Lives, by Giorgio Vasari

Giovanni Da Udine

Life of Giovanni Da Udine

In Udine, a city of Friuli, lived a citizen called Giovanni, of the family of the Nanni, who was the first of that family to give attention to the practice of embroidery, in which his descendants afterwards followed him with such excellence, that their house was called no longer De’ Nanni but De’ Ricamatori.7 Among them, then, one Francesco, who lived always like an honourable citizen, devoted to the chase and to other suchlike exercises, had in the year 1494 a son, to whom he gave the name Giovanni; and this son, while still a child, showed such inclination to design that it was a thing to marvel at, for, following behind his father in his hunting and fowling, whenever he had time he was for ever drawing dogs, hares, bucks, and, in short, all the kinds of birds and beasts that came into his hands; which he did in such a fashion that everyone was astonished. Perceiving this inclination, his father Francesco took him to Venice, and placed him to learn the art of design with Giorgione da Castelfranco; but, while working under him, the boy heard the works of Michelagnolo and Raffaello so extolled, that he resolved at all costs to go to Rome. And so, having obtained from Domenico Grimani, who was much his father’s friend, letters of introduction to Baldassarre Castiglioni, the Secretary of the Duke of Mantua and a close friend of Raffaello da Urbino, he went off to that city. There, having been placed by that Castiglioni in the school of the young men of Raffaello, he learned excellently well the principles of art, a thing which is of great importance, for the reason that when a man begins by adopting a bad manner, it rarely happens that he can abandon it without great difficulty, in order to learn a better.

Giovanni, then, having been only a very short time under the discipline of Giorgione in Venice, when he had once seen the sweet, graceful, and beautiful manner of Raffaello, determined, like a young man of fine intelligence, that he would at all costs attach himself to that manner. And so, his brain and hand being equal to his noble intention, he made so much proficience, that in a short time he was able to draw very well and to work in colour with facility and grace, insomuch that, to put it in a few words, he succeeded in counterfeiting excellently well every natural object—animals, draperies, instruments, vases, landscapes, buildings, and verdure; in which not one of the young men of that school surpassed him. But, above all, he took supreme delight in depicting birds of every kind, insomuch that in a short time he filled a book with them, which was so well varied and so beautiful, that it was a recreation and a delight to Raffaello. Living with Raffaello was a Fleming called Giovanni, who was an excellent master in depicting fruits, leaves, and flowers with a very faithful and pleasing likeness to nature, although in a manner a little dry and laboured; and from him Giovanni da Udine learned to make them as beautiful as his master, and, what is more, with a certain soft and pastose manner that enabled him to become, as will be related, supremely excellent in some fields of art. He also learned to execute landscapes with ruined buildings and fragments of antiquities, and likewise to paint landscapes and verdure in colours on cloth, in the manner that has been followed after him not only by the Flemings, but also by all the Italian painters.

Raffaello, who much loved the genius of Giovanni, in executing the altar-picture of S. Cecilia that is in Bologna, caused him to paint the organ which that Saint has in her hand; and he counterfeited it so well from the reality, that it appears as if in relief, and also all the musical instruments that are at the feet of the Saint. But what was of much greater import was that he made his painting so similar to that of Raffaello, that the whole appears as if by one and the same hand. Not long afterwards, excavations being made at S. Pietro in Vincula, among the ruins and remains of the Palace of Titus, in the hope of finding figures, certain rooms were discovered, completely buried under the ground, which were full of little grotesques, small figures, and scenes, with other ornaments of stucco in low-relief. Whereupon, Giovanni going with Raffaello, who was taken to see them, they were struck with amazement, both the one and the other, at the freshness, beauty, and excellence of those works, for it appeared to them an extraordinary thing that they had been preserved for so long a time; but it was no great marvel, for they had not been open or exposed to the air, which is wont in time, through the changes of the seasons, to consume all things. These grotesques—which were called grotesques from their having been discovered in the underground grottoes—executed with so much design, with fantasies so varied and so bizarre, with their delicate ornaments of stucco divided by various fields of colour, and with their little scenes so pleasing and beautiful, entered so deeply into the heart and mind of Giovanni, that, having devoted himself to the study of them, he was not content to draw and copy them merely once or twice; and he succeeded in executing them with facility and grace, lacking nothing save a knowledge of the method of making the stucco on which the grotesques were wrought. Now many before him, as has been related, had exercised their wits on this, but had discovered nothing save the method of making the stucco, by means of fire, with gypsum, lime, colophony, wax, and pounded brick, and of overlaying it with gold; and they had not found the true method of making stucco similar to that which had been discovered in those ancient chambers and grottoes. But at that time works were being executed in lime and pozzolana, as was related in the Life of Bramante, for the arches and the tribune at the back in S. Pietro, all the ornaments of foliage, with the ovoli and other members, being cast in moulds of clay, and Giovanni, after considering that method of working with lime and pozzolana, began to try if he could succeed in making figures in low-relief; and so, pursuing his experiments, he contrived to make them as he desired in every part, save that the outer surface did not come out with the delicacy and finish that the ancient works possessed, nor yet so white. On which account he began to think that it might be necessary to mix with the white lime of travertine, in place of pozzolana, some substance white in colour; whereupon, after making trial of various materials, he caused chips of travertine to be pounded, and found that it answered passing well, but that still the work was of a livid rather than a pure white, and also rough and granular. But finally, having caused chips of the whitest marble that could be found to be pounded and reduced to a fine powder, and then sifted, he mixed it with white lime of travertine, and discovered that thus he had succeeded without any doubt in making the true stucco of the ancients, with all the properties that he had desired therein. At which rejoicing greatly, he showed to Raffaello what he had done; wherefore he, who was then executing by order of Pope Leo 10, as has been related, the Loggie of the Papal Palace, caused Giovanni to decorate all the vaulting there in stucco, with most beautiful ornaments bordered by grotesques similar to the antique, and with very lovely and fantastic inventions, all full of the most varied and extravagant things that could possibly be imagined. Having executed the whole of that ornamentation in half-relief and low-relief, he then divided it up with little scenes, landscapes, foliage, and various friezes, in which he touched the highest level, as it were, that art can reach in that field.

In all this he not only equalled the ancients, but also, in so far as one can judge from the remains that we have seen, surpassed them, for the reason that these works of Giovanni’s, in beauty of design, in the invention of figures, and in colouring, whether executed in stucco or painted, are beyond all comparison superior to those of the ancients that are to be seen in the Colosseum, and to the paintings in the Baths of Diocletian and in other places. In what other place are there to be seen birds painted that are more lifelike and natural, so to speak, in colouring, in the plumage, and in all other respects, than those that are in the friezes and pilasters of the Loggie? And they are there in as many varieties as Nature herself has been able to create, some in one manner and some in another; and many are perched on bunches, ears, and panicles, not only of corn, millet, and buckwheat, but of all the kinds of cereals, vegetables, and fruits that earth has produced from the beginning of time for the sustenance and nourishment of birds. As for the fishes, likewise, the sea-monsters, and all the other creatures of the water that Giovanni depicted in the same place, since the most that one could say would be too little, it is better to pass them over in silence rather than seek to attempt the impossible. And what should 1 say of the various kinds of fruits and flowers without number that are there, in all the forms, varieties, and colours that Nature contrives to produce in all parts of the world and in all the seasons of the year? What, likewise, of the various musical instruments that are there, all as real as the reality? And who does not know as a matter of common knowledge that—Giovanni having painted at the head of the Loggia, where the Pope had not yet determined what should be done in the way of masonry, some balusters to accompany the real ones of the Loggia, and over them a carpet—who, I say, does not know that one day, a carpet being urgently required for the Pope, who was going to the Belvedere, a groom, who knew not the truth of the matter, ran from a distance to take one of those painted carpets, being completely deceived? In short, it may be said, without offence to other craftsmen, that of all works of the kind this is the most beautiful, the most rare, and the most excellent painting that has ever been seen by mortal eye. And, in addition, I will make bold to say that this work has been the reason that not Rome only but also all the other parts of the world have been filled with this kind of painting, for, besides that Giovanni was the restorer and almost the inventor of grotesques in stucco and of other kinds, from this his work, which is most beautiful, whoever has wished to execute such things has taken his exemplar; not to mention that the young men that assisted Giovanni, who were many, and even, what with one time and another, innumerable, learned from the true master and filled every province with them.

Then, proceeding to execute the first range below those Loggie, Giovanni used another and quite different method in the distribution of the stucco-work and paintings on the walls and vaultings of the other Loggie; but nevertheless those also were very beautiful, by reason of the pleasing invention of the pergole of canes counterfeited in various compartments, all covered with vines laden with grapes, and with clematis, jasmine, roses, and various kinds of birds and beasts. Next, Pope Leo, wishing to have painted the hall where the guard of halberdiers have their quarters, on the level of the above-named Loggie, Giovanni, in addition to the friezes of children, lions, Papal arms, and grotesques that are round that hall, made some divisions on the walls with imitations of variegated marbles of different kinds, similar to the incrustations that the ancient Romans used to make on their baths, temples, and other buildings, such as may be seen in the Ritonda and in the portico of S. Pietro. In another hall beside that one, which was used by the Chamberlains, Raffaello da Urbino painted in certain tabernacles some Apostles in chiaroscuro, large as life and very beautiful; and over the cornices of that work Giovanni portrayed from life many parrots of various colours which his Holiness had at that time, and also baboons, marmosets, civet-cats, and other strange creatures. But this work had a short life, for the reason that Pope Paul 4 destroyed that apartment in order to make certain small closets and little places of retirement, and thus deprived the Palace of a very rare work; which that holy man would not have done if he had possessed any taste for the arts of design. Giovanni painted the cartoons for those hangings and chamber-tapestries that were afterwards woven in silk and gold in Flanders, in which are certain little boys that are sporting around various festoons, and as ornaments the devices of Pope Leo and various animals copied from life. These tapestries, which are very rare works, are still in the Palace at the present day. He also executed the cartoons for some tapestries full of grotesques, which are in the first rooms of the Consistory.


(After the fresco by Giovanni da Udine. Rome: The Vatican, Loggia)

While Giovanni was labouring at those works, the Palace of M. Giovan Battista dall’Aquila, which had been erected at the head of the Borgo Nuovo, near the Piazza di S. Pietro, had the greater part of the façade decorated in stucco by the hand of the same master, which was held to be a remarkable work. The same Giovanni executed the paintings and all the stucco-work in the loggia of the villa that Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici caused to be built under Monte Mario, wherein are animals, grotesques, festoons, and friezes of such beauty, that it appears as if in that work Giovanni had sought to outstrip and surpass his own self. Wherefore he won from that Cardinal, who much loved his genius, in addition to many benefits that he received for his relatives, the gift of a canonicate for himself at Civitale in Friuli, which was afterwards given by Giovanni to a brother of his own. Then, having to make for the same Cardinal, likewise at that villa, a fountain with the water spouting through the trunk of an elephant’s head in marble, he imitated in the whole work and in every detail the Temple of Neptune, which had been discovered a short time before among the ancient ruins of the Palazzo Maggiore, all adorned with lifelike products of the sea, and wrought excellently well with various ornaments in stucco; and he even surpassed by a great measure the artistry of that ancient hall by giving great beauty to those animals, shells, and other suchlike things without number, and arranging them very well. After this he made another fountain, but in a rustic manner, in the hollow of a torrent-bed surrounded by a wood; causing water to flow in drops and fine jets from sponge-stones and stalactites, with beautiful artifice, so that it had all the appearance of a work of nature. On the highest point of those hollow rocks and sponge-stones he fashioned a large lion’s head, which had around it a garland formed of maidenhair and other plants, trained there with great artistry; and no one could believe what grace these gave to that wild place, which was most beautiful in every part and beyond all conception pleasing.

That work finished, after the Cardinal had made Giovanni a Chevalier of S. Pietro, he sent him to Florence, to the end that, when a certain chamber had been made in the Palace of the Medici (at that corner, namely, where the elder Cosimo, the builder of that edifice, had made a loggia for the convenience and assemblage of the citizens, as it was the custom at that time for the most noble families to do), he might paint and adorn it all with grotesques and stucco. That loggia having then been enclosed after the design of Michelagnolo Buonarroti, and given the form of a chamber, with two knee-shaped windows, which were the first to be made in that manner, with iron gratings, for the exterior of a palace, Giovanni adorned all the vaulting with stucco-work and painting, making in a medallion the six balls, the arms of the House of Medici, supported by three little boys executed in relief in attitudes of great beauty and grace. Besides this, he made there many most beautiful animals, and also many most lovely devices of gentlemen and lords of that illustrious house, together with some scenes in half-relief, executed in stucco; and on the field of the vaulting he did the rest of the work in pictures, counterfeiting them after the manner of cameos in black and white, and so well, that nothing better could be imagined. There remained four arches beneath the vaulting, each twelve braccia in breadth and six in height, which were not painted at that time, but many years afterwards by Giorgio Vasari, as a young man of eighteen years, when he was in the service of Duke Alessandro de’ Medici, his first lord, in the year 1535; which Giorgio executed there stories from the life of Julius Cæsar, in allusion to the above-named Cardinal Giulio, who had caused the work to be done. Giovanni then executed on a little barrel-shaped vault, beside that chamber, some works in stucco in the lowest of low-relief, and likewise some pictures, which are exquisite; but, although these pleased the painters that were in Florence at that time, being wrought with boldness and marvellous mastery, and filled with spirited and fantastic inventions, yet, since they were accustomed to a laboured manner of their own and to doing everything that they carried into execution with copies taken from life, they did not praise them without reserve, not being altogether decided in their minds, nor did they set themselves to imitate them, perhaps because they had not the courage.

Having then returned to Rome, Giovanni executed in the loggia of Agostino Chigi, which Raffaello had painted and was still engaged in carrying to completion, a border of large festoons right round the groins and squares of the vaulting, making there all the kinds of fruits, flowers, and leaves, season by season, and fashioning them with such artistry, that everything may be seen there living and standing out from the wall, and as natural as the reality; and so many are the various kinds of fruits and plants that are to be seen in that work, that, in order not to enumerate them one by one, I will say only this, that there are there all those that Nature has ever produced in our parts. Above the figure of a Mercury who is flying, he made, to represent Priapus, a pumpkin entwined in bind-weed, which has for testicles two egg-plants, and near the flower of the pumpkin he depicted a cluster of large purple figs, within one of which, over-ripe and bursting open, the point of the pumpkin with the flower is entering; which conceit is rendered with such grace, that no one could imagine anything better. But why say more? To sum the matter up, 1 venture to declare that in that kind of painting Giovanni surpassed all those who have best imitated Nature in such works, for the reason that, besides all the other things, even the flowers of the elder, of the fennel, and of the other lesser plants are there in truly astonishing perfection. There, likewise, may be seen a great abundance of animals in the lunettes, which are encircled by those festoons, and certain little boys that are holding in their hands the attributes of the Gods; and, among other things, a lion and a sea-horse, being most beautifully foreshortened, are held to be divine.

Having finished that truly extraordinary work, Giovanni executed a very beautiful bathroom in the Castello di S. Angelo, and in the Papal Palace, besides those mentioned above, many other small works, which for the sake of brevity are passed over. Raffaello having then died, whose loss much grieved Giovanni, and Pope Leo having also left this world, there was no more place in Rome for the arts of design or for any other art, and Giovanni occupied himself for many months on some works of little importance at the villa of the above-named Cardinal de’ Medici. And for the arrival of Pope Adrian in Rome he did nothing but the small banners of the Castle, which he had renewed twice in the time of Pope Leo, together with the great standard that flies on the summit of the highest tower. He also executed four square banners when the Blessed Antonino, Archbishop of Florence, and S. Hubert, once Bishop of I know not what city of Flanders, were canonized as Saints by the above-mentioned Pope Adrian; of which banners, one, wherein is the figure of that S. Antonino, was given to the Church of S. Marco in Florence, where the body of the Saint lies, another, wherein is the figure of S. Hubert, was placed in S. Maria de Anima, the church of the Germans in Rome, and the other two were sent to Flanders.

Clement VII having then been elected Supreme Pontiff, with whom Giovanni had a strait bond of service, he returned immediately from Udine, whither he had gone to avoid the plague, to Rome; where having arrived, he was commissioned to make a rich and beautiful decoration over the steps of S. Pietro for the coronation of that Pope. And afterwards it was ordained that he and Perino del Vaga should paint some pictures on the vaulting of the old hall opposite to the lower apartments, which lead from the Loggie, which he had painted before, to the apartments of the Borgia Tower; whereupon Giovanni executed there a most beautiful design in stucco-work, with many grotesques and various animals, and Perino the cars of the seven planets. They had also to paint the walls of that same hall, on which Giotto, according as is written by Platina in the Lives of the Pontiffs, had formerly painted some Popes who had been put to death for the faith of Christ, on which account that hall was called for a time the Hall of the Martyrs. But the vaulting was scarcely finished, when there took place that most unhappy sack of Rome, and the work could not be pursued any further. Thereupon Giovanni, having suffered not a little both in person and in property, returned again to Udine, intending to stay there a long time; but in that he did not succeed, for the reason that Pope Clement, after returning from Bologna, where he had crowned Charles 5, to Rome, caused Giovanni also to return to that city, where he commissioned him first to make anew the standards of the Castello di S. Angelo, and then to paint the ceiling of the great chapel, the principal one in S. Pietro, where the altar of that Saint is. Meanwhile, Fra Mariano having died, who had the office of the Piombo, his place was given to Sebastiano Viniziano, a painter of great repute, and to Giovanni a pension on the same of eighty chamber-ducats.

Then, after the troubles of the Pontiff had in great measure ceased and affairs in Rome had grown quiet, Giovanni was sent by his Holiness with many promises to Florence, to execute in the new sacristy of S. Lorenzo, which had been adorned with most excellent sculptures by Michelagnolo, the ornaments of the tribune, which is full of sunk squares that diminish little by little towards the central point. Setting his hand to this, then, Giovanni carried it excellently well to completion with the aid of many assistants, with most beautiful foliage, rosettes, and other ornaments of stucco and gold; but in one thing he failed in judgment, for the reason that on the flat friezes that form the ribs of the vaulting, and on those that run crossways, so as to enclose the squares, he made foliage, birds, masks, and figures that cannot be seen at all from the ground, although they are very beautiful, by reason of the distance, and also because they are divided up by other colours, whereas, if he had painted them in colours without any other elaboration, they would have been visible, and the whole work would have been brighter and richer. There remained no more of the work to be executed than he would have been able to finish in a fortnight, going over it again in certain places, when there came the news of the death of Pope Clement, and Giovanni was robbed of all his hopes, particularly of that which he expected from that Pontiff as the reward and guerdon of this work. Wherefore, having recognized, although too late, how fallacious in most cases are the hopes based on the favour of Courts, and how often those who put their trust in the lives of particular Princes are left disappointed, he returned to Rome; but, although he would have been able to live there on his offices and revenues, serving also Cardinal Ippolito de’ Medici and the new Pontiff, Paul 3, he resolved to repatriate himself and to return to Udine.

Carrying that intention into effect, therefore, he went back to live in his native place with that brother to whom he had given the canonicate, determined that he would never more handle a brush. But in this also he was disappointed, for the reason that, having taken a wife and had children by her, he was in a manner forced by the instinct that a man naturally feels to bring up his children and to leave them in good circumstances, to set himself once more to work. He painted, then, at the entreaty of the father of the Chevalier Giovan Francesco di Spilimbergo, a frieze in a hall, filling it with children, festoons, fruits, and other things of fancy. After that, he adorned with lovely paintings and works in stucco the Chapel of S. Maria at Civitale; and for the Canons of the Duomo of that place he executed two most beautiful standards. And for the Confraternity of S. Maria di Castello, at Udine, he painted on a rich banner Our Lady with the Child in her arms, and an Angel full of grace who is offering to her that Castello, which stands on a hill in the centre of the city. At Venice, in the Palace of Grimani, the Patriarch of Aquileia, he decorated with stucco-work and paintings a very beautiful chamber in which are some lovely little scenes by the hand of Francesco Salviati.

Finally, in the year 1550, Giovanni went to Rome to take part in the most holy Jubilee, on foot and dressed poorly as a pilgrim, and in the company of humble folk; and he stayed there many days without being known by anyone. But one day, while going to S. Paolo, he was recognized by Giorgio Vasari, who was riding in a coach to the same Pardon in company with Messer Bindo Altoviti, who was much his friend. At first Giovanni denied that it was he, but finally he was forced to reveal himself and to confess that he had great need of Giorgio’s assistance with the Pope in the matter of the pension that he had from the Piombo, which was being denied to him by one Fra Guglielmo, a Genoese sculptor, who had received that office after the death of Fra Sebastiano. Giorgio spoke of this matter to the Pope, which was the reason that the bond was renewed, and afterwards it was proposed to exchange it for a canonicate at Udine for Giovanni’s son. But afterwards, being again defrauded by that Fra Guglielmo, Giovanni went from Udine to Florence, after Pope Pius had been elected, in the hope of being assisted and favoured by his Excellency with that Pontiff, by means of Vasari. Having arrived in Florence, then, he was presented by Giorgio to his most illustrious Excellency, with whom he went to Siena, and then from there to Rome, whither there also went the Lady Duchess Leonora; and in such wise was he assisted by the kindness of the Duke, that he was not only granted all that he desired, but also set to work by the Pope with a good salary to give the final completion to the last Loggia, which is the one over that which Pope Leo had formerly caused him to decorate. That finished, the same Pope commissioned him to retouch all that first Loggia, which was an error and a thing very ill considered, for the reason that retouching it “a secco” caused it to lose all those masterly strokes that had been drawn by Giovanni’s brush in all the excellence of his best days, and also the boldness and freshness that had made it in its original condition so rare a work.

After finishing that work, Giovanni, being seventy years of age, finished also the course of his life, in the year 1564, rendering up his spirit to God in that most noble city which had enabled him for many years to live with so much success and so great a name. Giovanni was always, but much more in his last years, a God-fearing man and a good Christian. In his youth he took pleasure in scarcely any other thing but hunting and fowling; and his custom when he was young was to go hunting on feast-days with his servant, at times roaming over the Campagna to a distance of ten miles from Rome. He could shoot very well with the fusil and the crossbow, and therefore rarely returned home without his servant being laden with wild geese, ringdoves, wild ducks, and other creatures such as are to be found in those marshy places. Giovanni, so many declare, was the inventor of the ox painted on canvas that is made for using in that pursuit, so as to fire off the fusil without being seen by the wild creatures; and on account of those exercises of hunting and fowling he always delighted to keep dogs and to train them by himself.

Giovanni, who deserves to be extolled among the greatest masters of his profession, chose to be buried in the Ritonda, near his master Raffaello da Urbino, in order not to be divided in death from him to whom in life his spirit was always attached; and since, as has been told, each of them was an excellent Christian, it may be believed that they are still together in eternal blessedness.

7 Embroiderers.

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