Francesco Raibolini – Early Pictures

IN Calvi’s Life of Francia we find stated that he was a pupil of Marco Zoppo, and the same statement is made by Malvasia in his ” Felsina Pittrice.” Morelli, how-ever, shrewdly points out that, although the ” assertion that he was a pupil of Zoppo may be read in books, it can nowhere be seen in his works, not even in his niello works, and still less in his paintings, which in technical matters all point to Lorenzo Costa ” (” Italian Masters in German Galleries,” p. 57). Marco Zoppo (1440-1498) was a Bolognese, who was a pupil of Squarcione at Padua, and therefore strongly partakes of the Paduan characteristics. He was above all a classicist, a humanist in his sympathies, so proud of being a pupil of Squarcione as to sign his picture as ” Squarcione’s Zoppo,” and yet so keen in affection towards his native Bologna as to declare himself as “. Zoppo da Bologna.” Influenced of course he was by Ferrarese work and teaching, but none of the Paduan School ideas did he pass on to Francia, and not a shred of Paduan feeling can be found anywhere in the works of our artist. We may well, therefore, reject the story told by Calvi and Malvasia as the fond imaginings of the Bolognese people, who would fain consider that their favourite master learnt his art from a Bolognese artist, and derived no influence from any outside sources. Evidence of another kind must also be considered. We have already seen the artist as a goldsmith working hard at the various crafts that he added to his own trade, and we have found him full of commissions. We find no picture of his bearing a date earlier than 1494, and only one with that date, and it is actually not until 1499 that we find him really well at work on pictures, when he was, we may suppose, nearly fifty years old, while we find nothing of Zoppo’s work later than 1497. It may, therefore, be readily asked whether this clever man, who was advanced in years when he began to use his brush, derived instruction from the artist who flourished at the time when Raibolini was hard at work. as a goldsmith and full of important orders that demanded all his energies and wisdom to execute.

No, it is not to a man whose leading characteristics made no impression upon Francia, and whose teaching does not once appear in the works of his supposed pupil, that we must look for the teaching that made the goldsmith Raibolini into the painter Francia. Local patriotism is in this ascription entirely mistaken, and to quite another man must we look for an answer to our question as to who taught Francia. In 1470 Francesco Cossa had come to Bologna from Ferrara, and had settled down in that city for the rest of his short life. His greatest work is still to be found in that city, and it was there that he did the decoration of the Bentivoglio Palace for that famous patron of art. His manner was severe, dry, but strong and brilliant, and from him, although he died in about 1485, Francia must have obtained some ideas and influence, as the glow of Cossa’s palette and the severity of his style are to be seen in the early works of Francia. It was, however, to Lorenzo Costa that he owed much more, and that not so much in the method of master and pupil as of friend.

It is clear that a great start was given to the art of painting in Bologna when Lorenzo Costa was called there in 1483 ; but there is no evidence that Francia ever became his pupil, and he was, in fact, too old a man when he commenced painting to be called the pupil of any man. But there is abundant evidence of the very close friendship that existed between the two men, and that from no less an authority than the note-book of Francia himself, which, although not now in existence, was seen by Malvasia in 1841, and quoted by him in his work on the Bolognese painters. Malvasia, although stating the theory that he held as to the influence derived by Francia from Zoppo, cannot but admit the strong friendship that existed between Costa and Francia, and he states that the artists worked in the same building, Francia carrying on his goldsmith’s work on the ground-floor, whilst in the floor above Lorenzo Costa was painting his pictures.

On the other hand, several authors place Costa as Francia’s pupil ; but at the time when we know that Costa was painting in Bologna, Francia was at work with his tools upon his metal work, and the intermediate theory is, I am convinced, the right one, that the two men were influenced one by the other, and as friends rather. than as master and pupil or pupil and master. Of the two, Costa had the greater imagination, the wider knowledge, a larger love of Nature, and more accuracy in drawing ; but Francia was by far the grander colourist, the more deeply religious man of the two, and possessed more refinement than did Costa. They were constantly associated in important works, but wherever the two are employed together precedence is invariably given to Francia. It is quite possible that the coming of Costa to Bologna was the cause of Francia’s change of craft, and that but for the friendship between the two men Francia would have remained all his life a goldsmith ; but Costa was much the younger man of the two, and there is nothing whatever to show either in archives or in work that he became in any sense the master of his older friend. Their work is so much alike in its earlier stages that pictures by the one man have in the past been attributed to the other ; but very soon Francia surpassed his friend and produced works that were far finer in conception, colouring, and refinement than Costa could ever have executed.

The affinity between them is to be seen in many ways. The arrangement in altar-pieces of the Madonna seated above an arch which, open to the distance, reveals a fine landscape, is common to both, as can be seen in the altar-piece by Costa in the National Gallery, compared with the one by Francia in San Martino Maggiore in Bologna. The child angels seated at the foot of the throne will be found in each man’s work ; the adoring angels are very similar ; but it is when attention is given to the draperies that the chief resemblance is to be noted. In each case the draperies rather conceal the form than reveal it, and fall about the feet of the wearer in cumbersome, awkward folds. They are looser in Costa’s than in his friend’s work, for Francia always, in his early work especially, gave to the draperies a some-what rigid metallic form, a habit which he derived from his niello-work ; but there are the same lumps of loose folds in the work of each man, and the same useless ends to be seen upon the ground.

For the Church of the Misericordia the two friends united to paint an altar-piece, and the centre panel by Francia and the upper part by Costa still remain in Bologna, while the predella, by Costa, is at Milan. They worked for the same patrons, the wealthy family of the Bentivoglio ; they decorated the same walls both of palace, church, and oratory ; and they both suffered when Bentivoglio was driven out of the city and the beautiful palace became a heap of ruins. Francia remained, but Costa left, when this catastrophe occurred; and he went back to Ferrara, and thence to Mantua into the service of the Gonzaga family. There he died in 1535, having lived long after his friend, whom he left in Bologna to work for Julius II., when he took up rule over the city that Bentivoglio had so misused.

Costa’s earliest work in Bologna is the fresco in San Giacomo Maggiore, dated 1488 ; his greatest, the altar-piece in San Giovanni-in-Monte, painted in 1497. The fine work in the National Gallery, which is a very characteristic one, is dated 1505, and was painted for a church in Faenza.

Inasmuch as the paintings that Francia signed bear his name of Francia, not the family name of Raibolini, it may be well to revert to the statement made in the first chapter, deriving the name from the goldsmith Duc, surnamed Francia, to whom the artist served his apprenticeship. This statement is first made by Zanetti, and is probably the correct explanation of the circumstance,* as the theory held by some writers that the name Francia was but a corruption of the Christian name of the artist Francesco will not hold good in the face of such a signature as ” Franciscus Francia,” as he signed himself on more than one occasion both on a picture and on a document, and in view of the fact that his death is chronicled as ” Francesco Francia ” and ” Messer Francesco Francia ” in the two documents in which it is mentioned. In dealing with his paintings, therefore, he will be styled ” Francia ” in these pages.

It should be noticed that Francia signed his pictures with the signature ” Francia Avrifex,” and Fra Leandro Alberti tells us in his ” Storia d’ Italia ” that he signed his metal-work and medals as Francia Pictor ” (” the nell’ opere da lui fatte in pittura si scriveva orefice, e nell’ opere di metallo pittore”). In the same way Orcagna signed his work in marble as “Andreas Pictor,” and his paintings as ” Andreas Sculptor,” to prove his mastery of the two arts ; but we have no signed metal-work remaining of Francia’s by which to prove the truth of Alberti’s statement, which may, however, be considered as in all probability an accurate one, as it is in accordance with the habit of the time. It is also important to notice that the shape of the letters in which Francia invariably signed his name is almost identical with the shape of the type used in the rare ” Hypnerotomachia Poliphili,” printed by Aldus Manutius in 1499, an important illustrated book, the designs for which are attributed to no less a person than Giovanni Bellini. In all probability this points to the fact that Francia made the type also for this book for Aldus, and from it derived the shape of the letters in which he signed his name ; or, on the other hand, designed the type from the lettering that he was in the habit of using when he signed his name. The theory is one of some interest in any case.

It is impossible to say what is the earliest work of Francia still remaining. His earliest dated work is the ” Madonna and Child,” with six saints, in the gallery at Bologna (78), which was painted for the Church of the Misericordia ; but that picture reveals such a fulness of power, and such mastery over the brush and skill in composition, that it is quite evidently not the first work executed by the master. The difficulty is to believe that it is even an early work, it is so admirable in technique and in colour; but it would appear that the training which Francia had in his niellowork had prepared him so well for the use of the brush that he sprang fully equipped on to the field of action upon which he was to gain so great a victory. Doubt-less the love of colour always existed in the heart of the painter, and the use of enamel with niello-work in the same piece of metal proves that he had a great pleasure in using colours that contrasted side by side, while his habit of carefully drawing the figures upon the nielloplate had trained him excellently well in draughtsman-ship.

The “St. Stephen” of the Borghese Gallery is usually considered to be one of the artist’s earliest works ; but I am disposed to think that the picture at Berlin pre-ceded it, and that “The Crucifixion ” at Bologna in the Archiginnasio is even earlier still (Plate X.). The Archiginnasio ” Crucifixion,” which is in the library, is a picture that very few persons take the trouble to find out ; but it is a very interesting one, and, if my surmise is correct, it is the earliest work that we have by the artist. It very closely resembles the niello that has been mentioned, and of which, the print is depicted in this book (Plate II.), and was in all probability painted from a sketch done for a similar work in niello. The cross, with its dread burden, is in the midst, and behind is a wild mountainous landscape, in which is to be seen an Oriental city (evidently Jerusalem) with minarets and towers. On the left of the cross stands St. Mary Magdalene with her hands clasped, and on the right kneels St. Jerome ; whilst above the cross are the same letters as were to be seen on the niello—the four letters I . N . R . I . The whole work is stiff and angular—the folds of the draperies, especially, are as rigid as iron—but the expression of anguish is very real and intense, and, in so small a picture, there are a surprising number of fine features and a great deal of detail that clearly show the artist to have been accustomed to a small surface, and to elaborate, delicate work. I take this to have been the starting-point—a picture painted from a niello sketch in a niello manner, but with rich colouring and deep sympathy, done by a man who was full of devotion, but hampered by his accustomed handicraft, and who is striving to emancipate himself from the methods of one craft in adopting another, and who only very slightly succeeds in his effort.

Perhaps another ” Crucifixion,” which is now in the gallery at Bologna, is his next work. It is similar to the last, but there are more figures in it, and for Jerusalem there is substituted a typical Italian village with its church. The Virgin, St. John, and St. Francis are now brought on to the scene, as well as the two saints seen in the last-named work ; but the conception is on a very different scale, as this new work (373) is a big one. There is still to be seen the same tight treatment that bespeaks the goldsmith, and the same reticence of composition. The Berlin ” Madonna ” (125) (Plate XI.) is a small one, and may on that account have preceded the one just named. It is evidently quite an early work, but is of special interest, as it has the foreshadowing of much that was to follow. The draperies are hard and angular; the hair, both of St. Joseph and the Divine Child, is like chased metal ; the trees in the landscape stand out rigid, definite, carved objects ; and the smaller details, as the eyes and finger-nails, are painted as though they were in enamel ; but the face of the Madonna is most sweet and lovely, and her hand is of that delicate, knuckleless texture, with long, pointed fingers, so characteristic of the master in his later days.

It has another point of interest, as it possesses one of those inscriptions that Francia was so fond of putting upon his pictures, and which now add so much to their importance. In this case we have a reference to a great friend and patron—one Bartolommeo Bianchini, a senator of Bologna of some eminence, who was also a writer in his way, and wrote some pleasing lines as to the genius of the artists of his native city, especially Francia, and to whom were dedicated by Portughese some epigrams, in one of which is a reference to Francia.

Francia painted Bianchini’s portrait, but his work as a portrait-painter requires separate consideration, and must be treated of in a later chapter. The inscription on the Berlin picture may be thus translated : ” Here, painted by thy hands, O Francia, at the expense of Bartolommeo Bianchini, dwells the greatest of Mothers.” Lord Wemyss has a picture which very closely resembles this one.

The ” St. Stephen ” at the Borghese (Plate XII.) still shows the goldsmith work. It is a highly finished picture, full of fine, hard detail, almost polished in its hardness, and with the strange absence of atmosphere, and consequently of shadow, that characterizes this early work. In it, however, the artist is found to be gaining his knowledge of colour, as the picture is a treasure-house of rich, glowing tints, and, with all its harsh and somewhat niggling detail, is thoughtful, inspiring, and beautiful.

I think that the saint in the Poldi-Pezzoli Gallery belongs to the same period, although I am not prepared to say definitely who the saint is. It has been called St. Anthony of Padua and St. Francis, and may be either, although I am disposed to think from the absence of the stigmata that it is St. Anthony. It is a pleasant, quiet work, but not a notable one, and the head of ” God Almighty ” in the Ambrosiana close by is a more important picture. Here, again, is to be seen all the love of detail : the beard long and flowing, the embroidery on the sleeve, the binding of the book and its decoration—all drawn in the niello fashion ; the artist has not yet been able to relinquish the habits of the goldsmith, and works as if with a burin or tool in his hand rather than a brush. In this work, however, and in the Pietà at Bologna (83), which also is early, and which was done for the Church of the Misericordia, there is to be seen an increasing excellence both of beauty and of technique, and the absence of shadows that is distinctive of the niello style of painting is to be less and less remarked. Certain notable features begin also to appear, such as the long hand with its very slight appearance of knuckles, the hollow, open sleeves, and, above all, the curious upward gaze of the faces, with a specially clear appearance of the whites of the eyes which is so striking a characteristic of Francia’s work.

The few portraits that Vasari names as the first works of the master have disappeared, or cannot now be identified ; but they were very possibly of small account, and done at the very beginning of the artist’s career as trials. He “entertained,” says Vasari, many masters of the art in his house many months, to the end that they might teach him the method and processes of colouring, and in this way very rapidly acquired the requisite practice.” He may certainly have become acquainted with Mantegna about 1472, and Layard seems to think that the influence of Ercole di Roberti Grandi is to be seen in the work of Francia ; but it is not very clear, and the effect of any acquaintance with the far greater man Mantegna is hardly to be noticed in any work done by Francia.

It is quite inconceivable, as has already been said, that the picture dated 1494, which Vasari states was the first work that he executed, could have been so, as it is one of such profound importance, marked by such skill in composition, such grand colouring, and such admirable technique, that although Francia took a high position immediately he began to paint, yet he must have done many early works ere he could by any possibility have produced so fine a picture as this (Plate XIII.). It was painted for Messer Bartolommeo Felicini, a wealthy citizen of Bologna, who had founded a chapel in the Church of the Misericordia outside the city walls, and who now desired to decorate the high altar in the same church in recognition of special mercies bestowed upon him in a recent serious illness.

Much of Francia’s work was done for this famous church, which in his time was at the zenith of its fame, and attracted many gifts on account of the great benefits that were received in answer to prayer at its altars. Messer Francesco also presented a jewel to the church, which the records say was set by Francia ; and so beautiful was it esteemed to be, that by the desire of the Chapter it was depicted in the picture, and can be seen hanging over the head of the Madonna.

In this picture we see the pyramidal form of the grouping introduced which marks Francia’s work, the Madonna and Child occupying the apex of the pyramid, and the six saints—St. Augustine, St. Monica, and St. John the Baptist on the right, and St. Francis, St. Proculus, and St. Sebastian on the left—forming the sides of the group. The donor of the picture is to be seen kneeling in the foreground, offering up to God his grateful thanks for his deliverance. The St. Proculus who appears in this picture must not be confused with another saint of the same name, who also appears in Bolognese pictures, and who was a Bishop of the city about 445, and was murdered by Totila, King of the Goths. The St. Proculus who is here presented is San Proculo Soldato, a military protector of Bologna, who killed Marinus the Roman centurion, who in the tenth century was the persecutor of the Christians. This 1494 altar-piece is signed by Francia in the following manner—oPvs . FRANCIAE . AVRIFICIS, and is dated.

The date has been misread upon more than one occasion, and therefore appears erroneously in several books, on account of the final four figures ‘HI having been overlooked. The error began with Vasari, and has often been repeated since ; but a careful examination of the picture will show that the four strokes are still quite visible.

For the next year we have but one dated work, and that is now at Pressburg in the collection of Count Jean Palffy, who acquired it at the Dudley sale (Lot 62) in 1892. It was mentioned by Waagen, and exhibited in Manchester, and represents the Madonna and Child with St. Joseph. This again was a commissioned work, and is inscribed JACOBVS . GAMBARVS BONON . PER . FRANCIAM . AVRIFABRVM . HOC . OPVS . FIERI . CURAVIT and dated 1495. It is said to have been originally in the Church of San Giovanni-in-Monte in Bologna, and the story is that Gambaro was also a goldsmith, and stood godfather with Francia to the child of a mutual friend, and that this picture was the gift of the two god-parents (one doing the work and the other paying the cost) for the family chapel of the parents of the child.

The interesting puzzle as to the pictures of this period, starting from the 1494 one, is the question of Umbrian influence to be found in them. The question is somewhat lightly dismissed by Layard and other more recent writers, but is not quite so easy a matter to deal with as might at first be thought. Certainly Costa’s influence is the main feature of Francia’s work, especially in the architectural backgrounds, the columns, the decorative bases, the seated child angels, the draperies, the tablets with inscriptions, and the architectural deco-rated thrones, all of which are Ferrarese in their feeling ; but the mere statement of these facts does not clear the entire ground.

Whence comes the Umbrian characteristic landscape, with its two classes of trees—the fine delicate kind silhouetted against the sky, and the thick lumpy ones that stand nearer, and more important still, whence come the figures such as that of St. Sebastian in the 1494 and 1499 altar-pieces, which look almost as if they were taken directly out of the pictures of Perugino ? From whom is derived, if not from an Umbrian, that quaint upward turn of the eyes that so curiously reveals the white ? It is, of course, easy to say that Costa was as Umbrian as was an Umbrian, or, rather, that the manner of Costa was on the same lines as were the manner and habit of the Umbrians ; but while that is so the difficulty is only stated.

There is no need to force the point or to state that Francia fell under strong Umbrian influence; but I feel convinced that some of the features of his pictures were not derived from Costa, and are not fully Ferrarese, although having affinities with that school; and without going any further, I contend that the pictures by Perugino which at this time were coming to Bologna, such as the ” Virgin in Glory,” done for the very church in which Francia was working, San Giovanni-in-Monte, and delivered in the church in 1497, as well as the picture still in San Martino Maggiore, which is, I am convinced, a genuine work by Perugino, and not the work of one of his pupils, must inevitably have had an influence upon the man who, though old in years, was as a painter at the beginning of his career. Of course he would go and see them, and of course he would admire them, and believe in the old man who had taught Raphael, and who was then considered as one of the great painters of the age. Perugino was at this time in the very zenith of his reputation. He had recently been in Venice ; he had, it is clear, visited Bologna on his way to Florence, as the instructions for the San Giovanni-in-Monte altar-piece were taken by him personally in the church, as the documents prove ; and he was having large commissions in all directions for his work, which was so greatly appreciated just then.

It is just at this very time, when we know the artist had been in Bologna, that we see the special features which are called Umbrian appear in the works of Francia. What more likely than that the two artists met and discussed questions of interest to each other ? Even if they did not meet, can we not conceive of the interest that Francia would take in the personality and pictures of the great Umbrian ? And it seems hardly possible that, when in the city, he on his part should not have met—especially as Bologna at that time was not a large place—the painter-goldsmith whose praise was in everybody’s ears, and who was considered one of the most important personages in the city.

Morelli proclaims as a certain fact that Francia ” derived nothing from Perugino,” and that his work shows no signs whatever of Perugino’s influence, and that the two men did not influence one another at all ; but Morelli did not know that Perugino had ever been in Bologna, or especially that he was in the city for some days at the very time in which the so-called Umbrian features appear most fully in Francia’s work. Had he known this, it is possible that his statement might have been less dogmatic; but I do not think that any observer, placing illustrations of the work at this time of the two men side by side, can fail to observe that the Perugino influence is to be seen. The same dreamy abstraction, the same slight attachment of one figure to another, the same contemplation and sense of being self-centred, the same devotion, adoration, and calm, quiet thoughtfulness, are to be found in each of their works but Francia had the finer spirit and was the richer colourist, and he was able to avoid the fantastic head-dresses and sham classicism that were snares to the other man. Grafting the Umbrian teaching and the Umbrian feeling for dreamy beauty upon the stronger stem of Ferrarese work, he was able to produce pictures which were far beyond the power of Perugino, and which in their way are finer than that master could have ever attained to.

His pictures are flatter than Umbrian works were ; they do not possess the space composition noteworthy in that school. Even when a landscape is introduced the scene is not a part of the landscape, but the landscape is an accessory to the picture, and we do not look out in the picture as at an open window into the buoyant spaciousness of the country, nor is the eye carried on from distance to yet greater distance, as it is when an Umbrian picture is seen. In the San Martino Maggiore picture the landscape, so thoroughly Costa-like in its character, is lovely, and is far-reaching ; but it has its limits, it is not limitless : and it only forms an interesting part of the picture, but does not arise out of it, as it would have done had the picture come from the other school.

Fortunately, in the Bologna gallery the picture by Perugino hangs in the next room to the Francia room, and comparison of the two artists is rendered easy.

One feature Francia never lost, and that was the love of fine ornament which was a part of his training as a goldsmith, and which, clearly to be seen at this time, was present all the rest of his life. Look at the details upon the cope of St. Augustine, upon the border around the dress of the Virgin, upon the clasps of the book, upon the chain that the donor wears, upon the staff carried by the Bishop, upon the jewel over the head of the Madonna, and upon the decoration on the step of the throne, and it will be seen that all these show the love for jewellery and rich delicate ornament that the artist had, and his insistence upon the care needed to show all this ornament in a worthy way. The painter was always a goldsmith, and always a lover of jewels. He delighted in ornament and painted it lovingly and well.