Liberale da Verona. The Chess Players. 1475 circa. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
Vasari's Lives of the Artists
NOT MANY YEARS after Fra Giocondo had executed this divine work, the Venetians suffered a great loss in the burning of the Rialto, the place in which are the magazines of their most precious merchandise--the treasure, as it were, of that city. This happened at the very time when that Republic had been reduced by long-continued wars and by the loss of the greater part, or rather almost the whole, of her dominions on the mainland to a desperate condition; and the Signori then governing were full of doubt and hesitation as to what they should do. However, the rebuilding of that place being a matter of the greatest importance, they resolved that it should be reconstructed at all costs. And wishing to give it all possible grandeur, in keeping with the greatness and magnificence of that Republic, and having already recognized the talent of Fra Giocondo and his great ability in architecture, they gave him the commission to make a design for that structure; whereupon he drew one in the following manner. He proposed to occupy all the space that lies between the Canale delle Beccherie, in the Rialto, and the Rio del Fondaco delle Farine, taking as much ground between one canal and the other as would make a perfect square--that is, the length of the sides of this fabric was to be as great as the space which one covers at the present day in walking from the debouchure of one of those canals into the Grand Canal to that of the other.
He intended, also, that the same two canals should debouch on the other side into a common canal, which was to run from the one to the other, so that the fabric might be left entirely surrounded by water, having the Grand Canal on one side, the two smaller canals on two other sides, and on the last the new canal that was to be made. Then he desired that between the water and the buildings, right round the square, there should be made, or rather should be left, a beach or quay of some breadth, which might serve as a piazza for the selling in duly appointed places of the vegetables, fruits, fish, and other things, that come from many parts to the city. It was also his opinion that right round the outer side of the buildings there should be erected shops looking out upon those same quays, and that these shops should serve only for the sale of eatables of every kind. And in these four sides the design of Fra Giocondo had four principal gates--namely, one to each side, placed in the centre, one directly opposite to another. But before going into the central piazza, by whichever side one entered, one would have found both on the right hand and on the left a street which ran round the block of buildings and had shops on either side, with handsome workshops above them and magazines for the use of those shops, which were all to be devoted to the sale of woven fabrics-that is, fine woollen cloth and silk, which are the two chief products of that city. This street, in short, was to contain all the shops that are called the Tuscan's and the silk-merchant's.
From this double range of shops there was to be access by way of the four gates into the center of the whole block--that is to say, into a vast piazza surrounded on every side by spacious and beautiful loggie for the accommodation of the merchants and for the use of the great number of people who flock together for the purposes of their trade and commerce to that city, which is the customhouse of all Italy, or rather of Europe. Under those loggie, on every side, were to be the shops of the bankers, goldsmiths, and jewellers; and in the center was to be built a most beautiful temple dedicated to S. Matthew, in which the people of quality might be able to hear the divine offices in the morning. With regard to this temple, however, some persons declare that Fra Giocondo changed his mind, and wished to build two under the loggie, so as not to obstruct the piazza. And, in addition, this superb structure was to have so many other conveniences, embellishments, and adornments, all in their proper places, that whoever sees at the present day the beautiful design that Fra Giocondo made for the whole, declares that nothing more lovely, more magnificent, or planned with better order, could be imagined or conceived by the most excellent of craftsmen, be his genius never so happy.
It was proposed, also, with the advice of the same master, and as a completion to this work, to build the Bridge of the Rialto of stone, covered with shops, which would have been a marvellous thing. But this enterprise was not carried into effect, for two reasons: first, because the Republic, on account of the extraordinary expenses incurred in the last war, happened to be drained dry of money; and, secondly, because a gentleman of great position and much authority at that time (of the family, so it is said, of Valereso), being a man of little judgment in such matters, and perchance influenced by some private interest, chose to favor one Maestro Zanfragnino, who, so I am informed, is still alive, and who had worked for him on buildings of his own. This Zanfragnino--a fit and proper name for a master of his calibre--made the design for that medley of marble which was afterwards carried into execution, and which is still to be seen; and many who are still alive, and remember the circumstances very well, are even yet not done with lamenting that foolish choice.
Fra Giocondo, having seen that shapeless design preferred to his beautiful one, and having perceived how much more virtue there often is in favor than in merit with nobles and great persons, felt such disdain that he departed from Venice, nor would he ever return, although he was much entreated to do it. And the design, with others by the same monk, remained in the house of the Bragadini, opposite to S. Marina, in the possession of Frate Angelo, a member of that family and a friar of S. Dominic, who, by reason of his many merits, afterwards became Bishop of Vicenza.
Fra Giocondo was very versatile, and delighted, in addition to the pursuits already mentioned, in simples and in agriculture. Thus Messer Donato Giannotti, the Florentine, who was very much his friend for many years in France, relates that once, when living in that country, the monk reared a peach-tree in an earthen pot, and that this little tree, when he saw it, was so laden with fruit that it was a marvellous sight. On one occasion, by the advice of some friends, he had set it in a place where the King was to pass and would be able to see it, when certain courtiers, who passed by first, plucked all the peaches off that little tree, as suchlike people were sure to do, and, playing about with one another, scattered what they could not eat along the whole length of the street, to the great displeasure of Fra Giocondo. The matter coming to the ears of the King, he first laughed over the jest with the courtiers, and then, after thanking the monk for what he had done to please him, gave him a present of such a kind that he was consoled.
Fra Giocondo was a man of saintly and most upright life, much beloved by all the great men of letters of his age, and in particular by Domizio Calderino, Matteo Bosso, and Paolo Emilio, the writer of the History of France, all three his compatriots. Very much his friends, likewise, were Sannazzaro, Bude', and Aldus Manutius, with all the Academy of Rome; and he had a disciple in Julius Caesar Scaliger, one of the most learned men of our times. Finally, being very old, he died, but precisely at what time and in what place this happened, and consequently where he was buried, is not known.
Even as it is true that the city of Verona is very similar to Florence in situation, manners, and other respects, so it is also true that in the first as well as in the second there have always flourished men of the finest genius in all the noblest and most honorable professions. Saying nothing of the learned, for with them I have nothing to do here, and continuing to speak of the men of our arts, who have always had an honorable abode in that most noble city, I come to Liberale of Verona, a disciple of Vincenzio di Stefano, a native of the same city, already mentioned in another place, who executed for the Church of Ognissanti, belonging to the Monks of S. Benedict, at Mantua, in the year 1463, a Madonna that was a very praiseworthy example of the work of those times. Liberale imitated the manner of Jacopo Bellini, for when a young man, while the said Jacopo was painting the Chapel of S. Niccolo' at Verona, he gave his attention under Bellini to the studies of design in such thorough fashion that, forgetting all that he had learned from Vincenzio di Stefano, he acquired the manner of Bellini and retained it ever after.
The first paintings of Liberale were in the Chapel of the Monte della Pieta' in S. Bernardino, in his native city; and there, in the principal picture, he painted a Deposition from the Cross, with certain Angels, some of whom have in their hands the Mysteries (for so they are called) of the Passion, and all with their weeping faces show grief at the Death of the Saviour. Very natural, in truth, are these figures, as are other works of the same kind by this master, who strove to show in many places that he was able to paint weeping countenances. This may also be seen in S. Anastasia, a church of Friars of S. Dominic, likewise in Verona, where he painted a Dead Christ with the Maries mourning for Him on the pediment of the Chapel of the Buonaveri; and he executed many pictures in the same manner of painting as the work mentioned above, which are dispersed among the houses of various gentlemen in Verona.
In the same chapel he painted a God the Father surrounded by many Angels who are playing instruments and singing, with three figures on either side---S. Peter, S. Dominic, and S. Thomas Aquinas on one side, and S. Lucia, S. Agnese, and another female Saint on the other; but the first three are much the finer, being executed in a better manner and with more relief. On the main wall of that chapel he painted Our Lady, with the Infant Christ marrying S. Catharine, the Virgin Martyr; and in this work he made a portrait of Messer Piero Buonaveri, the owner of the chapel. Around this group are some Angels presenting flowers, with some heads that are smiling, executed with such grace in their gladness, that they prove that he was able to paint a smiling face as well as he had painted tears in other figures. In the altar-piece of the same chapel he painted S. Mary Magdalene in the air, supported by some Angels, with S. Catharine below--a work which was held to be very beautiful. On the altar of the Madonna in the Church of S. Maria della Scala, belonging to the Servite Friars, he executed the story of the Magi on two folding doors that enclose that Madonna, which is held in vast veneration in that city; but the work did not long remain there, for it was removed because it was being spoilt by the smoke of the candles, and placed in the sacristy, where it is much admired by the painters of Verona.
In the tramezzo of the Church of S. Bernardino, above the Chapel of the Company of the Magdalene, he painted in fresco the story of the Purification, wherein is a figure of Simeon that is much extolled, as also is that of the Infant Christ, who with great affection is kissing that old man, who is holding Him in his arms; and very beautiful, likewise, is a priest standing there on one side, who, with his arms extended and his face uplifted towards Heaven, appears to be thanking God for the salvation of the world. Beside this chapel is a picture of the story of the Magi by the hand of the same Liberale; and in the pediment of the picture there is the Death of the Madonna, executed with little figures, which are highly extolled. Great, indeed, was his delight in painting works with little figures, with which he always took such pains that they seem to be the work rather of an illuminator than of a painter, as may be seen in the Duomo of the same city, where there is a picture by his hand of the story of the Magi, with a vast number of little figures, horses, dogs, and various other animals, and near them a group of rosy-colored Cherubim, who serve as a support to the Mother of Jesus. In this picture the heads are so finished, and everything is executed with such diligence, that, as I have said, it appears to be the work of an illuminator.
He also painted stories of Our Lady on a small predella, likewise after the manner of miniatures, for the Chapel of the Madonna in the Duomo. But this was afterwards removed from that chapel by order of Monsignor Messer Giovan Matteo Giberti, Bishop of Verona, and placed in the Palace of the V escovado, which is the residence of the Bishops, in that chapel wherein they hear Mass every morning. And there that predella stands in company with a most beautiful Crucifix in relief, executed by Giovanni Battista Veronese, a sculptor, who now lives in Mantua. Liberale also painted a panel picture for the Chapel of the Allegni in S. Vitale, containing a figure of S. Mestro, the Confessor, a Veronese and a man of great sanctity, whom he placed between a S. Francis and a S. Dominic. For the Chapel of S. Girolamo in the Vittoria, a church and convent of certain Eremite Friars, he executed at the commission of the Scaltritegli family an altarpiece of S. Jerome in the habit of a Cardinal, with a S. Francis and a S. Paul, all much extolled. And in the tramezzo of the Church of S. Giovanni in Monte he painted the Circumcision of Christ and other works, which were destroyed not long since, because it was considered that the tramezzo impaired the beauty of the church.
Being then summoned to Siena by the General of the Monks of Monte Oliveto, Liberale illuminated many books for that Order; and in these he succeeded so well, that he was commissioned in consequence to illuminate some that had been left unfinished--that is to say, only written--in the library of the Piccolomini. He also illuminated some books of plain-song for the Duomo of that city, where he would have remained longer, executing many works that he had in hand; but, being driven away by envy and persecution, he set off to return to Verona, with eight hundred crowns that he had earned, which he lent afterwards to the Monks of Monte Oliveto at S. Maria in Organo, from whom he drew interest to support him from day to day.
Having thus returned to Verona, he gave his attention for the rest of his life more to illumination than to any other kind of work. At Bardolino, a place on the Lake of Garda, he painted a panel-picture which is now in the Pieve; and another for the Church of S. Tommaso Apostolo. For the Chapel of S. Bernardo, likewise, in the Church of S. Fermo, a convent of Friars of S. Francis, he painted a panel picture of the first-named Saint, with some scenes from his life in the predella. In the same place, also, and in others, he executed many nuptial pictures, one of which, containing the Madonna with the Child in her arms marrying S. Catharine, is in the house of Messer Vincenzio de' Medici at Verona.
On the corner of the house of the Cartai, on the way from the Ponte Nuovo to S. Maria in Organo, in Verona, he painted a Madonna and S. Joseph in fresco, a work which was much extolled. Liberale would have liked to paint the Chapel of the Riva family, which had been built in order to honor the memory of Giovanni Riva, a captain of men-at-arms at the battle of the Taro, in the Church of S. Eufemia; but he did not receive the commission, which was given to some strangers, and he was told that he was too old and that his sight was failing him. When this chapel was opened, a vast number of faults were perceived in it, and Liberale said that he who had given the commission had been much more blind than himself.
Finally, being eighty-four years of age, or even more, Liberale allowed himself to be ruled by his relatives, and particularly by a married daughter, who, like the rest, treated him very badly. At which, having grown angry both with her and with his other relatives, and happening to have under his charge one Francesco Turbido, called Il Moro, then a young man, who was a diligent painter and much affected towards him, he appointed him as heir to the house and garden that he had at S. Giovanni in Valle, a very pleasant part of the city; and with him he took up his quarters, saying that he would rather give the enjoyment of his property to one who loved virtue than to those who ill-treated their nearest of kin. But no long time passed before he died, which was on the day of S. Chiara in the year 1536, at the age of eighty-five; and he was buried in S. Giovanni in Valle.
His disciples were Giovan Francesco Caroto and Giovanni Caroto, Francesco Turbido, called Il Moro, and Paolo Cavazzuola, of whom, since they were truly excellent masters, I shall make mention in their due order.