Painters Of Florence – Cosimo Rosselli

COSIMO ROSSELLI, an artist who was strongly influenced by Benozzo Gozzoli, and who, like that master, chiefly painted frescoes, was the son of a builder, living in the Via del Cocomero. He was born in 1439, and, at the age of fourteen, entered the shop of Neri de’ Bicci, an inferior artist who manufactured works of art at a low rate, and drove a prosperous trade, with the help of his sons and brothers and a large number of assistants. When he left Bicci’s shop, at the end of three years, Cosimo may have found employment under Benozzo, or worked with Alessio Baldovinetti who was one of his masters, according to Baldinucci to whose style his technique and colouring show a marked resemblance. His first dated work, a Madonna and S. Anne, of 1471, at Berlin and another early picture of St. Barbara trampling on a warrior, in the Accademia of Florence, display the angular draperies and harsh tones of the Naturalists, with far less vigour of drawing. But like Benozzo, whom he resembles in his love of architectural detail and homely incident, he is seen to greater advantage in his frescoes. In 1476, he painted the Conversion of S. Filippo Benizzi in the cloisters of the Annunziata, where Baldovinetti had already executed his Nativity. The learned young doctor of Padua is seen on his knees before a classical temple, gazing on the vision of the Virgin floating through the air in a chariot, while in the other half of the picture, he is in the act of taking the habit of the Servi friars, and the towers of Florence rise on the banks of Arno, in the distance. After this, he was employed to execute frescoes in churches at Fiesole and Lucca, and must have attained considerable reputation, since he was among the Florentine painters who were summoned to Rome in 148a, by Pope Sixtus IV., to decorate his newly erected chapel in the Vatican.

Although Cosimo was a far inferior artist to any of the illustrious band of masters who worked with him in the famous chapel; between October 1481 and August 1483, the three frescoes which he painted in the Sistina rank among his best works. The Last Supper is the least successful of the three, and has been entirely re-painted. The figures are carefully grouped, but are lacking in life and expression, and the most interesting part of the picture are the four men in contemporary costume who are introduced, together with a playful little dog, in the foreground. There is more energy and animation in the youths and maidens, dancing round the golden calf, and the group of spectators in the frescoes of Moses descending from Sinai and breaking the tables of the law. In the third subject, both the Sermon on the Mount and the Healing of the Leper are introduced. The figure of Christ, standing on the green mound, with uplifted hand, speaking to the assembled listeners, seems to have caught something of the dignity and nobleness of Ghirlandajo’s Christ in the same chapel ; while the mothers and children sitting on the grass, and the boy feeding the lamb, are more in Benozzo Gozzoli’s manner. But in the finely draped figures and expressive faces of the listeners, on the left, we trace the hand of a better artist, Cosimo Rosselli’s favourite pupil, Piero, who Vasari expressly says, came to Rome with his master, and painted the beautiful landscapes of hill and woodland in the background of both these frescoes. This same refined and imaginative painter, Piero di Cosimo, is now generally recognised to be the artist to whom we owe the Passage of the Red Sea, the fourth fresco formerly ascribed to Cosimo Rosselli in the Sistine Chapel.

Vasari allows Cosimo Rosselli to have been weak in drawing and invention, and very inferior to his companions, but declares that Pope Sixtus IV. was so much delighted with the profusion of gold and ultramarine which he lavished on his frescoes, that he gave him the prize which he had promised to the best master, much to the disgust of the other painters who were working in the Sistina at the same time, and who had laughed at the poverty of his conception and execution. This story, however, is probably a fable of Vasari’s invention, and may not be more accurate than the rest of his account of this artist’s life and works.

After his return from Rome, in 1486, Cosimo Rosselli painted his fresco of a Miraculous Chalice being borne in procession over the piazza, in the Church of S. Ambrogio, which, in spite of the injuries that it has suffered from the smoke of candles and incense, is certainly his best work in Florence. The fair-haired youth, wearing a violet cap and red vest with black sleeves, in the group of spectators standing on the piazza, is said to be Pico della Mirandola, the brilliant humanist and favourite companion of Lorenzo de’ Medici. An altar-piece of the Assumption, which Cosimo painted in this same church, bears the date of 1498, and a Coronation of the Virgin, in the Chapel of the Giglio family, which he executed for the Cistercian monks’ old church of Cestello, now S. Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi, was only begun in December 1505. A year afterwards, in November 1506, Cosimo Rosselli made his will, and the considerable amount of property which he owned refutes Vasari’s assertion that he died very poor, having consumed all his substance in the vain pursuit of alchemy, to which he devoted his last years. He died on the 7th of January, leaving only one illegitimate son, named Giuliano, who became an architect. No work bearing Rosselli’s name is to be found in the National Gallery, but quite recently Mr Berenson has recognised this master’s hand in the little picture of the Combat between Love and Chastity, ascribed to the Florentine School, and which certainly bears a marked resemblance both to the similar allegory at Turin and to the Vision of the Virgin in the fresco of S. Filippo Benizzi in the Servi church.

Although Cosimo’s creations are, for the most part, dull and formal, and lack the charm of true artistic inspiration, he was an excellent teacher, who under-stood the technical side of his art thoroughly, and numbered. some of the best painters of the next generation among his scholars. The sculptor, Benedetto da Majano, was one of his closest friends, as well as the executor of his will, and it was at his recommendation that the promising child Baccio della Porta, afterwards known as Fra Bartolommeo, was placed in Cosimo Rosselli’s shop.


Florence.—Annunziata: Cloisters: Fresco — The Vision of S. Filippo Benizzi.

S. Ambrogio: Fresco — Procession of the Miraculous Chalice.

” S. M. Maddalena de’ Pazzi : Coronation of the Virgin.

” Accademia: 52. SS. Barbara, John and Matthew ; 160. Nativity.

” Uffizi: 63. Coronation of Virgin. 65. Adoration of Magi. 1280 bis: Madonna and Child, Saints and Angels.

” Corsini: 339. Madonna and Angels adoring Child.

” S. M. Nuova : 65. Madonna and Child.

Fiesole.—Duomo: Salutati Chapel: Frescoes.

Lucca.—Duomo: Fresco—Story of the Cross.

Rome.— Vatican : Sistine Chapel: Frescoes-Sermon on the Mount; Moses destroying the Tables of the Law; Last Supper.

Turin.—Gallery: 369. Triumph of Chastity.

Berlin.—59. Madonna and Child, Saints and Angels. 59A. Madonna and Child with St. Anne and other Saints. 71. Entombment.

Cambridge.—Fitzwilliam Museum: 556. Madonna and Child with four Saints.

London.—National Gallery : 1196.° Combat of Love and Chastity. Mr Butler: St. Katharine of Siena founding her Order.

Oxfard.—University Galleries : 19. SS. Dominic and Nicholas.