Loggia del Consiglio, Verona. 1476.
Part 1: FRA GIOCONDO (1445 circa-1512 circa)
Vasari's Lives of the Artists
IF WRITERS OF HISTORY were to live a few years longer than the number commonly granted as the span of human life, I, for my part, have no manner of doubt that they would have something to add to the accounts of the past previously written by them, for the reason that, even as it is not possible for a single man, be he ever so diligent, to learn the exact truth in a flash, or to discover all the details of his subject in the little time at his command, so it is as clear as the light of day that Time, who is said to be the father of truth, is always revealing new things every day to the seeker after knowledge. If, many years ago, when I first wrote and also published these Lives of the Painters and other Craftsmen, I had possessed that full information which I have since received concerning Fra Giocondo of Verona, a man of rare parts and a master of all the most noble faculties, I would without a doubt have made that honorable record of him which I am now about to make for the benefit of craftsmen, or rather, of the world; and not of him only, but also of many other masters of Verona, who have been truly excellent. And let no one marvel that I place them all under the image of one only, because, not having been able to obtain portraits of them all, I am forced to do this; but, so far as in me lies, not one of them shall thereby have his excellence defrauded of its due.
Now, since the order of time and merit so demands, I shall speak first of Fra Giocondo. This man, when he assumed the habit of S. Dominic, was called not simply Fra Giocondo, but Fra Giovanni Giocondo. How the name Giovanni dropped from him I know not, but I do know that he was always called Fra Giocondo by everyone. And although his chief profession was that of letters, and he was not only a very good philosopher and theologian, but also an excellent Greek scholar (which was a rare thing at that time, when learning and letters were just beginning to revive in Italy), nevertheless he was also a very fine architect, being a man who always took supreme delight in that art, as Scaliger relates in his epistle against Cardan, and the learned Bude' in his book "De Asse," and in the observations that he wrote on the Pandects.
Fra Giocondo, then, who was a fine scholar, a capable architect, and an excellent master of perspective, spent many years near the person of the Emperor Maximilian, and was master in the Greek and Latin tongues to the learned Scaliger, who writes that he heard him dispute with profound learning on matters of the greatest subtlety before the same Maximilian. It is related by persons still living, who remember the facts very clearly, that at the time when Verona was under the power of that Emperor the bridge which is called the Ponte della Pietra, in that city, was being restored, and it was seen to be necessary to refound the central pier, which had been destroyed many times in the past, and Fra Giocondo gave the design for refounding it, and also for safeguarding it in such a manner that it might never be destroyed again. His method of safeguarding it was as follows: he gave orders that the pier should be kept always bound together with long double piles fixed below the water on every side, to the end that these might so protect it that the river should not be able to undermine it; for the place where it is built is in the main current of the river, the bed of which is so soft that no solid ground can be found on which to lay its foundations. And excellent, in truth, as is evident from the result, was the advice of Fra Giocondo, for the reason that the pier has stood firm from that time to our own, as it still does, without ever showing a crack; and there is hope that, by the observation of the suggestions given by that good monk, it will stand for ever.
In his youth Fra Giocondo spent many years in Rome, giving his attention to the study of antiquities, and not of buildings only, but also of the ancient inscriptions that are in the tombs, and the other relics of antiquity, both in Rome itself and its neighbourhood, and in every part of I taly; and he collected all these inscriptions and memorials into a most beautiful book, which he sent as a present, according to the account of the citizens of Verona mentioned above, to the elder Lorenzo de' Medici, the Magnificent, to whom, by reason of the great friendliness and favor that he showed to all men of talent, both Fra Giocondo and Domizio Calderino, his companion and compatriot, were always most deeply devoted. Of this book Poliziano makes mention in his Mugellane, in which he uses various parts of it as authorities, calling Fra Giocondo a profound master in antiquities.
The same Giocondo wrote some observations, which are in print, on the Commentaries of Caesar; and he was the first who made a drawing of the bridge built by Caesar over the River Rhone, and described by him in those same Commentaries, but misunderstood in the time of Fra Giocondo. Him the aforesaid Bude confesses to have had as his master in the study of architecture, thanking God that he had been taught his Vitruvius by a teacher so learned and so diligent as was that monk, who corrected in that author a vast number of errors not recognized up to that time; and this he was able to do with ease, because he was a master of every kind of learning, and had a good knowledge of both the Greek tongue and the Latin. This and other things declares Bude, extolling Fra Giocondo as an excellent architect, and adding that by the researches of the same monk there were discovered in an old library in Paris the greater part of the Epistles of Pliny, which, after having been so long out of the hands of mankind, were printed by Aldus Manutius, as may be read in a Latin letter written by him and printed with the same.
When living in Paris in the service of King Louis XII, Fra Giocondo built two superb bridges over the Seine, covered with shops--works truly worthy of that magnanimous King and of the marvellous intellect of Fra Giocondo. Wherefore that master, in addition to the inscription in his praise that may still be seen on those works, won the honor of being celebrated by Sannazzaro, a rare poet, in this most beautiful distich:
Jocundus geminum imposuit tibi, Sequana, pontem; Hunc tu jure potes dicere pontificem.
Besides this, he executed a vast number of other works for that King throughout all his kingdom; but of these, after having made mention of those above, as being the greatest, I shall say no more.
Then, happening to be in Rome at the death of Bramante, he was placed, in company with Raffaello da Urbino and Giuliano da San Gallo, in charge of the Church of S. Pietro, to the end that the structure begun by Bramante might be carried forward. Now, from the circumstance that it had been erected in haste, and for other reasons given in another place, it was threatening to fall in many parts, and by the advice of Fra Giocondo, Raffaello, and Giuliano, the foundations were in great measure renewed; in which work persons who were present and are still living declare that those masters adopted the following method. They excavated below the foundations many large pits after the manner of wells, but square, at a proper distance one from another, which they filled with masonry; and between every two of these piers, or rather pits filled with masonry, they threw very strong arches across the space below, insomuch that the whole building came to be placed on new foundations without suffering any shock, and was secured for ever from the danger of showing any more cracks.
But the work for which it seems to me that Fra Giocondo deserves the greatest praise is one on account of which an everlasting gratitude is due to him not only from the Venetians, but from the whole world as well. For he reflected that the life of the Republic of Venice depended in great measure on the preservation of its impregnable position on the lagoons on which that city, as it were by a miracle, is built; and that, whenever those lagoons silted up with earth, the air would become infected and pestilential, and the city consequently uninhabitable, or at the least exposed to all the dangers that threaten cities on the mainland. He set himself, therefore, to think in what way it might be possible to provide for the preservation of the lagoons and of the site on which the city had been built in the beginning. And having found a way, Fra Giocondo told the Signori that, if they did not quickly come to some resolution about preventing such an evil, in a few years, to judge by that which could be seen to have happened in part, they would become aware of their error, without being in time to be able to retrieve it. Roused by this warning, and hearing the powerful arguments of Fra Giocondo, the Signori summoned an assembly of the best engineers and architects that there were in Italy, at which many opinions were given and many designs made; but that of Fra Giocondo was held to be the best, and was put into execution.
They made a beginning, therefore, with excavating a great canal, which was to divert two-thirds or at least one-half of the water brought down by the River Brenta, and to conduct that water by a long detour so as to debouch into the lagoons of Chioggia; and thus that river, no longer flowing into the lagoons at Venice, has not been able to fill them up by bringing down earth, as it has done at Chioggia, where it has filled and banked up the lagoons in such a manner that, where there was formerly water, many tracts of land and villas have sprung up, to the great benefit of the city of Venice. Wherefore it is the opinion of many persons, and in particular of the Magnificent Messer Luigi Cornaro, a Venetian gentleman of ripe wisdom gained both by learning and by long experience, that, if it had not been for the warning of Fra Giocondo, all the silting up that took place in the lagoons of Chioggia would have happened, and perhaps on a greater scale, in those of Venice, inflicting incredible damage and almost ruin on that city. The same Messer Luigi, who was very much the friend of Fra Giocondo, as he is and always has been of all men of talent, declares that his native city of Venice owes an eternal debt of gratitude for this to the memory of Fra Giocondo, who on this account, he says, might reasonably be called the second founder of Venice; and that he almost deserves more praise for having preserved by that expedient the grandeur and nobility of that marvellous and puissant city, than do those who built it at the beginning in such a weak and ill-considered fashion, seeing that the benefit received from him will be to all eternity, as it has been hitherto, of incalculable utility and advantage to Venice.