Girolamo Libri. Leaf from a Psalter: Initial D with Monks Singing, ca. 1495. 
The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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FRA GIOCONDO and Other ARTISTS OF VERONA

Part 7: FRANCESCO dai LIBRI (1450 circa-after 1503) and 
GIROLAMO dai LIBRI (1474/75-1555)

Vasari's Lives of the Artists


THE ELDER Francesco dai Libri of Verona lived some time before Liberale, although it is not known exactly at what date he was born; and he was called "Dai Libri" because he practised the art of illuminating books, his life extending from the time when printing had not yet been invented to the very moment when it was beginning to come into use. Since, therefore, there came to him from every quarter books to illuminate--a work in which he was most excellent--he was known by no other surname than that of "Dai Libri"; and he executed great numbers of them, for the reason that whoever went to the expense of having them written, which was very great, wished also to have them adorned as much as was possible with illuminations.

This master illuminated many choral books, all beautiful, which are at Verona, in S. Giorgio, in S. Maria in Organo, and in S. Nazzaro; but the most beautiful is a little book, or rather, two little pictures that fold together after the manner of a book, on one side of which is a S. Jerome, a figure executed with much diligence and very minute workmanship, and on the other a S. John in the Isle of Patmos, depicted in the act of beginning to write his Book of the Apocalypse. This work, which was bequeathed to Count Agostino Giusti by his father, is now in S. Leonardo, a convent of Canons Regular, of which Don Timoteo Giusti, the son of that Count, is a member. Finally, after having executed innumerable works for various noblemen, Francesco died, content and happy for the reason that, in addition to the serenity of mind that his goodness brought him, he left behind him a son, called Girolamo, who was so excellent in art that before his death he saw him already a much greater master than himself.

This Girolamo [dai Libri], then, was born at Verona in the year 1472, and at the age of sixteen he painted for the Chapel of the Lischi, in S. Maria in Organo, an altarpiece which caused such marvel to everyone when it was uncovered and set in its place, that the whole city ran to embrace and congratulate his father Francesco. In this picture is a Deposition from the Cross, with many figures, and among the many beautiful weeping heads the best of all are a Madonna and a S. Benedict, which are much commended by all craftsmen; and he also made therein a landscape, with a part of the city of Verona, drawn passing well from the reality. Then, encouraged by the praises that he heard given to his work, Girolamo painted the altar of the Madonna in S. Paolo in a masterly manner, and also the picture of the Madonna with S. Anne, which is placed between the S. Sebastian of Il Moro and the S. Rocco of Cavazzuola in the Church of the Scala. For the family of the Zoccoli he painted the great altarpiece of the high altar in the Church of the Vittoria, and for the family of the Cipolli the picture of S. Onofrio, which is near the other, and is held to be both in design and in colouring the best work that he ever executed.

For S. Leonardo nel Monte, also, near Verona, he painted at the commission of the Cartieri family the altarpiece of the high altar, which is a large work with many figures, and much esteemed by everyone, above all for its very beautiful landscape. Now a thing that has happened very often in our own day has caused this work to be held to be a marvel. There is a tree painted by Girolamo in the picture, and against it seems to rest the great chair on which the Madonna is seated. This tree, which has the appearance of a laurel, projects considerably with its branches over the chair, and between the branches, which are not very thick, may be seen a sky so clear and beautiful, that the tree seems to be truly a living one, graceful and most natural. Very often, therefore, birds that have entered the church by various openings have been seen to fly to this tree in order to perch upon it, and particularly swallows, which had their nests among the beams of the roof, and likewise their little ones. Many persons well worthy of credence declare that they have seen this, among them Don Giuseppe Mangiuoli of Verona, a person of saintly life, who has twice been General of his Order and would not for anything in the world assert a thing that was not absolutely true, and also Don Girolamo Volpini, likewise a Veronese, and many others.

In S. Maria in Organo, where was the first work executed by Girolamo, he also painted two Saints on the outer side of one of the folding doors of the organ--the other being painted by Francesco Morone, his companion--and on the inner side a Manger. And afterwards he painted the picture that is opposite to his first work, containing the Nativity of Our Lord, with shepherds, landscapes, and very beautiful trees; but most lifelike and natural of all are two rabbits, which are executed with such diligence that each separate hair may actually be seen in them. He painted another altarpiece for the Chapel of the Buonalivi, with a Madonna seated in the center, two other figures, and some Angels below, who are singing. Then, in the ornamental work made by Fra Giovanni da Verona for the altar of the Sacrament, the same Girolamo painted three little pictures after the manner of miniatures. In the central picture is a Deposition from the Cross, with two little Angels, and in those at the sides are painted six Martyrs, kneeling towards the Sacrament, three in each picture, these being saints whose bodies are deposited in that very altar. The first three are Cantius, Cantianus, and Cantianilla, who were nephews of the Emperor Diocletian, and the others are Protus, Chrysogonus, and Anastasius, who suffered martyrdom at Aquae Gradatae, near Aquileia; and all these figures are in miniature, and very beautiful, for Girolamo was more able in that field of art than any other master of his time in Lombardy and in the State of Venice.

Girolamo illuminated many books for the Monks of Montescaglioso in the Kingdom of Naples, some for S. Giustina at Padua, and many others for the Abbey of Praia in the territory of Padua; and also some at Candiana, a very rich monastery of the Canons Regular of S. Salvatore, to which place he went in person to work, although he would never go to any other place. While he was living there, Don Giulio Clovio, who was a friar in that place, learned the first rudiments of illumination; and he has since become the greatest master of that art that is now alive in Italy. Girolamo illuminated at Candiana a sheet with a Kyrie, which is an exquisite work, and for the same monks the first leaf of a psalter for the choir; with many things for S. Maria in Organo and for the Friars of S. Giorgio, in Verona. He executed, likewise, some other very beautiful illuminations for the Black Friars of S. Nazzaro at Verona. But that which surpassed all the other works of this master, which were all divine, was a sheet on which was depicted in miniature the Earthly Paradise, with Adam and Eve driven forth by the Angel, who is behind them with a sword in his hand. One would not be able to express how great and how beautiful is the variety of the trees, fruits, flowers, animals, birds, and all the other things that are in this amazing work, which was executed at the commission of Don Giorgio Cacciamale of Bergamo, then Prior of S. Giorgio in Verona, who, in addition to the many other courtesies that he showed to Girolamo, gave him sixty crowns of gold. This work was afterwards presented by that Father to a Roman Cardinal, at that time Protector of his Order, who showed it to many noblemen in Rome, and they all declared it to be the best example of illumination that had ever been seen up to that day.

Girolamo painted flowers with such diligence, and made them so true, so beautiful, and so natural, that they appeared to all who beheld them to be real; and he counterfeited little cameos and other engraved stones and jewels in such a manner, that there was nothing more faithfully imitated or more diminutive to be seen. Among his little figures there are seen some, as in his imitations of cameos and other stones, that are no larger than little ants, and yet all the limbs and all the muscles can be perceived so clearly that one who has not seen them could scarcely believe it. Girolamo used to say in his old age that he knew more in his art then than he had ever known, and saw where every stroke ought to go, but that when he came to handle the brushes, they went the wrong way, because neither his eye nor his hand would serve him any longer. He died on the 2nd of July in the year 1555, at the age of eighty-three, and was laid to rest in the burial-place of the Company of S. Biagio in S. Nazzaro.

He was a good and upright man, who never had a quarrel or dispute with anyone, and his life was very pure. He had, besides other children, a son called Francesco, who learned his art from him, and executed miracles of illumination when still a mere lad, so that Girolamo declared that he had not known as much at that age as his son knew. But this young man was led away from him by a brother of his mother, who, being passing rich, and having no children, took him with him to Vicenza and placed him in charge of a glass furnace that he was setting up. When Francesco had spent his best years in this, his uncle's wife dying, he fell from his high hopes, and found that he had wasted his time, for the uncle took another wife, and had children by her, and thus Francesco did not become his uncle's heir, as he had thought to be. Thereupon he returned to his art after an absence of six years, and, after acquiring some knowledge, set himself to work. Among other things, he made a large globe, four feet in diameter, hollow within, and covered on the outer side, which was of wood, with a glue made of bullock's sinews, which was of a very strong admixture, so that there should be no danger of cracks or other damage in any part. This sphere, which was to serve as a terrestrial globe, was then carefully measured and divided under the personal supervision of Fracastoro and Beroldi, both eminent physicians, cosmographers, and astrologers; and it was to be painted by Francesco for Messer Andrea Navagiero, a Venetian gentleman, and a most learned poet and orator, who wished to make a present of it to King Francis of France, to whom he was about to go as Ambassador from his Republic. But Navagiero had scarcely arrived in France after a hurried journey, when he died, and this work remained unfinished. A truly rare work it would have been, thus executed by Francesco with the advice and guidance of two men of such distinction; but it was left unfinished, as we have said, and, what was worse, in its incomplete condition it received some injury, I know not what, in the absence of Francesco. However, spoiled as it was, it was bought by Messer Bartolommeo Lonichi, who has never consented to give it up to anyone, although he has been much besought and offered vast prices.

Before this, Francesco had made two smaller globes, one of which is in the possession of Mazzanti, Archpriest of the Duomo of Verona, and the other belonged to Count Raimondo della Torre, and is now in the hands of his son, Count Giovan Batista, who holds it very dear, because this one, also, was made with the measurements and personal assistance of Fracastoro, who was a very familiar friend of Count Raimondo.

Finally, growing weary of the extraordinary labor that miniatures demand, Francesco devoted himself to painting and to architecture, in which he became very skilful, executing many works in Venice and in Padua. About that time the Bishop of Tournai, a very rich and noble Fleming, had come to Italy in order to study letters, to see the country, and to learn our manners and ways of living. This man, delighting much in architecture, and happening to be in Padua, became so enamored of the Italian method of building that he resolved to take the modes of our architecture with him to his own country; and in order to facilitate this purpose, he drew Francesco, whose ability he had recognized, into his service with an honorable salary, meaning to take him to Flanders, where he intended to carry out many magnificent works. But when the time came to depart, poor Francesco, who had caused designs to be made of all the best and greatest and most famous buildings in Italy, was overtaken by death, while still young and the object of the highest expectations, leaving his patron much grieved by his loss.

Francesco left an only brother, in whom, being a priest, the Dai Libri family became extinct, after producing in succession three men most excellent in their field of art. Nor have any disciples survived them to keep this art alive, excepting the above-mentioned churchman, Don Giulio, who, as we have related, learned it from Girolamo when he was working at Candiana, where the former was a friar; and this Don Giulio has since raised it to a height of excellence which very few have reached and no one has ever surpassed.

I knew for myself some of the facts about the excellent and noble craftsmen mentioned above, but I would never have been able to learn the whole of what I have related of them if the great goodness and diligence of the reverend and most learned Fra Marco de' Medici of Verona, a man profoundly conversant with all the most noble arts and sciences, and with him Danese Cattaneo of Carrara, a sculptor of great excellence, both being very much my friends, had not given me that complete and perfect information which I have just written down, to the best of my ability, for the convenience and advantage of all who may read these our Lives, in which the courtesy of many friends, who have taken pains with the investigation of these matters in order to please me and to benefit the world, has been, as it still is, of great assistance to me. And let this be the end of the Lives of these craftsmen of Verona, the portraits of each of whom I have not been able to obtain, because this full notice did not reach my hands until I found myself almost at the close of my work.


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