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Giobanni Antonio Bazzi - Called Sodoma

BORN 1477: DIED 1549


GIOVANNI ANTONIO BAZZI, better known in the history of art as Sodoma (pronounced So'-do-mah), was the son of Giacomo di Antonio dei Bazzi, a shoemaker of Vercelli in Piedmont. Here, probably in 1477, Giovanni Antonio was born. When he was thirteen years old his father apprenticed him to a glass-painter of Vercelli, one Martino Spanzotti, whose works are scarcely known to-day, but whose style was angular and archaic. This apprenticeship of seven years was over in 1497. What the young painter did from then till 1501 is not definitely known. For part or all of those four years Morelli places him in Milan, where, if he did not work directly with Leonardo, he at least must have come under his influence. Whether this is so or not, by 1501 he was in Siena, brought there, Vasari states, by an agent of the Spannocchi, rich bankers and merchants of that city.

Siena at that time had no native painters of any merit. While Florence and Milan were already being swept into the full tide of the high Renaissance, Siena had never risen above the shallow pools of its first inspiration, when, under the influence of Giotto, its art had been noted fora great refinement and a placid sort of beauty. This art was now but a petrified remains of its early spirit. Sodoma, with his youth, his freedom, his larger training, found himself therefore easily first. His poorest work took rank above the best of his Sienese competitors. The lack of worthy rivals, whose presence must have been stimulus and incentive, joined to the sudden jump into prominence, was probably no less deleterious to his character than to his talent. Many of the excesses with which he is charged may well be due to these years, when every questionable joke or wildest whim of the moment was regarded as but the extraordinarily clever and amusing eccentricity of genius. His follies, his extravagances, his very indolence, only made him more popular, more the idol of the place. That he dressed like a stage dandy, that he kept and ran the fastest horses, that his fondness for all kinds of animals was positively ludicrous in its manifestation—all this only amused the Sienese the more. It was Vasari who gave these freaks of an eccentric, artistic nature the opprobrium which later historians have repeated without question.

"He had," says the Florentine biographer, "a fancy for keeping all sorts of strange animals in his house, badgers, squirrels, apes, cat-a-mountains, Barbary race-horses, Elba ponies, jackdaws, bantams, turtle-doves, and other animals of similar kind, whatever he could get into his hands in short; . . . and besides the animals above named, he had a raven, which he had so effectually taught to speak that this creature counterfeited the voice of Giovan Antonio exactly in some things, more especially in replying to any one who knocked at the door, nay, this last he did so perfectly, that he seemed to be the painter's very self, as all the Sienese well know. The other animals also were so tame that they were constantly assembled about his person, while he was in the house, and came round all who approached him, playing the strangest tricks, and performing the most extraordinary concerts ever seen or heard, insomuch that the dwelling of this man seemed like the very ark of Noah."

In spite of his idiosyncrasies, his indolence, and his gaieties, Sodoma painted some of his most noted pictures during this first residence in Siena. As early perhaps as 1502 he painted the `Descent from the Cross' (Plate iv), and the tondo of the `Nativity' now in the Siena Academy, as well as several other round pictures belonging to private collections.

It was in 1503 that he received his first really important order. This was to paint six large frescos and a row of medallions in the Convent of Sant' Anna in Creta, not far from the city limits. These are all now in a more or less ruinous condition, but at the time they were so far successful as to be the means of securing for the painter a much more important commission in the Benedictine monastery of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, situated outside the confines of Siena. Signorelli had begun to paint the walls of the cloister, but in 1498, when he had only completed nine frescos, he was called to Orvieto. This series, illustrating scenes from the life of St. Benedict, the abbot now asked Sodoma to finish. He painted in all thirty-one frescos, and for the entire set he received about three hundred and ten dollars.

The task was a long one, and, with the interminable groups of white-robed monks, must to a man of Sodoma's temperament have been rather tiresome. The pranks and tricks which Vasari reports him to have played upon the staid brotherhood were, one can guess, a sort of safety-valve for his exuberant spirits. The monks perhaps did not wholly object to his mad capers, for though they gave him the name of Il Mattaccio (the arch fool), yet that he was allowed to finish the entire series of frescos is proof that they did not find him wholly impossible.

In 1507 Agostino Chigi, the treasurer of Pope Julius II., came to Siena and took Sodoma with him back to Rome, where he became a member of that extraordinary corps of painters who made the Vatican one of the world's treasure-houses of art. Sodoma's orders at first were to decorate the hall of the Stanza della Segnatura. According to Vasari, it was because of his idleness and carelessness that before he had nearly finished, the pope in disgust ordered his work obliterated and set Raphael at the task instead. Sodoma, however, was not the only painter whose brush was swept aside to make room for the youth of Urbino. Nor, since Raphael was to decorate the walls of the room, was it surprising that the pope should wish the ceiling to be by the same hand. Raphael fortunately knew the value of Sodoma's work better than pope or minister, and he left untouched a considerable portion of his ceiling. There is, too, another bit of evidence of the greater man's appreciation of Sodoma. The youth in the white cap standing next to Raphael in the `School of Athens' is now pretty universally regarded as a portrait, not of Perugino, but of the young painter from Siena. (See MASTERS IN ART, Part 40, Volume 4.)

After his departure from Rome Sodoma probably returned to Siena, for in October, 1510, he married the daughter of a well-to-do hotel-keeper of that place. Of the two children born within the next three years, the son, Apelles, died in babyhood, but the daughter, Faustina, lived to marry a pupil of her father, Bartolommeo Neroni, better known as the painter Riccio. Vasari claims that Sodoma's wife was badly used and unhappy, and that she finally left her husband. The records do not prove this, and as late as 1541, at least, they were' still living together. Sometime between 1513 and 1515 Sodoma was once more in Rome, this time at work in the Chigi Palace, now called the Farnesina. Again he was thrown into company with the greatest artists of the day; Raphael, Michelangelo, and Sebastiano del Piombo had all been pressed into service by Chigi. At this time Leonardo was also in Rome, as well as many others famous in art and letters. Sodoma's paintings in the palace were scenes representing `Alexander's Conquest of Darius' and his `Marriage with Roxana.' Time and the restorer have so injured these frescos that little idea can be had of their original condition.

It was after this, when Leo x. was pope, that that pontiff made Sodoma Cavalier or Knight in appreciation of a beautiful nude figure of Lucretia executed for him by the painter.

Critics believe that it was soon after this second visit to Rome that Sodoma went to Piombino, where for a time he entered the service of Giacomo v. From this prince in 1515 he bore a letter to the ruling Medici in Florence, in which letter Giacomo recommends Bazzi, who, he says, goes to Florence "to run his horses," quite as if horse-racing were the entire vocation of the painter of religious scenes! The horses proved to be most excellent beasts, and with one of them the painter from Siena came out ahead of all the Florentine nobles. On the saddle in front of him he carried a ridiculous baboon, and it is easy to understand how his whole appearance must have seemed to the Florentines, to whom this race was a most vital affair, a positive impertinence. Their disgust and chagrin were not lessened when, at the end of the race, he flung out a coarse joke against his competitors, a joke which was afterwards turned against himself with cutting emphasis. Whether because of his con-duct at the races or not, Sodoma received no commission directly in Florence, though in the Olivetan monastery outside the Porta San Frediano he painted a fresco of the `Last Supper.' This was buried under whitewash almost as soon as painted, perhaps because after the scandal of the races the monks thought it desirable to disavow any connection with such a questionable character. The painting has only within a few years been entirely freed from its white covering.

Sodoma was probably glad to escape from the uncongenial atmosphere of Florence back to his Sienese home. In the next few years, for the cloister of San Francesco, he finished one of his greatest works in fresco, `The Judgment of Pilate' and `The Flagellation of Jesus.' Under the combined attacks of time and dampness all of this work practically disappeared, with the exception of the figure of Jesus. In 1842 this was sawn off the wall and taken to the Siena Academy, where it now is.

By this time he had a number of scholars and followers, among whom were Pacchia and Beccafumi, Peruzzi and Riccio. The first two in 1518 were chosen to assist him in the decoration of the San Bernardino Oratory near San Francesco. But before this was finished he seems to have left Siena for some six or seven years. Where he was during this time is uncertain, but it is supposed that he may have gone to Mantua to visit the Gonzagas. Morelli thinks he probably went to Lombardy for the purpose of studying once more the methods of Leonardo. It is a matter of conjecture, however, and all that is absolutely certain is that in 1525 he was once more in Siena, where he did considerable work for the city gilds. To this period belong his frescos in the Chapel of St. Catherine in San Domenico, his `St. Ansanus' and `St. Victor' in the Palazzo Pubblico, and the `St. Sebastian,' now in the Uffizi.

Sometime in 1529, when Siena was under the protection of Charles v., with both a French and Spanish garrison in the town, Sodoma was one day, so goes the story, rudely treated by one of the Spanish guard. The man would not apologize nor could Sodoma find out his name. The painter used his practised eyes to some purpose, however, for the next day, when he complained of the insult to the Spanish governor, he showed to that astonished dignitary such an excellent portrait of the offender that he was recognized at once. To this clever tour-de-force it is claimed Sodoma owed the commission to decorate the Spanish chapel of San Spirito. The work he did there so pleased Charles v. that he is credited with saying that to possess it he would gladly give all his cavalry. Probably it was his delight in these frescos that induced the emperor to bestow upon Sodoma the title of Count Palatine.

In 1530 he painted the `Nativity' on one of the gates of the city, the Porta Pispini, doing the whole thing seated on a scaffold some sixty feet above ground. This was not a success, and from this time on Vasari condemns him, artistically as well as morally, almost more bitterly than ever. He says that his incomplete early training, his indolence, his vagaries, his life of pleasure, now show more and more strongly in his work, and that he less and less often paints anything worthy of admiration. Though these strictures were not perhaps wholly just, it is evident that the lack of rivalry in Siena and his own undisputed sway were not the best incentives for steady, earnest work, and by 1537, when for the Signoria he painted the fresco above the door in the Sala dei Matrimoni his failing powers are all too apparent. From that time fortune seemed gradually to turn from him. He was then sixty years old, his daughter was married, his wife probably dead, and he had saved little or nothing from all the earnings of his life. During his last years he was at Piombino with the prince of that city; at Volterra, where he worked in the Franciscan monastery and perhaps executed some small church pictures; at Pisa, where, for the cathedral, he painted two compositions. Then, finally, poor, old, alone, he returned to Siena, and on February 14, 1549, he died, according to Vasari, in the public hospital of that place.

E. H. and E. W. Blashfield, in their `Italian Cities,' have summed up the character of Sodoma with an appreciation that is not perhaps less just because of its leniency. . . . "The character of the man himself was one to captivate the Sienese, among whom individuality ran riot. Here was no Sano deditus Deo; no sour-faced frequenter of monks, but a good fellow; a contemner of convention; a dandy devoted to fine clothes; a sporting man, too, with a pretty taste in horse-flesh, and a prince of jesters to whom a practical joke was dearer than reputation or personal safety. What a well-spring of joy to the gilded youth of Siena was this frolicsome gossip, who would lay down his brush to finger the lute or grasp the bridle, and who could paint you the suavest Ma-donna in a studio full of roistering sparks. Imagine the decorous and laborious Vasari visiting such a lawless household, and the continual shocks to which his bourgeois susceptibilities must have been subjected. His animosity to Bazzi is almost accounted for by the mere difference of temperament in the two men. How could the `most noble art of design' be worthily practised by a freakish fellow who made friends and comrades of beasts ? . . . Could sound painting be reasonably expected from a pretentious dauber who bought fast horses like a noble, and who had the impudence to win the race of St. Barnabā in Florence over the heads of Florentines, biped and quadruped ? .. .

"Wherever Vasari remains an art critic he is honest and unprejudiced; his blame is just, his praise unstinted, when he speaks of Giovan Antonio's best works. When he writes of the man and not the artist, he is, on the contrary, censorious, even bitter, and most unfair; the love of fine clothes, which Vasari finds dignified and decorous in Leonardo, the master, is ridiculous in Giovan Antonio, the `jack-pudding' and `mountebank' pupil. Da Vinci's admirable love for animals is equally reprehensible in Bazzi; and the latter's passion for racing, shared by all the Sienese citizens and the Florentine nobles, is most objectionable in the painter. . . . Whatever Sodoma does, as a man, is ill-done, according to our author, but we may remember that while several of Vasari's stories told to the artist's discredit are disproved by documents, not one is confirmed... .

" . . . The most charitable and not wholly unreasonable estimate of Giovan Antonio's character is that he was the sixteenth-century counterpart of the type of artist constantly seen among the students of the European art-schools of to-day; namely, the blagueur d'atelier, the studio-jester. The blagueur is a madcap, sometimes an idler, sometimes a busybody; constantly boasting of his misdoings, which are always exaggerated and sometimes purely imaginary, and sacrificing anything at any time for what he considers a joke.

He is no respecter of persons, is more or less foul-mouthed, generally more; delights in being conspicuous, and, above all, troublesome; joys in shocking the respectable and outraging the conventional; personal dignity does not exist for him, and reserve is an unknown quantity; but he is quick-witted, good-hearted, and as ready to help as to hinder. He is utterly improvident, and though sometimes capable of brilliant artistic performances, is not a little handicapped by laziness, though in time of war or revolution the laziness gives way to action, and the blagueur has supported his convictions or served his country as well as the most earnest of his comrades. Just what Giovan Antonio was like we shall probably never know; Raphael seems to have es-teemed him, and he was a favorite with the Sienese; there is no testimony to support the charges against him, and the story of his domestic unhappiness is disproved by documentary evidence."

( Originally Published 1906 )

Giobanni Antonio Bazzi - Called Sodoma

The Art Of Sodoma

A List Of Principal Paintings By Sodoma And Their Present Locations

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