Unknown Period, And Return To Siena Of Sodoma
( Originally Published 1908 )
AFTER the commencement of the San Bernardino frescoes Sodoma disappeared from Tuscany, and an amount of uncertainty has gathered round his doings during the next seven years. There are no more documents concerning him to be found at Siena till 1525, and the political condition of the city was just then very unfavourable to artistic work.
Pandolfo Petrucci, the some-time governor, had died in 1512, and been interred with princely pomp and honour; but although under his rule Siena had enjoyed much prosperity and a certain amount of unity between the rival factions, both Pandolfo and his successor lacked the personal qualities that might have founded a dynasty. His son, Borghese, seceded after three years, and the ambitious cardinal-cousin, Raffaello, seized the reins of government. It was during his ascendency that Sodoma vanished from Siena.
It is probable that he went straight to Mantua, for a letter addressed to the Marchese Francesco Gonzaga in May 1518, speaks of the painter's intention to shortly visit him. This letter was found not long ago among the Mantuan Archives, by Signor Guiseppe Campori, and if Sodoma carried out the intention which he expressed therein, he probably spent the summer in the Ducal House of the Gonzaga. On the same day (May 3rd) he wrote another letter to Alfonzo d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, suggesting that he should visit him at Ferrara, bringing with him a certain panel which he had been commissioned to paint by the duke's ambassador—the " St. George and the Dragon," now belonging to Sir Francis Cook. This letter was found at Modena among the Este Archives, by Cav. Adolfo Venturi, and there is no reason to doubt that the visit was paid. There is also an entry among the documents at Reggio d'Emilia, which mentions one Giovanni Antonio de' Bazzi of Parma, a painter, and for the moment citizen of Reggio,* who acted as witness to two deeds drawn up in the November of that year. It is certainly true that the name of Bazzi was a not uncommon one in Parma, and we are at a loss to understand why Sodoma should describe himself as a Parmesan when he had for so long enjoyed the civic rights and privileges of Siena.
He may have stayed a little time in Parma before proceeding to Reggio, thus giving rise to a misapprehension, or he may deliberately, for prudential reasons, have wished to conceal his identity.
Both Herr Jansen and Milanesi believe that the artist here referred to was our Siennese ; but Frizzoni is of opinion that there may have been another less known and inferior painter of the some name.
Morelli believes that Sodoma now passed into Lombardy, and there renewed his connection with the school of Leonardo, perfecting himself in the manner towards which he had always shown so strong a predilection. But we are wanting in documents to prove his actual presence in Milan, and the works which have been attributed to him within late years are not so well authenticated as to be clear proofs of his presence there.
One of these works which bears a strong resemblance to his style, is a fresco on the wall of one of the rooms of the Villa Melzi at Vaprio, about which the opinion of critics is still largely divided. This is a gigantic group, more than life-size, and terribly out of proportion. The Virgin is only portrayed down to the waist, the face is oval, with the long nose, thin, half-smiling lips, and almond eyes of the school, the hair waved crisply over brow and neck. The head is turned to the right, and the eyes downcast. The Infant Christ is apparently seated on the Virgin's left arm, the little face is curiously exaggerated, almost a caricature, with features puffed and grotesque, and the Virgin's right hand is over-large and shapeless.
To which of the Lombard masters this should be assigned is a matter difficult to decide. Rio and Mündler, as well as Amoretti, thought it a genuine Leonardo, done in return for Melzi's hospitality, but this is obviously impossible, for Leonardo is never known to have worked in "buon fresco." Milanesi believed it to be more probably by Francesco Melzi himself, the friend and pupil of Leonardo, and in this opinion he is followed by some recent German critics.
Morelli, however, attributed it unhesitatingly to Sodoma, " executed probably between 1518 and 1521, during his stay in Lombardy." (The Borghese and Doria Pamphili Galleries, p. 157.)
To this unknown period are assigned a number of small panels and canvases which are scattered about over North Italy in private collections. These severally bear a marked affinity to the Lombard school, but in the round freedom of their drawing and a certain largeness, almost carelessness of design, they all differ from the work attributed to the other Milanese masters. They are evidently the production of a man trained in the Lombard School, but who had been subjected to southern influences, and was haunted by a memory of the Tuscan manner.
Signor Frizzoni has a penitent Magdalen, in neutral tints, with slightly parted lips and flowing hair. A white chemise and a white vase of ointment in her hand form the only contrast to the flesh-tints. This little picture is very interesting, for it may be regarded either as an experiment on Sodoma's part in the fuller treatment of light and shade, or else as being indicative of his habitual manner of painting easel pictures. If the latter, it would show him to be completely Leonardo's pupil, whose large " Adoration of the Magi " which hangs in the Uffizi is most probably a prepared ground, a study in values which was to have been painted over in oil.
Most of the panels of the Lombard school have a certain brilliancy in the light flesh-tints and an almost exaggerated modelling, which might lead to the sup-position that they were underpainted, and Sodoma's own panels have this luminosity in their shadows to a marked degree.
Another monochrome is in the possession of the heirs of the late Signor Ginoulhiac of Milan. In this the Virgin has delicately drawn features, the eyes rather longer and narrower and the eyelids less deep than is usual with him, Sodoma generally giving a pronounced fulness of eyeball to his youthful figures. Her light muslin sleeves gathered at the wrist, and the dark drapery over head and shoulders fastened by a modern brooch suggest the idea that it may have been painted as a portrait and the halo which converted it into a Madonna added afterwards. The Child's deep-set eyes and low cranium also look as if it had been a study from life.
In 1525 Sodoma was back again in Siena, painting for the city guilds, which continued to give him work in spite of the condition of grave political disturbance.
Cardinal Raffaello Petrucci died in 1522; he was succeeded by Francesco, who soon gave place to Fabio, the youngest of Pandolfo's sons. Fabio was driven out by the populace ; and, in 1525, the city, torn by rival factions, not strong enough to govern herself, nor willing, after the Petrucci tyranny, to elect one man as her leader, placed herself under the protection of the new Emperor Charles V. She created, for the management of local affairs, a magistracy of "ten guardians of the liberty of the State," uniting the different Monti, or guilds under one, which consisted of that of the reigning nobles. The city, now freed from the irk-some rule, which nevertheless had maintained order and kept the smaller factions om fighting, now gave herself over to a renewal of ancient rivalries, not even quelled when the Emperor came in person ten years later.
Notwithstanding, or perhaps in consequence of this political unrest, the Siennese experienced a revival of religious fervour, and, keen in their old belief that the town was under the special protection of the Virgin, began to adorn the city gates and the walls of public buildings with her image. To these years belong some of Sodoma's finest works, the chapel of St. Catherine in San Domenico, the colossal figures of St. Ansano and St. Victor in the Palazzo Pubblico, and the beautiful St. Sebastian of the Florence Gallery.
It was in 1525, when once more back in Siena, that Sodoma painted the second of his masterpieces, the " Standard with the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian." It was done for a confraternity—that of St. Sebastian in Camollia—during the priorate of Matteo Fraschini, and was carried through the city at the head of a procession during times of pestilence. The contract was completed on the 3rd May 1525, and he was to receive twenty ducats for it, but the painter was apparently not satisfied with this agreement, and the matter was submitted to a certain barber, Antonio di Pasquino, who was evidently regarded as a keen judge of the fine arts, for he accounted the finished work to be worth more than the twenty ducats stated in the contract. The Signoria, therefore, quite willing to abide by the barber's decision, paid him another six; and the Chapter, deliberating on the work, which they deemed carefully and diligently done, determined to give him yet another four ducats.
To this Sodoma subscribed : " Io mise Giovane Antonio sopradeto so 'contento a quanto di sopra si contiene, e per fede 6 scritto de mano propria." *` (" I, the above-named Giovanni Antonio, am content with what is contained above, and in testimony have written with my own hand.")
The subject was one with which he was in entire sympathy, and he gave time and enthusiasm to the drawing of the noble figure, with its severe, classical lines, and its uplifted, spiritual face.
Edward Schurè wrote of it : "Le beau corps de l'adolescent, lié contre un arbre est percé de flêches, couvert de gouttes de sang et tout frémissant de douleur. Mais sur son visage et dans son regard tourné vers le ciel, se joue, à travers la souffrance, un ravisse-ment céleste. L'état d'âme qui se reflête sur ce visage est semblable à celui qui produisent les choeurs de Palestrina." t (" The beautiful form of the young man, bound to a tree, is pierced with arrows, covered with drops of blood, and quivering with pain. But on his face and in his upturned glance there plays, through all the suffering, a heavenly rapture. The state of mind reflected on his face is akin to that produced by the choruses of Palestrina.")
J. A. Symonds' appreciation is more profound. " Sodoma's ' St. Sebastian," he wrote, in his " Renaissance in Italy," vol. iii., " notwithstanding its wan and faded colouring, is still the very best that has been painted. Suffering, refined and spiritual, without a contortion or a spasm, could not be presented in a form of more surpassing loveliness. This is a truly demonic picture in the fascination it exercises and the memory it leaves upon the mind. Part of its remarkable charm may be due to the bold thought of combining the beauty of a Greek Hylas with the Christian sentiment of martyr-dom. Only the Renaissance could have produced a hybrid so successful, because so deeply felt." The " St. Sebastian " portion is in low tones, a cold landscape almost in monochrome, the one warm element being the brown shadows in the tree trunk. The angel has an indigo robe, and brings with him a haze of lemon-yellow light as he descends from heaven with the martyr's crown. The flesh-tints of the saint himself are also cold, the whole picture owes very little of its effect to colour, and its beauty lies in the sculpturesque treatment of form, and the immense feeling of atmosphere.
On the back of this picture is painted another—the Madonna seated upon a cloud, while below her are St. Roch, St. Sigismund of Hungary, and six white-robed brothers of the Order, all kneeling with uplifted eyes. The greater beauty and fame of the " St. Sebastian," and the fact that the picture has to be turned round in order to see this Madonna, has pre-vented it receiving the attention it deserves, being, as it is, one of the most excellent examples of Sodoma's special technique. That it lacks the deeper feeling which many of his other pictures possess does not lessen its value as a particularly characteristic specimen of his brush-work.
It is not easy to understand how this gonfalone or banner could possibly be the immediate successor of the Vaprio Madonna. Vasari says that certain merchants of Lucca offered three hundred golden scudi for it, but the confraternity could not bear the thought of so beautiful a painting leaving the city, and refused the offer.
In 1525 Sodoma was employed by the company of Santa Croce to paint three scenes from the Passion in fresco.
Of these three frescoes, the " Calvary, " " Gethsemane," and " Hades," the two latter were, in 1841, sawn away from the walls and transported to the Siena gallery, and the " Christ bearing the Cross on the way to Calvary" conveyed to the little chapel of the monastery of Sant' Eugenio, about three miles outside Porta San Marco, now Villa Griccioli. It has been terribly restored, especially the faces of Christ and St. Veronica. The figure is clothed in red and crowned with thorns. Simon, bearing the base of the Cross looks mournfully backward. On the right, kneels St. Veronica, lifting her handkerchief towards the Saviour, and behind her is a female figure in purple, with clasped hands, probably the Madonna. A crowd of soldiers, on foot and horse, fills up the background. Of the two frescoes now lodged in the gallery at Siena, one represents the Garden of Gethsemane with Our Lord kneeling alone upon a high mound, clad in a spreading mauve drapery, while below Him are huddled together the sleeping forms of the three disciples.
In far better preservation, and of far more original worth, is the companion fresco, giving Our Lord's descent into Hades. The semi-nude figure of Eve has all his usual grace and carefulness, and is a characteristic example of his modelling of legs and feet. The fleshy knee, with its high lights and rather thick muscles around the ankle, are to found again in the Berlin " Charity," and in the various drawings for the Borghese " Leda." Eve's face has a wistfulness which is very tender and human as she watches the triumphant Victor over death and corruption lift up to life her young son Abel.
That Sodoma was not above lending his pencil to art of a purely decorative nature is proved by the existence of sundry little panels which formed the head and tail-pieces of the open biers in which the Sienese are still wont to carry their dead. These are generally oval at the top, the shape of a tombstone, and are painted in oils back and front with figures of the Madonna and of the dead Christ. There are several series of these panels in the various churches of Siena, which are attributed to Sodoma, and belong, we believe, to this middle period of his residence there.
One of them, begun in 1525, was painted for the company of the Trinitâ, and now hangs in the little church of San Donato, sawn into four panels. It is attributed by different critics to Beccafumi and to Marco da Siena, and even if it be by Sodoma, as some maintain, is not one of his best.
A really beautiful set, however, was completed in the following year for the company of San Giovani della Morte, a branch of the brothers of the Misericordia. On the 27th of May 1527, Sodoma was paid ninety-eight lire for this bier, and Vasari gives it his unqualified praise in the words, " I think this is the most beautiful (bier), that one could possibly find." The four panels are to be found in the church of San Giovanni della Morte. Another set are on the walls of the Siena Gallery, the two most successful of these are the Virgin and Child holding a bird in its hand, with two figures in the background crowned with vine and shamrock, and that of the half-length form of the Dead Christ supported by female figures. The third represents another Virgin and Child with angels, and the fourth has two green-robed brothers of the Misericordia kneeling in adoration before the jewelled Cross.
Dr. Richter has in his possession a small panel of this size and form, representing a dead Christ supported by angels which most probably also formed part of burial fittings. Dr. Richter dates it about 1530, and the dark shadows and rather heavy modelling of the angels are quite compatible with this late date. The Christ is not one of the artist's happiest conceptions ; he apparently reserved his full attention for larger and more important works.
Very like it in treatment especially, is the face of Our - Lord in the Pietà in the Borghese Gallery, which has many of the mannerisms of the later Lombard school. It was formerly roughly attributed to the school of Leonardo, but Frizzoni was the first to recognize in it the forms of face, draperies, and landscape peculiar to Sodoma. Morelli agreed with him in this opinion, and the picture is now catalogued as Sodoma's.
Yet that he could, when he chose, portray with dignity and feeling the helplessness of death is proved by two exquisite drawings in the Uffizi. The smaller and more beautiful of these is a sketch, in silver point, of the Christ dead in His Mother's arms. It is evidently a study for the Pietà which he painted on the walls of the Casa Bambagini, Siena. The fresco itself, is not in a good state of preservation, high up, and covered with glass. The lower portion has peeled very considerably, and the four or five heads of angels and saints just discernible, around the Virgin are almost defaced. The Virgin herself has a mantle of very faded blue and an expression of intense sadness, the face of Our Lord is singularly majestic and dignified, but perhaps there is more sentiment in the little sketch which we reproduce.
The other drawing is evidently a study for the picture of the Trinity which he painted for the Rosary Chapel of San Domenico, a pencil-drawing washed with sepia and Chinese white. In it the Eternal Father bears the dead Christ upon His knee, the Dove hovers above them, and St. Catherine of Siena and several other saints are grouped around.
Siena is rich in local saints of the type dear to the Tuscan populace—the man or woman of humble, holy life, sprung from their midst and related to the citizens, and in whom the miraculous element is subordinate to the human qualities of piety and charitable work. It was the Beato Bernardo Tolomei, the rich young noble who forsook his fast companions and founded the parent monastery of the Olivetan order ; or San Bernardino, the Franciscan preacher, awakening a religious revival through Tuscany, and Umbria ; or it was Catherine Benincasa, the tanner's daughter, who laboured among the poor and plague-stricken of her quarter, and by her writing and exhortation was indirectly instrumental in bringing back the Papal Court from Avignon to Rome. This character was still a familiar memory to the people of Siena when Sodoma lived and painted, and far more real and dear to them than the almost mythical saints Ansano and Victor of the early centuries. The church of San Domenico had consecrated more than one chapel to her memory. The first contained a contemporary portrait of the saint by her friend and protégé, Andrea Vanni ; the second was now destined to be decorated with scenes from her life by the hand of Sodoma.
He received the commission in 1526, and the earliest and by far the best work which he did there is the fresco of " The Vision of St. Catherine," a painting of such tender sentiment and delicate quality, as to enjoy a European fame. St. Catherine, perceiving the figure of the Saviour in the air, and receiving at the same time the marks of the stigmata in her own person, falls back fainting into the arms of two of her nuns. The three figures are wholly in white, the cloth tunic and scapulary of their order, a soft and mellowed white, deepening to bluish grey in the shadows, and thrown into relief by the dull browns and yellows of the landscape background. The figure of Christ, supported by boy-cherubs, which hovers above, was perhaps necessary to balance the composition, but it is by far the least attractive portion of the picture ; the interest centres wholly in the human group, the tender faces of the women, the grace of flowing robes and deftly modelled arms.
Baldassare Peruzzi, Sodoma's friend and associate, perhaps expressed the spirit of his contemporaries in his praise of this lovely fresco, and he has laid stress upon the accurate rendering of the physical signs of a psychological state, a point to which an eminent physiologist of our own day, Prof. Angelo Mosso of Turin, has often called attention.* Vasari possessed for many years a little pen and ink drawing of this fresco, bearing a cartellino, high on the gilded column, with the date 1526. This drawing, now in the Uffizi collection, is too complete and faithful a copy of the fresco to be a study, and must have been done by Sodoma or one of his pupils after its completion.
The companion scene, on the right side of the altar, which portrays St. Catherine receiving the communion from the hands of an angel, has all Sodoma's unrest of composition without his deeper sentiment. Both the figures of the three kneeling nuns and the Madonna and attendant angels which, with the Eternal Father, fill the upper part of the picture, are in Sodoma's commonplace manner, graceful, it is true, but not sufficiently individual to merit the attention given to the other. Siena contains much of his work of this quality, work that is essentially and pre-eminently decorative, and perhaps does not aim at the reproduction of strong individual sentiment.
The left wall is covered with a scene from St. Catherine's missionary work-the decapitation of the penitent thief, converted by the prayer of the saint while on his way to execution. The figure of the Captain of the Guard, dressed like a Roman centurion, has great vigour in the drawing, and among the crowd of women and soldiers are several heads of power and interest, but the composition as a whole is too crowded and densely packed, and has Sodoma's usual defect of confusion and lack of symmetry.
Vasari says that he made no studies for this particular fresco, but painted it straight away, without previous preparation, on to the damp plaster. This may account very greatly for its unsuccessful grouping and general sense of oppressiveness.
Over one of the doors in the sacristy is a large framed banner, bearing the Madonna in pale blue robes, surrounded by a group of little flying angels who scatter roses into her open tomb. The background is greenish with a distant view of Siena, a yellow glory envelops the angel children, several of whom are beautifully drawn and modelled. The Virgin's face, however, has suffered from damp.
In the chapel of the Rosary, next to the High Altar, is a much blackened altar-piece, the study for which we have already mentioned, as being among the drawings in the Uffizi. The dead Christ lies on the knees of the Father, who holds a globe in His left hand. On either side stand two saints, SS. Dominic and Sigismund to the left, St. Catherine of Siena and a fine nude figure of St. Sebastian to the right. The town of San Gemignano is faintly visible below. In 1527 Sodoma was chosen to design the cartoons for a portion of the pavement of the cathedral, but it is uncertain whether these designs were ever executed.
One of the next documents concerning him is an action which he brought against his scholar, Magagni, called Giomo del Sodoma, for a theft of the most flagrant and vulgar kind. The master was at Florence, whether on business or pleasure we do not know, and, falling ill, was nursed at the hospital of Sta. Maria Nuova. That the popular painter, a welcome guest at many palaces, and known to most of the monastic communities, should be so entirely without friends in the city of the Medici as to be sent to a public ward of the great hospital is a matter of some surprise. But we have abundant evidence that Sodoma was not liked in Florence, and this may largely account for Vasari's biassed prejudice. While thus ill, and probably not expected to recover, his enterprising pupil became possessed of the master's keys, and, entering his studio, carried away a number of bronzes and fragments of marble, partly to Giomo's own house, partly to that of Niccolo, his brother-in-law, a sword-maker.
The theft consisted also of boxes of silver coins, medals, portions of statues, marble feet, heads more or less imperfect, a bronze horse, a bronze statuette of Apollo, several terra-cottas and a number of artist's utensils stored in a hen-house.
Besides these, there was a box containing a printed book, a manuscript book on necromancy (the eccentric painter perhaps dabbled a little also in the occult arts) and also uno libro scripto a mane the tracta di pictura.
Whether this were a copy of Leonardo's famous treatise or an independent essay of Sodoma's own we cannot tell. There was likewise a picture, " less than a yard high, with a Madonna and Child in act of espousing St. Catherine." (Unfinished, and not to be traced.)
Needless to say that Sodoma won his case and Magagni was forced to bring back his stolen goods.
Milanesi believes him to have been ill at Florence in 1527, but Frizzoni observes that the action was only instituted in July 1529 and speaks of the theft as having taken place during the "present month" while Sodoma was ill.