Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Torrigiano, Pietro

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TORRIGIANO, PIETRO (1472–1522), sculptor and draughtsman, was born at Florence on 24 Nov. 1472, and early devoted himself to the practice of art. He was one of the band of young artists protected by Lorenzo de' Medici. The studies of these youths were carried on chiefly in the Brancacci Chapel, at the Carmine, where they copied Masaccio's famous frescoes, and in the Medici gardens at San Marco, where they drew from the antiques under the supervision of Donatello's disciple, the aged Bertoldo. It was under these conditions that Torrigiano came in contact with Michelangelo, and that the famous quarrel took place in which Buonarroti was disfigured for life. Torrigiano's own account of the adventure is thus handed down to us by Benvenuto Cellini: ‘This Buonarroti and I used when we were boys to go into the church of the Carmine to learn drawing from the chapel of Masaccio. It was Buonarotti's habit to banter (uccellare) all who were drawing there, and one day, when he was annoying me, I got more angry than usual, and, clenching my fist, I gave him such a blow on the nose that I felt bone and cartilage go down like biscuit (cialdone) under my knuckles; and this mark of mine he will carry with him to the grave.’ Stunned by the blow, Michelangelo was carried home ‘like one dead,’ and the aggressor, banished for his violence from Florence, took service as a soldier, served in the papal army under Cæsar Borgia, became ‘Ancient’ to Pietro de' Medici, and fought at the battle of Garigliano (1503). His term of exile over, he came back to Florence, and resumed the practice of his art with such success that he became one of the best sculptors of his native city. Vasari says that he made several statues in marble and in brass for the town-hall of Florence, and he is known to have partly executed a statue of St. Francis for the Piccolomini chapel in Siena Cathedral. The figure is said to have been finished by Michelangelo, and to have been included by him in the series of fifteen saints, commissioned by Cardinal Piccolomini in 1501, for the decoration of the chapel.

In 1503 Henry VII had begun the building of his magnificent chapel at Westminster. While it was in progress some Florentine merchants trading to London persuaded Torrigiano to travel with them to England, in hope of employment from the king. He took up his residence in ‘the precinct of St. Peter's, Westminster.’ The execution of the royal shrine was entrusted to him, and a sum of 1,500l. was set apart for materials and labour. The tomb, says Stow, was unfinished at Henry's death in 1509, and was not completed till ten years after his son's accession. The work, adds the chronicler, was carried out by ‘one Peter, a painter of Florence.’ Among the Harleian manuscripts there is an account of expenses, in which the names of the various native craftsmen who worked under Torrigiano are recorded. A book of decrees and records of the court of requests, printed in 1592, bears incidental testimony to his presence in England in 1518, mentioning ‘Master Peter Torisano, a Florentine sculptor,’ as one of the witnesses in a suit between two Florentine merchants tried by the council at Greenwich. He executed another important monument in Henry VII's chapel, that of Henry VII's mother, Margaret, countess of Richmond, who died three months after her son; and to his skilful hand was also due the ‘matchless altar’ erected at the head of the king's tomb, and destroyed by the puritans under Sir Robert Harlow's command in 1641 (see an engraving in Sandford's Genealogical History, reproduced in Dean Stanley's Memorials of Westminster Abbey). A greater work on which Torrigiano was to be employed was never carried out. In the beginning of his reign Henry VIII projected the building of a chapel for himself and Catherine of Arragon, which was to exceed that of his father in splendour, and ‘Peter Torrisany, of the city of Florence, graver,’ was to prolong his stay to carve the effigies (Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, iii. 7). The tomb was to cost not more than 2,000l. He was the sculptor of the monument to Dr. John Yong [q. v.], master of the rolls, in the rolls chapel, Chancery Lane; and Walpole further ascribes to him a model in stone of the head of Henry VII in the agony of death, now in the possession of the Duke of Northumberland, and a painted portrait of the king, both formerly in the Strawberry Hill collection; also a plaster roundel of the head of Henry VIII at Hampton Court.

In the passage already quoted from his autobiography Cellini relates that, when he was a lad of about seventeen, Torrigiano came to Florence to engage assistants for a great work in bronze he was about to execute for the king of England. He promised to make the fortune of his young compatriot if he would return with him to London. But Benvenuto refused; for, though he had a great wish to go, he would not serve the man who had defaced that divine work of the Creator, the great Michelangelo. He speaks admiringly, however, of Torrigiano's noble presence and commanding manners (‘rather those of a great soldier than of a sculptor’), and of the discourses he held ‘every day’ of his prowess in dealing with ‘those beasts, the English.’ Torrigiano's attack on Michelangelo seems to have been no solitary instance of violence. Condivi describes him as ‘a brutal and overbearing man’ (‘uomo bestiale e superbo’), and Vasari tells us that, in spite of the rich rewards he received for his works, he neither lived in happiness nor died in peace, owing to his turbulent and ungovernable temper. He is absurdly said to have adopted the reformed faith to please Henry VIII, who published his book against Luther in the year of Torrigiano's death; but it is probable that he was not always able or willing to bend to a temperament stormy as his own, for he finally quitted the king's service and settled at Seville. It is suggested that he hoped to secure the commission for the projected tomb of Ferdinand and Isabella, but in this he was unsuccessful. Among the works executed by him in Seville were a terracotta group of the Virgin and Child for the Jeronymite church, and a coloured terracotta statue of St. Jerome, now in the Seville Museum. There are casts of the latter at the Crystal Palace and in the Louvre. He was commissioned by the Duke d'Arcas to reproduce his group of the Madonna and Child in marble, and, eager to secure other commissions, he bestowed such pains on the work that the result was a masterpiece. The duke expressed his delight with the image, and sent two servants to fetch it, whom he ostentatiously loaded with money-bags in payment. When, however, Torrigiano turned out the bags and found them stuffed with maravedi, the value of which amounted only to thirty ducats in all, he was so enraged at his patron's meanness that he seized a mallet and dashed the statue to atoms. The duke promptly denounced him to the inquisition for sacrilege, which, taken perhaps in conjunction with his known heretical lapses, was sufficient to insure a decree of death with torture. He was respited, but detained in prison at Seville, where, falling a victim to melancholy mania, he is said to have starved himself to death in 1522.

[Vasari's Vite de' più eccellenti Pittori, Scultori ed Architetti, vol. iv. ed. Milanesi; Vasari's Vita del gran Michelangelo Buonarroti; Condivi's Vita di Michelangelo Buonarroti; Symonds's Life of Michael Angelo, 1893, i. 31, 84; Vita di Benvenuto, scritta da lui stesso, and J. A. Symonds's Memoirs of Cellini; Stow's Survey of London; Ryves's Angliæ Ruina; Sandford's Genealogical History of the Kings and Queens of England; Cumberland's Anecdotes of Spanish Painters; Duppa's Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti; Walpole's Anecdotes of Painting in England; Stanley's Memorials of Westminster Abbey; Brayley and Neale's History and Antiquities of the Abbey Church of Westminster; Dart's Westmonasterium; Gilbert Scott's Gleanings from Westminster Abbey; Bacon's History of the Reign of Henry VII; Carter's Specimens of Ancient Sculpture and Painting; Perkins's Historical Handbook of Italian Sculpture.]

W. A.