FRA GIOVANNI ANGELICO
of the Order of Friars Preachers
FRA GIOVANNI ANGELICO of Fiesole, known in the world as Guido, was no less excellent as a painter and illuminator than as a monk of the highest character, and in both capacities he deserves to be most honourably remembered. Although he might easily have led a secular life and gained what he liked at art beyond what he possessed, for he showed great skill while still quite young, yet, being naturally quiet and modest, he entered the order of Friars Preachers 1 chiefly for the sake of his soul and for his peace of mind. For although it is possible for men of all conditions to serve God, yet some think that they can win salvation more easily in a monastery than in the world. Although this course is well enough for good men, yet it leads to a wretched and unhappy existence for those who become monks for other ends.
There are some choir books illuminated by Fra Giovanni in his convent of S. Marco at Florence of indescribable beauty, and others like them in S. Domenico at Fiesole, executed with extraordinary diligence. It is true that in doing these he was assisted by an elder brother who was also an illuminator, and well skilled in painting. One of the first works in painting executed by this good Father was a panel in the Certosa of Florence, placed in the principal chapel of the Cardinal degli Acciaiuoli, representing a Madonna and Child, with lovely angels playing and singing at her feet. Beside her are St. Laurence, St. Mary Magdalene, St. Zanobius and St. Benedict. The predella contains incidents from the lives of these saints in small figures, executed with extraordinary finish. On the screen of the chapel are two other pictures by his hand, the one a Coronation of the Virgin, the other a Madonna and two saints, beautifully executed in ultramarine blue. On the screen of S. Maria Novella he afterwards painted in fresco, beside the door opposite the choir, St. Dominic, St. Catherine of Siena and St. Peter Martyr, as well as some small scenes in the chapel of the Coronation of the Virgin. He made an Annunciation on canvas for the small doors of the old organ, now in the convent opposite the door of the dormitory, low down between one cloister and the other. This friar, on account of his great qualities, was much esteemed by Cosimo de' Medici, who, after he had built the church and convent of S. Marco, employed him to paint the Passion of Christ on a wall of the chapter house. On one side are all the saints who have founded or been the heads of religious orders, sorrowful and weeping at the foot of the cross, the other side being occupied by St. Mark the Evangelist, the Mother of God, who has fainted on seeing the Saviour of the world crucified, the Maries who are supporting her, and SS. Cosimo and Damian, the former said to be a portrait of his friend, Nanni d'Antonio di Banco, the sculptor. Beneath this work, in a frieze above the dado, he made a tree, at the foot of which is St. Dominic; and in some medallions which are about the branches are all the popes, cardinals‚ bishops, saints and masters of theology who had been members of the order of the Friars Preachers up to that time. In this work he introduced many portraits, the friars helping him by sending for them to different places. They include St. Dominic, who is in the middle and holding the branches of the cross, the French Pope Innocent V., the Blessed Ugo, the first cardinal of the order, the Blessed Paolo, the Florence patriarch, St. Anthony, Archbishop of Florence, Giordano the German, the second general of the order, the Blessed Niccolo, the Blessed Remigio of Florence, Boninsegno, martyr of Florence, all these being on the right-hand; on the left are Benedict IX. Of Treviso, Giandomenico the cardinal, a Florentine, Pietro da Palude, Patriarch of Jerusalem, Alberto Magno the German, the Blessed Raimondoda Catalogna, third general of the order, the Blessed Chiaro of Florence, provincial of Rome, St. Vincenzio di Valenza, and the Blessed Bemardo of Florence, all the heads being wonderfully graceful and very beautiful. In the first cloister, above some lunettes, he afterwards did many fine figures in fresco, with a St. Dominic at the foot of the cross which has been much admired. In the dormitory, besides many other things in the cells and on the walls, he made a scene from the New Testament of indescribable beauty. But especially beautiful and marvellous is the picture of the high altar of the church. The Madonna inspires devotion in the beholder by her simplicity, and the saints standing are like her. The predella contains incidents in the martyrdom of SS. Cosmo and Damian and the others, all most wonderfully done, so that it would be hard to imagine a work executed with more diligence or containing more delicate and better devised figures. 2
In S. Domenico at Fiesole he painted the picture of the high altar, but because it was thought to be damaged it has been retouched by other masters and spoiled. The predella and the ciborium of the Sacrament, however have been better preserved, and the innumerable figures contained in the heavenly glory are so fine that they appear really to be from Paradise, and one can never tire of looking at them. 3 In a chapel of the same church there is an Annunciation by his hand, the face being so devout, delicate and well made that it is not like the work of a man, but a product of Paradise. In the landscape are Adam and Eve, who led to the Incarnation of the Redeemer through the Virgin. The predella also contains some very charming little scenes. 4 But among all the works of Fra Giovanni, he surpassed himself and displayed the full extent of his powers and knowledge of art in a panel in the same church next to the entrance door on the left side, containing Christ crowning Our Lady in the middle of a choir of angels and a multitude of saints, so numerous, 50 well executed and so varied in action and gesture that it is an unspeakable delight to regard them, for it appears that the spirits of the blessed in heaven cannot be otherwise than these, or to put it better, they could not if they were corporeal, for all the saints there are not only full of life with their sweet and delicate ways, but the entire colouring appears to be the work of a saint or an angel like themselves. 5 Right well did this holy friar deserve the name by which he was always known, Fra Giovanni Angelico. In the predella the scenes of Our Lady and of St. Dominic are divine of their kind, and I can truthfully say that for me they never lose their freshness, and I never tire of seeing them. In the Chapel of the Nunziata of Florence, erected by Piero di Cosimo de' Medici, he painted the doors of the presses, where the plate is kept, with small figures executed with great finish. 6 This friar did so many things which are in private houses in Florence that I am lost in astonishment that one man, even in so many years, could have done such a quantity of things, and so well. The Very Rev. Don Vincenzo Borghini, master of the Innoccnti, has a lovely small Madonna by his hand, and Bartolommeo Gondi, as zealous a patron of the arts as any other nobleman, has a large picture, small oil, and a cross by the same hand. The paintings in the tympanum over the door of S. Domenico are also his, and so is a picture in the sacristy of S. Trinita representing a Deposition from the Cross, finished carefully so that it may be counted among his best works. 7 At S. Francesco outside the S. Miniato gate is an Annunciation, and in S. Maria Novella, besides the things already spoken of, he painted the paschal taper and some reliquaries with small scenes, which are placed upon the altar on great occasions. In the Badia in the same city he made a St. Benedict commanding silence, over the door of the cloister. For the linen drapers he made a picture which is in the office of their art, 8 and in Cortona lie dida small arch over the door of the church of his order, as well as the picture of the high altar. 9 At Orvieto he began some prophets on the vaulting of the chapel of Our Lady in the Duomo, 10 which were finished by Luca da Cortona. For the conipatly of the Temple at Florence he made a dead Christ on a panel, and in the church of the monks of the Angeli he made a Paradise and a Hell of small figures, displaying great observation in his representations of the beauty, the blessedness and rejoicing of the good, and the damned prepared for the pains of hell, with various expressions of sadness, their sin and worthlessness depicted in their faces. The blessed enter Paradise by the door joyfully dancing, while the damned are dragged by demons to everlasting pains. 11 This work is on the right side of the church as one goes towards the high altar, where the priest is stationed when Masses sung. For the nuns of S. Piero Martire, who now occupy the monastery of S. Felice in the piazza, which belonged to the monks of Camaldoli, he made a panel containing Our Lady, St. John the Baptist, St. Dominic, St. Thomas and St. Peter Martyr, in somewhat small figures. 12 A panel by his hand may still be seen on the screen of S. Maria Nuova. 13
By these numerous works the fame of Fra Giovanni was spread abroad through all Italy, so that Pope Nicholas V. sent for him to Rome, and employed him to decorate the chapel of the palace where the Pope hears Mass. Here he painted a Deposition from the Cross and some stories of St. Laurence of great beauty, and lie also illuminated some books very beautifully. 14 In the Minerva he made the picture of the high altar, and an Annunciation now fixed to the wall beside the principal chapel. For the same Pope he did the chapel of the Sacrament in the Vatican. This was afterwards destroyed by Pope Paul III. in order to put his stairs there. In this work, which was excellent in his distinctive style, he did some incidents from the life of Jesus Christ in fresco, introducing many portraits from life of noteworthy persons of the day. These would probably have been lost also had not Giovio saved them for his museum. They comprise Pope Nicholas V., the Emperor Frederick, who came to Italy at that time, Fri Antonino, afterwards Archbishop of Florence, Flavio Biondo of Forli, and Ferrante of Aragon. And because Fra Giovanni appeared to the Pope to be a person of most holy life, quiet and modest, as indeed he was, he wished to appoint him to the Archbishopric of Florence, then vacant. When the friar learned this he besought His Holiness to appoint another, because he did not feel himself fit to be a ruler of men, saying that his order possessed a friar who was kind to the poor, very learned, capable of ruling, and God-fearing, far better suited for that dignity than himself. The Pope recognised that he spoke no more than the truth and granted the favour freely. In this way Fra Antonino of the order of the Preachers became Archbishop of Florence. 15 He was a truly distinguished man, both for his holiness and his learning, fully deserving his canonisation in our own day by Adrian VI. It was a good action of Fra Giovanni and a most rare thing to grant such a dignity and so great a charge, when offered to him by the pontiff, to a man whom his clear judgment and sincerity recognised as being much better fitted for it than himself. The monks of our own day might well learn from the example of this holy man not to undertake burdens which they cannot worthily sustain, but to yield them to more capable men. To return to Fra Giovanni. Would God it could be said that all the monks spent their time as this truly religious friar did, for he devoted his life entirely to the service of God and the benefit of the world and his neighbours. What more can or should be desired than to win the heavenly kingdom by holy living, and eternal renown on earth by masterly work? It is certain that as for passing and extraordinary talent like that of Fra Giovanni cannot and ought not to be granted to any man who is not of a most holy life, because those who devote themselves to ecclesiastical and holy things ought to be eclesiastics and holy men, for it is seen that, whenever such things are produced by men of little belief who do nothing value religion, they frequently excite dishonourable appetites and lascivious desires, so that the work is blamed for what is disreputable, while praise is accorded to its artistic qualities. But I do not wish to be misunderstood to call an awkward, clumsy thing devout, and a fine and good work lascivious, as some do when they see figures of women and youths rather more beautiful and ornate than usual, condemning them immediately as lascivious without perceiving that they are most wrongfully condemning the good judgment of the painter, who considers that the saints, as celestial beings, must be as much superior to mortal nature in beauty as heavenly loveliness surpasses that of the earth. What is worse than this, they display the foulness and corruptness of their own minds in finding evil and wicked ideas in those things in which, if they had been true lovers of right, as they would like in their blind zeal to be thought, they would perceive the longing for heaven and the desire to make them acceptable to the Creator of all things, from whose most perfect and beautiful nature all perfection and beauty are derived. What might be expected of such men if they happened to find themselves in the presence of living beauties, with their lascivious ways, soft words, movements full of grace and ravishing eyes, when the mere counterfeit and shadow of beauty moves them so much? However, I would not let it be understood that I approve of the all but nude figures which are painted in churches, because they prove that the artist has not entertained a proper respect for the place. Wherefore, whenever an artist wishes to display his skill he ought to do so with a full regard for the circumstances, the persons, the time and the place.
Fra Giovanni was a simple and most holy man in his habits, and it is a sign of his goodness that one morning, when Pope Nicholas V. wished him to dine with him, he excused himself from eating flesh without the permission of his prior, not thinking of the papal authority. He avoided all worldly intrigues, living purity and holiness, and was as benign to the poor as I believe Heaven must now be to him. He was always busy with his paintings, but would never do any but holy subjects. He might have become rich, but he cared nothing about it, for he used to say that true riches consist in being contented with little. He might have ruled many but would not, saying that there was less trouble and error in obeying others. He could have obtained high rank in his order and in the world but he did not esteem it, saying that he wished for no other dignity than to escape hell and win Paradise. In truth, not only the religious, but all men ought to seek that dignity, which is only to be found in good and in virtuous living. He was most gentle and temperate, living chastely, removed from tile cares of the world. He would often say that whoever practised art needed a quiet life and freedom from care, and that be who occupies himself with the things of Christ ought always to be with Christ. He was never seen in anger among the friars, which seems to me an extraordinary thing and almost impossible to believe; his habit was to smile and reprove his friends. To those who wished works of him he would gently say that they must first obtain the consent of the poor, and after that he would not fail. I cannot bestow too much praise on this holy father, who was so humble and modest in all his works and conversation, so facile and devout in his painting, the saints by his hand being more like those blessed beings than those of any other. He never retouched or repaired any of his pictures, always leaving them in the condition in which they were first seen, believing, so he said, that this was the will of God. Some say that Fra Giovanni never took up his brush without first making a prayer. He never made a crucifix when the tears did not course down his cheeks, while the goodness of his sincere and great soul in religion may be seen in the faces and attitudes of his figures. He died in 1455 at the age of sixty-eight, and left as his pupils Benozzo of Florence, who closely imitated his style, and Zanobi Strozzi, who made panels and paintings for all Florence, for the houses of citizens, and notably a picture now placed in the transept of S. Maria Novella beside that of Fra Giovanni, and one in S. Benedetto; a monastery of the monks of Camaldoli outside the Pinti gate, now destroyed. This painting is at present in the monastery of the Angeli in the little church of S. Michele, before one enters the principal church, on the right hand going towards the altar, fixed to the wall. He also made a picture for the Chapel of the Nasi in S. Lucia and another in S. Romeo. In the wardrobe of the duke are the portraits of Giovanni di Bicci de'Medici and that of Bartolommeo Valori in the same picture by the same artist. Other pupils of Fra Giovanni were Gentile da Fabriano and Domenico di Michelino, who made the picture at the altar of St. Zanobius in S. Apollinare at Florence, and many other paintings. Fra Giovanni was buried by the friars in the Minerva at Rome by the side entry near the sacristy, in a round marble tomb, with his effigy above it. On the marble is carved this epitaph:
Non mihi cit laudi, quod eram velut alter Apelles,Sed quod lucra tuis omnia, Christe, dabam:Altera nam tertis opera extant, altera caelo. Urbs me Joannem 0os tulit Etruriae.
In S. Maria del Fiore there are two large books divinely illuminated by Fra Giovanni held in great veneration; they are richly ornamented, and are only seen on great occasions.
There lived at the same time as Fra Giovanni a celebrated and famous illuminator named Attavante of Florence, whose cognomen I have never heard. Among other things he illuminated a Silius Italicus, now in S. Giovani, i e Paolo at Venice. I will describe some particulars of this work, both because they are worthy of note by artists, and because, so far as I am aware, no other work of his is known. Indeed, I should not have known of this myself had not the Very Rev. M.Cosimo Rartoli, noble man of Florence, told me about it, out of the affection which he bears for the arts, in order that the talents of Attavante should not be practically buried. In this book, the figure of Silius wears a helmet incrusted with gold, surrounded with a laurel crown, a blue cuirass plated with gold in the antique style, his right hand holds a book and his left a short sword. Over the cuirass he wears a red cloak, fastened in front by a brooch, and hanging from his shoulders is a gold fringe; the lining of the cloak is of varied colours and embroidered with gold rosettes‚ His shoes are yellow, and he is resting on his right foot, in a niche. The next figure in the book, representing Scipio Africanus, wears a yellow cuirass, the girdle and sleeves of which are blue and all embroidered with gold. On his head is a helmet, with two wings and a fish as a crest. He is a youth of blonde complexion and remarkable beauty, and proudly raises his right hand brandishing a naked sword, while he holds his sheath, which is red and embroidered with gold, in his left. His shoes are simple, of green colour, and the cloak blue, the lining being red with a border of gold. It is buckled under the chin, leaving the front open, and falling gracefully behind. This youth, who is placed in a niche of mixed green and grey, with blue shoes embroidered with gold, regards with indescribable fierceness the Hannibal on the opposite page. Hannibal is represented as a man of about thirty-six. His brow is wrinkled like that of an angry man, and he also fixedly regards Scipio. On his head is a yellow helmet, with a green and yellow dragon for a crest, and wreathed by a serpent. He rests on one foot, and raises his right hand, in which he holds the shaft of an ancient javelin. His cuirass is blue, and the trappings partly blue and partly yellow, the sleeves alternately red and blue, and the shoes yellow. The cloak is red and yellow, gathered at the shoulder and lined with green. The left hand rests on his sword, and he stands in a niche of alternate yellow and white. On the opposite page is a portrait of Pope Nicholas V., in a striped mantle of violet and red, all embroidered with gold. He is in full profile without a beard, and he looks towards the beginning of the work opposite to him, to which he points with an air of wonderment. The niche is green, white and red. In the border are some half-figures, introduced into ovals and circles, and other like things, with a number of small birds and chenibs so well made that nothing better could he desired. Near these are similar representations of Hanno the Carthaginian, Hasdrtibal, Lelius, Massinissa, C. Salinator, Nero, Sempronius, M. Marcellus, Q. Fabius, the other Scipio, and Vibius. At the end of the book there is a Mars in an antique chariot drawn by two red horses. On his head is a helmet of red and gold with two wings, on his left arm a shield which he holds before him, and in his right hand a naked sword. He rests on one foot only, holding the other up. His cuirass is antique, and of red and gold, while his shoes and stockings are the same. The cloak is blue above and green beneath embroidered with gold. The chariot is covered with red cloth embroidered with gold surrounded by a band of ermine; he is placed in a green and flowery country, amid boulders and rocks, countries and cities being visible in the distance, in the midst of a blue sky, all most excellent. On the other side is a Neptune, a youth clothed in a long flowing embroidered robe, with an earth-green girdle. His complexion is very pale. In his right hand he holds a small trident, and lifts his robe with his left. He rests with both his feet in the car, which is covered with red, embroidered with gold and bordered with sable. This car has four wheels like that of Mars, but is drawn by four dolphins. There are also three sea-nymphs, two boys, and innumerable fish, all done in a water colour like the earth, bathed in a delightful air. Here also we may see Carthage in despair, a tall and dishevelled woman clothed in green, her open garb showing her vest lined with red cloth embroidered with gold. Through an opening in this is seen another thin vest, with violet and white stripes. The sleeves are red and gold, with certain swellings and folds made by the upper vest. She stretches out her left hand to Rome, wh1o, is opposite, as if to say, What is your will? I will answer you. In her right hand is a naked sword, as if she were infuriated. Her shoes are blue, while she stands on a rock in the middle of the sea, surrounded by air of marvellous purity. Rome is a young woman of the highest imaginable beauty, her dishevelled tresses falling with infinite grace, clothed all in red, embroidered only at the feet. The lining of the vest is yellow; and the under-vest, seen through an opening, is violet and white. Her shoes are green; in her right hand she holds a sceptre, in her left a globe. She also stands upon a rock in the middle of an inconceivably beautiful air. But although I have done my utmost to show with what skill these figures were produced by Attavante, I have only been able to give a feeble idea of their beauty; no more perfect illuminations of that time can be seen, displaying such judgment and design, and, above all, the colours are laid on with in comparable delicacy. 1 In 1497.2 Painted 1438. Now in the Accademia, Florence.3 Restored by Lorenzo di Credi in 1505. The middle portion of the predella is now in the National Gallery.4 A picture in the Madrid Gallery may probably be identified as the one here described.5 Now in the Louvre.6 Now in the Accademia, Florence; done about 1450.7 Accademia, Florence.8 The Uffizi, with the famous angels. Painted 1433.9 In 1414.10 Begun in 1447.11 Both works now in the Accademia, Florence.12 Pitti Gallery, Florence.13 Uffizi Gallery.14 He went to Rome in 1445. The payments for the St. Laurence frescoes extend from 1445 to 1450.15 Antonio Forcellioni was consecrated Archbishop on the 10th January, 1448.
Index of Artists
||Alberti, Leon Battista|
Angelico, Fra Giovanni
Bellini, Jacopo, Giovanni, and Gentile
da Correggio, Antonio
da Fontormo, Jacopo
da Panicale, Masolino
da Settingnano, Desiderio
da Urbino, Bramante
da Vinci, Leonardo
del Sarto, Andrea
di Cosimo, Piero
Francesca, Piero Della
Gallo, Guillano and Antonio
Lippi, Fra Filippo
Pollajuolo, Antonio and Piero
Quercia, Jacopo Dalla
Robbia, Luca Della