Rosso Rossi
Painter of Florence

ABLE men who devote all their efforts to improving their gifts are often, when least expected, raised to the greatest honours in the sight of the world. This occurred to the Florentine painter Rosso, for if he could not obtain satisfactory recognition in Rome and Florence, he proved more fortunate in France; where the glory he acquired would have satiated the most ambitious artist. Indeed, he could not rise higher, being so favoured and esteemed by so great a monarch as the King of France. His merits were indeed such that if fortune had treated him otherwise she would have done him a great wrong. Besides his skill in painting, Rosso possessed a handsome presence, was gracious and grave in speech, an accomplished musician and a well-versed philosopher, while more important than all were his poetical fancy in the composition of figures, his bold and solid design, light style, beautiful composition and the forcefulness of his grotesques. Excellent as an architect, he was rich in spirit and grandeur, though poor in pocket. Thus those who follow in his steps will always be praised, as his works are; for they have no equal in force and ease, being entirely devoid of that circumstance with which so many endeavour to endow their nothings with importance. In his youth, Rosso drew from the cartoon of Michelagnolo. He would not bind himself to any master, as he had an opinion of his own in opposition to their styles. We may observe this in a tabernacle at Marignole, outside the S. Pier Gattolini gate at Florence, done in fresco for Piero Bartoli, representing a dead Christ, in which we see the first signs of his desire for a bold and grandiose style beyond others, with lightness of touch and wonderful.

As a beardless youth, when Lorenzo Pucci was created cardinal by Pope Leo, 1 Rosso did the arms of the Pucci over the door of S. Sebastiano of the Servites, with two figures, which then excited the wonder of artists who did not expect success from him. Thus encouraged, and after doing a half-length Madonna with the head of St. John the Evangelist for Maestro Giacopo, a Servite friar who studied poetry, he did an Assumption at the friar's instigation, beside the Visitation of Giacopo da Pontormo,with a heaven full of naked child angels dancing about the Virgin. Their graceful outlines are beautifully foreshortened, and if the colouring had shown the same maturity that he afterwards acquired, he would have far surpassed the other scenes there, for he equalled them in grandeur and good design. The Apostles are laden with draperies, the folds being too ample, but their attitudes and some of the heads are more than divine. The master of the hospital of S. Maria Novella employed Rosso to do a panel, but as he understood little of art, when he saw the sketch he thought the saints were devils, as Rosso usually made his figures harsh at first, softening them after. Accordingly the master rushed out of the house and refused to take the picture, saying that he had been deceived. Over another door leading into the cloister of the convent of the Servites Rosso painted the arms of Pope Leo, with two children, now destroyed, and did several paintings and portraits for private houses. When Pope Leo came to Florence he did a fine arch at the comer of the Bischeri. He next did a beautiful dead Christ 2 for the lord of Piombino, as well as a chapel, while at Volterra he painted a fine Deposition from the Cross. 3 Having thus increased in reputation he did the picture of the Gods at S. Spirito in Florence, 4 which had been allotted to Raphael, who left it for the work at Rome. Rosso executed it with grace and design and with brilliant colouring. No work seems to possess more power or shows to greater advantage at a distance for the boldness of the figures and the ease of the attitudes. As it differed from the work of others it was considered eccentric. But although it was not much admired at the time, men have since gradually come to recognise its merits, for it would be impossible to improve upon the harmony of the colours, the clear lights above merging into the medium lights and then into the shadows with such softness and harmony that the figures stand in relief on each other. Indeed, Rosso maybe said to have produced a work which, for judgment and mastery, may he compared with the efforts of any other master. In S. Lorenso he did a panel for Carlo Ginori of the Marriage of Our Lady, considered very beautiful. No one has ever surpassed or even approached him in his facility of production, his colouring being soft, the draperies falling gracefully, so that he is always admirable. Everyone who sees his work must acknowledge the truth of what I say, for his nudes are very fine, showing a thorough knowledge of anatomy. His women are very graceful, their draperies being curious and fanciful. His old men's heads are curious, while those of women and children are sweet and pleasant. He showed such rich invention that he never had any superfluous spaces in his pictures, and he did everything with marvellous facility and grace. For Cio Flandini he did a picture of some beautiful nudes in a scene of Moses slaying the Egyptian, 5 containing praiseworthy things. I think it was sent to France. He did another for Cio Cavalcanti, which went to England, of Jacob giving drink to the women at the well, considered divine, seeing that it contained most graceful nudes and women; for whom he loved to make delicate draperies, coiffures and garments. While engaged upon this work Rosso inhabited the Borgode' Tintori, the rooms of which opened on to the gardens of the friars of S. Croce.

He took a great fancy for a baboon, which was more like a man than an animal, loving it like himself, and as the creature was marvellously intelligent, he employed it on several services. This soon happened to become very fond of a handsome apprentice called Battistino, divining by signs all that he wished. At the back of the rooms, which led into the friar's garden, there was a vine of the keeper's full of very large saneolztmbatte grapes, and as it was a long way off the window, the apprentices sent the baboon with a rope to gather grapes. The keeper, finding that his grapes were disappearing with no apparent cause, suspected mice and set a watch. When he discovered the culprit to be Rosso's baboon he was filled with rage, and seizing a stick went to beat him. The animal seeing he would he caught whether he climbed up or stayed where he was, began to jump enough to ruin the pergola, and as if moved to throw himself upon the friar he seized the outside cross pieces of the trellis with both hands. Meanwhile the friar arrived with his stick, whereupon the baboon shook with fear to such an extent that he broke the uprights and the whole pergola with the baboon collapsed upon the friars head. The friar cried for mercy, and Battista and the others pulled the rope and brought the baboon back to their room. The keeper picked himself up and going to a small terrace made remarks not to be found in the mass, and went off in a rage to the office of the Eight, a much-dreaded magistracy in Florence. Here he lodged his plaint; Rosso was summoned, and the baboon was condemned to have a weight fastened to his leg, so that he could not leap on to the vine. Rosso made a ring, with an iron weight attached, for him, so that he was able to run about the house, but could not go outside. The creature seemed to know that the friar was the cause of his punishment, and he practiced jumping every day, holding the weight in his paws, and so at length achieved his purpose. One day he jumped from roof to roof, at the hour when the keeper was singing vespers, until he reached the roof of his room, and there he let the weight fall and amused himself for half an hour to such purpose that not a tile was left unbroken. Three days afterwards a heavy rain fell, and the keeper was heard to complain bitterly.

When Rosso had completed his works, he went away to Rome with Battista and the baboon. His works were much in request, as some of his designs had preceded him and were considered marvellous, for he drew divinely, with great finish. Above Raphael's work in the Pace he did one of his worst performances. 6 I do not know why- but all suffer in this way, and it is a curious fact that a change of country produces a change of nature, ability and habits, so that men are rendered different and stupid. The air of Rome might have affected him, while the stupendous works of architecture and sculpture, and the paintings and statues of Michelagnolo, may have overcome him. Such considerations induced Fra Bartolommeo and Andrea del Sarto to fly from Rome without leaving any work there. Whatever the cause, Rosso never did worse, and it is unfortunate it should have been next to Raphael's work. At this time he did a dead Christ supported by two angels for his friend the Bishop Tornabuoni, which is now in the hands of the heirs of Monsignor della Casa, and is a beautiful thing. For II Baviera he designed all the gods afterwards engraved by Jacopo Caraglio, including Saturn changed into a horse and the rape of Proserpine by Pluto. He did a sketch of the Decollation of St. John the Baptist, now in a church on the Piazza de' Salviati at Rome. On the sack of Rome Rosso was taken prisoner by the Cermans, and very badly treated, being stripped and made to carry weights, removing in this way almost the entire stock of a cheese monger. He dragged himself to Perugia, where he was welcomed and clothed by the painter Domenico di Paris. For him Rosso did a cartoon for a picture of the Magi, a beautiful thing, still in his possession. He did not remain there long, for learning that the Bishop de' Tornabuoni, another refugee from the sack, had arrived at the Borgo, he proceeded thither to meet his friend.

At that time Raffaello dal Colle, painter and pupil of Giulio Romano, was living there. He had undertaken to do a panel cheaply for S. Croce, an oratory of Flagellants, but gave up the task in a friendly spirit to Rosso, that the latter might leave a memorial of himself in the city. The company objected, but the bishop intervened in his favour. When the panel was completed it brought him much renown, and was set up in S. Croce. It represents a Deposition from the Cross of rare beauty, the colouring showing the darkness of the eclipse which took place at Christ's death, and the work displaying great diligence. At Citta di Castello he was commissioned to paint a panel, 7 but the roof falling in while he was doing the gesso completely destroyed it, and he caught a fever which brought him to death's door, so that he was carried from Castello to the Borgo. When quart an fever followed this attack he proceeded to the Pieve of S. Stefano to obtain a change of air, and finally to Arezzo, where he was entertained by Benedetto Spadari. He and Cio. Antonio Lappoli of Arezzo and their relations and friends succeeded in securing for him the painting in fresco of a vault in the Madonna delle Lagrime, 8 already allotted to Niccolo Soggi, painter, agreeing to pay him 300 gold crowns to the end that he might leave a memorial of himself in the city. Rosso began the cartoons in a room provided for him in a place called Murello, finishing four. One represents our first parents bound to the tree of sin, and the Virgin taking the sin, represented by the apple, out of their mouths. At their feet lies the serpent, and in the air are Phoebus and Diana, to show that Our Lady was clothed with the sun and moon. In the second where the ark of the covenant is borne by Moses, he represented the Virgin surrounded by five Virtues. In another is the throne of Solomon, with the same represention. Vows are offered to show that people come to Our Lady for favours, and there are other curious fancies devised by M. Cio. Pollastra of Arezzo, a friend of Rosso, to please whom Rosso made a fine model of the whole now house at Arezzo. He drew a study of nudes for the work of rare beauty, so that it is a pity it is incomplete, because if he had done it in oils instead of fresco it would have been a miracle. But he always disliked working in fresco, and frittered away his time in making cartoons to be finished by Raffaello dal Borgo and others. Being a courteous man, he at the same time did many designs in Arezzo and elsewhere for paintings and buildings, as, for example, that of a chapel for the rectors of the Fraternity at the foot of the piazza where the Volto Santo now is, for whom he had designed a panel of Our Lady with the people under her mantle, to be put in this place. This design is on our book, with many other fine ones by him.

But to return to the work he was to do in the Madonna delle Lagrime. His trusty friend Cio. Antonio Lappoli was bail for him, for he left no means untried of rendering Rosso a service. But during the siege of Florence in 1530, the Aretines, being liberated from all restraint owing to the imprudence of Papo Altovit, captured and destroyed the citadel. As the people disliked the Florentines Rosso would not trust them, and went to Borgo S. Sepolcro, leaving his cartoons and drawings shut up in the citadel. Those of Castello who had allotted the panel to him desired him to finish it, and because of the troubles which he had experienced there he would not return, so he finished the panel at Borgo, and would never allow them the pleasure of seeing it. He represented a crowd of people, and Christ in the air adored by four figures, introducing Moors, gipsies, and the strangest figures in the world, though perfectly beautiful, the whole composition being adapted to everything except the purpose for which it was required. At this same time he disinterred the dead in the Vescovado, where he was staying, and made magnificent anatomical studies. In truth Rosso was a diligent student of art, and few days passed when he did not draw some nude from life.

He always hoped to end his days in France, and thus escape the misery and poverty to which, so he said; those who work in Tuscany and in their native places are exposed, and so he determined to go there. To make himself universal he learned Latin, when an event occurred which hastened his departure. One Holy Thursday, during evening service, an Aretine youth and pupil of his was making sparks and flames with a lighted match and some pitch and as they were reciting the Tenebrae, the boy was reprimanded by some priests and struck slightly. Rosso, who was seated beside the boy, angrily struck the priest in the face; at which a disturbance arose, and men who knew nothing of the circumstances drew their swords on poor Rosso, who was struggling with the priests. So Rosso fled and fortunately reached his quarters without injury. But considering himself dishonoured by this, he finished his Castello panel, and without thinking of his work at Arezzo or the harm he was doing his surety Cio. Antonio, for he had received more than 150 crowns on account, he departed by night, and, taking the Pesaro road, reached Venice. Here he was received by M. Pietro Aretino, and drew for him a sleeping Mars, with Venus, Cupids and Craces ‚undressing him and trailing about his cuirass. It was afterwards engraved. From Venice Rosso went to France, 9 where he was heartily welcomed by the Florentines. Having painted some pictures, which were afterwards put in the gallery at Fontainebleau, he gave them to King Francis, who was greatly delighted. The monarch was even more pleased with Rosso's bearing, conversation and habits (his ruddy complexion suiting his name), his grave, serious manner and great judgment. After granting him a provision of 400 crowns and giving him a house in Paris, which Rosso used little, spending most of his time in Fontainebleau, where he had apartments and lived like a lord, the king made him chief of all structures, paintings and other ornaments of that place. Here Rosso began a gallery over the lower court, not vaulting it, but making a flat roof with open beams, beautifully partitioned. The sides he decorated with stucco and curious and fantastic panels, with several kinds of cornices carved with life-size figures, the lower part being adorned with rich festoons in stucco, others with paintings of fruit and every so it of verdure. In a large space he had about 25 scenes painted in fresco from his design, if I am rightly informed, of the deeds of Alexander the Great, the designs being water-colours done in grisaille. At the two ends of the gallery are two oil-paintings by him, executed with such perfection that few better can be seen. One contains a Bacchus, the other represents Venus, done with marvelous art and judgment. The Bacchus is a naked youth, tender, delicate and soft, the flesh seeming to palpitate; about him are vessels of gold, silver, crystal and various precious stones of such extraordinary nature that they astound the beholder. Among other things is a satyr, raising part of a canopy, his head with his strange goat's horn being of marvellous beauty, while he seems to smile with' delight at seeing such a beautiful youth. There is a child riding a bear, of great beauty, with many other graceful and beautiful ornaments.

The other design contains Cupid, Venus and other beautiful figures. But the figure to which Rosso devoted the most pains was the Cupid, represented as a boy of twelve but possessing greater powers, and beautiful in every part. When the king saw these works he was greatly pleased, and took Rosso into high favour, giving him soon after a stall in Notre Dame at Paris and other revenues, so that he lived like a lord with his servants and horses, giving banquets to his friends and acquaintances, especially to the Italians who came there. For the top-most hall, called the pavilion from its shape, Rosso did decorations in stucco and figures in relief at regular intervals, from the floor to the beams, with children, festoons and various sorts of animals, and a seated figure in fresco on the level, representing gods and goddesses of the ancients in great numbers: Over the windows is a rich stucco frieze without paintings. For the other rooms he did stuccos and paintings, copies of which have been printed and circulated. They are of great beauty and grace, as are his designs for salt-cellars, vases, basins and other curious things which the king had executed in silver, and which are too numerous to describe. Suffice it to say that he designed all the vessels for a chamber of the king, and all the things for horses, masques, triumphs and other events with a curious and whimsical fancy. When the Emperor Charles V. came to Fontainebleau in 1540, with only twelve men, trusting himself to King Francis, Rosso and Francesco Primaticcio of Bologna between them arranged the tournaments instituted by the king in honour of his guest. But Rosso's arches, colossi and such-like things were, it was said, the most stupendous ever made. A great deal of his work at Fontainebleau has since been destroyed by Francesco Primaticcio, who has made a new and larger building there. In these things Rosso was assisted by his favourites Lorenzo Naldino of Florence, Maestro Francesco of Orleans, Maestro Simone of Paris and Maestro Claudio, also of Paris, by Maestro Lorenzo of Picardy, and many others. But the best of them was Domenico del Barbieri, an excellent painter and master of stucco, and an extraordinary designer, as his engraved works slow, which may be considered among the best extant. The painters whom Rosso employed at Fontainebleau were Luca Penni, brother of Cio. Franceseo, called II Fattore, a pupil of Raphael, Leonardo Fiammingo, a very able painter who beautifully coloured Rosso's designs, Bartolommeo Miniati of Florence, Francesco Caccianimici and Cio. Battista da Bagnacavallo. They all served him while Francesco Primaticcio went to Rome by the king's order to make bronze casts of the Laocoon, the Apollo and other rare antiquities. I do not mention the carvers, wood-workers and others without number of whom he made use, because it is unnecessary to speak of all, though many of them produced admirable work. Besides the things mentioned, Rosso did a remarkable St. Michael, and a dead Christ on a panel for the Constable, a rare work, sent to Ecouen. He also did some fine miniatures for the king. He further did a book of anatomy to be printed in France, some portions of which are in our book of designs. After his death two beautiful cartoons were found among his things, one a Leda, the other of the Tiburtine Sibyl showing the glorious Virgin and Christ to the Emperor Octavian. Into this he introduced King Francis and his queen, the guard and the people, with such a quantity of fine figures that it maybe accounted one of his best works. The king favoured him so greatly that shortly before his death he possessed an income of 1000 crowns, besides his very considerable gains from his works. He lived more like a prince than a painter, with numerous servants and horses, his house furnished with tapestries, silver and other valuable furniture. But Fortune, who rarely or never allows those who trust too much to her to retain their high degree long, caused his fall in the strangest possible manner. Franceceo di Pellegrino, a Florentine, who was fond of painting and a friend of Rosso, associated with him, when the latter was robbed of 100 ducats. Rosso suspected Francesco, and had him removed from court and rigorously examined. Being found innocent and released, Francesco was moved with the greatest indignation against Rosso for the false charge made against him, and attacked his former friend in such a way that Rosso was in a quandary, being unable to defend himself, seeing that he had not only accused his friend falsely, but stained his own honour, proclaiming himself a bad and disloyal man. Accordingly he determined to kill himself. One day, when the king was at Fontainebleau, he sent a peasant to Paris for a poisonous liquor, saying that he wanted it for varnish. The peasant returned with the poison, but such was the nature of the liquid that it had almost destroyed the finger with which he stopped the phial, though it was sealed with wax. Soon afterwards Rosso took this poison and so died. When the news was brought to the kind he was much grieved, feeling that in Rosso he had lost the best artist of the day. In order that the work might not suffer, he entrusted it to Franeeseo Primaticcio of Bologna, who had already done several works, giving him a good abbey, just as he had given a canonry to Rosso. The latter died in 1541, having shown artists what an advantage it is in dealing with a prince to be universal, courteous and gentle in bearing. Indeed, he deserves admiration for many reasons as being truly excellent.

  • 1 In 1513.
  • 2 Probably the Pieta in the Louvre.
  • 3 Duomo, Volterra.
  • 4 The three Fates of the Pitti Gallery.
  • 5 Uffizi.
  • 6 In 1524.
  • 7 1528.
  • 8 In 1537.
  • 9 About 1530.

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