HIS ORIGIN AND EARLY LIFE
GIOVANNI ANTONIO BAZZI, or Sodoma, as he is more commonly called, is one of the most interesting of that large group of lesser-known artists, who helped to make the Renaissance the widespread and penetrating movement which it became.
To the lights of the first magnitude belong the honours of the pioneer ; great Raphael, greater Angelo, and mysterious Leonardo, forming, each along strongly individual and vital lines, the basis of a great artistic tradition.
Following hard upon these men comes a group of whom Andrea del Sarto and Giovanni Antonio Bazzi are perhaps most fully representative ; artists to whom originality of a pronounced kind was not lacking, but in whom a certain over-sensibility, a division of the soul between faithful adherence to the art-ideal and the spell of the world, lay at the root of their partial success.
Yet it is certainly around these men, whose whole life was neither great nor successful, and whose work was, for the most part, but the patient toil of the skilled craftsman, but who, none the less, at some rare crises in their lives stepped forth from the ranks of the commonplace and wrought work worthy of the greatest, that the human interest centres.
The peculiar attraction belonging to Sodoma lies, not so much in what he actually achieved as in what he might have donethe promise in him of great power only occasionally fulfilled. His masterworks, the ” Christ bound to the Column” of the Siena Gallery, The Vision of St. Catherine” in the church of San Domenico, and the marvellous ” Martyrdom of St. Sebastian” which hangs in the Uffizi, claim for him a place among the masters of his time, yet the vast bulk of his frescoes, hastily drawn, lacking in composition, and often heavily coloured, can only be accounted as of second-rate merit.
In view of these defects it was perhaps excusable that the public of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries ignored him ; but it overlooked his great gifts as a pyschologist and his immense insight at certain moments, into the deeper springs of human emotion. One cannot say that this insight was perpetual, or that it was always given to him to be the interpreter of the intenser motives which actuate man-kind. The outer life of the man was not of a nature to foster such intuition, and little by little it left him, as with age his hand waxed feebler and his capacity for noble enthusiasm cooled.
For information as regards his biography we owe a good deal to quite modern research. Vasari, never very accurate in his statements concerning artists of other than the Tuscan School, disliked Sodoma personally, and in the first edition of his famous ” Lives” omitted him altogether. After the’ painter’s death he inserted a short sketch of his career, in which he not only vilified his personal character, but in many cases spoke disparagingly of his value as a painter.
Sodoma was, however, held in high esteem by other artists. Raphael, as we know, not only refused to destroy his ceiling decorations in the Camera della Segnatura, but introduced his portrait into the ” School of Athens ” side by side with his own.
Annibale Carracci, when he passed through Siena, was greatly struck with the quality of Sodoma’s work, and is said to have remarked, ” Bazzi appears a very eminent master of the greatest caste, and few such pictures are to be seen.”
Leo X. gave him the title of Cavalliere di Cristo, and the Emperor Charles V. created him Count Palatine. He had Agostino Chigi and the Prince of Piombino for his patrons, and the Signoria of Siena employed him on the most important public works. Beccafumi left the Roman schools and went to Siena in order to study under Sodoma, and his drawings were prized by artists of greater repute.
Of his early life and the artistic influences which moulded him, Vasari, who was his contemporary, tells us nothing, Lomazzo ignores him altogether, and Padre Della Valle, who commentated the Siena edition of Vasari, had but scant materials upon which to work.
It was not until within recent years that Italian scholars began consulting the Archives, and a certain Barnabite father, Don Luigi Bruzza, made some valuable discoveries concerning all that pertains to Sodoma’s early life at Vercelli.
He is thus found to have been the son of one Giacomo di Antonio dei Bazzi, a shoemaker of Briandate, who established himself at Vercelli, in Piedmont, somewhere about 1475, as shown on an act of that date.
In 1476 the shoemaker married a certain Angelina of Pergamo (Bergamo), and it is believed that their eldest son, Giovanni Antonio, was born in the following year. Vasari says that he died in 1554, at the age of seventy-five, in which case he would have been born in 1479, but in both the date of his death and his age at the time, Vasari is now believed to be incorrect. Baldinucci thought that he might have been born about 1479, because, in his portrait at Monte Oliveto, painted during 1504, he appears to be about twenty-five years of age. t Among modern historians, Milanesi, not finding . any definite entry concerning his birth, hazarded the theory that it might have taken place in 1474.
Bruzza, however, argues the point as follows : in the father’s will, dated August 13th, 1497, Giovanni Antonio is mentioned before his brother Niccola or his sister Amadea, which would point to his being the eldest. He must have still been under age in 1502 (twenty-five was the age in Piedmont at which a man attained his majority) for in another document Angelina, the mother, is named as guardian of all the three children, while in an act of August 2nd, 1503, the younger brother Niccola, was the only one mentioned as being still under tutelage. Giovanni Antonio, there-fore, probably reached his majority between January 1502 and August 1503.
Thus Don Luigi Bruzza establishes the date of his birth. As to his birthplace there need have been no confusion, for, though Vasari only speaks of Vercelli, without giving the province, he refers to that ” warm and vivid colouring which he had brought with him from Lombardy.” The sixteenth – century writers, Tizio, Giovio, and Armenini, all refer to him as a Piedmontese, and it was not until 1649 that any doubt was thrown upon the whereabouts of Vercelli, and then a Siennese priest and littérateur, Isodoro Ugurgieri-Azzolini, who was compiling a curious little book called Le Pompe Senesi, a series of short biographies of all the notable men of his town, was filled with a burning desire to rank the distinguished painter among the children of Siena, and solemnly spoke of him as “certainly born at Vergelle, a little castle in the province of Siena, sixteen miles from the city.”
Della Valle, however, in his famous Lettere Senesi printed in 1786, rather sneers at Ugurgieri’s narrow patriotism, and quotes the manuscript of an earlier writer, Lanzi by name, who described the painter as “Giovanni Antonio, called Sodoma, by birth of Vercelli in Piedmont, and by education, establishment, and dwelling, Siennese.”
In that same entry, which led Ugurgieri’s into a mistaken theory concerning his birth, was a misspelling or a careless writing of the family name, and the worthy father, instead of Bazzi, read Razzi, an error which was copied by Lanzi and other writers, and is still perpetuated by the directors of some of the galleries at the present day.
Milanesi, however, discovered three entries in the Siena Archives which agree in their spelling of the name with the Vercelli documents alluded to above. A fourth entry, however, carries some confusion with it, for there we read, ” Misser Giovannantonio dei Tizioni, detto il Sodoma, pittore da Verzé.”
Milanesi argued from this that the father might possibly have belonged to the house of the Tizioni, nobles of Vercelli, and that he had changed his name when forced by poverty to adopt the trade of a shoemaker. Later on he abandoned that theory for Bruzza’s conclusion that it was out of mere vanity that Sodoma had added the name to his own. But to the Act of 1490 in which Giovanni Antonio was apprenticed to Spanzotti, Francesco, son of Agostino Tizio, was witness and referee, and we are of opinion that the Tizioni may have been patrons of the family, and that, following a frequent Italian custom, he sometimes used the surname of the noble house to which he was indebted. Bruzza found among the Acts of a certain notary of Vercelli an agreement* between the elder Bazzi, Giacomo, and a certain glass-painter, Martino Spanzotti, by which the former placed his son to an apprenticeship of seven years, and agreed to pay for his instruction during that time in all the branches of painting, on glass as well as wood, the sum of fifty Milanese florins.
Spanzotti’s works are rare, and his style stiff, highly finished, and elaborated with gold, for Sodoma’s first pictures after his arrival in Siena had traces of this older and gaunter manner. Padre della Valle finds in them a resemblance to the work of Giovanone, who flourished at Vercelli between 1513 and 1527, but we cannot be sure that the student fell under his influence.
The agreement with Spanzotti was dated November 20th, 1490, and as it held good for seven years we may infer that it was towards the end of 1497 that young Sodoma left his early home and the old glass-painter who had taught him how to draw, and started out into the world. But from 1497 to 1501 we have no real information concerning him, and first become acquainted with his work when already arrived at maturity and passing with rapid strides towards the full developments of his early middle period. Morelli conjectured that he went straight to Milan from Vercelli and studied there under the direct influence of Leonardo. Whether this was the case we have so far no means of ascertaining. Artistically, Sodoma certainly ranks among the Lombards, the whole tendency of his painting is more and more towards the Leonardesque. Admitting the theory of his having worked under the great Florentine, or at any rate of his having moved in the same circle at Milan, it would seem as if the influence of Leonardo had had but little effect upon him at the moment, but had borne its fruit by slow degrees. It was as if he had deliberately striven, in later years, to approach more and more to the manner which had deeply impressed him in early youth.
His first panels in Siena, the Deposition ” and the various tondi, are far more Tuscan in their composition and drawing than Lombardesque ; in the Monte Oliveto frescoes the Lombard manner is more pronounced, and by the time he gets to Rome and decorates the Cam-era della Segnatura his artistic individuality is fully declared.
In any case Sodoma could not have been very many years in the Lombard capital, for in 1501 we find him working at Siena.* Vasari says that he was induced to go there by an agent of the Spanocchi, rich Siennese bankers and merchants, sons of that Ambrogio Spanocchi who built the family palace at Siena and was the trusted treasurer of Pius II.
Sodoma probably needed but little persuasion to accompany him ; he was fond of change and travel, moreover the downfall and exile of Ludovico Sforza, and the placing of the city under French rule, had unsettled the whole of society, and men were less ready to spend their wealth on the decoration of palaces, or the painting of portraits, than on means of public and private defence. Leonardo, also, had left Milan and betaken himself to Venice on the downfall of the Sforza.
Siena offered the young painter exactly the field that he desired. It was at that moment without any native painters of merit, for the earlier school, founded on the principles of Giotto, had lost its vitality with the death of Bartolo di Fredi, fifty years before. It had been a school of intense refinement, the contemplative, tranquil thought, of the later Middle Ages, when, the excitement of the Crusades at an end and the struggle of the Communes for independence virtually accomplished, Europe had settled down into a condition of contemplative industrial development. Florence and Milan had stepped beyond this stage. The delicacy of Fra Angelico had given place to the more vigorous, more dramatic, infinitely robuster arts of the Renaissance, and Michelangelo was already carrying vigour and passion to an extreme, until violent action and melodramatic sentiment came to be the rule in painting. But the artists of Siena had gone on in the old groove, and such school as lingered through the fifteenth century was without life or originality. One of the recent Popes had been a Siennese, AEneas-Silvius Piccolomini, humanist, man of letters, art patron, and priest, a man of contradictions, like many of his age, not quite certain whether to be wholly humanist or wholly ecclesiastic. It was to his memory that his nephew, Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini (afterwards Pope Pius III.) built the magnificent library attached to the cathedral and invited Pinturicchio in 1502 to paint the great decorative series of frescoes which were to illustrate the Pontiff’s life.
Pinturicchio was, however, middle-aged, and he worked in the earlier Umbrian manner which he had acquired from Perugino, nor had he the versatility to adapt himself to more modern requirements.
Sodoma, belonging to a younger generation, trained in a freer school, and more naturally ready to absorb the tendencies of the time, was the very man needed to give new life to the art-world of the place.
He seems to have painted a number of portraits during those early years at Siena ; he was exceedingly popular ; he made a great deal of money, and he spent it lavishly, often on childish freaks.
Vasari was the authority for his extravagances, and it is probable that, disliking Sodoma personally as he did, he exaggerated the small eccentricities and unconventionalities of a wayward artistic disposition, keen in its love of sport and with the same passionate fondness for dumb animals as his great master, Leonardo.
” He amused himself,” says Vasari, ” by keeping in his house all kinds of strange animals, badgers, squirrels, apes, cat-a-mountains, dwarf asses, and barbs to run races, Elban ponies, magpies, dwarf chickens, Indian doves, and other beasts of similar kind, in fact, whatever he could get hold of. And, besides these beasts, he had a crow, who had learnt from him how to talk so well that he imitated in many things the voice of Giovanni Antonio himself, particularly in replying to anyone who knocked at the door, as all the Siennese well know. In the same way, the other creatures were so tame that they were always round about him in the house, playing the strangest games and the maddest pranks in the world, so that his house seemed to be a veritable Noah’s Ark.”
Della Valle tells us that his first production while in Siena was a panel picture of the Virgin nursing the divine Infant, which was placed above the little organ in the choir of San Francesco, and that it bore a great resemblance to one of the bas-reliefs done by Jacopo della Quercia on his fountain in the public square. This picture is now in the possession of Dr. Richter. Vasari broadly asserts that Sodoma made studies from Della Quercia’s fountain, and it is not improbable that these studies were modelled, for later on we find his studio mentioned as being full of clay and plaster casts, and Riccio, his son-in-law, inherited a number of these casts from him.*
Two of his early panels were done for the Savini family. And the wood – carver, Antonio Bariliwho also made the beautifully carved panelling for the Piccolomini Library was the author of the frames, inscribing on one of them his name and dateAnno Domini MCCCCCI. Antonio Bardis Genensis opus (sic).
These panels had, however, already disappeared from Siena by 1786, when Della Valle wrote, but he quotes a description of them made by a previous writer, Alfonzo Landi, who says the first was “three braccia high and one-and-a-half wide, in which the Virgin is represented with majestic face and bearing, with her naked child in her arms, exceedingly delicate and tender. St. John the Baptist, an equally graceful child, is embraced by the Virgin’s right arm. In the upper part appears a head of St. Joseph, and with it a hand holding a vase. A picture of great value for its excellence.” This picture was in the possession of the Savini for a long time ; the widow of the last representative of the house sold it to a foreigner for 120 scudi, and all traces of it are now lost.
Of the other picture Landi relates : ” In it the Virgin is depicted seated with the nude Child upon her arm, who appears anxious to receive the homage of St. John Baptist, also a child, who seems to worship the infant Christ with his hands crossed upon his breast. Above St. John Baptist is seen St. Catherine of Siena down to the waist, with the hands joined holding a lily, and opposite appears a head of St. Joseph.”
There was also in the church of St. Francesco another panel of “Our Lord bearing the Cross.” It was done for the Buonsignori family in 15o6, and placed in the chapel of which they were the owners. Unfortunately it perished in the great fire which destroyed so large a portion of the building in 1655. For the Cinozzi chapel in the same church Sodoma painted a large altar-piece representing the ” Descent from the Cross.” It is a fine painting of his early time, and was evidently thought much of by contemporary critics, for it was placed in the company of pieces by Raphael, Perugino, and Pinturicchio. Vasari, who, as we know, did not willingly praise Sodoma’s work, was forced, however, to write with admiration of the beautiful group of women sup-porting the Virgin, and the fine figure of the soldier with the carefully painted reflected lights on helmet and cuirass.
The composition of the picture is the conventional composition of the period. The Cross with its Hebrew inscription occupies the central foreground. A broad valley lies behind, bordered to the left by low blue hills, and a river of some width has carved its course across the plain, fringed with little castles and clumps of tufty trees. In the group of women so praised by Vasari we get for the first time a touch of Sodoma’s peculiar quality, the grace and tenderness in handling female forms for which he afterwards became so noted.
He repeated this group in one of the last pictures of his life, the ” Pietà” in the choir of Pisa Cathedral, but it lacks the sentiment and the care of the Siena picture. Vasari speaks of this painting as having been undertaken after Sodoma’s return from Rome, which would have placed it later than the Monte Oliveto frescoes. Its technique, however, is in the hard and finished manner of his early years. It was while designing the frescoes of the Olivetan convent that he seems to have acquired that larger style in which breadth of treatment and flowing line became so characteristic. Milanesi and Frizzoni date the “Descent from the Cross” about 1502. The predella, consisting of five small scenes from the Passion, is roughly executed and evidently by a scholar’s hand.
It now hangs in the chief room of the Siena Gallery, and not far from it is a large tondo, or round panel, representing the “Nativity.” This is painted in tempera and glazed over with oil, and is in excellent preservation. The infant Christ is laid upon the hem of the Virgin’s blue mantle. She bends over Him with hands clasped in adoration, and immediately behind her kneels St. Joseph in a brilliant drapery of yellow, grasping his staff, while an angel with radiant wings kneels on the opposite side, holding the little St. John. This tondo was brought from Lecceto, a hermitage of ancient foundation twelve kilometres outside Porta San Marco, and apparently it gave satisfaction to those for whom it was painted, for we find a very similar composition, made by the master’s own hand, was for many years in the Scarpa collection at La Motta, in Friuli. It has now passed into the possession of Signor Antonio Borgogna of Vercelli. Ignazio Fumagalli, in his Scuola di Leonardo da Vinci, has had this reproduction engraved and published under the name of a Cesare da Sesto. The painting of tondi, or circular panels was particularly in vogue among the Tuscan artists, and Sodoma appears, in this one, to have had some reminiscences in his mind of works which he had seen by Lorenzo di Credi. The broken brickwork, through which a glimpse of the landscape is seen, the slight, feathery trees, and the grouping of the figures are very Tuscan in their style, but the colouring, with its warm lights and transparent shadows is that which he learned in Lombardy. Vasari, speaking of Cesare da Sesto, tells us that he took lessons from one Bernazzano, a painter whose individual treatment of landscape was far more successful than that of figures. It is not improbable that many of the young men working in Milan during that epoch may have acquired their peculiar manner of landscape painting from this little-known master. The close resemblance between the backgrounds of Gianpietrino, Cesare da Sesto and Sodoma suggest a strong probability of their having been trained in this branch of art by the same teacher. Sodoma apparently made a number of these round pictures at this period. We can trace two of them which came from the Chigi palace at Siena. One is in Captain Holford’s possession, at Dorchester House, and represents a ” Holy Family, with St. John and Two kneeling Angels”; the other is an allegorical composition in which two female figures surrounded by four young children may be intended as symbolic of Charity. This has passed, I believe, into the possession of Count Bobriusky. Colonel Cornwall Legh has another tondo, in which St. Elizabeth also appears with the infant St. John.
In an inventory of Sodoma’s possessions taken at his death (February 15th, 1549), there is mention of a number of portraits, including those of a Saracini lady, another lady of the Toscani family, and of Pandolfo Petrucci, the would-be tyrant of Siena.