Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects/Agnolo Gaddi

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London: Henry G. Bohn, pages 228–236


[born.... — was still working in 1390.]

The great honour and utility of becoming distinguished in one of the noble arts is rendered sufficiently manifest in the case of Taddeo Gaddi, who, combining self-government with high talent, not only secured great fame by his labours, but acquired large possessions also, and left the affairs of his family in such a state, that his two sons, Agnolo and Giovanni, were enabled to lay the foundation of those great riches and that elevation of the house of Gaddi, which place it in our day among the most noble families of Florence,[1] and have established it in high repute through all Christendom. And since Gaddo, Taddeo, Agnolo, and Giovanni have adorned many venerated churches by their talents and the exercise of their art, so it is, without doubt, entirely reasonable that the holy Roman Church and the supreme pontiffs of the same, should have presented—as they have done—the highest ecclesiastical dignities to their successors.[2]

Taddeo, then, whose life we have written above, left two sons, Agnolo and Giovanni, with many other disciples, but of Agnolo in particular the father hoped that he would become most excellent in the art of painting. In his youth he had given promise of so much talent, that it was believed he would greatly surpass his father, but the event did not justify the opinion thus formed of him. Born and reared in abundance, which is often an impediment to earnest effort, Agnolo displayed more inclination for trade and traffic than for the art of painting; nor should this seem either new or strange, for how frequently has avarice barred the way to many who might have reached the summit of distinction, if the desire of gain had not impeded their progress in the earliest and best of their days. Agnolo first painted in Florence, while still very young, depicting in San Jacopo-tra-Fossi the story of Christ raising Lazarus, in figures little more than a braccio in height. Reflecting that Lazarus had been dead four days, Agnolo formed a vivid conception of the corrupt state in which the body so long dead must be found: he consequently represented the grave-clothes wherewith Lazarus was bound all spotted and discoloured by the decomposition of the corpse. Livid circles of blue and yellow surround the eyes, all which is pourtrayed with infinite truth, as is the amazement of the apostles and other figures standing around, whose attitudes are varied and fine, as, holding their vestments to the nose, they seek to shield themselves from the odours of that decayed body. The fear and astonishment of the spectators at this new miracle is no less eloquently expressed than the joy and gladness of Mary and Martha, who behold life returning to the dead body of their brother. This work was considered to be one of such extraordinary merit, that many believed the talent of Agnolo to surpass not only that of all Taddeo’s other disciples, but also that of the father himself.[3] The event nevertheless proved the fallacy of this opinion, for as in youth the desire for renown will often give strength to overcome all difficulties—so, as years increase, we frequently remark the approach of a certain careless negligence, which causes a man to go backwards rather than forwards, and this was the case with Agnolo. Having given so remarkable a specimen of his powers in this work, the Soderini family, hoping great things from such a master, appointed him to paint the principal chapel of the church of the Carmine; he accordingly represented the whole life of Our Lady therein, but so greatly inferior was this work to the Eesurrection of Lazarus, that all might perceive how little it was his intention to devote himself studiously to the art of painting—nay, in the whole of this unusually extensive work, there is nothing well done, save only one scene, which depicts Our Lady surrounded by numerous young maidens: they are variously attired in vestments and headdresses, proper to those times, and as variously employed in different womanly occupations; one spins, another sews, a third is winding threads, while a fourth weaves, and others are employed in other occupations, all which Agnolo composed and executed tolerably well.[4]

In like manner this artist painted the principal chapel of the church of Santa Croce, in fresco, for the noble family of the Alberti, representing every circumstance of the discovery of the cross; and the work certainly displays considerable facility, but very little force of design, the colouring only being good and tolerably well done.[5] But when he afterwards painted certain stories from the life of St. Louis, in the chapel of the Bardi family, also in fresco and in the same church, he acquitted himself much more creditably. Agnolo Gaddi, then, was an artist who worked capriciously, sometimes with more care, and sometimes with less: thus in Santo Spirito, also in Florence, he painted a Virgin with the Child in her arms, in fresco, within the door which leads from the piazza into the convent, and over a second door of the building, she is accompanied by Sant’ Agostino and San Niccolo, and this work is so admirably executed, that one might fancy the figures painted yesterday.[6]

The secret of mosaic[7] had been in a certain manner bequeathed as an inheritance to Agnolo, and he had in his possession all the instruments and other matters needful to the prosecution of that art, and which had been used by Gaddo, his grandfather. Agnolo, therefore, by way of pastime, and because the materials lay thus to his hand, rather than for any other reason, gave a certain degree of attention to mosaic, and when the fancy took him he executed different works in that branch of art. When it was found, then, that many of the slabs of marble which cover the eight sides of the roof of San Giovanni had been injured by time, and that the damp, penetrating to the mosaics formerly placed there by Andrea Tafi, was doing them grievous mischief, the consuls of the guild of merchants resolved to reconstruct the greater part of the roof, that the rest might not be ruined, and to have the mosaic also restored; whereupon they confided the direction of the whole work to Agnolo Gaddi, who commenced it in the year 1346. He first covered the roof with new slabs of marble, which he laid over each other, to the breadth of two fingers; then, cutting each to the half of its thickness, he fastened them into each other with a cement formed of mastic and wax melted together, all which he completed with so much care, that neither roof nor ceiling has suffered the least injury from the rains, from that day to the present time; a precaution wholly new. Agnolo then restored the mosaic, and at his recommendation, as well as after his designs, which were of considerable merit, the upper cornice of marble, which is carried round the building immediately beneath the roof, was constructed in the form we now see, that previously existing having been much smaller and of very ordinary character. The hall of the municipal palace was vaulted under the direction of this artist, having before been open to the roof, and this—to say nothing of the ornament—rendered the building less liable to injuries from fire, by which it had suffered grievously at an earlier period. The battlements of the palace, which formerly had none of any kind, were erected at the same time, and also by the advice of Agnolo. While these works were in progress, the artist did not entirely abandon his painting: on the high altar of San Pancrazio he depicted the Virgin in distemper, with St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, near whom were San Nereo, San Archileo, and San Pancrazio, brothers,[8] with other saints. But the best part of this work, or rather all that is good in it, is the predella, which is entirely covered by the small figures, composing stories from the lives of the Madonna and of Santa Reparata, divided into eight compartments.[9] Agnolo also painted a choir of angels surrounding a coronation of the Virgin, for the high altar of Santa Maria Maggiore, in Florence; this he completed in the year 1348, for Barone Capelli, and the work is a tolerably good one.[10] Shortly afterwards he painted, in fresco, a chapel of the capitular church of Prato, which had been rebuilt under the direction of Giovanni Pisano in 1312. As we have before related, the chapel was that wherein the girdle of Our Lady had been deposited, and was decorated by Agnolo with various stories from the life of the Virgin.[11] He executed many other works in the churches of that district, and left many specimens of his manner, in various parts of the whole territory,, which is full of rich and important monasteries. In Florence, moreover, at a later period, this master painted the arch above the door of San Romeo,[12] and executed a picture in distemper for the church of Orto San Michele; the subject of this work is the disputation of Christ with the doctors in the temple.[13] About the time when this last picture was completed, many houses were demolished for the purpose of enlarging the piazza de’ Signori, and as the church of San Romolo was also taken down, this building was reconstructed from the designs of Agnolo.[14] Paintings by this artist are to be seen in many churches of Florence, as well as in the surrounding districts, from all of which he derived large gains, although he painted more because he desired to do as his forefathers had done, than from any love of the art, he having given up his mind to commerce, from which he gained still larger profits. And this became obvious to all, when two sons of Agnolo, resolved no longer to live the life of artists, devoted themselves wholly to merchandise, establishing a house of business for that purpose at Venice, in company with their father, who, from that time forward, exercised his art occasionally for his pleasure only, or to pass the time. In this manner, then, what with his traffic and what with his paintings, Agnolo amassed very great riches, but died in the sixty-third year of his life, being attacked by a malignant fever, which put an end to his career in a very few days.

The disciples of Agnolo Gaddi were Maestro Antonio da Ferrara,[15] and Stefano da Verona,[16] who was a most admirable painter in fresco, as may be seen in various parts of his native city, as also in Mantua, where many of his works are still to be found. Among other peculiarities this master had that of giving an exquisite expression to the countenances of his children, women, and old men, as the observer may remark in any one of his works: his heads were all imitated and copied by that Piero da Perugia,[17] the miniature painter, who illuminated all the books which constitute the library of Pope Pius, in the cathedral of Siena, and who painted in fresco with considerable facility. Michele of Milan was also a disciple of Agnolo, as was Giovanni Gaddi, his brother, who painted in the cloister of Santo Spirito, as Gaddo and Taddeo had done. The works executed in that cloister by Giovanni are, a Disputation of Christ with the doctors in the temple, the Purification of the Virgin, the Temptation of Christ in the Wilderness, and the Baptism of John. This artist died, after having awakened the highest expectations.[18] Cennino di Drea Cennini, of Colle di Valdelsa,[19] likewise studied painting under Agnolo Gaddi, and being a devoted lover of his art, he wrote a book on the methods of painting in fresco, in distemper, and in every vehicle then known, with the modes of painting in miniature, and the manner in which gold is applied in all these varying methods. This book is now in the hands of Giulfano, a goldsmith of Siena, an excellent master and true friend of the arts. In the first part of Cennini’s work, the author has treated of the nature of colours, wdiether minerals or earths, as he had himself been taught by his master, Agnolo; desiring, perhaps, as he does not seem to have succeeded in attaining to any great eminence in painting, at least to make himself acquainted with the nature of colours, the different glues, chalks, grounds for fresco, &c. with the properties of every kind of vehicle; he further discourses of such colours as are injurious, and to be guarded against in the mixture of colours, and in short of many other matters, concerning which no more need be said here; all those details which were held to be rare and profound secrets in Cennini’s day being perfectly well known to all artists in these our times. But I will not omit to remark, that Cennini makes no mention of certain earths, such as the dark terra rossa, nor of cinnabar and various greens—perhaps because they were not then in use; other colours were in like manner wanting to the painters of that age, as umber for example, yellow-lake (giallo santo), the smalts, both for oil and fresco painting, with certain yellows and greens, all which have been discovered at a later period. Cennini likewise treats of grinding colours in oil, to make red, azure, green, and other grounds of different kinds;[20] he speaks of the mordants, used in the application of gold also, but not as applied to figures. In addition to the works which Cennini executed in Florence, with his master, there is a Virgin accompanied by certain saints, from his hand, under the loggia of the hospital of Bonifazio Lupi, the colouring of which was managed so carefully, that it remains in good preservation even to this day.[21]

This Cennino, speaking of himself in the first chapter of his book, has the following passage, which I give in his exact words:—“I, Cennino di Drea Cennini, of Colle di Valdelsa, was instructed in the said art during twelve years, by my master Agnolo di Taddeo, of Florence, who learnt the same from Taddeo his father, which last was the godson of Giotto, and his disciple for four-and-twenty years. This Giotto transmuted the art of painting from Greek into Latin; he brought it to our modern manner, and certainly did more to perfect it than any other had ever done.” These are the precise words of Cennino, to whom it appeared, that as he who translates any work from the Greek into the Latin, confers a great benefit on all who do not understand Greek, so did Giotto, in transmuting the art of painting from a manner not known or understood by any one (unless, indeed, that all might easily perceive it to be senseless)—to a manner at once 236 LIVES OF THE ARTISTS. beautiful, facile, and most pleasing, that may be comprehended and seen to be good at a glance, by whomsoever possesses the slightest degree of judgment and comprehension. All these disciples of Agnolo did him great honour. He was entombed by his sons, (to whom it is affirmed that he left 50,000 florins, or more) in the sepulchre which he had himself prepared for his burial and that of his descendants, in Santa Maria Novella, in the year of our salvation 1387.[22] The portrait of Agnolo, by his own hand, may be seen in the chapel of the Alberti, in Santa Croce, in a painting near the door, wherein the emperor Heraclius is depicted bearing the cross: he is represented in profile, with a short thin beard, and on his head is a cap of a red colour, of the form proper to the period. Agnolo Gaddi was not particularly excellent in design, to judge from the specimen presented in certain drawings by his hand, which are to be found in our book.

  1. This highly celebrated family, observes Bottari, is noAv extinct; but the name is preserved, having been taken by the house of Pitti, which succeeded to the possessions of the Gaddi family. The palace of that house was a rich museum of pictures, marbles, medals, and manuscripts, and many galleries and libraries owe their wealth to its collections; the Magliabecchiana, in particular, has profited by them.
  2. Among others of this name, the cardinals Niccolo and Taddeo have been justly celebrated, says Bottari. Their tombs are seen in Santa Maria Novella, in the chapel of the Gaddi family.
  3. No vestige of this work now remains.
  4. This work also is totally destroyed.
  5. These paintings still remain in tolerable preservation; opinions vary as to their merit. See Della Valle, Lettere Sanese, and Lanzi, History of Painting.
  6. This work also retains its place, and still displays the freshness described by Vasari; but he should have said San Pietro, instead of San Niccolo.
  7. This secret, with which Giotto, Simon of Siena, and others, were well acquainted, had become extensively known in the days of Agnolo, as is obvious from the magnificent works of the Duomo of Orvieto.
  8. St. Nereus and St. Archileus, or Achilleus, were brothers; but St. Pancratius was in no way connected with them. He was a Roman youth who was martyred on the spot where his church now stands, at the Gate of San Pancrazio, at Rome.
  9. This picture is in the Gallery of the Pine Arts in Florence.
  10. The commentators differ as to the fate of this picture, of which nothing certain is known.
  11. The most important work of Agnolo now remaining, and in tolerably good preservation. It was restored in 1831, by Sig. Antonio Marini, of Prato. —Montani.
  12. This work is destroyed.
  13. This picture is described by Bottari as in good preservation; but it was removed some time after, and its present condition is not known.
  14. See Gaye, Carteggio Inedito, vol. i, pp. 499, 502, 508.
  15. Antonio Alberto, with whom the Ferrarese school of painting commences. —Montani.
  16. See Lanzi, History of Painting, vol. ii, pp. 88-89.
  17. See Della Valle, Lettere Sanest, vol. ii, p. 242, and Lanzi, History of Painting, vol. i, p. 426, and vol. ii, p. 89, for the conflicting statements concerning this painter.
  18. These paintings are lost, but there is some compensation in the fine fresco, by this master, of Christ on the Cross, with the Virgin and St. John, which Fea discovered in 1798, in the lower church of Assisi.
  19. The treatise of Cennino Cennini was translated into English in 1844, by Mrs. Merrifield. This book was long believed to have been written while the author, then very old, was imprisoned for debt; but this has been shewn to be a fallacy. (See Mrs. Merrifield. Ancient Treatises on Oil Painting, vol. i, Introduction, p. 47.) Rumohr informs us, that a painting by Cennini, and which bears his name written by himself, is still existing in the Franciscan convent of Volterra.
  20. This passage of Vasari is considered to be in contradiction to the remarks he afterwards makes (in his life of Antonello da Messina) on the discovery of oil painting; but Lanzi, availing himself of the observations of Morelli, has reconciled this apparent contradiction, as will be seen in the proper place. —Montani.
  21. See Gaye, vol. i, 528-9. The paintings of Cennini must have been destroyed in 1787, when the hospital was changed into a lunatic asylum, and its form altered.
  22. Or, according to the Florentine commentators, not until after 1390, at which period they declare Agnolo Gaddi to have been still in existence. The first edition of Vasari gives the following epitaph on this master:—
    “ Angelo Taddei F. Gaddio ingenii et picturae gloria honoribus probitatisque existimatione vere magno Filii moestiss. posuere.”