We can tell from a letter he wrote to his half-brother Domenico that Leonardo da Vinci never wanted a nephew. “My beloved brother,” it begins:

This is sent merely to inform you that a short time ago I received a letter from you from which I learned that you have an heir, which circumstance I understand has afforded you a great deal of pleasure. Now in so far as I had judged you to be possessed of prudence; I am now entirely convinced that I am as far removed from having accurate judgment as you are from prudence; seeing that you have been congratulating yourself on having created a watchful enemy, who will strive with all his energies after liberty, which can only come into being at your death.1

You might put this sourness down to Leonardo’s illegitimacy. Remember the terse note with which he records his father’s death:

On the ninth day of July 1504, on Wednesday at seven o’clock, died, at the Palace of the Podestà, Ser Piero da Vinci, notary, my father, at seven o’clock; he was eighty years old, he left ten sons and two daughters.2

As far as I can see, Leonardo is hereby excluding himself from the list of sons.

But illegitimacy might not be the only factor. Some artists have the desire to pass their skills on to a new generation, to sons or substitute sons; others want the line to end with them. Raphael, who had no sons, nevertheless surrounded himself with real artists younger than himself, at least half a dozen of them, who might be considered his sons. Vasari has him never leaving home surrounded by fewer than fifty artists. Michelangelo’s assistants, on the other hand, were mostly nonentities, and it seems clear that Michelangelo wanted the line to end with him, which is why he himself destroyed all the cartoons for the Sistine Chapel, and all the other working drawings he had with him in Rome at the end of his life.

Leonardo was disposed to gather around himself a court of young men—“L’Achademia Leonardi Vinci,” they called themselves—including the sons of noble families along with rather less reputable types. He wanted them to succeed in the arts for which he trained them, but none of them approached him in talent in the way that Giulio Romano could compare with Raphael. Perhaps he needed them for company as much as anything else. In Rome he complained that his young friends all deserted him, running off to play with the Swiss Guards among the ruins, hunting birds with slings.3 Leonardo took the view that it was a poor pupil who did not outstrip his master, just as he, in painting, had outstripped Verrocchio. If he thought of a son as a watchful enemy, this was perhaps because he knew what sort of son he had been.

Nevertheless, life went on. People took pleasure in producing sons and heirs. Ser Piero, Leonardo’s father, had twelve legitimate children by two wives, and it was the second youngest of these (not the youngest as Vasari says), Bartolommeo, who, desiring to have a male child, “spoke very often to his wife of the greatness of the genius with which his brother Leonardo had been endowed, praying God that He should make her worthy that from her there might be born in his house another Leonardo, the first being now dead.” Leonardo had been dead for a decade when Pierino was born in 1529. Three years later, an astrologer and a chiromancer looked at the forehead and hand of the boy, and predicted that “in a short time he would make extraordinary proficience in the mercurial arts, but that his life would also be very short.”4

It sounds like the beginning of a fairy story, but Vasari’s life of Pierino is not a fairy story, and where it cannot be proved wrong it might be as well to extend to it a kind of cautious trust. It is certainly true that without Vasari’s Life, and the evidence that comes from the remaining pages of Vasari’s collection of drawings, we would know precious little about Pierino today. Even at the beginning of this century, a great expert on Italian sculpture, Wilhelm Bode, could dismiss Pierino’s reliefs out of hand. The artist as he is known today is the product of recent decades of research, but no one has yet put that work together in an accessible way. The modern Pierino is still coming into being.5

Pierino’s father brought his son to Florence and placed the boy, aged twelve, in the workshop of Baccio Bandinelli, “flattering himself that Baccio, having been once the friend of Leonardo, would take notice of the boy and teach him with diligence.” It didn’t work out, says Vasari: and at once we remember that Bandinelli was the great enemy of Vasari, and that Vasari’s life of him is a devastating document, which accuses him not only of tearing up Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina cartoon, but also of destroying various unfinished marbles and models by the master. So we read this passage cautiously.


But we also remember that Vasari tells us that both Leonardo and Michelangelo had a high opinion of Bandinelli as a draftsman—not as a painter (he could hardly paint) but as a disegnatore. Bandinelli took in pupils. There is a drawing by him in the British Museum in which we can see young boys at work who may perfectly well include the young Pierino. Bandinelli’s academy is supposed to have been the first art school of its tradition.

Bandinelli is often mocked as a sculptor, on the basis of his Hercules and Cacus, which vies for attention with the replica of Michelangelo’s David in front of the Palazzo Vecchio. But few these days are inclined to mock the relief he executed for the choir of the Duomo, and nobody mocks the self-portrait as Nicodemus with the dead Christ, even though in this group, executed toward the end of his life, Bandinelli is pitting himself directly against Michelangelo. However detestable the character portrayed by his rivals Vasari and Cellini, Bandinelli was a wonderful draftsman. And there was something else about him which must have been impressive to the young Pierino: he had known Leonardo.

“Thus,” as the Italian critic Marco Cianchi puts it,

we would like to imagine Pierino listening to Baccio’s stories about his illustrious uncle and experimenting with sculpture, keeping in mind Leonardo’s appreciation for the reliefs of Donatello; or imagine him absorbed in consulting that unique graphic legacy constituted by the drawings of Leonardo, for example in the Battle of Anghiari, which were probably still in circulation, or some other invention that Bandinelli must certainly have recorded (as shown by his design for the Angel of the Annunciation, obviously inspired by Leonardo).6

One thing missing from Vasari’s life of Pierino is any account of how he trained as a metalworker, but it is obvious from details in his sculptures that he had an interest in this kind of work. In 1938 Ulrich Middeldorf was able to show that a design in a collection of drawings in Cheltenham matched a candelabrum base in the British Museum.7 The drawing is one of several sketches for decorative work that came from the pages of Vasari’s own album of drawings. Although they no doubt come from a later part of his career, it is worth mentioning here that Bandinelli’s father had been a goldsmith, and Bandinelli himself trained first in that art. The Cheltenham drawings, which are now in the British Museum, appeared to Middeldorf as if Vasari had picked them up “in the corner of the sculptor’s workshop, where old designs, sketches for work then being carried out and ideas for decorations had been carelessly thrown together.” He could have added that this workshop would have been in the Pisa home of a certain Luca Martini, of whom more in a moment.

Pierino’s father took him away from Bandinelli’s workshop and, Vasari says, entrusted him to Niccolò Tribolo, the sculptor, engineer, and garden designer, “who appeared to make more effort to help those who were seeking to learn, besides giving more attention to the studies of art and bearing even greater affection to the memory of Leonardo.” He was in his mid-teens, and it is here that his brief career truly begins, for he had been entrusted not only to a man who had commissions and needed work from as many assistants as he could find, and was therefore likely to encourage him, but also to a circle of artists and scholars who very quickly sensed his exceptional talent.

A decade later, Vasari painted this group for a ceiling in the Palazzo Vecchio; Cosimo de’ Medici, Duke of Florence, sits in the center. On his left is Tribolo, holding models of the fountains which he and Pierino worked on to beautify the gardens of the Medici villa at Castello. On his right is a woodcarver and architect called Giambattista del Tasso; he is holding a model of the Mercato Nuovo (what is now called the Mercato del Porcellino or the Straw Market, just north of the Ponte Vecchio). Surrounding Cosimo are his military architects, Nanni Unghero and Sanmarino, plus Bandinelli, Cellini, Luca Martini, and Ammanati.

Luca Martini was superintendent of the Mercato Nuovo project, part civil servant and part engineer. He was a rising star in Cosimo’s administration, a notary by profession, a scholar and poet by inclination, a friend of Cellini, a correspondent of Michelangelo, and a close friend and dining companion of Bronzino and Pontormo.


Tribolo was not only chief sculptor at Castello. He was the engineer in charge of diverting the streams to supply the fountains. He was creating one of those complex and playful water gardens of the period in which the fountains played their own sort of music, and there were water squirts which suddenly drenched the visitors. The fountains themselves were very tall, in the Mannerist taste. The bronze figure surmounting the Fountain of the Labyrinth is by Giambologna, but done to a design by Tribolo; when it is turned on, the woman appears to be wringing out her hair, and the water flows from her tresses. Vasari’s life of Tribolo is full of details about the way these fountains worked: one of the tricks was that the figures of little children around the shaft of the fountain remained dry as the water poured down, as if the children really were sheltered from the water as they played around the shaft. They looked out at you and laughed through the downpour.

Pierino studied hard and was eventually given a small piece of marble by Tribolo, with which he was told to make a figure of a urinating boy. First he made a model in clay (lost), then he carved a cheerful piece which survives in the museum in Arezzo. The joke is that the child is pissing through the mouth of a grotesque mask, which sticks its tongue out at us. The piece was well received, and so Tribolo gave Pierino a piece of sandstone from which to make a support for a Medicean coat of arms, the kind of thing that goes above a doorway, called a mazzocchio. Vasari says he made it “with two children with their legs intertwined together,” which led the American scholar James Holderbaum to suggest that a fragment now in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum might be the remains of Pierino’s second recorded piece.8 If so, it reminds us how, in the life of any work of art, there is often a danger period in which it suddenly loses value. If only it can get through this period unmolested, it may survive. This mazzocchio survived on the building mentioned by Vasari until the eighteenth century, and everyone knew what it was. Then suddenly they didn’t, and it became a piece of architectural scrap.

The next work Vasari records is a boy squeezing a fish, another of those fountain figures which were probably simply variations on themes already set forth by Tribolo. It was while working on this sort of thing in Castello that, in his spare time, Pierino started to devise his figure of Bacchus. First he made a model in clay, then he began working on a piece of gray stone. Vasari says it was “a figure of Bacchus, who had a Satyr at his feet, and with one hand was holding a cup, while in the other he had a bunch of grapes, and his head was girt with a crown of grapes.”

This brings us to a painting which, earlier this century, was supposed to represent Saint Luigi Gonzaga. Then it was cleaned, and the saint’s halo, and the standard he had been bearing, came off, revealing a wonderful Bronzino portrait of a young man. In 1960, when this painting was exhibited in London, Holderbaum put forward the theory that the statuette in the background might be the clay model Pierino made for his lost Bacchus.9 Vasari says that, until Pierino made his Bacchus and Satyr, few people knew that he was Leonardo’s nephew; but after his success with this work, he became known, “both from his connection with his uncle and from his own happy genius…wherein he resembled that great man, he was called by everyone not Piero, but Vinci.”

So if Bronzino had been commissioned to paint Pierino’s portrait, it might make sense to identify him by reference to the statue that had made his name. The clay model (if it is indeed supposed to be clay) shows the Bacchus without its right arm. One might fancy that the broken statuette refers to the recent death of the sitter. On the other hand, in other portraits of the period where sculpture has been included, the sitter is often being identified as a collector or connoisseur.10 Pierino’s stone statue was bought by Bongianni Capponi, from a prominent family of merchants, patrons, and statesmen, and Vasari says that “his nephew Lodovico Capponi now has it in a courtyard in his house.” Equally, then, one might suspect the portrait to show some member of the Capponi family. In Bronzino’s portrait of Ugolino Martelli, we see the courtyard of the Casa Martelli, with the still-existent “Martelli David” (then thought to be by Donatello) in the background. Membership of the family is established by reference to one of the family’s prized possessions.

Not only, then, does the appearance of a possible Pierino in a portrait not prove, of itself, that the sitter is Pierino. The fact was that when in 1960 the scholars sat around and discussed Holderbaum’s idea, they came to the conclusion that the statuette in the picture didn’t look like a Pierino anyway. It fitted Vasari’s description of the Bacchus perfectly, but didn’t look like Pierino’s work.


However, Pierino was changing shape before everyone’s eyes, first as a result of Middeldorf’s attributions, then through Holderbaum’s insights. Next, in 1974, Peter Meller made a great discovery.11 It had been known since 1896 that there was in Venice, in the Ca d’Oro, a socle with the inscription “Works of Pierino da Vinci,” and two coats of arms and the date 1547. Mellor discovered that not only did the arms belong to Luca Martini, Pierino’s patron. There were also, in the collection, two small bronzes that had originally fitted onto this base (a miniature version of the one designed by Michelangelo for the statue of Marcus Aurelius on the Capitol). There now existed, for the first time in centuries, a pair of signed and dated bronze statuettes by Pierino.

Many years after this discovery, Holderbaum had a brainstorm: the head of the little bronze Bacchus in Venice, he realized, looks just like the statuette in the Bronzino portrait. And so he revived his theory. It did not find favor at the National Gallery in London, where the picture now hangs. But it seems perfectly reasonable to follow the theory so far, and say that the statuette in the Bronzino portrait follows an invention by Pierino, which Bronzino would have seen either at the Palazzo Capponi or in the home of his chum Luca Martini.

Bronzino was thick as thieves with Luca Martini, and dedicated a very interesting poem to him, in which he describes being ill at home in his room in Florence, and hearing all the noises from the workshops in the quarter where he lived, and longing for Luca’s knock on the door and his voice saying “Apri, son’io“—Open up, it’s me. Bronzino also wrote a poem called The Paintbrush, which is apparently full of in-jokes of a homoerotic kind, and which suggest that this group of friends formed a milieu.12 A relief in which the young Pan flees from the amorous embraces of Olympus (in the Bargello) was attributed by Middeldorf to Pierino. It would appear to have been commissioned from the same milieu—a lighthearted treatment of an interesting theme.

To return to Vasari’s narrative, Pierino decided that he would like to go to Rome, to study not only the ancient sculpture there but also the works of Michelangelo himself and even perhaps, Vasari says, to behold the master himself, who was then alive and residing in Rome. He was more than alive and well—he had just finished the tomb of Julius II and embarked on his work on St. Peter’s.

But Michelangelo is one of the puzzles of this story—he is the dog that didn’t bark in the night. Pierino went to Rome, Vasari tells us, and then came back to Florence “after seeing Rome and all that he wished” and “having reflected judiciously that the things of Rome were as yet too profound for him, and should be studied and imitated not so early in his career, but after a greater acquaintance with art.” One can’t help speculating that this formulation is a cover-up for some disappointment, and that perhaps Pierino was either turned away from Michelangelo’s door or indeed that he was sent away by the Master himself, and that he felt this rejection rather bitterly. He had become—this is speculation—so used to being made welcome in Florence as Leonardo’s talented nephew that it came as a shock to discover that Michelangelo hadn’t actually liked his uncle at all, rather the reverse. Perhaps Pierino was rewarded with a sudden, unwelcome insight into that old rivalry.

He returned to Florence to work again for Tribolo on the Fountain of the Labyrinth, for which he made the shaft. He also made clay models of putti, which were cast in bronze by Zanobi Lastricati and can still be seen. And it was during this period of his career that Luca Martini met Pierino and became his patron.

The first thing Luca did was buy Pierino a piece of marble on which the young sculptor carved a Christ being scourged at the column. This (although the dimensions are different from those given by Vasari) is probably the relief now in the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. The next thing Luca did was introduce him to Francesco Bandini, who was a close friend of Michelangelo—so close that toward the end of his life Michelangelo gave Bandini not a drawing (as was his wont) but an actual statue, the Deposition that is now in Florence.

Bandini commissioned Pierino to make a wax model for his tomb (now lost). Then it was decided that Pierino was ready after all to return to Rome, so Bandini took him along, and Pierino stayed in Rome under Bandini’s protection for a year. Once again, we expect him to meet Michelangelo, but Vasari neither says nor implies that he did so. True, he says that Pierino carved a crucifixion in low relief, from a drawing by Michelangelo, and that he made a wax copy of the Moses to send as a present to Luca Martini. Pierino was clearly there to study Michelangelo—it is one of the ironies of the story that the boy brought up to emulate his uncle should have fallen so completely under the influence of his uncle’s great rival. One feels that if Pierino had met Michelangelo even only briefly there would have been an anecdote in it somewhere. Also, if Vasari’s life of Pierino were simply a hagiography, then he would surely have yielded to the temptation to make a set piece out of their meeting. The fact that he is silent on the matter makes one suspect that not even Michelangelo’s best friends could persuade him to meet this aspiring sculptor.

All year, Luca Martini remained in correspondence with Pierino. Vasari says he wrote to him by every courier. Presumably Luca himself offered this fact to Vasari; if so, it is a strikingly intimate detail. When Luca landed a very important job as the Medici family provveditore, or agent, at Pisa, he wrote at once to Pierino saying that he was preparing a room for him and would provide a block of marble three braccia in height. And Vinci, Vasari tells us, “was attracted by this prospect and by the love he bore to Luca.” Pierino was in luck. His patron—his lover, perhaps—had become Cosimo’s representative in Pisa, where he would live in some magnificence and keep open house, Luca’s establishment being the Pisan outpost of Cosimo’s court.

Pisa was, to the Florentines, a ghastly place. Cellini (who dedicated a poem to Luca Martini)13 says how the bad air there gave him a fever. It was Luca’s ambition to improve Pisa by draining the marshes, thereby reducing the fever (it was malaria) and making the land productive. Luca is called a notary in the old documents and an engineer in the modern ones. He was also a scholar who spent his time researching into Tuscan philology and preparing a critical text of Dante. The American art historian Jonathan Nelson identified three diagrams as having been drawn by Luca himself, in order to illustrate the astronomical meaning of certain passages in the Purgatorio. 14 There was, at the time, a cult of the old Tuscan writers. The scholars of the period are comparable roughly with those English scholars of the eighteenth century whose work on Shakespeare helped to found the cult of the Bard of Avon.

Whether eyebrows were raised at Luca’s inviting a seventeen-year-old sculptor to live under his roof is not known. It was unusual for an artist to live with a patron, and to travel around with him as Pierino later did. What was not unusual—it was the homosexual norm in Florentine culture—was for an adult to take a teenage lover.15

The block of stone Luca had ordered for Pierino turned out to have a crack which reduced it by one third. Vasari says that this caused Pierino to turn his proposed river god from a standing to recumbent figure. However, there is a statue of a standing river god in the Louvre which, as Middeldorf pointed out, is clearly by Pierino and which corresponds in other ways to the description Vasari gives: “…He made a young River God holding a vase that is pouring out water, the vase being upheld by three children, who are assisting the River God to pour the water forth; and beneath his feet runs a copious stream of water, in which may be seen fishes darting about and water-fowl flying in various parts.”

Pierino gave the river god to Luca, who presented it to the duchess Eleanor of Toledo, to whom, Vasari says, “it was very dear.” The duchess gave it to her brother, Don Garzia of Toledo, who accepted it for his garden in Naples. (The Louvre statue came from a garden in Naples.) So the likelihood is that Vasari never saw the statue he describes. This passing of the gift from hand to hand—from artist to patron to duchess to don—would have done nothing but good to Pierino’s reputation. The courtly gift increases in value at each transaction—quite the reverse of the case of a modern gift passed from hand to hand.

While Pierino was working on his river god, Luca, after a hard day draining the marshes, and a magnificent meal, and all business seen to, would retire to his study and write poems—all these people were poets—about how ghastly the Pisans were. Then (sitting no doubt under the portrait of six Tuscan poets he had commissioned from Vasari16 ) he would take out his copy of Dante and read about…how ghastly the Pisans were, how cruelly they had starved to death Count Ugolino della Gherardesca and his sons by locking them up in the Tower of Famine, a building which still existed but which was no longer in use because it was so pestilential that prisoners confined to it would die “before their time.”


The death of Ugolino seemed a good subject for Luca to suggest to Pierino. The art which Luca commissioned was propagandistic in tendency. One portrait of himself by Bronzino showed him as a donor in the presence of the Virgin, holding a basket of fruit and vegetables (including a prominent broad bean which, in Nelson’s view, might have been designed to provoke some discreet ribaldry in his circle), referring to the abundant wealth his work had brought to Pisa; another shows him holding a map, depicting the system for draining the marshes in a stretch of land owned by Cosimo. The bronze figures of Bacchus and Pomona had the same connotation of abundance, and Pierino was to carve a stone figure of Abundance herself to go in the market in Pisa.

Wherever Pisa was represented allegorically in Medici propaganda it seems to have been depicted as being grateful to Florence—but of course the Florentines were aware that, so far from being grateful, Pisa was always ready to rebel. The concerted efforts of Cosimo to improve agriculture and trade in Pisa were part of a pacification program: tax exemptions for those who returned to cultivate silk, refuge for Jews fleeing persecution in Portugal, guarantees of religious freedom and protection for foreign traders, an urban campaign of reconstruction, the draining of the marshes, establishment of a botanical garden, moving the court to Pisa for four months a year—it was a wholehearted attempt at permanent annexation. Luca and Pierino catch and express the spirit of it.17

Pisa was now prosperous, and grateful for its prosperity—that was what most of the propaganda says. But there was also a place for reminding oneself of the dark side of Pisa’s past. When Luca chose the subject of Count Ugolino there was no tradition of representing individual scenes from Dante in sculpture, or indeed in painting. There had been representations of the poem as a whole, but as far as Nelson could discern no individual, independent representation of a whole canto.

The translation of the Dante passage below is not the earliest version in the English language: that distinction belongs to Chaucer’s “The Monk’s Tale.” But this version played an important part in the dissemination of both Dante’s version and Pierino’s illustration of it, since it occurs in the painter and theorist Jonathan Richardson’s Discourse on the Dignity, Certainty, Pleasure and Advantage of the Science of the Connoisseur (1719). Richardson begins by recounting a prose version of the story, one also known to Luca Martini, the historian Villani’s account of Ugolino’s death: he was imprisoned for treason against Pisa, and his sons with him. The Pisans threw the keys of the prison into the Arno and refused to allow any priest or monk to confess Ugolino. So he and his sons died of starvation and the prison became known as the Torre de Fame.

Now Richardson wants to show how a poet treats the same theme as the historian, carrying it further “by revealing what happened in the prison.” Ugolino tells Dante:

The ancient tower in which I was confin’d,
And which is now the tower of famine call’d,
Had in her sides some symptoms of decay,
Through these I saw the first approach of dawn,
After a restless night, the first I slept
A prisoner in its walls; unquiet dreams
Oppress’d my lab’ring brain. I saw this man
Hunting a wolf, and her four little whelps
Upon that ridge of mountain which divides
The Pisan lands from those which Lucca claims;
With meagre hungry dogs the chase was made,
Nor long continued, quick they seiz’d the prey,
And tore the bowels with remorseless teeth.
Soon as my broken slumbers fled, I heard
My sons (who also were confin’d with me)
Cry in their troubled sleep, and ask for bread:
O you are cruel if you do not weep
Thinking on that, which now you well perceive
My heart divin’d; if this provoke not tears
At what are you accustomed to weep?

The hour was come when food should have been brought,
Instead of that, O God! I heard the noise
Of creaking locks, and bolts, with doubled force
Securing our destruction. I beheld
The faces of my sons with troubled eyes;
I look’d on them, but utter’d not a word;
Nor could I weep; they wept, Anselmo said
(My little, dear Anselmo) what’s the matter
Father, why look you so? I wept not yet.
Nor spake a word that day, nor following night.
But when the light of the succeeding morn
Faintly appear’d, and I beheld my own
In the four faces of my wretched sons
I in my clinched fists fasten’d my teeth:
They judging ’twas for hunger, rose at once.
You, sir, having giv’n us being, you have cloath’d
Us with this miserable flesh, ’tis yours,
Sustain yourself with it, the grief to us
Is less to die, than thus to see your woes.
Thus spake my boys; I like a statue then
Was silent, still, and not to add to theirs
Doubled the weight of my own miseries:

This, and the following day in silence pass’d.
Why, cruel earth, didst thou not open then!

The fourth came on; my Gaddo at my feet
Cry’d, father help me! said no more but died:
Another day two other sons expir’d;
The next left me alone in woe: their griefs
Were ended. Blindness now had seiz’d my eyes
But no relief afforded. I saw not
My sons, but grop’d about with feeble hands
Longing to touch their famish’d carcasses,
Calling first one, then t’other by their names,
Till after two more days what grief could not

That famine did.

From very early days this last passage has given rise to speculation that Ugolino did indeed, in the end, eat his dead sons. But I believe Dante meant that grief could not finish him off—only famine could.

Vasari describes the work Pierino made as follows:

He set his hand to making a scene in wax more than a braccio in height and three-quarters in breadth, to be cast in bronze, in which he represented two of the Count’s sons already dead, one in the act of expiring, and the fourth overcome by hunger and near his end, but not yet reduced to the last breath; with the father in a pitiful and miserable attitude, blind and heavy with grief, and groping over the wretched bodies of his sons stretched upon the ground. In this work Vinci displayed the excellence of design no less than Dante the perfection of poetry in his verses, for no less compassion is stirred by the attitudes shaped in wax by the sculptor in him who beholds them, than is roused in him who listens to the words and accents imprinted on the living page by the poet.

This seems to imply that Vasari had seen the wax, but it does not actually strictly do so. The attitudes were shaped in wax only. Vasari goes on:

And in order to mark the place where the event happened, he made at the foot of the scene the River Arno, which occupies its whole width, for the above-named tower is not far distant from the river in Pisa; while upon that tower he placed an old woman, naked, withered, and fearsome, representing Hunger, much after the manner wherein Ovid describes her. The wax model finished, he cast the scene in bronze, and it gave consummate satisfaction, being held by the Court and by everyone to be no ordinary work.

We can guess that Pierino would have made a cast from his first wax model, so that he would have one in reserve, in case anything went wrong with the bronze casting. So that the wax version of the relief, which is in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, could well date from Pierino’s day, and be finished by his hand. Vasari could have seen it along with the bronze.18

But how to account for the marked differences between the quite definite description by Vasari and the relief as it has come down to us in different media (wax, terra cotta, bronze, and marble)? The father is not groping over the bodies of his sons, but sitting upright. Only one of the sons could be said to be dead or dying. The old woman representing Hunger is not in a tower—indeed no tower features in the relief. One could call this all sloppiness on Vasari’s part, but it doesn’t seem like sloppiness so much as wrongness.

There are two possible explanations. One, put forward by Jonathan Nelson, is that the memory of Dante’s lines proved more powerful in Vasari’s mind than the sculpture he saw, and that is why he has the father groping around.19 Vasari could easily have known whole slabs of Dante. Benedetto Varchi says that Bronzino knew the whole of Dante by heart. Then there is the question of an aide-mémoire. There exist preliminary drawings by Pierino (they used to be attributed to Michelangelo) in the British Museum, but there is also a puzzling and unpleasant sketch in the Ashmolean which comes nearer to what Vasari describes. We know that Vasari owned drawings by Pierino; surely he must have owned a sketch of some early version of the composition, which included the woman sitting in the Tower of Hunger (a tower Vasari knew well: he worked as an architect in Pisa, and was responsible for incorporating the remains of the tower into an infirmary).

Here then is an elegant piece of anti-Pisan propaganda. Pierino and Luca have chosen the moment described in lines 67-70 of Canto XXXIII of the Inferno.

Poscia che fummo al quarto dì venuti,
Gaddo mi si gittò disteso a’ piedi,
dicendo: “Padre mio, ché non m’aiuti?”
Quivi morì…

(When we had come to the fourth day Gaddo threw himself outstretched at my feet, saying, “Father, why do you not help me?” There he died…)20

The suffering father realizes he can do nothing to save his sons. The group is depicted in the nude, and it comes with an allegorical apparatus: Famine, with her withered breasts, flies overhead, pointing a long thin finger at something (death, presumably). The personification of the River Arno lies at the base of the scene, with the Marzocco, the lion of Florence, just peeping out from under his left hand. The figures appear to be on an island in the river. It would seem that Pierino, rejecting the obvious idea of depicting them inside the tower, nevertheless gave them a setting where one might plausibly starve to death.

In her 1951 essay, Frances Yates suggested that the island was a reference to “Dante’s imprecation against Pisa at the end of the Ugolino episode, where he calls on Capraia and Gorgona, islands at the mouth of the Arno, to rise up and dam the river so that it may overflow and drown the inhabitants of Pisa who have been guilty of this crime.” Yates was interested in the development of the figure of Ugolino in the art of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, after Richardson.21 It is interesting to see that she has no admiration for Pierino himself, whom she calls “the pseudo-Michelangelo,” which is in no sense fair or true. Deeply influenced though he was, Pierino was not trying to pass his work off as Michelangelo’s. Nor is it his fault that in the eighteenth century both his major reliefs were attributed to the Master. Pierino himself had long since evaporated from memory. If a sculpture was perceived as having quality, why not give it an ambitious attribution?

This brings us back to Jonathan Richardson in 1719. Having told the Ugolino story first in the prose of Villani, then in the poetry of Dante, he now describes “a bas-relief I have seen in the hands of Mr. Trench, a modest and ingenious painter, lately arrived from his long studies in Italy.” And this relief—he doesn’t say what medium it is in—he believes to be by Michelangelo. “Michelangelo was the fittest man that ever lived to cut, or paint this story; if I had wished to see it represented in sculpture, or Painting, I should have fixed upon this hand. He was a Dante in his way, and he read him perpetually.” 22

But Richardson, for all his admiration of the relief, thinks that a painting would carry the subject much further:

And could we see the same story painted by the same great master, it will easily be conceived that this must carry the matter still further…. These would have shown us the pale and livid flesh of the dead and dying figures, the redness of the eyes, and the bluish lips of the Count, the darkness and the horror of the prison and other circumstances, besides the habits (for in the bas-relief all the figures are naked as more proper to sculpture) these might be contrived so as to express the quality of the persons the more to excite our pity, as well as to enrich the picture by their variety.

And this passage leads us to Richardson’s great point, his expression of the new paragone, or comparison of the relative merits of the arts:

Thus history begins, poetry raises higher, not by embellishing the story, but by additions purely poetical: sculpture goes yet farther, and Painting completes and perfects, and that only can; and here ends, this is the utmost limits of human power in the communication of ideas.23

Michelangelo never painted Ugolino, but if he had, that would have been the ultimate. Because painting itself is the ultimate. This argument was felt as a challenge by Joshua Reynolds who, in 1773, exhibited a version of the Ugolino story in which he depicts the moment on the first morning, when the prisoners expect food to arrive, but instead hear the creaking of locks and bolts. Reynolds’s Ugolino is said to derive from the prophet Aminadab on the Sistine ceiling.

Now just as the poetic translations of the Ugolino passage began to pile up in the eighteenth century (and by the end of the nineteenth there were an astonishing twenty-seven of them), so the pictorial versions came thick and fast. Yates takes us through the tradition, from Fuseli’s version, which was criticized at the time for having “the appearance of a man who, having in a fit of frenzy destroyed the young female who lies across his knees, has just returned to his sense of reason and remorse at the act he has just perpetrated….” Blake defended Fuseli’s Count as “a man of wonder and admiration, of resentment against man and devil and of humiliation before God; prayer and parental affection fill the figure from head to foot.” And Blake added his own versions, as did Flaxman.

On the European continent, Richardson’s work was influential but not always agreed with, of course. Lessing says in the Laocoon that Dante’s story of Ugolino is “loathsome, horrible and disgusting, and as such thoroughly unfit for painting.” That was in 1766, before Reynolds’s pioneering attempt. Falconet, the French sculptor and writer, knew the Reynolds picture from an engraving, and he wrote in 1781: “Mr. Reynolds has made an expressive picture. It is true that he has not done Ugolino devouring his hands, crawling on all fours; he has known how to choose from the Poet.” Maybe this passage came like a challenge, years later, to Carpeaux, who chose the finger-biting episode. Carpeaux, incidentally, could have seen a terra-cotta version of Pierino’s relief in Florence at the Palazzo della Gherardesca, where it would still have been attributed to Michelangelo. But for the inspiration for his celebrated group he began with another Michelangelo figure, the statue of Lorenzo de’ Medici in San Lorenzo. 24 The first French painter to take up Richardson’s challenge was the obscure Davidian, Fortuné Dufau, whose canvas, exhibited in 1800, was later re-signed and had a long career (until 1968) as the work of David.25

Frances Yates ended her account of the transformations of Ugolino with Rodin’s Thinker on the grounds that it was influenced by Carpeaux. But Rodin seems to have been interested in Dante’s story from an early age—there is a version of Ugolino dating from the Brussels period—and he made a bronze group later to correspond with the other episode in the tale that Falconet thought inappropriate: indeed Vasari’s incorrect description of the Pierino relief describes this Rodin group well—“the father in a pitiful and miserable attitude, blind and heavy with grief, and groping over the wretched bodies of his sons stretched upon the ground.” I do not know whether Rodin intended his sculpture to be displayed in this way, but at the Rodin Museum in Paris the figures are placed upon an island in a pool, reenacting the solution dreamt up between Pierino and Luca Martini.

One would expect that the “Michelangelo” that Richardson had seen in the hands of Mr. Trench would have acquired some celebrity. In fact it passed again into obscurity—but the grandest obscurity conceivable. It seems to have gravitated to Chatsworth, where its presumed authorship and perhaps its subject were forgotten, for it was set onto an oval marble plinth which had been commandeered to bear the weight of Canova’s colossal bust of Napoleon. Perhaps it seemed like an allegory of the miseries caused by war. It became known among the ducal staff as “The Hag,” and I was told that “we had to turn it around not long ago when they found out what it was”—which I took to mean that the relief had been considered too off-putting to show. It was the art historian Charles Avery who recognized its quality, during a routine valuation, when it chanced to catch the sun. 26

Pierino had seen some sketch-models by Michelangelo, Vasari tells us, of Samson slaying the Philistine. He suggested the subject to Luca, who ordered the marble from Carrara, and Pierino produced a group which now stands in the courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio. Vasari tells us that Pierino began to carve it “and carried it well on, imitating Michelangelo in cutting his conception and design little by little out of the stone, without spoiling it or making any sort of error.” It was his largest and most ambitious piece so far, and it was the last work he completed.

It looks forward, even though it is designed for a niche and is not a fully rounded composition, to the great groups of Giambologna, a sculptor born in the same year as Pierino, who arrived in Florence and first attracted attention in the year of Pierino’s death, 1553 (although his first commission from the Medici was not until seven years later). It is Giambologna who in the end fills the gap left by Pierino’s early death, and I make the comparison in order simply to point out the precocity of Pierino. One is hard put to piece together an oeuvre, let alone a style, from the first thirty years of Giambologna’s life. But Pierino already had a style by his late teens.

One sees its final flowering in his unfinished depiction of Pisa Restored or, as it is also known, Cosimo Expelling the Vices from Pisa. It is based on a reading of Michelangelo, but is rendered in a sweet calligraphy that is quite its own. The relief, which hangs in the Vatican Pinacoteca, once belonged to the eighteenth century sculptor and restorer Cavaceppi, who attributed it to Michelangelo on the grounds that it contains a profile of the Master himself. Vasari makes a point of saying that it was left unfinished, and it is not known whether Luca got someone to complete it, or whether even it was Cavaceppi who put the last touches to it. I can’t help feeling that the person who did so was responsible for the glaring error at the center of the composition, where Pisa herself is being helped up, but not by Cosimo. In a study for this relief, a drawing which Vasari owned and which is also now at Chatsworth, you can see what had been intended. Cosimo helps Pisa to her feet. But here the arm which should perform that task is being raised in a gesture of command, expelling the odd collection of vices from Pisa, vices which are depicted with the same tender care as the virtues coming in on the left. Vices and virtues alike carry these beautiful serpentine-lidded urns, which Pierino loved to design and invent, and which remind us once again of his goldsmith’s training, since the whole of this relief could be imagined executed in gold or silver. And these strange allegorical figures join the procession with the heroes of Pierino’s world—Cosimo himself of course, and Luca Martini, and Michelangelo, and Tribolo carrying the figure of a river god, and in the top left-hand corner, facing the viewer, Pierino himself carrying a wrapped object on his shoulder which, it has been ingeniously suggested, might be this very relief.

He was working on this, and on a tomb in Pescia for which he had only completed a male nude figure (in a manner which would soon be no longer possible in the religious climate of the time—it was too sensuous, too adoring of the nude physique). He was working on these two projects when the Duke sent Luca Martini to Genoa, and Luca,

both because he loved Vinci and wished to have him in his company, and also in order to give him some diversion and recreation, and to enable him to see Genoa, took him with him on his journey…. But soon he was attacked by fever, and, to increase his distress, at the same time his friend was also taken away from him; perchance to provide a way in which fate might be fulfilled in the life of Vinci.

Vasari alludes, in that phrase, to the prophecy of his genius and early death. Perhaps Luca seized on the story for his own comfort. At the very least, it seems not fanciful to detect Luca’s self-reproach pulsing through the last passage of Vasari’s Life. Luca parted from his sick friend, to the great grief of both of them, recommending him to the care of a friend, although Pierino was very unwilling to remain in Genoa. It seems that in his fever he conceived a desire to get back to Pisa at all costs, and so

…having caused an assistant of his own, called Tiberio Cavalieri, to come from Pisa, with his help he had himself carried to Livorno by water, and from Livorno to Pisa in a litter. Arriving in Pisa at the twenty-second hour in the evening, all exhausted and broken by the journey, the sea-voyage, and the fever, during the night he had no repose, and the next morning, at the break of day, he passed to the other life, not having yet reached the age of twenty-three.

This Issue

November 19, 1998