CLOSELY connected with Paolo Uccello, both by the character of his art and the time of his life, was Andrea del Castagno, or Andreino, as he is called by Giovanni Santi in his ” Chronicle,” and by Albertini in his “Memorials.” Vasari pronounced him to be great and excellent both in drawing and painting, but accused him of having murdered his comrade, Domenico Veneziano, who was working with him in S. Maria Nuova, in order to obtain possession of certain secrets of oil painting. Since the two artists never worked together in this church, and Domenico survived his supposed murderer four years, the charge may be dismissed as groundless, and Vasari’s only excuse for the statement is, that, in 1443, a painter named Domenico di Matteo was murdered by some unknown person in Florence.
Andrea was born, about 1390, at Castagno, a village of Val Mugello, and began life, like Giotto, by keeping sheep, until his taste for drawing attracted the notice of Bernardetto de’ Medici, who brought him to Florence and placed him under a good teacher. The name of his master is unknown, but his vigorous drawing and realistic style bear a marked affinity to the art of Paolo Uccello and Donatello, by whom he was, it is plain, strongly influenced. The traditional violence and brutality of his temper certainly agree with the character of his works. His types are coarse and unpleasant, his colouring hard and crude, but the accuracy of his drawing and the power and reality of his creations are undeniable. The bitterness of his spirit and natural rudeness of his peasant nature was increased by the hard struggles of his early years. In 1430, he describes himself as having been laid up in a hospital during the last four months, and as owning neither home nor bed in Florence, his sole possession being a small house, which he had inherited from his father, in Val Mugello. By degrees, however, his circumstances improved, and his talent obtained recognition. In 1435, he was employed by the Signory to paint the effigies of the Albizzi and Peruzzi, who were exiled as rebels for plotting against Cosimo de’ Medici, on the walls of the Podestà palace, and acquired the surname of Andrea degli Impiccati ” Andrea of the Gallows” from this circumstance. He was also employed to design stained glass for the cupola, and to paint cherubs and lilies on the organ of the Duomo. But his chief work at this period was the decoration of a hall in the Villa Pandolfini, at Legnaia, with full-length figures of illustrious Florentines, as well as famous Queens and Sibyls of ancient legend. This hall, which Andrea further adorned with pilasters, friezes of youth and festoons of flowers and fruit, in classical style, and which as an example of Renaissance decoration excited Albertini’s admiration, has long been destroyed, but the portraits of Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Farinata degli Uberti, Niccolò Acciaiuoli, the Grand Seneschal of Naples, and of the Hospodar, Filippo Scolari, as well as the figures of the Cumoean Sibyls, Queen Esther and Thomyris, Queen of the Amazons, were safely transferred to canvas, and now hang in the Museum of S. Apollonia. All of these figures are distinguished by the same sculptural austerity of design and vivacity of expression, and the warriors Farinata and Pippo Spano standing with swords in their hands and legs apart, bear a striking resemblance to Donatello’s St. George. The same fiery spirit and vigorous reality mark the equestrian portrait of Niccolò da Tolentino, which Andrea executed in 1455, as a companion to that of Sir John Hawkwood, but both horse and warrior lack something of the distinction which belongs to Paolo Uccello’s conception.
Unfortunately the important series of frescoes of the Virgin’s life, which Andrea painted in the Chapel of S. Egidio, belonging to the hospital of S. Maria Nuova, between 1450 and 1453, have perished, and only a Trinity, with an emaciated St. Jerome and other Saints, remains of those which he executed in the Medici Chapel of the Annunziata.
His work in the hospital of S. Maria Nuova had been interrupted by illness, and, in September 1453, he was forced to employ Alessio Baldovinetti to execute an order which he had received from Lodovico Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, who was at that time a captain in the service of the Republic. But in May 1457, the artist undertook a fresh commission for his old patrons at S. Maria Nuova, and the Last Supper which he painted in the refectory of the hospital is highly praised by Vasari. This has also perished, but another fresco of the same subject may still be seen in the refectory of the ancient convent of S. Apollonia, which is now a complete gallery of Andrea’s works. Frescoes of the Crucifixion, Entombment and Resurrection have lately been recovered from the whitewash which concealed them, and the heroes and women from Villa Pandolfini have been hung upon one of the walls, while the whole of another wall is occupied by the Cenacolo. This subject is painted with Andrea’s habitual directness and frank realism. The white cloth and dishes on the, table, the barrel vaulting of the ceiling and panelling of its walls, the grass on the ground, and the room opening out of the upper chamber, are all exactly reproduced. The Apostles are rough peasants, with strong faces and coarse hands, and there is little attempt at nobility of form or elevation of thought, even in the Christ. But in spite of the vulgarity of type and lack of ideal beauty, the work is one of great power and originality. The heads of the Apostles are full of individual character, the grouping of the figures, their gestures and attitudes, are singularly varied and expressive, and there can be little doubt that the composition of this naturalist master inspired Leonardo with the first idea of his sublime work.
The Cenacolo, which Andrea del Castagno painted in the summer of 1457, for the Refectory of Santa Maria Nuova, was his last fresco. A few months later he died, on the 19th of August, at the age of sixty-seven, and was buried in the church of the Annunziata.
Florence.S. Apollonia: FrescoesLast Supper, Crucifixion, Entombment and Resurrection. Nine figures from Villa Pandolfini, Boccaccio, Petrarch, Dante, Queen Thomyris, Cumoean Sibyl, Niccolò Acciaiuoli, Farinata degli Uberti, Filippo Scolari, Queen Esther.
” Annunziata: FrescoTrinity, with St. Jerome and other Saints.
” Duomo: FrescoEquestrian Portrait of Niccolò da Tolentino.
” Uffazi : FrescoCrucifixion (from S. Maria Nuova).
London.National Gallery: 1138. Crucifixion.
Paris.M. Rudolf Kann : Portrait of Man.