Cristo, in that city, had a commission to give for the painting of an altar-piece for the high altar of the Church of S. Domenico. Now, Niccolo' desiring to paint it, and likewise Giorgio Vasari, then a mere lad, the former did something which probably not many of the men of our art would do at the present day, which was as follows: Niccolo', who was one of the members of the above-mentioned Company, perceiving that many were disposed to have it painted by Giorgio, in order to bring him forward, and that the young man had a very great desire for it, resolved, after remarking Giorgio's zeal, to lay aside his own desire and need and to have the picture allotted by his companions to Giorgio, thinking more of the advantage that the young man might gain from the work than of his own profit and interest; and even as he wished, so exactly did the men of that Company decide.
In the meantime Domenico Giuntalodi, having gone to Rome, found Fortune so propitious that he became known to Don Martino, the Ambassador of the King of Portugal, and went to live with him; and he painted for him a canvas with some twenty portraits from life, all of his followers and friends, with himself in the midst of them, engaged in conversation; which work so pleased Don Martino, that he looked upon Domenico as the first painter in the world. Afterwards Don Ferrante Gonzaga, having been made Viceroy of Sicily, and desiring to fortify the towns of that kingdom, wished to have about his person a man who might draw and put down on paper for him all that he thought of from day to day; and he wrote to Don Martino that he should find for him a young man who might be both able and willing to serve him in this way, and should send him off as soon as possible. Don Martino, therefore, first sent to Don Ferrante some designs by the hand of Domenico, among which was a Colosseum, engraved on copper by Girolamo Fagiuoli of Bologna for Antonio Salamanca, but drawn in perspective by Domenico; an old man in a child's go-cart, drawn by the same hand and published in engraving, with letters that ran thus, "Ancora imparo"; and a little picture with the portrait of Don Martino himself. And shortly afterwards he sent Domenico, at the wish of the aforesaid lord, Don Ferrante, who had been much pleased with that young man's works. Having then arrived in Sicily, there were assigned to Domenico an honourable salary, a horse, and a servant, all at the expense of Don Ferrante; and not long afterwards he was set to work on the walls and fortresses of Sicily. Whereupon, abandoning his painting little by little, he devoted himself to something else which for a time was more profitable to him; for, being an ingenious person, he made use of men who were well adapted to heavy labour, kept beasts of burden in the charge of others, and caused sand and lime to be collected and furnaces to be set up; and no long time had passed before he found that he had saved so much that he was able to buy offices in Rome to the extent of two thousand crowns, and shortly afterwards some others. Then, after he had been made keeper of the wardrobe to Don Ferrante, it happened that his master was removed from the government of Sicily and sent to that of Milan; whereupon Domenico went with him, and, working on the fortifications of that State, contrived, what with being industrious and with being something of a miser, to become very rich; and what is more, he came into such credit that he managed almost everything in that government.
Hearing of this, Niccolo', who was at Arezzo, now an old man, needy, and without any work to do, went to find Domenico in Milan, thinking that even as he had not failed Domenico when he was a young man, so Domenico should not fail him now, but should avail himself of his services, since he had many in his employ, and should be both able and willing to assist him in his poverty-stricken old age. But he found to his cost that the judgments of men, in expecting too much from others, are often deceived, and that the men who change their condition also change more often than not their nature and their will. For after arriving in Milan, where he found Domenico raised to such greatness that he had no little difficulty in getting speech of him, Niccolo' related to him all his troubles, and then besought him that he should help him by making use of his services; but Domenico, not remembering or not choosing to remember with what lovingness he had been brought up by Niccolo' as if he had been his own son, gave him a miserably small sum of money and got rid of him as soon as he was able. And so Niccolo' returned to Arezzo very sore at heart, having recognized that with the labor and expense with which, as he thought, he had reared a son, he had formed one who was little less than an enemy.
In order to earn his bread, therefore, he went about executing all the work that came to his hand, as he had done many years before, and he painted among other things a canvas for the Commune of Monte Sansovino, containing the said town of Monte Sansovino and a Madonna in the sky, with two Saints at the sides; which picture was set up on an altar in the Madonna di Vertigli, a church belonging to the Monks of the Order of Camaldoli, not far distant from the Monte, where it has pleased and still pleases Our Lord daily to perform many miracles and to grant favors to those who recommend themselves to the Queen of Heaven. Afterwards, Julius III having been created Supreme Pontiff, Niccolo', who had been much connected with the house of Monte, made his way to Rome, although he was an old man of eighty, and, having kissed the foot of His Holiness, besought him that he should deign to make use of him in the buildings which were to be erected, so men said, at the Monte, a place which the Lord Duke of Florence had given in fief to the Pontiff. The Pope, then, having received him warmly, ordained that the means to live in Rome should be given to him without exacting any sort of exertion from him; and in this manner Niccolo' spent several months in Rome, drawing many antiquities to pass the time.
Meanwhile the Pope resolved to increase his native town of Monte Sansovino, and to make there, besides many ornamental works, an aqueduct, because that place suffered much from want of water; and Giorgio Vasari, who had orders from the Pope to cause those buildings to be begun, recommended Niccolo' Soggi strongly to His Holiness, entreating him that Niccolo' should be given the office of superintendent over those works. Whereupon Niccolo' went to Arezzo filled with these hopes, but he had not been there many days when, worn out by the fatigues and hardships of this world and by the knowledge that he had been abandoned by him who should have been the last to forsake him, he finished the course of his life and was buried in S. Domenico in that city.
Not long afterwards Domenico Giuntalodi, Don Ferrante Gonzaga having died, departed from Milan with the intention of returning to Prato and of passing the rest of his life there in repose. However, finding there neither relatives nor friends, and recognizing that Prato was no abiding place for him, he repented too late that he had behaved ungratefully to Niccolo', and returned to Lombardy to serve the sons of Don Ferrante. But no long time passed before he fell sick unto death; whereupon he made a will leaving ten thousand crowns to his fellow-citizens of Prato, to the end that they might buy property to that amount and form a fund wherewith to maintain continually at their studies a certain number of students from Prato, in the manner in which they maintained certain others, as they still do, according to the terms of another bequest. And this has been carried out by the men of that town of Prato, who, grateful for such a benefit, which in truth has been a very great one and worthy of eternal remembrance, have placed in their Council Chamber the image of Domenico, as that of one who has deserved well of his country.