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VASARI’S LIFE OF IL SODOMA, 1568

 

Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (1477-1549), better known as “Il Sodoma” (The Sodomite), was a painter who lived mostly in Siena, but also worked in Rome for two successive Popes, and was one of the many Italian Renaissance artists known for his love of boys.

Presented here is everything of Greek love interest in "Giovannantonio detto il Soddoma da Verzelli", the biography of him by his younger contemporary Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) included in volume III of the second edition of his famous Le vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori, published by Giunti in Florence in 1568. The translation from the Italian is by Gaston du C. de Vere (Lives of the most eminent painters, sculptors and architects, vol. VII, London: Macmillan, 1914 pp. 242-258).

The biography has an unusually negative tone for Vasari, though he admits that some of Bazzi’s work was ‘truly beautiful, and much to be praised’.[1]

 

Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, called Il Sodoma

Self-portrait in Il Sodoma's fresco St Benedict repairs a Broken Colander through Prayer

If Giovanni Antonio of Vercelli, even as he had good fortune, had possessed an equal dower of merit, as he could have done if he had studied, he would not have been reduced to madness and miserable want in old age at the end of his life, which was always eccentric and beastly. […]

Now Giovanni Antonio was taken to Siena by some merchants, […]. In the beginning he executed many portraits from life with that glowing manner of colouring which he had brought from Lombardy, and he thus made many friendships in Siena, more because that people is very kindly disposed towards strangers than because he was a good painter; and, besides this, he was a gay and licentious man, keeping others entertained and amused with his manner of living, which was far from creditable. In which life, since he always had about him boys and beardless youths, whom he loved more than was decent, he acquired the by-name of Sodoma; and in this name, far from taking umbrage or offence, he used to glory, writing about it songs and verses in terza rima, and singing them to the lute with no little facility.[2]

[…]

Arriving next in Florence, a monk of the Brandolini family, Abbot of the Monastery of Monte Oliveto, which is without the Porta a S. Friano, caused him to paint some pictures in fresco on the wall of the refectory; […]. Now, while he was engaged on that work, having taken a Barbary horse with him to Florence, he set it to run in the race of S. Barnaba; and, as fortune would have it, the horse ran so much better than the others, that it won. Whereupon, the boys having, as is the custom, to call out the name or by-name of the owner of the horse that had won, after the running of the race and the fanfare of trumpets, Giovanni Antonio was asked what name they were to call out; and, after he had replied, "Sodoma, Sodoma," the boys called out that name. But some honest old men, having heard that filthy name, began to protest against it and to say, "What filthy thing is this, and what ribaldry, that so vile a name should be cried through our city?" Insomuch that, a clamour arising, poor Sodoma came within an ace of being stoned by the boys and the populace, with his horse and the ape that he had with him on the crupper.

[…]

Portrait of Il Sodoma in Vasari's Life of him

That work finished, he returned weary, old, and poor to Siena, where he did not live much longer; for he fell ill, through not having anyone to look after him or any means of sustenance, and went off to the Great Hospital, and there in a few weeks he finished the course of his life.

Giovanni Antonio, when young and in good repute, took for his wife in Siena a girl born of a very good family, and had by her in the first year a daughter. But after that, having grown weary of her, because he was a beast, he would never see her more; and she, therefore, withdrawing by herself,[3] lived always on her own earnings and on the interest of her dowry, bearing with great and endless patience the beastliness and the follies of that husband of hers, who was truly worthy of the name of Mattaccio[4] which, as has been related, the Monks of Monte Oliveto gave him. […]

A pupil of Giovanni Antonio, likewise, was a young man who was called Giomo del Sodoma; but, since he died young, and was not able to give more than a small proof of his genius and knowledge, there is no need to say more about him.

Sodoma lived seventy-five years, and died in the year 1554.

"The story of Alexander going to sleep with Roxana. In that work, besides other figures, he painted a good number of Loves, some of whom are unfastening Alexander's cuirass, some are drawing off his boots, or rather, buskins, some are removing his helmet and dress, and putting them away; others scattering flowers over the bed, and others, again, doing other suchlike offices." (Vasari's description of this fresco by Il Sodoma, ca. 1517)

 

[1]  “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’.” (Contessa Priuli-Bon, Sodoma, London: George Bell & Sons, 1900, pp. 2-3)

[2] Discussing Vasari’s possible motives for disparaging Bazzi, Jeanne Morgan Zarucchi, wrote: “There is also a strong possibility that Vasari’s moral outrage was influenced by Dante, who placed sodomites in the inner ring of the seventh circle of Hell, for having committed a violation against nature.” (“Vasari’s Biography of Bazzi as ‘Soddoma’ “ in Art History and Literary Analysis, Italian Studies, Vol. 70 No.2, May 2015, p. 190). Vasari was heavily influenced by Dante.

[3] Vasari seems to have got carried away here by his dislike of Il Sodoma. The historian Robert Henry Hobart Cust painstakingly researched all known documentation concerning Bazzi’s life and concluded there was no evidence that Bazzi and his wife ever separated, or that Bazzi died in poverty. Cust found a notice of a joint household with his wife in the official Register of the district in Siena where Bazzi resided between 1531 and 1541, and after Bazzi’s death, his wife was listed in another Register as ‘Ma Beatrice di Lucha Galli dona già del Sodoma’ and in an inventory of possessions as ‘relicta domini Johannis Antonii Sodone’. (Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, London: John Murray, 1906, pp. 19 and 237).

[4] “Mattaccio” meant “Madcap or buffoon” (Translator’s footnote 13).

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