Vasari: Antonio and Piero Pollaiuolo

MANY MEN BEGIN in a humble spirit with unimportant works, who, gaining courage from proficiency, grow also in power and ability, in such a manner that they aspire to greater undertakings and almost reach Heaven with their beautiful thoughts. Raised by fortune, they very often chance upon some liberal Prince, who, finding himself well served by them, is forced to remunerate their labors so richly that their descen- dants derive great benefits and advantages from them. Wherefore such men walk through this life to the end with so much glory, that they leave marvellous memorials of themselves to the world, as did Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo, who were greatly esteemed in their day for the rare acquirements that they had made with their industry and labour.

These men were born in the city of Florence, one no long time after the other [sic], from a father of humble station and no great wealth, who, recognizing by many signs the good and acute intelligence of his sons, but not having the means to educate them in letters, apprenticed Antonio to the goldsmith’s art under Bartoluccio Ghiberti, a very excellent master in that calling at that time; and Piero he placed under Andrea dal Castagno, who was then the best painter in Florence, to learn painting. Antonio, then, being pushed on by Bartoluccio, not only learnt to set jewels and to fire enamels on silver, but was also held the best master of the tools of that art. Wherefore Lorenzo Ghiberti, who was then working on the doors of S. Giovanni, having observed the manner of Antonio, called him into that work in company with many other young men, and set him to labor on one of the festoons which he then had in hand. On this Antonio made a quail which is still in existence, so beautiful and so perfect that it lacks nothing but the power of flight. Antonio, therefore, had not spent many weeks over this work before he was known as the best, both in design and in patient execution, of all those who were working there, and as more gifted and more diligent than any other. Whereupon, growing ever both in ability and in fame, he left Bartoluccio and Lorenzo, and opened a fine and magnificent goldsmith’s shop for himself in the Mercato Nuovo in that city. And for many years he followed that art, never ceasing to make new designs, and executing in relief wax candles and other things of fancy, which in a short time caused him to be held as he was the first master of his calling.

There lived at the same time another goldsmith called Maso Finiguerra, who had an extraordinary fame, and deservedly, since there had never been seen any master of engraving and of niello who could make so great a number of figures as he could, whether in a small or in a large space; as is still proved by certain paxes in the Church of S. Giovanni in Florence, wrought by him with most minutely elaborated stories from the Passion of Christ. This man drew very well and in abundance, and in our book are many of his drawings of figures, both draped and nude, and scenes done in watercolor. In competition with him Antonio executed certain scenes, in which he equalled him in diligence and surpassed him in design; wherefore the Consuls of the Guild of Merchants, seeing the excellence of Antonio, and remembering that there were certain scenes in silver to be wrought for the altar of S. Giovanni, such as it had ever been the custom for various masters to make at different times, determined among themselves that Antonio also should make some. This came to pass; and his works turned out so excellent, that they are recognized as the best among them all. These were the Feast of Herod and the Dance of Herodias; but more beautiful than anything else was the S. John that is in the middle of the altar, a work wrought wholly with the chasing-tool, and much extolled. For this reason he was commissioned by the said Consuls to make the candelabra of silver, each three braccia in height, and the Cross in proportion; which work he brought to such perfection, with such an abundance of carving, that it has ever been esteemed a marvellous thing both by foreigners and by his countrymen. In this calling he took infinite pains, both with the works that he executed in gold and with those in enamel and silver. Among these are some very beautiful paxes in S. Giovanni, colored by the action of fire, which are such that they could be scarcely improved with the brush; and some of his marvellous enamels may be seen in other churches in Florence, Rome, and other parts of Italy.

He taught this art to the Florentine Mazzingo and to Giuliano del Facchino, both passing good masters, and to Giovanni Turini of Siena, who surpassed these his companions considerably in that profession, in which, from Antonio di Salvi who made many good works, such as a large silver Cross for the Badia of Florence, and other things to our own day, there has been nothing done than can be held in particular account. But of his works and of those of the Pollaiuoli many have been destroyed and melted down to meet the necessities of the city in times of war.

For this reason, recognizing that this art gave no long life to the labors of its craftsmen, and desiring to gain a more lasting memory, Antonio resolved to pursue it no longer. And so, his brother Piero being a painter, he associated himself with him in order to learn the methods of handling and using colors; but it appeared to him an art so different from the goldsmith’s, that, if he had not been so hasty in resolving to abandon his own art entirely, it might well have been that he would never have brought himself to turn to the other. However, spurred by fear of shame rather than by hope of profit, in a few months he acquired a practical knowledge of coloring and became an excellent master. He associated himself entirely with Piero, and they made many pictures in company ; among others, since they took great delight in colour, a panel in oil in S. Miniato al Monte without Florence, for the Cardinal of Portugal. On this panel, which was placed on the altar of his chapel, they painted S. James the Apostle, S. Eustace, and S. Vincent, which have been much extolled. Piero, in particular, painted certain prophets on the wall in oil (a method that he had learnt from Andrea dal Castagno), in the corners of the angles below the architrave, where the lunettes of the arches run; and in one of the lunettes he painted the Virgin receiving the Annunciation, with three figures. For the Capitani di Parte he painted a Madonna with the Child in her arms in a lunette, with a frieze of seraphim all round, also wrought in oil.

They also painted in oil, on canvas, on a pilaster of S. Michele in Orto, an Angel Raphael with Tobias; and they made certain Virtues in the Mercatanzia of Florence, in the very place where that Tribunal holds its sittings. In the Proconsulate Antonio made portraits from life of Messer Poggio, Secretary to the Signoria of Florence, who continued the History of Florence after Messer Leonardo d’Arezzo, and of Messer Giannozzo Manetti, a man of no small learning and repute, in the same place where other masters some time before had made portraits of Zanobi da Strada, a poet of Florence, Donato Acciaiuoli, and others. In the Chapel of the Pucci, in S. Sebastiano de’ Servi, he painted the panel of the altar, which is a rare and excellent work, containing marvellous horses, nudes, and very beautiful figures in foreshortening, and S. Sebastian himself portrayed from life namely, from Gino di Lodovico Capponi. This work received greater praise than any other that Antonio ever made, since, seeking to imitate nature to the utmost of his power, he showed in one of the archers, who is resting his cross-bow against his chest and bending down to the ground in order to load it, all the force that a man of strong arm can exert in loading that weapon, for we see his veins and muscles swelling, and the man himself holding his breath in order to gain more strength. Nor is this the only figure wrought with careful consideration, for all the others in their various attitudes also demonstrate clearly enough the thought and the intelligence that he put into this work, which was certainly appreciated by Antonio Pucci, who gave him 300 crowns for it, declaring that he was barely paying him for the colors. It was finished in the year 1475.

Gaining courage from this, therefore, he painted at S. Miniato fra le Torri, without the Gate, a S. Cristopher ten braccia in height, a very beautiful work executed in a modern manner, the figure being better proportioned than any other of that size that had been made up to that time. He then made a Crucifix with S. Antonino, on canvas, which was placed in the chapel of that Saint in S. Marco. In the Palace of the Signoria of Florence, at the Porta della Catena, he made a S. John the Baptist; and in the house of the Medici he painted for the elder Lorenzo three figures of Hercules in three pictures, each five braccia in height. The first of these, which is slaying Antaeus, is a very beautiful figure, in which the strength of Hercules as he crushes the other is seen most vividly, for the muscles and nerves of that figure are all strained in the struggle to destroy Antaeus. The head of Hercules shows the gnashing of the teeth so well in harmony with the other parts, that even the toes of his feet are raised in the effort. Nor did he take less pains with Antaeus, who, crushed in the arms of Hercules, is seen sinking and losing all his strength, and giving up his breath through his open mouth. The second Hercules, who is slaying the Lion, has the left knee pressed against its chest, and, setting his teeth and extending his arms, and grasping the Lion’s jaws with both his hands, he is opening them and rending them asunder by main force, although the beast is tearing his arms grievously with its claws in self-defence. The third picture, wherein Hercules is slaying the Hydra, is something truly marvellous, particularly the serpent, which he made so lively and so natural in coloring that nothing could be made more lifelike. In that beast are seen venom, fire, ferocity, rage, and such vivacity, that he deserves to be celebrated and to be closely imitated in this by all good craftsmen.

For the Company of S. Angelo in Arezzo he executed an oil painting on cloth, with a Crucifix on one side, and on the other S. Michael in combat with the Dragon, as beautiful as any work that there is to be seen by his hand; for the figure of S. Michael, who is bravely confronting the Dragon, setting his teeth and knitting his brows, truly seems to have descended from Heaven in order to effect the vengeance of God against the pride of Lucifer, and it is indeed a marvellous work. He had a more modern grasp of the nude than the masters before his day, and he dissected many bodies in order to study their anatomy. He was the first to demonstrate the method of searching out the muscles, in order that they might have their due form and place in his figures, and he engraved on copper a battle of nude figures all girt round with a chain; and after this one he made other engravings, with much better workmanship than had been shown by the other masters who had lived before him.

For these reasons, then, he became famous among craftsmen, and after the death of Pope Sixtus IV he was summoned by his successor, Pope Innocent, to Rome, where he made a tomb of metal for the said Innocent, wherein he portrayed him from nature, seated in the attitude of giving the Benediction; and this was placed in S. Pietro. That of the said Pope Sixtus, which was finished at very great cost, was placed in the chapel that is called by the name of that Pontiff. It stands quite by itself, with very rich adornments, and on it there lies an excellent figure of the Pope ; and the tomb of Innocent stands in S. Pietro, beside the chapel that contains the Lance of Christ. It is said that the same man designed the Palace of the Belvedere for the said Pope Innocent, although, since he had little experience of building, it was erected by others. Finally, after becoming rich, these two brothers died almost at the same time in 1498, and were buried by their relatives in S. Pietro in Vincula; and in memory of them, beside the middle door, on the left as one enters into the church, there were placed two medallions of marble with their portraits and with the following epitaph:


The same man made a very beautiful battle of nude figures in low relief and of metal, which went to Spain; of this every craftsman in Florence has a plaster cast. And after his death there were found the design and model that he had made at the command of Lodovico Sforza for the equestrian statue of Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, of which design there are two forms in our book; in one the Duke has Verona beneath him, and in the other he is on a pedestal covered with battle pieces, in full armor, and forcing his horse to leap on a man in armour. But the reason why he did not put these designs into execution I have not yet been able to discover. The same man made some very beautiful medals; among others, one representing the conspiracy of the Pazzi, containing on one side the heads of Lorenzo and Giuliano de’Medici, and on the reverse the choir of S. Maria del Fiore, with the whole event exactly as it happened. He also made the medals of certain Pontiffs, and many other things that are known to craftsmen.

Antonio was seventy-two years of age when he died, and Piero sixty-five. The former left many disciples, among whom was Andrea Sansovino. Antonio had a most fortunate life in his day, finding rich Pontiffs, and his own city at the height of its greatness and delighting in talent, wherefore he was much esteemed; whereas, if he had chanced to live in an unfavorable age, he would not have produced such fruits as he did, since troublous times are deadly enemies to the sciences in which men labor and take delight.

For S. Giovanni in Florence, after the design of this man, there were made two dalmatics, a chasuble, and a cope, of double brocade, all woven in one piece without a single seam; and for these, as borders and ornaments, there were embroidered the stories of the life of S. John, with most delicate workmanship and art, by Paolo da Verona, a divine master of that profession and rare in intelligence beyond all others, who executed the figures no less well with the needle than Antonio would have done them with his brush; wherefore we owe no small obligation to the one for his design and to the other for his patience in embroidering it. This work took twenty-six years to complete; but of these embroideries, which, being made with the close stitch, are not only more durable but also seem like a real painting done with the brush, the good method is now all but lost, since we now use a more open stitch, which is less durable and less lovely to the eye.

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