Ugolino da Siena (di Neri). The Last Supper. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC. c. 1325/30.
Vasari's Lives of the Artists
STEFANO, PAINTER OF FLORENCE and disciple of Giotto, was so excellent, that he not only surpassed all the others who had labored in the art before him, but outstripped his own master himself by so much that he was held, and deservedly, the best of all the painters who had lived up to that time, as his works clearly demonstrate. He painted in fresco the Madonna of the Campo Santo in Pisa, which is no little better in design and in coloring than the work of Giotto; and in Florence, in the cloister of S. Spirito, he painted three little arches in fresco. In the first of these, wherein is the Transfiguration of Christ with Moses and Elias, imagining how great must have been the splendor that dazzled them, he fashioned the three Disciples with extraordinary and beautiful attitudes, and enveloped in draperies in a manner that it is seen that he went on trying to do something that had never been done before namely, to suggest the nude form of the figures below new kinds of folds, which, as I have said, had not been thought of even by Giotto.
Under this arch, wherein he made a Christ delivering the woman possessed, he drew a building in perspective, perfectly and in a manner then little known, executing it in good form and with better knowledge; and in it, working with very great judgment in modern fashion, he showed so great art and so great invention and proportion in the columns, in the doors, in the windows, and in the cornices, and so great diversity from the other masters in his method of working, that it appears that there was begin- ning to be seen a certain glimmer of the good and perfect manner of the moderns. He invented, among other ingenious ideas, a flight of steps very difficult to make, which, both in painting and built out in relief wrought in either way, in fact is so rich in design and variety, and so useful and convenient in invention, that the elder Lorenzo de' Medici, the Magnificent, availed himself of it in making the outer staircase of the Palace of Poggio a Cajano, now the principal villa of the most Illustrious Lord Duke.
In the other little arch is a story of Christ when he is delivering S. Peter from shipwreck, so well done that one seems to hear the voice of Peter saying: "Domine, salva nos, perimus." This work is judged much more beautiful than the others, because, besides the softness of the draperies, there are seen sweetness in the air of the heads and terror in the perils of the sea, and because the Apostles, shaken by diverse motions and by phantoms of the sea, have been represented in attitudes very appropriate and all most beautiful. And although time has eaten away in part the labors that Stefano put into this work, it may be seen, although but dimly, that the Apostles are defending themselves from the fury of the winds and from the waves of the sea with great energy; which work, being very highly praised among the moderns, must have certainly appeared a miracle in all Tuscany in the time of him who wrought it. After this he painted a S. Thomas Aquinas beside a door in the first cloister of S. Maria Novella, where he also made a Crucifix, which was afterwards executed in a bad manner by other painters in restoring it. In like manner he left a chapel in the church begun and not finished, which has been much eaten away by time, wherein the angels are seen raining down in diverse forms by reason of the pride of Lucifer; where it is to be noticed that the figures, with the arms, trunks, and legs foreshortened much better than any foreshortenings that had been made before, give us to know that Stefano began to understand and to demonstrate in part the difficulties that those men had to reduce to excellence, who afterwards, with greater science, showed them to us, as they have done, in perfection; wherefore the surname of "The Ape of Nature" was given him by the other craftsmen.
Next, being summoned to Milan, Stefano made a beginning for many works for Matteo Visconti, but was not able to finish them, because, having fallen sick by reason of the change of air, he was forced to return to Florence. There, having regained his health, he made in fresco, in the tramezzo of the Church of S. Croce, in the Chapel of the Asini, the story of the martyrdom of S. Mark, when he was dragged to death, with many figures that have something of the good. Being then summoned to Rome by reason of having been a disciple of Giotto, he made some stories of Christ in S. Pietro, in he principal chapel wherein is the altar of the said Saint, between the windows that are in the great choir niche, with so much diligence that it is seen that he approached closely to the modern manner, surpassing his master Giotto considerably in draughtsmanship and in other respects.
After this, on a pillar on the left-hand side of the principal chapel of the Aracoeli, he made a S. Louis in fresco, which is much praised, because it has in it a vivacity never displayed up to that time even by Giotto. And in truth Stefano had great facility in draughtsmanship, as can be seen in our said book in a drawing by his hand, wherein is drawn the Transfiguration (which he painted in the cloister of S. Spirito), in such a manner that in my judgment he drew much better than Giotto.
Having gone, next, to Assisi, he began in fresco a scene of the Celestial Glory in the niche of the principal chapel of the lower Church of S. Francesco, where the choir is; and although he did not finish it, it is seen from what he did that he used so great diligence that no greater could be desired. In this work there is seen begun a circle of saints, both male and female, with so beautiful variety in the faces of the young, the men of middle age, and the old, that nothing better could be desired. And there is seen a very sweet manner in these blessed spirits, with such great harmony that it appears almost impossible that it could have been done in those times by Stefano, who indeed did do it; although there is/ nothing of the figures in this circle finished save the heads, over which is a choir of angels who are hovering playfully about in various attitudes, appropriately carrying theological symbols in their hands, and all turned towards a Christ on the Cross, who is in the middle of this work, over the head of a S. Francis, who is in the midst of an infinity of saints.
Besides this, in the border of the whole work, he made some angels, each of whom is holding in his hand one of those Churches that S. John the Evangelist described in the Apocalypse; and these angels are executed with so much grace that I am amazed how in that age there was_to be found one who knew so much. Stefano began this work with a view to bringing it to the fullest perfection, and he would have succeeded, but he was forced to leave it imperfect and to return to Florence by some important affairs of his own.
During that time, then, that he stayed for this purpose in Florence, in order to lose no time he painted for the Gianfigliazzi, by the side of the Arno, between their houses and the Ponte alia Carraja, a little shrine on a corner that is there, wherein he depicted a Madonna sewing, to whom a boy dressed and seated is handing a bird, with such diligence that the work, small as it is, deserves to be praised no less than do the works that he wrought on a larger and more masterly scale.
This shrine finished and his affairs dispatched, being called to Pistoia by its Lords in the year 1346, he was made to paint the Chapel of S. Jacopo, on the vaulting of which he made a God the Father with some Apostles, and on the walls the stories of that Saint, and in particular when his mother, wife of Zebedee, asks Jesus Christ to consent to place her two sons, one on His right hand and the other on His left hand, in the Kingdom of the Father. Close to this is the beheading of the said Saint, a very beautiful work.
It is reputed that Maso, called Giottino, of whom there will be mention below, was the son of this Stefano; and although many, by reason of the suggestiveness of the name, hold him the son of Giotto, I, by reason of certain records that I have seen, and of certain memoirs of good authority written by Lorenzo Ghiberti and by Domenico del Ghirlandajo, hold it as true that he was rather the son of Stefano than of Giotto. ; Be this as it may, returning to Stefano, it can be credited to him that he did more than anyone after Giotto to improve painting, for, besides being more varied in invention, he was also more harmonious, more mellow, and better blended in coloring than all the others; and above all he had no peer in diligence. And as for those foreshortenings that he made, although, as I have said, he showed a faulty manner in them by reason of the difficulty of making them, none the less he who is the pioneer in the difficulties of any exercise deserves a much greater name than those who follow with a somewhat more ordered and regular manner. Truly great, therefore, is the debt that should be acknowledged to Stefano, because he who walks in darkness and gives heart to others, by showing them the way, brings it about that its difficult steps are made easy, so that with lapse of time men leave the false road and attain to the desired goal. At Perugia, too, in the Church of S. Domenico, he began in fresco the Chapel of S. Caterina, which remained unfinished.
There lived about the same time as Stefano a man of passing good repute, Ugolino, painter of Siena, very much his friend, who painted many panels and chapels throughout all Italy, although he held ever in great part to the Greek manner, as one who, grown old therein, had wished by reason of a certain obstinacy in himself to hold rather to the manner of Cimabue than to that of Giotto, which was so greatly revered. By the hand of Ugolino, then, is the panel of the high altar of S. Croce, on a ground all of gold, and also a panel which stood many years on the high altar of S. Maria Novella and is today in the Chapterhouse, where the Spanish nation every year holds most solemn festival on the day of S. James, with other offices and funeral ceremonies of its own. Besides these, he wrought many other works with good skill, without departing, however, from the manner of his master. The same man made, on a brick pier in the Loggia that Lapo had built on the Piazza d' Orsanmichele, that Madonna which worked so many miracles, not many years later, that the Loggia was for a long time full of images, and is still held in the greatest veneration. Finally, in the Chapel of Messer Ridolfo de' Bardi, which is in S. Croce, where Giotto painted the life of S. Francis, he painted a Crucifix in distemper on the altar panel, with a Magdalene and a S. John weeping, and two friars, one on either side. Ugolino passed away from this life, being old, in the year 1349, and was buried with honor in Siena, his native city.
But returning to Stefano, of whom they say that he was also a good architect, which is proved by what has been said above, he died, so it is said, in the year when there began the jubilee, 1350, at the age of forty-nine, and was laid to rest in the tomb of his fathers, in S. Spirito, with this epitaph: STEPHANO FLORENTINO PICTORI, FACIUNDIS IMAGINIBUS AC COLORANDIS FIGURIS NULLI UNQUAM INFERIORI, AFFINES MOESTISS. POS. VIX. AN. XXXXIX.