Jacopo Vecchio


BORN 1480 DIED 1528


OF the life of no other great Italian artist of the sixteenth century is so little known as of that of the popular painter Jacopo, or Jacomo, Palma, called Palma Vecchio (Pal-mah Vek-kee-o), signifying Palma the old, or elder, to distinguish him from his grandnephew of the same name, also a painter, who, in his turn, was known as Palma Giovine, Palma the young, or younger. The family name was Negreti, and in documents prior to 1512 Palma Vecchio seems to have signed himself Jacomo de Antonio de Negreti; after that date, however, his signature appears as Jacomo Palma, by which name, but more familiarly as Palma Vecchio, he is known to us.

The Venetians claimed Palma Vecchio as a native of their city, and Vasari in speaking of him as “the Venetian Palma” seems to have accepted their claim. But recent research has proved that Boschini, as well as the anonymous writer of Venice known as “The Anonimo,” was correct in stating that his origin was Bergamask, and has further established the fact recorded by his later biographer, Ridolfi, that his birthplace was the village of Serina, or Serinalta, in the Valley of the Brembo, not many miles from the town of Bergamo. The house in which he lived in his youth in this little village among the hills of Lombardy is still pointed out as la cà’ del pittùr—the house of the painter.

The date of Palma’s birth is not certainly known. If Vasari is to be believed, he was born in the year 1840, for according to that writer Palma was forty-eight when he died, and documentary proof exists that his death occurred in the year 1528.

Although the first actual evidence of the painter’s presence in Venice is his signature in 1510 as a witness to the will of one Sofia, wife of Rocco Dossena, and presumably a Bergamask lady then resident in Venice, it is believed that he went to that city when very young, and that, together with Titian and Giorgione, he there entered the studio of Giovanni Bellini, whose influence is perceptible in some of his early works. But whether his master was Bellini, or whether it was to some other fifteenth-century painter that he owed his artistic training, there can be no doubt that he was influenced by both Titian and Giorgione, probably his seniors by only a few years. Another painter with whom he came into close contact in Venice was his countryman Lorenzo Lotto, whom he may have known in Bergamo, and who was both influenced by Palma, and, in his turn, left his impression upon Palma’s work.

There is evidence that Palma paid frequent visits to his native place. At Dossena and Peghera—both in the Valley of the Brembo—as well as at his native Serina, examples of his work may still be seen. With the exception of these short journeys, however, he seems to have spent the remainder of his life in Venice, busily engaged in painting altar-pieces, Sante Conversazioni, or `Holy Conversations’—as those pictures are called in which groups of saints in adoration of the Madonna and Child are depicted in peaceful landscapes—and in portraying the features of the men and women of well-known families among the nobility of that time in Venice, notably of the women, of whom Palma may be said to be the painter par excellence, and whom he frequently idealized by representing them in classic costumes under such titles as ‘Lucrezia,’ or ` Judith.’

For only two of Palma’s paintings do we possess approximate dates. It is known that in 1520 he was commissioned by Marin Querini to paint an altar-piece for the Church of Sant’ Antonio in Venice, of which only a portion has been preserved and is now in the Giovanelli Palace, Venice; and that in 1525 he agreed to paint for a lady of the Malipero family an altar-piece representing `The Adoration of the Magi,’ to decorate the island-church of Sant’ Elena. This work, now in the Brera Gallery, Milan, was left unfinished at his death and was completed by a pupil—probably Cariani.

On July 28, 1528, Palma made his will. As he was unmarried the greater part of his fortune was bequeathed to two nephews and a niece, the children of his brother Bartolommeo, who had died four years previously. Twenty ducats were to be distributed among his poor relatives in the territory of Bergamo and in Venice, and, by the painter’s desire, prayers were to be said for his soul in the Sanctuary of Assisi. The witnesses to this will were three countrymen of Palma’s—Marcus Bayeto, a wine-seller, Zuan da Sant’ Angelo, a fruiterer, and Fantin di Girardo, a dyer. From the manner in which the painter speaks of himself in this document it has been surmised that for some time he had been in feeble health; whether this was so, or whether his last sickness was of short duration, it is recorded that he died only two days after signing his will, leaving in his studio over forty pictures to be finished by his pupils. He was buried in the vault of the Confraternity of the Holy Spirit, of which he had been a member, in the Church of San Gregorio, Venice.

Of Palma Vecchio’s personal appearance we have conflicting evidence in the two portraits of him published in different early editions of Vasari’s `Lives of the Painters,’ and in the portrait reproduced on page 22 of the present number of this SERIES, which is totally unlike either of the others. In regard to the Vasari portraits, however, there is insufficient ground for belief in their authenticity as likenesses of Palma. As to the last-named work, critics are not agreed. Formerly held to be a portrait of Giorgione by himself, Dr. Miindler has identified it with the picture of Palma Vecchio described by Vasari as “without doubt the portrait of the artist, which he took with the assistance of a mirror,” and which is highly praised by this same writer. Morelli, however, although admitting that the broad drawing and modeling point to the author-ship of Palma more than to that of any other Venetian, considers the pose of the head and the almost defiant expression of the features to be out of character for such a simple and unassuming painter as Palma, a theory which he fails to strengthen by the statement that “no man who like Palma selected as executors of his will a wine-seller and a fruiterer would ever have borne himself so haughtily as this young man.” By this critic the portrait is attributed, though not, be it said, without hesitation, to Palma’s contemporary Cariani, an attribution in which Mr. Berenson concurs; but by the authorities of the Munich Gallery, where the picture now hangs, it is unquestioningly assigned to Palma Vecchio, and listed in the latest official catalogue as a portrait of that painter. This attribution is accepted by Crowe and Cavalcaselle, Charles Blanc, Dr. von Reber, Signor Pasino Locatelli of Bergamo, and others.

( Originally Published 1905 )

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