Giorgio Vasari
Lives of the Artists

Excerpts from the Original Electronic Text at Peter Fitz's Memory Farm Engaging Arts and Ideas.


Now in the year 1276, in the country of Florence, about fourteen miles from the city, in the village of Vespignano, there was born to a simple peasant named Bondone a son, to whom he gave the name of Giotto, and whom he brought up according to his station. And when he had reached the age of ten years, showing in all his ways though still childish an extraordinary vivacity and quickness of mind, which made him beloved not only by his father but by all who knew him, Bondone gave him the care of some sheep. And he leading them for pasture, now to one spot and now to another, was constantly driven by his natural inclination to draw on the stones or the ground some object in nature, or something that came into his mind. One day Cimabue, going on business from Florence to Vespignano, found Giotto, while his sheep were feeding, drawing a sheep from nature upon a smooth and solid rock with a pointed stone, having never learnt from any one but nature. Cimabue, marvelling at him, stopped and asked him if he would go and be with him. And the boy answered that if his father were content he would gladly go. Then Cimabue asked Bondone for him, and he gave him up to him, and was content that he should take him to Florence. There in a little time, by the aid of nature and the teaching of Cimabue, the boy not only equalled his master, but freed himself from the rude manner of the Greeks, and brought back to life the true art of painting, introducing the drawing from nature of living persons, which had not been practised for two hundred years; or at least if some had tried it, they had not succeeded very happily. Giotto painted among others, as may be seen to this day in the chapel of the Podestà's Palace at Florence, Dante Alighieri, his contemporary and great friend, and no less famous a poet than Giotto was a painter.

After this he was called to Assisi by Fra Giovanni di Muro, at that time general of the order of S. Francis, and painted in fresco in the upper church thirtytwo stories from the life and deeds of S. Francis, which brought him great fame. It is no wonder therefore that Pope Benedict sent one of his courtiers into Tuscany to see what sort of a man he was and what his works were like, for the Pope was planning to have some paintings made in S Peter's. This courtier, on his way to see Giotto and to find out what other masters of painting and mosaic there were in Florence, spoke with many masters in Sienna, and then, having received some drawings from them, he came to Florence. And one morning going into the workshop of Giotto, who was at his labours, he showed him the mind of the Pope, and at last asked him to give him a little drawing to send to his Holiness. Giotto, who was a man of courteous manners, immediately took a sheet of paper, and with a pen dipped in red, fixing his arm firmly against his side to make a compass of it, with a turn of his hand he made a circle so perfect that it was a marvel to see it Having done it, he turned smiling to the courtier and said, "Here is the drawing." But he, thinking he was being laughed at, asked, "Am I to have no other drawing than this?" "This is enough and too much," replied Giotto, "send it with the others and see if it will be understood." The messenger, seeing that he could get nothing else, departed ill pleased, not doubting that he had been made a fool of. However, sending the other drawings to the Pope with the names of those who had made them, he sent also Giotto's, relating how he had made the circle without moving his arm and without compasses, which when the Pope and many of his courtiers understood, they saw that Giotto must surpass greatly all the other painters of his time. This thing being told, there arose from it a proverb which is still used about men of coarse clay, "You are rounder than the O of Giotto," which proverb is not only good because of the accasion from which it sprang, but also still more for its significance, which consists in its ambiguity, tondo, "round," meaning in Tuscany not only a perfect circle, but also slowness and heaviness of mind.

So the Pope made him come to Rome, and he painted for him in S. Peter's, and there never left his hands work better finished; wherefore the Pope, esteeming himself well served, gave him six hundred ducats of gold, besides having shown him so many favours that it was spoken of through all Italy.

After Giotto was returned to Florence, Robert, King of Naples, wrote to his eldest son, Charles, King of Calabria, who was at that time in Florence, that he must by some means or other send him Giotto to Naples. Giotto, hearing himself called by a king so famous and so much praised, went very willingly to serve him, and did many works which pleased the king greatly. And he was so much beloved by him that the kj,ng would often visit him, and took pleasure in watching him and listening to his conversation, and Giotto, who had always some jest or some witty answer ready, would converse with him while going on with his painting. So one day the king saying to him that he would make him the first man in Naples, Giotto answered, "And that is why I am lodged at the Porta Reale, that I may be the first man in Naples." And another time the king saying to him, " Giotto, if I were you, now that it is hot, I would give up painting a little," he answered, "And so would I, certainly, if I were you."

So pleasing the king well, he painted him a good number of pictures, and the portraits of many famous men, Giotto himself among them; and one day the king, as a caprice, asked him to paint his kingdom. Giotto, it is said, painted a laden ass with a new load lying at his feet, which while it refused it seemed to desire, and both on the new and old burden was the royal crown and sceptre of power. And when Giotto was asked by the king what the picture signified, he replied, "Such must be the subjects and such the kingdom which every day desired a new lord."

There are many other stories remaining of the witty sayings of Giotto, and besides those that are told by Boccaccio, Franco Sacchetti tells many good ones, some of which I will give in Franco's own words.

"How a man of low station gives Giotto the great painter a shield to paint.

"Every one must have heard of Giotto, who was a great painter above any other. A rough workman, hearing of his fame, came to Giotto's workshop followed by one carrying his shield. Arrived there, he found Giotto, and said, 'God save you, master, I want you to paint my arms on this shield.' Giotto, considering the man and his manner of speech, said nothing but, 'When do you want it?' And he told him. Giotto said, 'Leave me to do it;' so he went away. And Giotto, left alone, said to himself, 'What did he mean? Has some sent him for a joke? I never had a shield to paint before. And this man was a simple fellow, and bade me paint his arms as if he were of the royal house of France. Certainly I shall have to make him some new arms.' So considering the matter, he put the shield before him and made a design and bade one of his pupils paint it, and so it was done. There was a helmet, a gorget, a pair of iron gloves, a cuirass, and cuisses, a sword, dagger, and lancc. So the worthy man came again and said, 'Master, is my shield painted?' Giotto answered, 'Certainly, bring it down.' But when it came the wouldbe gentleman looked at it and said, 'What is this you have been painting ? I won't pay four farthings for it.' Giotto said, 'What did you tell me to paint?' And he answered, 'My arms.' ' Are not they all here?' asked Giotto; 'what is wanting? Nay, you are a great fool, for if any one were to ask you who you are, you would hardly know what to answer; and you come here and say, Paint me my arms. What arms do you bear? Whence are you? Who were your ancestors? I have painted all your armour on the shield, and if there is anything else, tell me and I will add it.' But the other answered, 'You are giving me vile words, and have spoilt my shield.' And he went away and summoned Giotto before the justice. Giotto appeared, and on his side summoned him, demanding two florins for his painting. And when the court had heard the matter, they gave sentence that the man should take his shield so painted, and pay six lire to Giotto."

It is said that when Giotto was only a boy with Cimabue, he once painted a fly on the nose of a face that Cimabue had drawn, so naturally that the master returning to his work tried more than once to drive it away with his hand, thinking it was real. And I might tell you of many other jests played by Giotto, but of this enough.

Leonardo de Vinci

. . .But the greatest of all Andrea's pupils was Lionardo da Vinci, in whom, besides a beauty of person never sufficiently admired and a wonderful grace in all his actions, there was such a power of intellect that whatever he turned his mind to he made himself master of with ease.

Marvellous and divine, indeed, was Lionardo the son of Ser Piero da Vinci. In erudition and letters he would have distinguished himself, if he had not been variable and unstable. For he set himself to learn many things, and when he had begun them gave them up. In arithmetic, during the few months that he applied himself to it, he made such progress that he often perplexed his master by the doubts and difficulties that he propounded. He gave some time to the study of music, and learnt to play on the lute, improvising songs most divinely. But though he applied himself to such various subjects, he never laid aside drawing and modelling in relief, to which his fancy inclined him more than to anything else; which Ser Piero perceiving, he took some of his drawings one day and carried them to Andrea del Verrocchio, with whom he was in close friendship, and prayed him to say whether he thought, if Lionardo gave himself up to drawing, he would succeed. Andrea was astounded at the great beginning Lionardo had made, and urged Ser Piero to make him apply himself to it. So he arranged with Lionardo that he was to go to Andrea's workshop, which Lionardo did very willingly, and set himself to practice every art in which design has a part. For he had such a marvellous mind that, besides being a good geometrician, he worked at modelling (making while a boy some laughing women's heads, and some heads of children which seem to have come from a master's hand), and also made many designs for architecture; and he was the first, while he was still quite young, to discuss the question of making a channel for the river Arno from Pisa to Florence. He made models of mills and presses, and machines to be worked by water, and designs for tunnelling through mountains, and levers and cranes for raising great weights, so that it seemed that his brain never ceased inventing; and many of these drawings are still scattered about. Among them was one drawn for some of the citizens when governing Florence, to show how it would be possible to lift up the church of S. Giovanni, and put steps under it without throwing it down; and he supported his scheme with such strong reasons as made it appear possible, though as soon as he was gone every one felt in his mind how impossible it really was.

He delighted much in horses and also in all other animals, and often when passing by the places where they sold birds he would take them out of their cages, and paying the price that was asked for them, would let them fly away into the air, restoring to them their lost liberty.

While, as we have said, he was studying art under Andrea del Verrocchio, the latter was painting a picture of S. John baptizing ChristLionardo worked upon an angel who was holding the clothes, and although he was so young, he managed it so well that Lionardo's angel was better than Andrea's figures, which was the cause of Andrea's never touching colours again, being angry that a boy should know more than he.

There is a story that Ser Piero, being at his country house, was asked by one of the country people to get a round piece of wood, which he had cut from a figtree, painted for him in Florence, which he very willingly undertook to do, as the man was skilled in catching birds and fishing, and was very serviceable to Ser Piero in these sports. So having it brought to Florence without telling Lionardo where it came from, he asked him to paint something upon it. Lionardo, finding it crooked and rough, straightened it by means of fire, and gave it to a turner that it might be made smooth and even. Then having prepared it for painting, he began to think what he could paint upon it that would frighten every one that saw it, having the effect of the head of Medusa. So he brought for this purpose to his room, which no one entered but himself, lizards, grasshoppers, serpents, butterflies, locusts, bats, and other strange animals of the kind, and from them all he produced a great animal so horrible and fearful that it seemed to poison the air with its fiery breath. This he represented coming out of some dark broken rocks, with venom issuing from its open jaws, fire from its eyes, and smoke from its nostrils, a monstrous and horrible thing indeed. And he suffered much in doing it, for the smell in the room of these dead animals was very bad, though Lionardo did not feel it from the love he bore to art. When the work was finished, Lionardo told his father that he could send for it when he liked. And Ser Piero going one morning to the room for it, when he knocked at the door, Lionardo opened it, and telling him to wait a little, turned back into the room, placed the picture in the light, and arranged the window so as to darken the room a little, and then brought him in to see it. Ser Piero at the first sight started back, not perceiving that the creature that he saw was painted, and was turning to go, when Lionardo stopped him saying, "The work answers the purpose for which it was made. Take it then, for that was the effect I wanted to produce." The thing seemed marvellous to Ser Piero, and he praised greatly Lionardo's whimsical idea. And secretly buying from a merchant another circular piece of wood, painted with a heart pierced with a dart, he gave it to the countryman, who remained grateful to him as long as he lived. But Lionardo's Ser Piero sold to some merchants in Florence for a hundred ducats, and it soon came into the hands of the Duke of Milan, who bought it of them for three hundred ducats.

Lionardo was so pleased whenever he saw a strange head or beard or hair of unusual appearance that he would follow such a person a whole day, and so learn him by heart, that when he reached home he could draw him as if he were present. There are many of these heads to be seen, both of men and women, such as the head of Americo Vespucci, which is the head of an old man most beautifully drawn in chalk; and also of Scaramuccia, captain of the gipsies. When Giovan Galeazzo, Duke of Milan, was dead, and Lodovico Sforza became duke in the year 1494, Lionardo was brought to Milan to play the lute before him, in which he greatly delighted. Lionardo brought an instrument which he had made himself, a new and strange thing made mostly of silver, in the form of a horse's head, that the tube might be larger and the sound more sonorous, by which he surpassed all the other musicians who were assembled there. Besides, he was the best improvisatore of his time. The duke, hearing his marvellous discourse, became enamoured of his talents to an incredible degree, and prayed him to paint an altarpiece of the Nativity, which he sent to the emperor.

He also painted in Milan for the friars of S. Domenic, at S. Maria delle Grazie, a Last Supyer, a thing most beautiful and marvellous. He gave to the heads of the apostles great majesty and beauty, but left that of Christ imperfect, not thinking it possible to give that celestial divinity which is required for the representation of Christ. The work, finished after this sort, has always been held by the Milanese in the greatest veneration, and by strangers also, because Lionardo imagined, and has succeeded in expressing, the desire that has entered the minds of the apostles to know who is betraying their Master. So in the face of each one may be seen love, fear, indignation, or grief at not being able to understand the meaning of Christ; and this excites no less astonishment than the obstinate hatred and treachery to be seen in Judas. Besides this, every lesser part of the work shows an incredible diligence; even in the tablecloth the weaver's work is imitated in a way that could not be better in the thing itself.

It is said that the prior of the place was very importunate in urging Lionardo to finish the work, it seeming strange to him to see Lionardo standing half a day lost in thought; and he would have liked him never to have put down his pencil, as if it were a work like digging the garden. And this not being enough, he com plained to the duke, and was so hot about it that he was constrained to send for Lionardo and urge him to the work. Lionardo, knowing the prince to be acute and intelligent, was ready to discuss the matter with him, which he would not do with the prior. He reasoned about art, and showed him that men of genius may be working when they seem to be doing the least, working out inventions in their minds, and forming those perfect ideas which afterwards they express with their hands. He added that he still had two heads to do; that of Christ, which he would not seek for in the world, and which he could not hope that his imagination would be able to conceive of such beauty and celestial grace as was fit for the incarnate divinity. Besides this, that of Judas was wanting, which he was considering, not thinking himself capable of imagining a form to express the face of him who after receiving so many benefits had a soul so evil that he was resolved to betray his Lord and the creator of the world; but this second he was looking for, and if he could find no better there was always the head of this importunate and foolish prior. This moved the duke marvellously to laughter, and he said he was a thousand times right. So the poor prior, quite confused, left off urging him and left him alone, and Lionardo finished Judas's head, which is a true portrait of treachery and cruelty. But that of Christ, as we have said, he left imperfect. The excellence of this picture, both in composition and incomparable finish of execution, made the King of France desire to carry it into his kingdom, and he tried every way to find architects who could bring it safely, not considering the expense, so much he desired to have it. But as it was painted on the wall his Majesty could not have his will, and it with the Milanese. refectory, and while he was working at Supper, he painted Lodovico with his eldest son, Massimiliano, and on the other side the Duchess Beatrice with Francesco her other son, both afterwards Dukes of Milan. While he was employed upon this work he proposed to the duke that he should make a bronze equestrian statue of marvellous size to perpetuate the memory of the Duke (Francesco Sforza). He began it, but made the model of such a size that it could never be completed. There are some who say that Lionardo began it so large because he did not mean to finish it, as with many of his other things. But in truth his mind, being so surpassingly great, was often brought to a stand because it was too adventuresome, and the cause of his leaving so many things imperfect was his search for excellence after excellence, and perfection after perfection. And those who saw the clay model that Lionarlo made, said they had never seen anything more beautiful or more superb, and this was in existence until the French came to Milan with Louis, King of France, when they broke it to pieces. There was also a small model in wax, which is lost, which was considered perfect, anl a book of the anatomy of the horse which he made in his studies. Afterwards with greater care he gave himself to the study of human anaton y, aided by, and in his turn aiding, that Messer Marc Antonio della Torre who was one of the first to shed light upon anatomy, which up to that time had been lost in the shades of ignorance. In this he was much helped by Lionardo, who made a book with drawings in red chalk, outlined with a pen, of the bones and muscles which he had dissected with his own hand. There are also some writings of Lionardo written backwarl with the left hand, treating of painting and methods of drawing and colouring. . . .


At this time some of his friends wrote to him advising him to come back to Florence, because there was some talk of having the great piece of marble which was lying spoilt made into a statue, and Piero Soderini the Gonfaloniere had talked of giving it to Lionardo da Vinci, and now was preparing to give it to Andrea Contucci. Michael Angelo had desired to have it many years before; so he returned to Florence, and tried for it. It was a piece of marble nine braccia in size, out of which a Master Simone da Fiesole had begun to carve a giant, and had managed it so badly that the heads of the works at S. Maria del Fiore, without caring to have it finished, had abandoned it, and it had been lying thus for many years. Michael Angelo measured it again, and examined it to see if a reasonable figure could be cut out of the rock by accommodating its attitude to the maimed condition in which Master Simone had left it, and resolved to make request for it from the architects and Soderini. They, considering it a useless thing, granted it to him, thinking that anything would be better than the state it was in. Then Michael Angelo made a model in wax of a young David with a sling in his hand, and began to work in S. Maria del Fiore, setting up a hoarding round the marble, and working at it continually without any seeing it until he had brought it to perfection. Master Simone had so spoilt the marble that in some places there was not enough left for Michael Angelo's purpose, and certainly it was a miracle restoring thus one that was dead.

When Piero Soderini saw it, it pleased him much, but he said to Michael Angelo, who was engaged in retouching it in certain places, that he thought the nose was too thick. Michael Angelo, perceiving that the Gonfaloniere was below the statue, and could not see it truly, to satisfy him went up the scaffold, taki4g a chisel in his left hand with a little marble dust, and began to work with his chisel, letting a little dust fall now and then, but not touching the nose. Then looking down to the Gonfaloniere, who was watching, he said, "Look at it now." "It pleases me better," said the Gonfaloniere; "you have given it life." So Michael Angelo came down pitying those who make a show of understanding matters about which they really know nothing. Michael Angelo received from Soderini for the statue four hundred crowns, and it was set up in the year 1504. . . .

When the Pope was returned to Rome, Bramante (a friend of Raffaello's, and therefore little a friend to Michael Angelo) tried to turn his mind from finishing his sepulchre, saying it was an evil augury and seemed like hastening his death to make his own grave; and he persuaded him that on Michael Angelo's return he should set him to paint the ceiling of the chapel in the palace, in memory of Sixtus his uncle. For Bramante and Michael Angelo's other rivals thought to draw him away from sculpture, in which they saw he was perfect, and make him produce less worthy works, not to be compared with Raffaello's, knowing he had had no experience in painting in fresco. So when he was returned and proposed to the Pope to finish his tomb, he desired him instead to paint the ceiling of the chapel. Michael Angelo sought in every way to shift the load off his back, proposing Raffaello instead. But the more he excused himself, the more impetuous the Pope became. So seeing that his Holiness persevered, he resolved to do it, and the Pope ordered Bramante to make the scaffold. He made it hanging by ropes passed through holes in the ceiling, which when Michael Angelo saw, he asked Bramante how the holes were to be stopped up when the painting was finished. He answered, "We must think of that afterwards, but there is no other way." So Michael Angelo knew that either Bramante was worth little or that he was no friend to him, and he went to the Pope and told him the scaffolding would not do. So he told him to do it his own way. He therefore ordered it to be made on supports, not touching the wall, and he gave to a poor carpenter who made it so many of the useless ropes that by the sale of them he obtained a dowry for one of his daughters.

The Pope having resolved that the pictures which had been painted there by the masters before him in the time of Sixtus should be destroyed, Michael Angelo was forced by the greatness of the undertaking to ask aid, and sent to Florence for men. And having begun and finished the cartoons, and never having coloured before in fresco, he brought from Florence some of his friends to aid hlm, and that he might see their method of working in freseo, among whom were Granacci, Bugiar~ini, and others. So he set them to begin the work, but their efforts being far from satisfying him, one morning he resolved to destroy all that they had done, and shutting himself up in the chapel, would not open the door for them, nor show himself to them at home. They therefore, after this had gone on some time, were offended, and took leave and went back to Florence with shame. Then Michael Angelo prepared to do the whole work himself, and brought it to a successful termination with great labour and study, nor would he let any one see it, by which means the desire grew strong in all. When the half was done and uncovered, all Rome went to see it, the Pope the first; and Raffaello da Urbino, who was excellent in imitating, having seen it, changed his manner. Then Bramante sought to persuade the Pope to give the other half to Raffaello. But the Pope, seeing every day the powers of Michael Angelo, judged that he should finish the other half. So he brought it to an end in twenty months by himself without even the help of a man to grind the colours. Michael Angelo complained that from the haste of the Pope he could not finish it as he would, for the Pope constantly asked him when it would be finished. Once he answered, "It will be finished when I have satisfied myself." "But we will," replied the Popes "that you should satisfy us in our desire to have it quickly." And he added that if it was not done soon he would have him thrown from his scaffold. The Pope used often to tell Michael Angelo to make the chapel rich in colour and gold, but Michael Angelo would answer the Holy Father, "In those times men did not wear gold, and those whom I am painting were never very rich, but holy men despising riches."

The work was done in great discomfort from constantly looking up, and it so injured his sight that he could only read or look at drawings in the same position, an effect which lasted many months. But in the ardour of labour he felt no fatigue and cared for no discomfort. The work has been, indeed, a light of our art, illuminating the world which had been so many centuries in darkness. Oh, truly happy age, and oh, blessed artists, who at such a fountain can purge away the dark films from your eyes. Give thanks to Heaven, and imitate Michael Angelo in all things.

So when it was uncovered every one from every part ran to see it, and gazed in silent astonishment; and the Pope, inspired by it and encouraged to greater undertakings, rewarded him libera.lly with money and rich gifts. The great favours that the Pope showed him proved that he recognised his talents, and if sometimes he did him an injury, he healed it with gifts and signal favours; as when, for instance, Michael Angelo once asked leave of him to go to work in S. Giovanni in Florence, and requested money for the purpose, and he said, "Well, and this chapel, when will it be finished?" "When I can, Holy Father." The Pope having a stick in his hand struck Michael Angelo, saying, "When I can! when I can! I will make you finish it!" Michael Angelo therefore returned to his house and prepared to leave for Florence, but the Pope in haste sent his chamberlain after him with five hundred crowns to pacify him, and ordered him to make his excuses and say it was all done in love and kindness. And he, seeing it was the nature of the Pope and really loving him, took it in good part and laughed at it, finding also that it turned to his profit, for the Pope would do anything to keep him his friend. . . .

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