Painters Of Florence – Antonio Pollaiuolo

THE first decisive progress in fifteenth century painting had come from the sculptors Ghiberti and Donatello, and the next step in advance was due to another group of goldsmiths and workers in bronze, who were themselves painters as well as sculptors, and who, by their resolute and persistent endeavours, succeeded in giving their pictures the same plastic relief and modelling that we see in carved metal and stone-work. Chief among these was Antonio Pollaiuolo, whom Benvenuto Cellini describes as the best draughtsman of his day in Florence. ” He was so great a draughtsman that not only all the goldsmiths worked from his designs, but that many of the best sculptors and painters were glad to make use of them, and by this means attained the highest honour. This man did little else, but he drew marvellously, and always practised the same grand style of drawing.” The few paintings and drawings by Antonio’s hand which are still in existence prove the truth of Cellini’s words, and show not only the wonderful energy and precision of his drawing, but the great influence which he exerted on contemporary painters. Both Luca Signorelli and Sandro Botticelli owed much to his example, and in his admirable drawing of the nude, he may claim to be the precursor of Michel Angelo himself.

Antonio was born in 1431, and was some twelve years older than his brother Piero, who became his assistant in most of his works. These two brothers, whose lives and labours were so closely bound together, derived their surname of Pollaiuolo from their grandfather, who kept a poulterer’s shop. Their father, Jacopo d’Antonio Benci, also surnamed del Pollaiuolo, was one of the goldsmiths employed by Lorenzo Ghiberti, and is said to have executed a wonderful quail in the ornamental work of one of the Baptistery gates. Antonio was apprenticed to his father, but, in 1459, opened a large and handsome shop of his own in the Corn-market, and even acquired the reputation of being the first metal-worker in Florence. He probably received his first instruction in painting from Andrea del Castagno, whom Vasari mentions as Piero’s teacher, and was strongly influenced by Donatello, while both brothers adopted the technique of Alessio Baldovinetti, and followed him in the use of new oil glazes and varnishes. From 146o to 148o, Antonio executed a large number of works in bronze and silver, including the famous relief of the Baptist’s Birth, for the silver retable of the Baptistery, and supplied cartoons of twenty subjects from the life of the Baptist for the wonderful vestments of embroidered brocade still preserved in the Opera del Duomo. These designs show a rare talent for composition, while both his paintings and drawings reveal that close study of the antique and mastery of anatomy which made Vasari say that he treated nudes in a more modern style than any artist before him. ” He not only dissected many human bodies to study their anatomy, but was the first to investigate the action of the muscles and afterwards give them their due place and order in his drawings of the human frame.”

The first paintings by the Pollaiuoli of which we have any record, are three figures of Hercules, each five braccia high, which, we learn from Antonio himself, were painted by him and his brother Piero for the Medici palace, in 1460. The wonderful little panels of Hercules strangling Antaeus, and wrestling with the Hydra, still preserved in the Uffizi, were probably original studies for these works. Of the four life-sized Virtues which the brothers painted for the tribunal of the Mercatanzia, only one, that of Prudence, is exhibited in the Uffizi. The smooth polished surface of the picture, the rich ornamental details of the throne and embroidered draperies of the purple mantle, betray the goldsmith’s hand ; but while most critics recognise Piero’s style in the painted figures, that of Antonio is evident in the grand cartoon of Charity, still to be seen on the back of the ruined picture. Three imposing figures of St. Eustace, St. Vincent and St. James, also in the Uffizi, are the work of Piero, and were originally painted, in 1466, for the same sepulchral chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal, which Baldovinetti adorned with frescoes, in the church of San Miniato. The life-size portrait of Galeazzo Sforza, Duke of Milan, in his blue mantle sown with golden lilies, was painted by Piero when that prince visited Florence in 1471, and hung in the Medici Palace for many years ; while his fresco of St Christopher, at San Miniato outside the gates, which excited the admiration of Michel Angelo, may be the same which has now been removed to the Metropolitan Museum at New York. Another characteristic work by Piero, the Annunciation, now at Berlin, is remarkable for its fine Renaissance architecture and variegated marbles, as well as for the profusion of pearls and gems which adorn the angel’s robes and the Virgin’s chair. Three kneeling cherubs, playing the organ, lute and viol, are seen in the inner chamber, and the open windows display a wide view of Florence and the Val d’Arno. The same Museum contains Antonio’s admirable little picture of David, standing bare-headed, with sling in his hand and legs astride, over Goliath’s head a marvel of youthful life and triumphant action. But the most famous and best preserved of all the Pollaiuolis’ paintings is the great St. Sebastian which Antonio painted, in 1475, for the chapel of the Pucci in the Servi church, and which was bought from the Marchese Pucci, in 1857, by the trustees of the National Gallery. This picture of the Saint bound to the trunk of a tree in the foreground of a wide Tuscan landscape, and surrounded by six archers, either aiming their shafts at his body or loading their cross-bows, has no particular beauty of line or grouping, but as a masterpiece of vigorous action and life-like movement it remains unrivalled. “The work,” Vasari records, “was more praised than any other ever painted by Antonio. In his determination to imitate nature to the best of his power, he represented one of these archers leaning his shaft against his heart and bending down to load his bow with all the might of his strong arms you see the veins and muscles swelling, and the breath being held back, as he puts his whole power into the effort. Nor was this the only figure executed with rare skill, but all the others, in their various attitudes, show the skill and labour which he devoted to this work, which Antonio Pucci fully recognised when he gave him 300 florins, saying that he knew this sum barely paid him for the colours.” A study for this admirably modelled figure of St. Sebastian, who lifts his ‘ eyes to heaven, above the confusion of bent bows and flying arrows was in the Morelli collection, and is now the property of Signor Frizzoni. The National Gallery is fortunate in possessing another of this rare master’s works the charming little picture of Daphne flying from the embrace of Apollo, who seizes her by the skirts of her green robe, only to see her arms stiffen into laurel boughs at his touch. The picture of Tobias led by the Archangel Raphael, which, Vasari tells us, was painted by the brothers for Or’ San Michele, is now at Turin, where it was long ascribed to Botticelli, but has all the characteristic features of the goldsmith-painters. The wide landscape with its rocky heights and castles, winding river and zigzag road descending into the fertile plains, recalls alike the background of the St. Sebastian, and that of Baldovinetti’s fresco in the cloister of the Annunziata ; while in the little white dog of Bologna breed, which runs before the Angel, Morelli recognises a household pet and companion of the brothers, who figures In more than one of their pictures. Probably the latest painting, executed by the Pollaiuoli was the altar-piece of the Coronation of the Virgin, in the choir of S. Agostino at San Gimignano, which in style and colouring closely resembles the Berlin Annunciation, and bears the signature of Piero del Pollaiuolo, with the date 1483.

In 1489, Antonio Pollaiuolo was invited to Rome by Pope Innocent VIII. to execute the bronze tomb of his predecessor, Sixtus IV., as well as his own monument, in St. Peter’s. The high esteem in which the artist was held in Florence is proved by a letter which Lorenzo de’ Medici addressed to his envoy in Rome, on this occasion, recommending the said Antonio, as the ” greatest master in the city, and one who, in the opinion of every intelligent person, had never been equalled.” On the other hand, we have a proof of Antonio’s affection for the Medici in a letter which he wrote from Ostia, in July 1494, to one of the Orsini, promising to execute his bust in bronze, and begging him in return, to obtain leave for him from Piero de’ Medici, to visit his farm near Poggio, fifteen miles from Florence. In consequence of the plague then raging in central Italy, no travellers from Rome were allowed to come within twenty miles of the city ; but Antonio feels sure that Piero will give him the necessary permission, since he has always been a loyal and devoted servant of his house, and as much as thirty-four years ago, he and his brother executed the works of Hercules which Orsini had seen in the Palazzo Medici. But although Antonio may have wished to see his old home again, and had completed his magnificent tomb of Sixtus IV. in the previous year, he remained in the service of the reigning Pope, and was joined by his brother Piero, who also settled in Rome for the rest of his life. Lorenzo de’ Medici was dead, and the troubled state of Florence offered artists few inducements to return. On the 4th of November 1496, Antonio made a will, leaving 5000 gold ducats to each of his daughters, Marietta and Maddalena, and a piece of land near Florence to his brother Piero, who was at that time very ill and not likely to live. Piero must have died soon afterwards, for we find that his natural daughter, Lisa, received a dowry of 150 lire from her uncle on her marriage in the following year ; and when Antonio himself died, on the 4th of February 1498, he was buried, by his express desire, in the same grave as his brother, in the church of S. Pietro in Vincula.

A week later the Signory of Florence, hearing that the Cardinal of Benevenuto and Monsignore Ascanio Sforza, owed the dead master certain sums for works which he had executed, sent orders to Domenico Bonsi, envoy of the Republic in Rome, desiring him to use all his influence “on behalf of Mona Lucrezia, widow of this most celebrated sculptor, since he was one of our citizens, and a man unique in his art, and therefore deserves that we should help his heirs for his sake, and as those who hold such excellence in the highest honour.”


Florence.—Uffizi: 73. Cartoon for Charity; 1153. Hercules and Antaeus, Hercules and the Hydra.

Florence.—Torre di Gallo: Fresco—Dance of Nudes.

Turin.—Gallery: 97. Tobias and the Archangel.

Berlin.—Gallery: 73a. David.

London.—National Gallery: 292. Martyrdom of St. Sebastian ; 928. Apollo and Daphne.


Florence.—S. Niccolò: Assumption;

” Uffizi: 30. Portrait of Galeazzo Sforza; 1301. St. Eustace, St. James and St. Vincent; 1306. Prudence; 3358. Profile of Lady.

” San Miniato: Capella Portogallo: Angels.

“San Gimignano.—S. Agostino: Choir: Coronation of Virgin.

Berlin.—Gallery: 73. Annunciation, and Angels.

New York.—Metropolitan Museum: 85. Fresco

St. Christopher.