Success At Siena Of Sodoma
( Originally Published 1908 )
MILANESI believes that it was soon after his second Roman visit that Sodoma went first to stay at Piombino, a little seaport town at the extreme end of the promontory of Populonia. Its prince was one of the Appiano family, originally from Pisa, who had obtained possession of the land towards the close of the fourteenth century. He, too, was anxious not to be behindhand in the culture of the fine arts, and to his court had come years before, the great Leonardo. It may have been through Leonardo that Sodoma became known to him : he certainly spent many years under the roof of James V., though we are unable to trace any work which he may have done there. From Piombino he apparently went straight to Florence, to the yearly races, armed with an introduction from James of Piombino to the ruling Medici.
The letter, dated June 18th, 1515, recommends " JOAN ANTONIO DE' AVERZÈ, his servant and bearer of the letter, who goes to Florence, to run his horses."*
The Pope, Leo X., was also in Florence at this moment, on his way to Bologna to meet the French king, Francis I., and Sodoma speaks, in one of his letters to the Duke of Ferrara, as having been in his company. However, he received no commission from those in high places, and seems to have been generally disappointed at his reception in Florence.
But to the little Olivetan monastery, outside the Porta San Frediano, had reached some record of his doings at the parent foundation near Siena, and the Abbot Brandolini set him to fresco the façade of the refectory. He left there the " Last Supper," which was overlaid with whitewash almost directly after its execution, and only brought to light a few years ago. Fragments of it had been seen by M. Eugène Müntz more than twenty years ago, but the fresco had been neither entirely uncovered nor identified.
It must have originally consisted of thirteen figures. In those five which remain we find skilful drawing, and, despite the great masses of colour which the plaster has carried away, we can perceive that the painting was both deliberate and careful. Vasari's blame, therefore, appears to be rather without ex-planation, "for," he says, "these figures turned out so ill that he was made fun of for his fooleries by those who expected something better from him."
The figure of Christ, though not as full of expression as Sodoma generally painted Him, is noble and dignified, Judas has more personal vigour, and here again is an instance of the artist concentrating his faculties upon the character which happened to interest him most at the moment, and treating with a certain superficiality others which should be of equal importance. Sodoma was vexed with the abbot of the monastery, annoyed generally at the reception which had been given him in Florence, and he was probably more in a mood to paint Judas than the lofty character of Christ. This is so speaking a face that it is, without doubt, a portrait ; the nose and lips are firmly modelled, the eye full of character. The hair is very characteristic, the close, crisp curls of the Lombard school, which Sodoma continued to paint up to the very end.
At Our Lord's right hand, St. Peter, with upraised knife, propounds his astonishing question, " Lord, is it I ?" St. John slumbers on the left shoulder of Christ, a young and placid face with the absence of expression common in sleep. Behind Judas an older apostle looks thoughtfully on.
In this undisputed work of Sodoma's we may observe his particular care in the drawing and modelling of the hands and feet, in Judas' foot, with the high lights on heel and muscle, and the strained tendons of the ankle. It is one of his least-known frescoes and deserves a higher reputation than has hitherto been accorded to it.
It was probably for quite other than an artistic reason that the abbot caused this fresco to be whitewashed. At the time of the races a scandal became attached to the name of the painter, and it was perhaps thought advisable to disown any connection with him and to quickly cover up his work. Bazzi had not been received as cordially as he had expected, and the Florentines may have treated him to some of these epithets of doubtful decency which even their literary men of high standing were not averse to showering upon one another. As it happened, his horse was the winner of the race, and when the boys who ran behind the trumpets proclaiming aloud the name of the proprietor of the victorious horse came to him to ask who he was, he replied by a coarse witticism meant to reflect upon the Florentines, but which instead became a source of discredit to himself.
He was obviously free and easy in his manners, careless of appearances and presumably not more moral than most artists of his time, and that he had a love for dubious jests is proved by the inventory of his house-hold goods which he drew up for the Siennese commission in 1531 and which Ugurgieri copied. Nevertheless, we believe, that Vasari, in relating this anecdote, and giving to it a scandalous significance, has done him grave injustice. This name came to be universally accepted, and he is even entered by it in the Archives of the town. He signed his own letters Sodoma, and was finally so addressed by the Signoria.
The next few years saw the production of a great fresco at Siena in the cloister of San Francesco. This represented the " Judgment of Pilate" and the " Flagellation of Our Lord." Under an open colonnade was to be found the Hebrew judicial court, Pilate surrounded by a number of angry Jews, and, a little to the side, the figure of the bound and buffeted Christ.
The whole painting suffered terribly from damp and exposure and even in Della Valle's time the Christ was protected by glass. By degrees the remaining portion of the fresco peeled off, and then disappeared the portrait of Sodoma himself, painted, Vasari says, beardless and with long hair. In 1842 the figure of Christ was sawn away from the wall and taken to the public gallery, where it is now enclosed within a frame.
A highly-polished marble column breaks the circle of an arch, through which one sees a pale, watery sky and faintly indicated sea and shore. The figure is nude, save for the mauve drapery about the loins, and to right and left are the fragments of two red arms, those of the tormenting soldiers. The head is singularly noble and dignified, and the torso modelled with the delicacy of sentiment which is so marked in his sketches in the Uffizi, the dead Christ on the knees of the Virgin, and the dead Christ in the sepia drawing of the Trinity. Rio, speaking of this fresco, says : " Pour le Christ it faut une profondeur de sentiment et une élévation de 1' âme dont le superficial Bazzi ne fut jamais capable." This is an opinion which we cannot endorse, for if there was a subject which Bazzi treated with reverence and profundity it was that of the adult Christ.
The man himself was full of turbulent passion, full of artistic waywardness, unbalanced often in his value and estimate of life ; but that he was altogether superficial and without reverence no one can believe who has studied his work with an unprejudiced mind.
The representation of physical suffering borne with calm was a constantly recurring subject among the later Greeks ; the early Christian conception of the Crucifixion and Martyrdoms is but too familiar in the catacomb frescoes and the contorted forms of Neri da Bicci or Margaritone. In the one we have a stoical indifference to pain, in the other an agonizing susceptibility to the physical side of it.
Sodoma's great fresco touches neither extreme. It has all the godlike dignity of a Greek hero, all the human pathos of a medieval martyr. It is, perhaps, most akin in art to those Greco-Roman statues, the Dying Gladiator and the Laocoon, works which fused the dual elements of two contrasting art-ideals.
The Laocoon and the Gladiator came into the world at a culminating point, when the perfect technique of pagan art was being leavened by a new sense of spiritual intensity. The work of Sodoma and some of his contemporaries marks also a central transitional point in the refluent movement, retaining the sentiment of mediæval devotion with the added quality of accurate and beautiful form. Sodoma's Christ is silent, the lips are parted in the intensity of pain, the flesh upon the arm is livid where the tense ropes bind it to the column, and where the thorny crown has pressed into the brow great drops of blood still ooze. Yet it is the intellectual suffering of the figure which strikes and holds one's attention. Far greater than the personal insult, overpowering all sense of momentary pain, there is present a touch of the universal sorrow, of the Weltschmerz which the prophet must feel. In this work the painter touched his most ideal creation.
To the same period, 1517-18, should belong one or more oil paintings of " Lucretia." Vasari mentions a nude "Lucretia stabbing herself," which he did for Pope Leo X., and for which, in return, he was made Cavalliere di Cristo. In a letter to the Marquis Francesco Gonzaga, dated 1518, Sodoma refers to a "Lucretia" which he had painted for him, but which, being seen by Giuliano de' Medici, was promptly bought by that Prince, and it is most likely that this was the picture of which Vasari spoke, and which so pleased the Pontiff that he created the artist a knight. Dr. Richter considers this painting as lost. Signor Milanesi, editing Vasari's life, declares, however, that this is the identical " Lucretia" which was taken to Hanover by Herr von Kestner, who had been ambassador to Rome, and which has now been presented with the rest of his collection to the town of Hanover. But Dr. Frizzoni, who saw it in 1869, criticising it by the newer method, and taking into consideration its clear shadows and rather marked outlines, as well as a considerable difference in the composition, believes it to be the work of an earlier period, thus agreeing with Richter as to the total disappearance of the Papal " Lucretia."
Vasari also mentions another picture of the same subject done by Sodoma for Assuero Rettori da San Martino, and which may not improbably be the one which now hangs in the Turin Gallery. It is very much restored, and was generally considered as a Gianpietrino until Morelli assigned it to Sodoma ; and I find Frizzoni mentioning yet another "Lucretia" attributed to Sodoma, a panel, much blackened, which now belongs to Herr Weber of Hamburg. That he should produce three or four slightly varying copies of the same figure need not surprise us, seeing that the original not only greatly pleased the Pope, but was even praised by his enemy Vasari. Also, classical and mythological pictures were more largely bought just then by private individuals than religious ones.
The "Charity " at Berlin most probably belongs to this date. It is an oblong picture, consisting of a single female figure, clothed in a heavy drapery, with downcast eyes and crisply curled hair. She holds one infant in her arms, and two plump children cling about her knees ; the landscape is singularly transparent and very like that of the St. George at Richmond. It was formerly attributed to Baldassare Peruzzi, and to Morelli we owe its enumeration among the works of Sodoma.
In 1515, before coming down to Florence for the races, the committee directing the works of the Siennese cathedral commissioned him to cast in bronze two figures of Apostles for the high altar, and also to give free lessons in drawing, to four young men attached to the works.* We do not find that these bronzes were ever cast ; however, he must have had some skill in modelling, for his studio was said to be full of models in plaster and clay.
On the 11th of January 1515, Matteo di Giuliano di Lorenzo Balducci apprenticed himself for six years to our painter, agreeing for four years to pay him annually at the August festival of St. Mary the sum of twenty ducats, and for the remaining two years to work with and under his master. In return Sodoma was to teach him, to pay his expenses, clothe and shoe him suitably. Of this Balducci we know little, and his few works have not the mark of genius. The master had other pupils working directly under him, Girolamo Magagni, called Giomo del Sodoma, Lorenzo Brazzi, called Rustico, and Bartolommeo Neroni, nicknamed Riccio, who not only married the painter's daughter, Faustina, but was associated with him in several works. Riccio was the author of one of the Monte Oliveto frescoes, and of a delightful little Pietà in fresco on the walls of the collegiate church of Asciano.
Besides these, there were one or two men of individual talent, who, though they may not have formally placed themselves under Sodoma's tuition, were glad to learn from him, and, either voluntarily or insensibly, adopted much of his manner and formed their style upon his. Of these were Pacchia and Beccafumi, who in 1518 found themselves associated with him in the decoration of the little oratory near San Francesco, dedicated to San Bernardino. Sodoma, naturally, was chosen as the director of these works, and of Beccafumi, who had known him in Rome, Vasari relates that " having heard Giovanni Antonio of Vercelli praised as a capable man, he came to Siena, and seeing that he had a good foundation in drawing, in which he knew the strength of workers in art to lie, he set himself with much study to follow him, that which he had already done in Rome not being enough."
The earliest of the series was the " Birth of the Virgin," by Pacchia, then came Sodoma's " Presentation in the Temple." A crowd of men and women are gathered under an open colonnade with classical columns. In the background the little Virgin is ascending the steps towards the high priest, but the Child has turned back towards St. Anne, and the priest is bending forward and has seized her by the shoulders. A group of women in the left foreground is headed by a graceful figure in blue and white, while to the left a tall and stalwart youth introduces a mass of brilliant colour with his deep orange draperies. A fountain occupies the centre of the court, and the whole is framed by pilasters enriched with graceful Renaissance ornament.
In the second of Sodoma's frescoes, " The Salutation," St. Elizabeth and the Virgin meet within an alcove. The Virgin is bending forward, and, were the figure upright, would be considerably taller than all the others. She has heavy draperies of blue, faded to white where the light strikes. Her face is very tenderly modelled, with a good deal of hatching in the shadows. St. Elizabeth, kneeling, has gorgeous robes of green and yellow, Joachim, behind her, wears a white head-dress, and a woman to the left fills up the need for more distributed colour by a brick-red dress. This same woman leads a charmingly drawn and carefully painted child, nude, save for a transparent muslin shirt. The child is, perhaps, the most concentrated piece of painting in the picture, and is a charming example of Sodoma's treatment of putti.
In the " Assumption of the Madonna," the third fresco, he has adopted the conventional composition usually employed. An open sarcophagus in the exact centre, the lines of its perspective running parallel with the eye, and six disciples on either hand, in graduated heights. Above them, the Madonna rises in her white robes surrounded by a semicircle of flying angels. In this broad sweep of two semicircular lines across the composition we are inevitably reminded of Raphael.
The last fresco, which stands between the windows, was finished in 1532, after Sodoma had been away from Siena for several years. The figures in it are more than life-size and are densely packed together. The white-robed Madonna kneels in the centre, while Christ, in red and blue, places the crown upon her head. Around them are grouped, Noah, Adam and Eve, St. John Baptist, and others, and, in a glory above, hovers the Holy Spirit. In none of these corn-positions is Sodoma quite at his best, probably because this more ambitious kind of work was not what he excelled in. The presence of so many figures evidently confused him, and in their grouping there is generally a sense of compression, or else a straggling line which is eminently undecorative. And in all of them he has singled out special figures for his particular care, the Madonna and the Child in the " Salutation," or the three awe-stricken apostles to the left in the " Assumption," unfortunately beginning to peel. The whole colouring of these frescoes is, however, warm, and the modelling large. The flesh is broadly washed on, with the shadows boldly hatched, and the dark outline, notice-able in his earlier frescoes, is far less frequent. There is, however, much carelessness in the drawing, and we can hardly endorse Vasari's praise of the three single figures which fill up the smaller spaces between doors and windows, St. Francis, St. Anthony of Padua, and St. Louis of Toulouse. The San Bernardino in the opposite corner, is now admitted to be not by him, but by Pacchia, as proved by documentary evidence.
The "Adoration of the Magi," which hangs in the Piccolomini Chapel in the church of St. Agostino, is believed to have been done about this time. It is a very large panel, painted in Sodoma's most brilliant manner, and especially recommends itself to the consideration of students in that it exemplifies so very aptly all the leading characteristics of our painter enumerated by Morelli in connection with the Stadel portrait at Frankfort.
We have the rocky landscape in transparent blue tints, the knight on horseback, and the tufty, dark-leaved trees. We have the tapering fingers and the almond eyes, the lips so undefinable at the corners, and we have the round "eye " to his draperies, as well as the crisp, almost wiry hair.
This panel was the occasion of a law-suit which Sodoma lost in 1536 ; but it was not therefore necessarily painted in that year, although the commentators of Vasari so believe. Its whole technique points to an earlier period, and Frizzoni, judging it by its colouring, its accurate compact drawing, and the amount of light and atmosphere, puts it back as early as 1518.
If the head of the shepherd, wedged in between the two tree trunks, be really Sodoma's portrait, as tradition asserts, it must certainly belong to this earlier period when the painter was about forty or forty-one years of age. The picture has a further historical interest in the fact that several of the heads are portraits of leading members of the Piccolomini family,* into whose possession the picture passed early in the sixteenth century.
Sir Francis Cook has, in his gallery at Richmond, a panel which is perhaps the most delightful example of Sodoma's art which we have in this country.
This subject is legendary—St. George, the knight of Cappadocia, in his contest with the Lycian dragon. It has the same deep, rich tone as the " Adoration," a transparent bluish background, a broad river winding between two hills, with a walled and battlemented town upon its banks.
In the foreground the princess, in her crimson and yellow robe, and St. George, upon his charger, bent forward in the strenuous pose of eager and concentrated movement, with red doublet flying in the wind, head lowered, and lance pointed ready for the charge. The horse too, apparently shares his master's excitement, in straining eyes, dilated nostrils, and open mouth. The foreground is very dark, too dark almost to be clearly visible at a first glance, but after a while one discerns the broken tree-stumps, the wet stones and flowing stream, and fresh green water-weeds, and, lying about on the land, the bones of the dragon's former victims.
The whole picture is one glowing bit of colour, not the broad lights and luminous shadows, such- as the Venetians understood by colour, but a quiet, gem-like glow of subdued warmth. It was painted between 1515 and 1518 for Alfonzo, Duke of Ferrara, just before the artist left Siena on that untraceable journey of his.