IF the two first Naturalist masters of the fifteenth century, Paolo Uccello and Andrea del Castagno, have left few works behind them, we have still less opportunity of studying the paintings of their con-temporary, Domenico Veneziano, who belonged to the same group, and whose style was formed on the pattern of Donatello and Masaccio’s art. Domenico was born in Venioe about 1400, and probably became acquainted with Cosimo de’ Medici during his exile from Florence in 1434, since four years later the Venetian artist addressed a letter to Cosimo’s son Piero, which shows that he was on friendly terms with the family. Those were golden days for art, and Giovanni Rucellai expressed the feelings of many of his fellow-citizens when he thanked God that he was a native of Florence, the greatest city in the world, and lived in the age of the magnificent Medici. Never was there a time when so many churches and palaces were built and adorned, never were scholars and artists so generously patronised and so highly honoured as in those days. The members of this illustrious house not only lavished their wealth on works of art, but took a personal interest in the artists they employed.
Painters and sculptors were admitted into the family circle of the Palace in the Via Larga, and numbered among Cosimo’s most intimate friends. Michelozzo followed him in his exile to Venice, and Donatello begged that he might be buried close to his patron’s tomb in S. Lorenzo, in order that he might be near him in death as he had been in life. Cosimo’s eldest son Piero il Gottoso the Gouty shared his father’s love of art, and, in spite of continual ill-health, took a keen interest in the painters whom he employed, and personally superintended the decoration of the Medici Palace. It was to him that Domenico Veneziano, in April 1438, wrote the following letter from Perugia, where he was engaged in painting the figures of twenty-five illustrious soldiers and scholars in the hall of the Casa Baglioni.
“MOST ILLUSTRIOUS AND GENEROUS FRIEND,-With all due respect I am glad to inform you that I am well, and hope that you too are well and happy. Many a time have I inquired for news of you, but could hear nothing until the other day Manno Donati told me that you had gone to Ferrara, and were very well in health, which afforded me great consolation. And had I known where you were, I would have written to you before, as much for my own satisfaction as out of the duty I owe you. For although in my humble condition I have no right to address your gentilezza, the perfect and true love which I bear to you, and all of yours, gives me boldness to write this, knowing how much I owe to you. I hear that Cosimo is going to have an altar-piece painted, and desires it to be a magnificent work. The idea pleases me greatly, and would please me still more if I might be allowed to paint the picture; and if this could be, I believe I could show you marvellous things.
And since the best masters, such as Fra Filippo and Fra Giovanni have much work to do, and Fra Filippo especially is engaged on an altar-piece for San Spirito, which will take him five years, working both day and night, my great wish to serve you makes me presumptuous enough to offer myself for the work. And if I do it badly, I will gladly accept deserved correction of my faults, having no wish but to do you honour . . . and if the work is so great that Cosimo thinks of employing several masters, I pray you to use your influence to obtain a small share in it for me, knowing as you do my ardent desire to accomplish some famous work, more especially for you. So I beg you to do your utmost, and promise that my work shall not fail to do you honour. I have nothing else to say just now, saving that if there is anything else I can do for you, I am always at your service ; and I beg of you to send me an answer regarding the proposed altar-piece, and above all to inform me of your state of health, of which I am most anxious to hear. And may Christ prosper you and fulfil all your desires. Your most faithful servant, Domenico of Venice, painter. In Perugia, the first day of April.”
The altar-piece in question may have been one which Cosimo presented to S. Domenico of Cortona, towards the end of the year, in which case the artist did not obtain the commission ; but it was probably owing to Piero’s influence that he was invited soon after this to paint the choir of the Chapel of S. Egidio in the hospital of S. Maria Nuova. From 1439 to 1445, Domenico was employed on this work, and executed a series of frescoes on the Childhood and Marriage of the Virgin, in which he introduoed many admirable portraits of the Medici and their contemporaries, as well as several women of rare grace and beauty, Vasari’s assertion that Domenico painted these frescoes in oils, is partly borne out by entries in the account books of the hospital, which speak of large quantities of linseed oil being supplied to the artist while he was engaged upon these works ; and although a certain admixture of oil in fresco painting was common as early as Cennino’s time, there seems little doubt that Domenico made experiments in this medium. We know that Piero dei Franceschi, the Umbrian pupil who had accompanied him from Perugia and worked as his assistant in S. Maria Nuova, adopted this practice in his turn, and twenty years later agreed to paint a banner in oils for a church in Arezzo.
Unfortunately, a singular fatality has attended all Domenico’s most important works. His figures in the Casa Baglioni, his frescoes in S. Egidio, and another series which he and Piero dei Franceschi were invited to paint in the Sacristy of, the Santa Casa of Loreto, about 1450, have all perished. His most important work now remaining is the altar-piece which he painted for S. Lucia de’ Bardi, and which, according to Vasari, he finished shortly before his death. This picture, now in the Uffizi, represents the Madonna and Child enthroned under a triple loggia between the Baptist and St. Francis on one side, and St. Nicholas and S. Lucia on the other, and bears the signature of the artist, with the words, ” O mother of God, have mercy upon me ! ” It is a typical Quattrocento work, and shows the great progress which art had made in many directions during the last fifty years. The niches and cornices of coloured marbles, the fine modelling and strong relief of the heads, the thorough knowledge of anatomy and perspective, all prove how attentively Domenico had studied the works of Masaccio and the Naturalist painters. The figures cannot be said to attain Paolo Uccello’s perfection of structure and balance, but the heads are as full of individual character as those of Andrea del Castagno, the colouring is bright and attractive, and in the delicate profile of Santa Lucia, in the simple pose of the Virgin and natural attitude of the Child, standing on his Mother’s knee and turning round to look at the Baptist, we recognise something of Fra Angelico’s charm. The whole work is one of great interest, revealing, as it does, a higher feeling for beauty than either Paolo Uccello or Andrea possessed, and goes far to explain the high degree of reputation which Domenico enjoyed in Florence. The predella of this picture, described by Lanzi, and representing the Martyrdom of S. Lucia, with a king who appears to direct the execution from a balcony above, is now at Berlin.
Another characteristic work is the fresco which this artist painted for a Tabernacle at the corner of two streets leading to S. Maria Novella, and which, after being removed from the wall and transferred to canvas in 1851, is now in the National Gallery. Here the fair-haired Virgin, seated on a throne in a flowery meadow, with the Child on her knee lifting his hand in blessing, and God the Father and the Dove of the Holy Ghost above, resembles the Madonna of S. Lucia in type and feature, while the keen, thoughtful heads of the Dominican friars below are full of character. Closely related to these is the fresco of the Baptist and St. Francis, in Santa Croce, two noble types of ascetic holiness and fervent devotion. A woman’s portrait by Domenico is mentioned among the pictures in the Palazzo Medici, and a fine bust of a man in red cap and vest, now in the Pitti, belongs to his last years.
Domenico’s work. at Loreto was interrupted by an outbreak of the plague, and by May 1455, he was back in Florence, where he rented a house in the parish of S. Paolo. After this we hear no more of him until he died, on the 15th of May 1461, and was buried in S. Piero Gattolini. And in 1462, the architect Filarete, in the Dedication of his Treatise to Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, mentions Domenico da Venezia, together with Andreino and Francesco di Pesello, as three excellent artists who had lately died in Florence. The high reputation in which Domenico was still held at Perugia is proved by the fact that when Bonfigli executed his frescoes in the Palace of the Commune, an express condition was made that the work was to be valued by Fra Angelico, Fra Filippo and Domenico of Venice. The frescoes, however, were not completed until 1461, by which time both Angelico and Domenico were dead, and Fra Filippo alone remained to decide the question. A gentle and amiable character, Domenico made himself generally beloved, and was noted for his musical gifts, taking delight both in singing and playing the lute. But neither his artistic talents nor his fame succeeded in bringing him wealth. He never acquired a house or property of his own in Florence, and died poor, if we are to believe the following notice affixed to his name in the margin of the account books of S. Maria Nuova : ” and if any more was paid to Domenico da Venezia, it is lost, for he has left nothing.”
Florence.Uffisi : 1305. Madonna and Child with four Saints.
” Pitti : 375. Portrait of a Man.
” Santa Croce: FrescoBaptist and St. Francis.
Berlin.Gallery: 64. PredellaMartyrdom of S. Lucia.
London.National Gallery : Frescoes766, 767. Heads of Dominican friars ; 1215. Madonna and Child Enthroned.