Later Years Of Sodoma

SODOMA had worked hitherto for private patrons, or at best for ecclesiastical communities. Of municipal commissions he had received none as yet, and it was only in 1529 that the city gave him his first large public order in the painting of the walls of their council chambers.

The great Gothic Palazzo della Signoria which rises at the lower end of the sloping square had already lent its walls to decoration by older and stiffer hands. The pre-Raphaelites of Siena, Lippo Memmi, Ambrogio Lorenzetti and others, had left there certain symbolical frescoes of quaint, grave beauty, rich in phantasy and sentiment, if meagre in line.

Sodoma was the first of the moderns called to work there.

Whether the Board of Guardians directing the scheme intended to cover the entire walls of the Sala del Mappamondo with decorative frescoes has not been ascertained. At any rate, Sodoma was instructed to paint two huge figures, standing within ornamental niches, which should form pendants to one another, and a third, treated in a similar manner, on the wall at right angles to them. The commission was given him in 1529, and during the same year he completed the two first, the colossal St. Victor over the door which leads to the Sala della Pace, and the St. Ansano baptising neophytes in the niche near the window.

In September, when these were completed, two fellow-painters were called in to estimate their value—Domenico Beccafumi, who had been Sodoma’s companion in the work at San Bernardino, and a certain Bartolommeo di David, of whom all that we know, is that a few years later he was associated with Riccio in the painting of a chapel in the Collegiata d’ Asciano. These men appraised the works as meriting twenty-seven scudi of good gold,* with which sum Sodoma expressed himself perfectly satisfied.

He had taken pains over the work. In these two Saints it was principally youthful strength and grace which he was required to represent ; the moral and physical force of the Roman soldier, the sweetness of the young martyred missionary.

He certainly portrayed strength in the commanding figure of St. Victor, majestically grand in his brilliant toga of red, with blue cloak, and cuirass of green and gold, but it is the strength of young, vigorous manhood in repose. The power of movement is suggested under the heavy armour, but there is no attempt at representing action, and for this very reason Sodoma attained a greater success than if he had aimed at dramatic display.

A pencil sketch in the Uffizi (No. 1939) reproduces this figure in detail. It is not, however, recognised by Morelli, and bears every probability of being a copy by a pupil. In the accompanying fresco of St. Ansano baptising neophytes, with its wistful, feminine type of beauty, he has found the exact antithesis of St Victor. It is open to discussion whether these two groups do not, in their composition, outstep the limits of purely decorative art. The’ kneeling Christian, whose foot lies over the edge of the painted parapet, and the seated putto who bears St. Victor’s helmet, are as far removed from the reserve and restriction of the quattro-cento as Correggio’s foreshortened flights of angels. The introduction of absolute realism and the attempt to produce the illusion of tactile values was now growing common, even in mural decoration, where a finer sense of boundaries and a flatter treatment of form would have led undoubtedly to more artistic results. Raphael, whom we may perhaps consider as the greatest of decorative painters, was, in his earlier work, guided by a far more refined and truthful perception of the exigencies and ” unities ” of this form of art than in his latest period, when the sculpturesque manner of regarding painting had become common. For this reason the “School of Athens,” and still more so the ” Disputa,” fulfil their decorative purpose more fully than the “Parnassus,” in spite of its individual forms of beauty. Sodoma, in his work of this period, could not escape the influence of the time, and we find him repeating the same defect in his San Bernardo Tolomei on the right-hand wall, and in the Spanish chapel of San Spirito, which he was next employed to fresco.

The town was now under the protection of Charles V. and occupied by a French and Spanish garrison. The latter was sufficiently numerous to own the little chapel referred to, and its decoration by Sodoma was brought about in the following manner, Armenini relates the quaint story in the first book of his Veri precetti della pittura (chap i.) : The Cavalier Sodoma, he informs us, being one day rudely accosted by a soldier of the guard, was unable to obtain from him the apology which he demanded, or to discover the offender’s name from his companions. Sodoma was determined to obtain redress, and, after gazing fixedly at the man for some moments, he turned on his heel, went home, and there carefully drew a sketch of his features. The following day he presented himself before the Spanish governor, told his tale and demanded the satisfaction that his dignity required. The governor was quite willing to punish the insolent soldier, but wished to know how to identify him. Sodoma then drew the portrait from under his cloak, and exposing it to the view of all present, exclaimed : ” Sire, this is his face. I cannot describe him to you otherwise.”

The man was instantly recognised, and received his merited punishment, and the painter, brought thus before the notice of the officers, not only became exceedingly popular among the Spanish colony, but very shortly after was commissioned to decorate their chapel.

There is in the Uffizi a first sketch in red chalk for this fresco. Frizzoni mentions it as Sodoma’s, but Morelli does not include it in his list of the artist’s drawings. In the sketch St. James is on foot, a wand or staff in his hands, while, in the fresco, he rides furiously on horseback, lashing with his sword at the recumbent figures of four Turks, who, seen from below, are considerably foreshortened and again lap over the parapet which forms the boundary line of this fresco.

This large semi-circular fresco is the upper portion or lunette of the chapel. The smaller lunette immediately under it forms part and parcel of the altar, and represents the Madonna investing St. Idelfonzo with the white chasuble of heavenly tissue with which she awarded his zeal in writing a treatise upon her perpetual virginity. St. Lucy, in a robe of greenish blue falling into short clinging folds, is perhaps the most graceful figure of the group. St. Rosalie, crowned with flowers, kneels behind St. Idelfonzo, and two adoring angels fill up the spaces behind the Madonna’s head.

The minor saints which flank the altar-piece (not by Sodoma) have gone, unfortunately, black, from the smoke of the candles which an unappreciative clergy permits to flare before them. Nearest the altar are St. Niccolo Tolentino and the Archangel Michael in the act of chaining the fiend. Outside the arch which confines the frescoes, properly belonging to the altar, are two saints, Sebastian and Anthony, and in the species of spandrel formed by the space between it and the walls of the chapel, two pairs of angels bear, amid floating ribbons, the arms of Spain, and St. James of Compostella.

On the 20th of January 1530,* Sodoma had finished the two figures of St. Sebastian and St. Anthony of Padua, and was paid four florins for the former and six for the latter painting, and by the 16th of April he had also completed the lower lunette with its kneeling groups of figures.

The Spaniards were distinctly pleased with their chapel, and the Emperor, Charles V., coming to Siena, and seeing this fresco, is reported to have exclaimed that, in order to possess it, he would have given all his cavalry. It was probably the execution of this work which obtained for the painter the imperial title of Count Palatine.

The Count Giovanni Antonio Bazzi was next occupied on a small fresco on the outside wall of a house belonging to the guild of shoemakers, or Arte dei Calzolai. On the wall at the corner of the Piazza Tolomei, he painted Madonna and her Divine Child, with the saints, John, Francis, Roch, and Crispin, the lawyer and patron of cobblers, with a shoe in his hand. Vasari praises the execution of this work, but the smoke and fumes of a laboratory which long existed immediately underneath it, have more than obliterated the outlines of the work.

In the year after he might have been found mounted upon a mighty scaffolding outside one of the city gates, that called Porta San Viene. It had originally been named Porta Pispini, but after the death of San Ansano, and the triumphal carrying of his body into the city, it is said to have been altered to a corruption of Il Santo Viene (The saint comes). It was originally called Porta Santa Eugenie, now Porta Pispini.

The Balia had been deliberating ever since 1526 about the painting in fresco of this gateway, and finally decided to give the commission to Sodoma, who had comported himself so well in the work he had left in the town hall.

Seated aloft, some sixty feet or more from the ground, with large, broad touches of his brush, he drew a colossal ” Nativity,” all the figures considerably larger than life-size.

A classic temple fills the middle distance ; through the arches to the left is seen a group of ruins ; to the right a landscape with another small peristyle temple. Immediately in front of this building kneels the Madonna, with clasped hands. Her outline is just decipherable, but all the colour has faded from her robe, and the Christ-Child, who must have lain at her feet, has vanished entirely. Above are ranged groups of angels, singing from open scrolls of music, or with eyes uplifted to the soffit of the arch, where, within a glory, flies the figure of a child, symbolising The Word become Flesh.

On either side of this soffit are three groups of angels, who gaze and point downward to the scene of the Nativity on the wall. These groups of singing angels, now, like the lower part, faded into mere dim shadows, show, upon close examination from the scaffolding put up for restoration, very great beauty of outline and expression. The fresco bears the inscription : DEIPARAE VIRGINI pro victoria, libertate et salute hujus urbis, populus senensis ejus nomini devotus—A.D. M.D.XXXI.

As one of the bystanders he drew his own portrait, now elderly, and with a beard. In his hand was a brush, pointing to a small cartellino on which he had traced, Vasari says, the word Feci (I made it). Milanesi, or rather the commentators of Sansoni’s edition of Vasari, assert that this motto was Fac tu (Do thou likewise), and was a kind of bombastic challenge to his critics.

It is possible that the honours which were now being showered upon him, and the ease with which he surpassed his fellow-painters in Siena may have turned the artist’s head. He had the disadvantage of standing alone, without that strenuous rivalry which the presence of other masters of equal merit would have necessitated. He went very rarely to Florence, where he was not liked, and he could paint so easily and so well when he chose, that it seemed hardly worth his while to make those laborious studies and drawings which should serve as a preparation for all thoughtful work. He now returned to San Bernardino to finish the series begun in 1518, and painted the last of the four large frescoes, that of the Virgin’s Coronation. From San Bernardino he went back to the Palazzo Pubblico to complete the third figure begun there five years before.

Upon the entrance wall of the Sala del Mappamondo, in the corner at right angles to his St. Victor, he had sketched a figure of San Bernardo Tolomei, standing, in white robes, book and crozier in hand, beneath a heavily-ornamented portico, above which a group of putti are dancing. But with his characteristic inability to work for long together at any one subject, he had left this fresco half finished for more than four years, and the Signoria waxed impatient with him.

In a document preserved in the Archivio delle Riformagioni di Siena, is to be found this entry : ” Finally, for our having been instrumental in causing the painter Sodoma to finish the painting of the Blessed Bernardo in the Sala del Mappamondo, he having already had eight scudi for it, which our predecessors have left a note of : and he, Sodoma, having now to be paid the remainder for the work which he has mean-while completed, may it so please your Magnificent Lordships so to ordain that the said Sodoma be paid for the laudable work, by Messer Francesco Tholomei, most worthy artisan of the cathedral church, according to what he has largely promised to us and to the said Sodoma.”

The adjective “laudable” is certainly not here out of place, for, evidently unwilling to put beside his colossal saints work of an inferior quality, he concentrated his attention sufficiently to produce a figure full of individuality and delicate sentiment, perhaps more successful in its expression than either of the other two.

Throughout 1535 he was still working in the Palazzo Pubblico, at the fine “Resurrection” which he now painted in one of the lower halls, the apartment used for the weighing and taxing of the salt.

There are the three coats-of-arms, all of the city of Siena, which were separated from this picture when it was moved, and are now to be found high up in an arch in a room not usually shown, where the registers are kept. In 1842 the fresco was sawn away from the wall where it was originally traced, and transported to a room on the first floor, now the office of the Mayor. The fresco is a large one, and the figures all life-size. The lid of the stone sarcophagus has been raised, and the rising figure of the Redeemer steps into the cold air of dawn. The face is not particularly attractive, but the whole figure is strong in its triumphant sense of new-born life and victory over the grave. This feeling of alertness and swiftness is further accentuated by the drowsy attitudes of the three sleeping soldiers, one of whom half awakes to see the vision pass. The fresco is cold in colour, blues and stoney greys predominating, a faint light lies over the eastern sky, but the scene is illuminated by the yellow rays which stream from the Saviour’s own person. Its strength lies less in its colour than in its draughtsmanship, and the suggestion of energy without violence.

In the Morelli Collection at Bergamo there is a fine drawing in red chalk of this figure of the risen Lord.* It is evidently a study for this fresco or for the panel of the same subject at Naples, possibly the original study for both.

I have not been able to trace the history of the Naples pictures, for whom it was painted, or how it got to Naples. At the beginning of the last century it formed an altar-piece in the church of San Tommaso there, and has since been removed to the Pinacoteca and hung high up in a bad light. The composition is much the same as that of the Siena fresco, but there is a difference of pose in the figures of the two little angels who lean over the sarcophagus. The picture has suffered from neglect, but was evidently never equal in beauty to the Siena version. The soldiers are carelessly painted, completely out of drawing, and the figure of Our Lord lacks the dignity which the artist infused into the other. There is a cartellino with the inscription, IO ANT. EQUES. VE (sic) AUCT. F.A. 1535.

In 1536 we find him engaged in another long and wearisome lawsuit, this time with the brothers John and Arduino Arduini, rich Siennese merchants who, several years before, had got him to paint an altar-piece for a chapel belonging to them. This is the large ” Adoration of the Magi ” which now hangs in the Piccolomini chapel of St. Agostino. Apparently the z brothers Arduini went back from the price originally agreed upon. Sodoma employed one of the most brilliant jurists of the age, Vannoccio Biringucci, to plead in his cause, but the action was, notwithstanding, decided against the painter, and the Arduini were absolved from further payment. But they were instructed to restore to Sodoma, on receipt from him of seven scudi, a circular panel with the Virgin, St. Elizabeth, and St. Joseph. This tondo has unfortunately vanished, and must have been one of his earlier productions.

To these years belong a really lovely panel in tempera washed over with glaces of oil, by some regarded as his last work of merit. Its date is uncertain ; the warm, rich colouring, similar to that of his earlier years, and the careful modelling of the Virgin’s face has induced some critics to place it as early in his career as 1516-18. But Dr. Frizzoni, who is perhaps the authority most profoundly acquainted with Sodoma’s style, considers the looseness of its drawing and its want of luminosity in the shadows as indicative of late work. The picture was made for the altar of St. Calixtus in the cathedral, the last chapel on the right hand side, and was framed with a carved stone moulding of Renaissance design. In one of the restorations or re-adjustments which were carried out in 1681 and 1704, it was taken away from the cathedral and put up in the little chapel in the Palazzo Pubblico, beside the frescoes of Bartolo di Fredi, and the carved choir-stalls.

Mancini says that Annibale Carraci could not tear himself away from *is painting, but remained riveted before it, entranced by its poetic beauty and the charm of its landscape, which with the ruined amphitheatre recalls the fact that Sodoma had been in Rome.

In 1537 the Signoria gave him another small commission, a fresco above the door in the Sala dei Matrimoni. It was composed of a Madonna and Child, infant St. John, and Saints Ansano and Galgano, but is out of drawing, and the whole execution superficial. To this period of his life most probably we should date the fresco of the “Ascension” in the Collegiata of the Castello of Trequanda, and the altar-piece in the Collegiata of Asina-Lunga, which has a Madonna enthroned, two saints on either side, Sebastian and Anthony, Louis and Roch, and a little kneeling St. John in the centre, as well as the ” Madonna and Child ” of the Borghese Gallery, with the smiling Infant stretching out its hand for the rose which St. Joseph offers it over the Virgin’s right shoulder. This has a delightful landscape back-ground, full of incident, and the hands are painted with care.

It would seem as if the tide of fortune had now turned against him. His work had already begun to deteriorate in quality, and from this time forth becomes more uniformly weak and vapid, and his inability to apply himself for long together at the same subject, a drawback in his youth, in his old age became a veritable stumbling-block. He does not seem to have made any provision for his declining years.

In 1531, in response to some schedule for Income-Tax, he had drawn up a would-be comic list* of his possessions. The excessive bad taste of its jokes-the taste of the fifteenth century—strikes painfully on the modern ear. This list mentions an orchard, or rather farm, at Fonte Nuova, ” which I till, and which others reap,” a house in the Vallerozzi quarter and eight horses. The remaining items are apes, crows, peacocks, owls, and “three evil beasts, which are three women.”

In 1534 he bought another house, but by 1537 both house and orchard seem to have passed out of his hands. His daughter was married, and, after the last coarse allusion, there is no further reference to his wife. His brothers and sisters were probably dead or lost to view, and Sodoma himself was sixty years of age.

One of his last works in Siena was the much-damaged panel in the church of the Carmine, representing the ” Birth of the Virgin.” The grouping of the figures and the drawing, especially of the woman in the foreground, who holds the child, reminds one forcibly of Raphael. There are seven persons in the picture, St. Anne in her bed, two women who bring her food, and three who are attending the little new-born child. Joachim peeps in upon the scene from behind the heavy curtain. In this painting the light issues from three different points ; from the fire in front, which one does not see, but which casts its red glow upon the three foreground figures ; from the window behind St. Anne, and from the night-lamp under the bed. It looks as if the artist had been trying an experiment in some of those new effects of complex chiaro-oscuro, which were evoking such admiration at Rome.

In the early spring of 1537 the Signoria, consisting of the Chamber of Nobles and the Captain of the People, gave him his last commission, the painting of the little open chapel or loggia standing out from the façade of the Palazzo Pubblico.

On the 6th of March he was formally appointed to execute the work, and agreed to have it finished by the Feast of St. Mary, in August. He was to paint a Madonna in the centre, flanked by the four patron saints of the city, with the Eternal Father in the lunette above. He was to provide his own materials—ultramarine included—and to be paid for it the sum of sixty scudi, fifteen on commencing the work, fifteen when half-way through, another fifteen when finished, and the final fifteen only to be granted him if the fresco was completed by the given date—a provision which shows us that the noble Signoria was already acquainted with his habits. On the 14th of March he was paid the first fifteen scudi, but there are no more entries of payment, and in the following year we find among the Archives published by Milanesi, a correspondence between the rulers of Siena, Sodoma himself, and the Prince of Piombino, with whom he was staying. We have already alluded to the painter’s introduction to this prince, and the friendship which had sprung up between them.

It was now in his moment of declining strength, when he found his power lessened and a group of younger men occupying that place in popular favour which had once been his, that the friend of years came forward and offered him a commission and the hospitality of his roof.

But the Signoria grew more and more impatient at the delay, and, tired of addressing peremptory letters to Sodoma himself which received no or evasive replies, attacked the Prince himself.

” Most excellent and magnificent Lords,” he answered them, “there is no doubt that the Cavalier Sogdona’s (sic) great wish to please me, and my own satisfaction in watching him perfect the panel so long promised me, has been the cause of the offence given to your excellent Lordships, not only by the Cavalier, but also by me, as accomplice in the fault. Whereas I, thinking it over and recognising myself to have been guilty, principally because this delay of his has been to suit my convenience, humbly confess that the obligation and the debt towards you have been mine. And still more so since the Cavalier on his part defends the error through his profession as an artist, who (as indeed often happens to poets) is so driven and constrained by his inspiration, that, even wishing to leave the work he has undertaken he is not able to do so. And I, enchanted and led away by his skill, have taken a liberty with your most excellent Lordships, in not urging him to go as soon as was needed. But I am convinced that he presents himself to your service with so much the greater fervour, that any delay will be more than compensated by the value and excellence of his work. For this and for your goodwill towards me your Excellencies will be pleased to receive him graciously, (now that the cause of your indignation is removed) and he deserves it, seeing his power. So that I recommended him to you with all my heart, as a deserving man and personally dear to me. And as always a good son and servant I present and re-commend myself to you.


From Piombino the 13th august, 1537.”

So the old man came back to the city of his adoption, where he had lived nearly forty years, and finished the fresco in the chapel of her nobles. Then, as Vasari says, he betook himself to Volterra, and painted for Messer Lorenzo di Galeotto dei Medici, a canvas with Phaeton falling headlong from the chariot of the sun.

The picture itself has long since vanished. It was last heard of in a list of pictures quoted by Della Valle in the seventeenth century, left by a Siennese citizen to his son (Lettere Senesi, iii. 267).*

A pen and ink drawing for the myth of Phaeton is to be found in the Uffizi collection, attributed to and even signed by Baldassare Peruzzi. Recent criticism, however, has discovered this signature to be a modern forgery, and the drawing is now believed to be by Sodoma. It is not very likely, however, to bear any reference to this canvas referred to by Vasari, as it is obviously a study for a ceiling decoration, but is interesting as showing his treatment of this classical myth. M. Destailleur, an architect at Paris, has in his possession another drawing by Sodoma of this same subject. I have not had an opportunity of examining it, but Frizzoni declares it to be similar in taste and technique.

It may have been during this sojourn, that he repainted, for the Franciscan monks of Volterra, the Child in Signorelli’s fine panel of the ” Circumcision,” now in our National Gallery. That this interpolation of one artist’s work over that of another, is a satisfactory method, one cannot maintain. The styles of the two masters were so utterly different, and their aims in art so alien, that one can but regret a vandalism of this kind which does justice to neither.

Several other small paintings in the Volterra churches have been attributed to Sodoma, but apparently without good reason, and critics of authority have rejected them as mere feeble copies, or the work of scholars. Certainly, in many of the little Tuscan towns round about Siena, exist oil paintings and fragments of frescoes which resemble, in one or two characteristics, the work of this prolific master.

A pupil studying under him, or some unknown admirer of his style, might easily become an imitator of his special mannerisms, and succeed in approaching very closely to the level of his feebler work, as in the case of Riccio, with his exceedingly beautiful little fresco which lies upon the left wall of the collegiate church of Asciano.

Sodoma grew weary of staying at Volterra. He had been long accustomed to a roving life, and to work or not as the fancy moved him. Perhaps, kept as a dependant in the Volterra Castle, he too grew, like Dante, to know :

“Come sa di sale, Lo pane altrui, e com’ é duro talle Lo scendere e il salir per l’ altrui scale.”

So he wandered away to Pisa, where he had never been, and where he had a friend in Messer Battista del Cervelliere, director of the Cathedral Board of Works. This gentleman introduced him to Messer Bastiano della Seta, chief architect of the cathedral, who was planning a series of scenes from Scripture history, to be painted in the spaces above the choir stalls in the round apse. The paintings are in three tiers, divided by marble mouldings and gilt and carved pilasters. Bastiano della Seta gave him two really good commissions, a Pietà, immediately behind the High Altar, and a well-composed group at the side, on the lowest tier, representing the Sacrifice of Isaac.

” But,” says Vasari, waxing sententious over the supposed failure of these works, ” Since these pictures did not succeed very well, the said master-workman, who had intended to order from him several panels for the church, dismissed him, well knowing that men who do not study, lose in their old age those qualities which they had naturally in youth, and are left with a style and technique often but little to be praised.

“At the same time Giovanni Antonio completed a panel in oil which he had begun for Sta. Maria della Spina, making the Madonna with her Son in her arms, and kneeling before her St. Mary Magdalen and St. Catharine, and St. John, St. Sebastian, and St. Joseph standing at the sides, in all of which figures he succeeded much better than in those in the cathedral.”*

The two former are still in their place in the cathedral choir. The enthroned Madonna, with the six saints has been taken away from Sta. Maria della Spina, and hung in one of the side rooms of the Pisan Gallery. Vasari continues : “After this, having nothing more to do at Pisa, he went to Lucca ; where, in St. Ponziano, a spot belonging to the brothers of Monte Oliveto, an abbot, who was a friend of his, made him paint a Madonna on the stairs going up to the dormitory.

” When he had finished this, weary, poor, and old, he went back to Siena, where he did not live long, since, being ill, and having nobody to take care of him, and nothing to live upon, he went to the great hospital, and there, in the course of a few weeks, he ended his life.”

Signor Ettore Romagnuoli discovered among the archives a letter which conclusively proves the date of the painter’s death to have been on the 14th of February 1549.

This letter was written by one, Ser Alessandro Buoninsegni, to his brother, Bernardino, Ambassador at Naples, on the fifteenth of February, and states, ” The Cavalier Sodoma died last night.”

But the writer does not mention where he died, and we have only Vasari’s authority for the lonely end in the hospital, such as any pauper might have known.