Happy New Year!
In 1549-1550 a Florentine painter, Giorgio Vasari, published his monumental work, “Lives of Painters, Sculptors and Architects”, which brought fame to him, but unfortunately, misunderstanding and disgrace to others for centuries. Among the artists who were more than severely judged by the author, was Andrea del Castagno.
Vasari was horrified while writing about Andrea del Castagno. He had been working on his “Lives of Painters, Sculptors and Architects for many years; he had studied lots of manuscripts, listened to numerous legends, but the one about Andrea del Castagno struck him with its cruelty. This was a cursed painter, maybe best forgotten? But Andrea del Castagno was a great master, his name could not be excluded from the history of Italian art. So Vasari continued to write.
In the small village of Castagno, peasants told stories, something they
heard from their old men or something they invented themselves, adding
vivid descriptions and likely details...
They say that the father of Andrea was a tyrant. There were 8 children in the family, and the mother, poor soul, died in the birth of the 8th one, so the father, a woodcutter, took revenge for his misfortunes on his kids, beating even the youngest one, but Andrea, the eldest, got the most. The father hated the boy's passion for drawing, and his constant attempts to defend the younger children. Once, after another cruel beating, the father locked Andrea in a barn for several days without food. At night the house of the woodcutter caught fire and burnt to ashes. The woodcutter died in flames, fortunately, the children were safe…. The kind neighbors took the children one by one into their houses. Only Andrea was not welcomed, everyone knew about his bad and closed disposition.
After a while the villagers built a new house on the place of the burnt one, but nobody wished to live there – at night one could hear the horrifying wails of the dead master. The Lord knew, he was a really wicked man.
Andrea's uncle from a neighboring village took the boy. It was a new life. The uncle did not beat him and never deprived him of food; after he saw his nephew's pictures he even allowed him to study with some local painters, who were decorating the village's church. And then a lucky accident came. In 1440, a Florentine aristocrat from the Medici, Connetable Bernadetto, arrived at his estate and heard about the gifted teenager. He took Andrea to Florence. The same year, 1440, Bernadetto Medici commissioned the young artist with his first independent work. Andrea was to depict the execution of the Medici's enemies. The picture was to scare the public and to kill any wish for revolt. The established masters were probably not fond of the idea of frightening their compatriots so they eagerly stepped aside leaving the commission to Andrea without argument. Andrea painted a fresco on the facade of the Palazzo del Podestà (Bargello), which the Medici presented to the city. The plotters, hanged by their heels, looked at spectators with unbearable suffering distorting their faces; their terror-filled eyes haunted the spectators.
The scene was horrifying and the Florentines were scared – the Medici's
aim was achieved. But the young painter got the far-from-flattering nickname
of Andreino degli Impiccati - Little Andrea of the Hanged Men. The talks
started that the young painter was too natural in depicting the executed
mutineers. There were ‘witnesses’ who saw Andrea fetching something very
suspicious from the cemetery. ‘- Of course, it was a corpse! He hanged
it in his studio and drew it!’ – ‘He doesn't need a corpse! He's a big
lad, he might have caught a live man, hanged him and then painted the sufferings!
The devil helped him!’
Rumors grew, each worse than the next, and Andrea had to leave for a while. He went to Venice, where nobody knew him, and took the name of his native place – Andrea del Castagno.
Only 2 years later, in 1444, he would return to Florence. He had many commissions and, having no family and no friends, worked much, though his ill fame and rumors followed him despite all the attempts by the Medici to stop them.
The respectable family of Montaguti commissioned Andrea to paint a fresco of the Crucifixion for home prayers. The fresco was horrifying – Christ in convulsions, the Virgin in tears and the mob in fury. One of the servants fainted, seeing all that ‘naturalism’, another heard moans from the room at night. In the morning signor Montaguti ordered the fresco to be erased, but the pigments did not go, he ordered it to be whitewashed; when the whitewash dried dark-brown spots, like blood stains, stood out again. Signor Monteguti ordered to hang a large picture, decent and god-loving, to cover the ill-fated wall. Another scandal. Yet Andrea received another commission. The Florentine family of Cavalcanti commissioned the Flagellation of Christ for the monastery of Santa Croce. The fresco was so impressive that other painters came to see this work.
Andrea started to paint frescoes with the scenes from the life of St. Andreas
in the monastery of Santa Maria Nuova. The commission was rather big and
urgent. The unsociable and moody master took an apprentice this time, but
could not tolerate him for long and drove him out very soon. The apprentice,
possessed by curiosity, hid and watched Andrea working. In the evening
he told his friends that Andrea made sketches on the wall with his own
Again rumors about the ‘devil’s painter’ scattered through the city. Andrea found refuge in the monastery of Sant’ Apollonia.
For five years, 1445-1450, he worked on the cycle of frescoes devoted to Christ - The Last Supper, Crucifixion, Pieta, Deposition, Resurrection. He even tried to live in accordance with the monastery's rules, though he did not often visit prayers and always hurried away to his frescoes. At last the day came, when the painter opened the locked doors of the refectory to demonstrate his work. The monks were in shock at what they saw… The angels looked like peasants, Maria Magdalena like a village beauty. The Last Supper was especially revolting! Frowning Christ is a gray-haired old man. On his right and left were the devoted pupils, and in front – the cursed Judah… And what's the difference? All the apostles were sinners like Judah! No spirituality, no resignation, only untamed passions in their eyes! The monks were indignant.
However Andrea himself was already thinking over another commission – he worked in the villa of the Carducci, which is in the valley between Soffiano and Legnaia. He depicted mythological women and the famous people of Florence, its statesmen and military commanders, poets and humanists.
At some point Andrea befriended Domenico Veneziano, a painter who was loved and respected by the Florentines. Their friendship looked strange: grim and introverted Andrea and merry and sociable Veneziano. They painted the Church of Santa Maria Nuova together, and liked to have musical parties. Domenico played the lute and Andrea sang. The evil rumors about Andrea stopped for a time. But when Domenico painted a wonderful fresco, The Virgin Surrounded by Saints, which all the Florentines liked and praised, the cursed soul of Andrea was infected with envy for his talented friend. And the Devil demanded his payment…
One summer evening Domenico with his lute went to a friendly carousal.
Andrea, who usually took part in all parties with his friend, this time
refused to join, saying he had urgent work. But he didn't work, he slipped
from the house and waited for Domenico's return in a dark alley. When Domenico
was coming back home, Andrea attacked him and fatally hit him with a lead
weight. Nobody would have known about the crime, if Andrea himself hadn't
repented before his death.
The name of Andrea di Bartolomeo di Simone di Bargilla from the village of Castagno, was cursed and forgotten as his works, which disappeared under layers of whitewash and the frescoes of other painters.
Only in the 1840s the frescoes of the Villa Carducci-Pandolfini were found and almost 50 years later, the legendary frescoes in the monastery of Sant’ Apollonia were re-discovered. The fresco of the Last Supper was under restoration for about 40 years. In 1929 the world saw and admired the great work. After several centuries of oblivion Andrea del Castagno was at last showed the recognition he deserved and a new generation of historians got interested in his life.
The legend about the death of Domenico Veneziano by the hand of Andrea was an evil libel. Castagno died in Florence in 1457 from plague. It was 4 years before Domenico was killed in a dark alley. Thus it was Domenico who cried over his friend's early death.
Then in which killing did Castagno confess before his death? The Florentine church Santissima Annunziata keeps the fresco Repentance of San Juliano (or St. Julian and the Redeemer), which Castagno drew in 1453. They say that the painter depicted himself as St. Julian, and everyone knew that St Julian repented in the most awful sin – patricide. This is just one more theory. Most probably, however, that Andrea del Castagno had no time for confession at all.
Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects by Giorgio Vasari, Gaston Du C. De Vere (Translator), David Ekserdjian. Knopf, 1996.
Sinful Angel by Yuri Bocharov. From Caravan Istoryi. November 2002, Russia.
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