Death in Florence

Charles Nicholl writes about a 15th-century mystery

Andrea del Castagno was one of the greatest Florentine painters of the Quattrocento – masterful in technique, spare and hard-edged in style, idiosyncratic to the point of strangeness. He was a hill farmer’s son from the Mugello, born in about 1419 in the hamlet of Castagno on the western flank of the Apennines. The first record of him is as a six-year-old bocca – a ‘mouth’, or dependant – in his father’s tax return. He is listed as Andreino, a diminutive which persisted throughout his life, possibly suggesting he was a small man. By 1440 he was in Florence, his talent already recognised by the civic authorities, who commissioned him to paint a huge propagandist mural on the façade of the Palazzo del Podestà (or Bargello) depicting a group of traitors hanging upside down. This debut earned him the rather striking nickname Andreino degl’ Impiccati (‘Little Andrew of the Hanged Men’). In 1442 he was in Venice, painting saints and prophets on the vaulted ceiling of San Zaccaria: his earliest extant work and the only one he signed (‘Andreas de Florentia’). The unusually youthful features of St Luke have been canvassed as an early self-portrait. For the next 15 years, until his early death in 1457, he worked like a fury, mostly in Florence and mostly in fresco, producing a series of dramatic masterpieces of which only a fraction survive, among them the grave and melancholy Last Supper in Sant’Apollonia; the moody St Julian in the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata (shown below); the equestrian portrait of Niccolò da Tolentino in the Duomo; and the windswept David, painted on a leather shield now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. In a lost Assumption of the Virgin, it is said, he portrayed himself as Judas.

Andrea del Castagno, ‘St Julian’.

There is no doubting Andrea’s impact among his contemporaries: a challenging figure with a faintly lurid reputation. But was he also a murderer? According to the early biographer Giorgio Vasari he was. In the Lives of the Artists (1550) Vasari describes in some detail Andrea’s cold-blooded killing of another painter, Domenico Veneziano, apparently motivated by envy of Domenico’s skills as a fresco artist. Matters came to a head, Vasari tells us, when both artists were lodged at the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, painting a fresco cycle, Scenes from the Life of the Virgin, in the hospital’s church, Sant’ Egidio. This magnificent work, painted over decades (c.1439-61) by various artists, including Domenico’s assistant Piero della Francesca, is now lost apart from a few fragments. Here is Vasari’s account of the alleged homicide:

Blinded with envy of the praises he had heard of Domenico’s talent, Andrea determined to be rid of him. He considered various ways of killing him, and one of them he put into action as follows. One summer evening, as was his custom, Maestro Domenico took his lute and made his way out of Santa Maria Nuova, leaving Andrea there drawing in his room. Andrea had declined his invitation to join him on a walk, saying he had some urgent drawing work to do. So Domenico went off and pursued his usual rounds of pleasure in the city. But on his way back, unknown to him, Andrea was waiting round a street corner, and with some lead weights he smashed both Domenico’s lute and his stomach with one blow, and also struck him violently on the head with them. Then he ran off, leaving Domenico half dead on the ground, and returned to his room in Santa Maria Nuova, and leaving the door ajar he sat back down at the drawing he had left.

Soon the sinister quiet of the summer evening is broken: the first sounds of alarm, the hospital’s servants hammering at his door with the news, Andrea running towards the commotion crying out ‘Fratel mio!’ (‘my brother’). He weeps feigned tears as Domenico expires in his arms. ‘For some while,’ Vasari concludes, ‘no one knew who had killed him. And if Andrea had not confessed it on his deathbed, it would still be unknown.’

It is a sensational story, skilfully told, but as a statement of historical fact it was blown out of the water in the 19th century, a period when the veracity of Vasari’s Lives came under much needed scrutiny. In 1862, the archival scholar Gaetano Milanesi – already preparing the ground for his great edition of the Lives (1878-85) – published a short essay in a learned Tuscan periodical, drily titled ‘An Examination of Vasari’s Account concerning the Death of Domenico Veneziano’, in which he demonstrated that Andrea del Castagno was buried in August 1457, while Domenico lived on until May 1461. Andrea was a man of strange powers, but murdering Domenico when he had himself been dead for nearly four years was beyond them.

This is generally taken as one of Vasari’s most egregious blunders, a glaring instance of his unreliability as a biographer, and of his weakness for melodrama, rhetoric, novelistic devices and moralising homilies – though these are the very things that make the Lives so memorable. It isn’t an isolated error: Vasari’s whole account of Andrea is shaped by the idea of him as a ‘homicidal traitor’. ‘How shameful it is,’ he begins,

for a person of excellence to possess the vice of envy, and how wicked and horrible it is, under the guise of pretended friendship, to destroy not only the fame and glory of another, but even his very life … And this was the wickedness of Andrea del Castagno, who certainly possessed great excellence in painting and drawing, but still greater rancour and envy towards other painters; and thus his dark crime overshadowed and buried all the splendour of his talent.

Yet despite the obvious falsehood of Vasari’s accusation, the story continues to niggle, and the questions it raises remain curiously unresolved. Why did Vasari think Andrea had murdered Domenico Veneziano? Where did the story come from, and how, given that it cannot be true, did it arise in the first place? These are the sorts of question one generally asks about dodgy historical anecdotes, because proving an anecdote untrue does not quite cancel it out. Even a false rumour is a kind of evidence: a presence in the collective mind of the time. And then there is another, more specific question. Is it possible that Vasari was partly right, and that Andrea del Castagno had murdered another painter in Florence called Domenico – a certain Domenico di Matteo, whose death, apparently from a violent assault, is recorded in 1448? This tantalising hint is mentioned in many books on Castagno, and indeed on Vasari, repeated in various ways and with various interpolations, fuelling a suspicion that somewhere behind the phantom homicide of Domenico Veneziano there lies a real homicide. And so the case against Andrea, which seemed to have been definitively closed in 1862, remains open a crack, like the door of his room in Santa Maria Nuova after he slipped back in there with blood on his hands.

On the question of the story’s provenance there are some fairly straightforward answers. As Vasari’s apologists have noted, he is only repeating, and thoroughly embroidering, a story which was already in circulation some decades before he set to work on the Lives in the late 1540s. The earliest surviving version is in a manuscript formerly owned by the Strozzi family and now in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Florence. It is a partial copy of the lost ‘Libro di Antonio Billi’, an important but somewhat mysterious document which contained 47 brief biographical sketches of Florentine artists ranging chronologically from Cimabue to Michelangelo. Antonio Billi was a Florentine merchant of whom little is known. He was born around 1480; he had commercial connections with the Strozzi and worked on their behalf in Naples; his family had a chapel in Santissima Annunziata. It is convenient to call him the author of this ‘book’ – a bound manuscript, not a printed book – though it is possible he was merely its owner. On internal evidence it was compiled sometime after 1506: it describes Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes as standing in the Loggia dei Lanzi, which would not have been true before that date. Its most recent editor, Fabio Benedettucci, dates the bulk of the text to c.1506-19, a bit earlier than previous estimates (he argues that the account of Michelangelo, which has material relating to c.1530, was a later addition).

It is here, some thirty to forty years before Vasari was writing his Lives, that we first hear of Andrea del Castagno as a murderer. As in the Vasarian version the incident is placed in Santa Maria Nuova, where ‘Andreino’ and ‘Maestro Domenicho da Vinegia’ are working on separate frescoes in the chapel of Sant’Egidio. At the point of mentioning these paintings, the writer adds laconically: ‘Maestro Domenicho was killed by the said Andreino with a blow from an iron hammer to his head, out of envy, and for this reason he could not finish the said fresco; and at his death Andreino confessed to this killing.’ This account is copied with a few minor variations of phrasing in a second compilation, dated to the early 1540s. Its author – traditionally called the ‘Anonimo Magliabechiano’, after the famous manuscript collection of which it is part – has recently been identified with some degree of certainty as Bernardo Vecchietti, a politician and connoisseur in the Medici circle. He undoubtedly took the Castagno story (along with much else) direct from the ‘Libro di Antonio Billi’ – indeed it is only through his marginal annotations that we know Billi’s name.

All the statements made by Billi are found in Vasari’s account. The setting and motivation of the crime – Santa Maria Nuova, rival frescoes, envy – are the same; the nature of the assault is broadly the same; the deathbed confession rounds it off. The only slight variant concerns the murder weapon. Billi calls it a mazza ferrata, which I have translated literally as an ‘iron hammer’. It would also be correct to call it a ‘mace’ (which is etymologically related to mazza) but this sounds more military, or even ceremonial. A hammer is conveniently there, part of the clobber of the Santa Maria Nuova workshop – we find ‘hammers of various sizes’ in an inventory of goods in Andrea del Verrocchio’s studio. It is the weapon to hand, ready to be snatched up by the killer in a moment of grim resolution. Vasari’s slightly curious alteration changes this to ‘piombi’ – definitely plural – ‘pieces of lead’ or (as translated by George Bull) ‘lead weights’. The lead weights most frequently used by fresco artists were plummets, hung from cords to determine and mark the perpendicular lines in the composition, and indeed one finds ‘plummet’ among the definitions of piombo in John Florio’s Italian-English dictionary of 1598. I imagine a gathering of lead plummets, with their cords bound or held together as a kind of handle, would make a pretty effective weapon for smashing up a lute, let alone a man’s head, and this may well be the logic of Vasari’s version of the murder weapon.

There is some uncertainty whether Vasari took material direct from these compilations, or had access to some earlier source which Billi had also used. It has been conjectured that the source of Billi’s information was the lost papers of the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio, who died in 1494, but as the existence of these ricordi is only attested by Vasari – who claims to have been shown them by Ghirlandaio’s son, Ridolfo – the evidence tends to circularity. (And wouldn’t Ghirlandaio have had more interesting titbits to offer than appear in Billi’s generally rather bland digest of the artists’ lives?)

One overlooked curiosity of Vasari’s account strongly suggests that he had another source besides Billi for the murder story. This is a six-line Latin ‘epitaph’ on Castagno, which he quotes in full, and which includes the lines, ‘Invidia exarsit fuitque proclivis ad iram:/Domitium hinc Venetum substulit insidiis’ (‘Envy flared up in him and led to anger, and hence he killed Domitio [sic] Veneziano in an ambush’). Vasari seems to be saying that this epitaph was an actual inscription on Andrea’s tomb in Santa Maria Nuova (‘He was buried with odious exequies in Santa Maria Nuova and this epitaph was made for him’), but for two obvious reasons it cannot have been. First, because Andrea was not buried in Santa Maria Nuova, but in Santissima Annunziata; and second, because at the time of his burial in 1457 the unmurdered Veneziano was still palpably around. There are therefore two options for the provenance of this epitaph: that Vasari cooked it up himself; or that he took it from some manuscript source which is otherwise unknown to us. The latter is much more likely. In the second edition of the Lives (1568) he removed all mention of it.

Billi’s account of the killing may have had some written antecedent, or may just have been some Florentine bottega gossip he had heard. Either way, it is certainly the earliest account we now know of. There are various references to Andrea in the years after his death – in the gossipy diary of Luca Landucci in 1459, in Filarete’s Trattato de Architettura (c.1462), in the journals of Giovanni Rucellai (before 1468) – but not a whisper of any criminality is to be found in them. The fullest reference is in Cristoforo Landino’s edition of Dante, published in 1481. In his discursive introduction to this, Landino has a long passage about the excellence of Florentine artists, in which Castagno is eloquently praised as a ‘lover of the difficulties of art’, and a painter of great vividness and immediacy (‘vivo et prompto molto’). Landino, born in 1424, was only a few years younger than Castagno and may well have known him. He was a high-minded scholar and poet who wrote in exalted terms about Dante as a profoundly moral guide to life, one who ‘thunders and rails against injustice, perfidy, incontinence, cruelty … and all the other vices’. If there were rumours abroad about Castagno’s perfidy and cruelty, it would seem that Landino either hadn’t heard them or didn’t believe them. It is also interesting that Francesco Albertini’s Memoriale, a catalogue of paintings and sculptures in Florence, describes the Sant’ Egidio frescoes as painted ‘half by Andreino and half by Domenico Veneto’, but does not make any reference to the fatal outcome of this partnership. This was published in Florence in the summer of 1510, and is thus broadly contemporary with the Billi dossier written sometime after 1506. One writer says nothing; the other says there was violence and murder.

To sum up this brief historiography, we find that the story made famous by Vasari has a fairly short pedigree which takes us back to the early years of the 16th century, and that prior to this no mention was made of it in any of the extant references to Andrea. The story emerges, or at least gets written down, some half a century after Andrea’s death – a time when a man fades from living memory, and his life story takes a shape beyond the vigilance of eyewitness: fertile ground for the anecdotal flora of early biography.

What of that other Florentine murder, and the possibility of Andrea’s involvement in it? This case was also discovered by the indefatigable Milanesi. It was first mentioned in his essay of 1862, and then again in the endnotes of his 1878 edition of the Lives. Having disposed so effectively of Vasari’s baseless speculation about Andrea and Domenico Veneziano, he offered this other murder case as an explanation of how the story might have originated:

We believe that it was a distorted tradition arising from an actual event that occurred at the time of those two artists; and this fact is that at the beginning of November 1448 a certain Domenico di Matteo, a Florentine painter, had been assaulted and killed by an enemy of his. Possibly (and this we say with some uncertainty) the man who killed him was a painter by the name of Andrea.

This is all the information he has, and the last part of it is curiously hesitant. Despite this, and despite some sceptical questions later raised by the Castagno scholar Alberto Maria Fortuna in an article published in 1958, Milanesi’s proposal has been routinely repeated by such eminent art historians as T.S.R. Boase in Giorgio Vasari (1979): ‘There was an artist murdered in Florence in 1443 [sic], a certain Domenico di Matteo … It is of course possible that Andrea was involved in this.’ And Peter Murray, who writes in his notes to the Penguin edition of the Lives (1987): ‘It seems certain that, about 1448, a painter called Domenico was murdered by another painter called Andreino, so it was hardly surprising that Vasari could not resist so good a story.’ Marita Horster’s exhaustive catalogue of the artist, Andrea del Castagno (1980), also mentions the ‘painter called Domenico di Matteo who died … by the hand of a Florentine painter called Andrea who disliked him’.

The original documentation of this case (for which Milanesi did not deign to give any reference) is in the Archivio di Stato in Florence. It can be found in an old ledger catalogued under the unpromising rubric of Ufficiali della Grascia – literally, the ‘Officers of the Grease’. The Grascia was an elected body of Florentine tradesmen which dealt mainly with matters relating to foodstuffs – weights and measures, licences and dues, infractions and punishments – but which also had the task of regulating guildless tradesmen and labourers. This brought into their purview the activities of Florence’s gravediggers, and for this reason they kept a register of burials in the city and its outlying suburbs. It is not as detailed as the ‘Libri dei Morti’ kept by the doctors’ guild – the Arte dei Medici e Speziali – but those do not go as far back as 1448, whereas the Grascia registers survive in a virtually uninterrupted run from 1385.

The register catalogued as Ufficiali della Grascia 189 is a stout leather-bound folio with large brass studs at each corner. It suffered from the floods of 1966, like so many documents in the archive, but remains mostly legible. The cover has an appropriate air of the tombstone, with its skull and crossbones, and its timespan (1439-49) inscribed in Roman numerals, and below this a crudely incised figure of a skeleton with a walking stick, like something from a Tim Burton movie. On the recto of folio 105, under the date 3 November 1448, is the entry found by Milanesi. It is the first of nine burials listed for that day.

A cursory examination reveals two things: first, that the name of the dead painter is not Domenico di Matteo, but Domenico di Marco; and second, and much more crucially, that there is no mention of him having been killed by a painter named Andrea or Andreino. There is a word that looks quite like Andreino, but it is actually ‘sandonino’. It looks like Andreino because in the clerk’s rather hurried script the long-tailed s and the a combine to look like a capital A. This may not be a perfect alibi, but in archival terms it seems pretty strong. Andrea del Castagno is definitely not present at the scene; there is only this little scribal poltergeist someone once thought they saw. The entry follows the format found in all the others on the page: name, occupation, address, place of burial, cause of death. It reads: ‘domenico di marco dipintore pplo di sandonino Rp [i.e. riposto] in dicta chiesa di rottura di capo’ (‘Domenico di Marco, painter, of the parish of San Donnino, buried in the said church, from a broken head’). San Donnino is a small town – then a village – in the flatlands along the Arno river a few miles west of Florence. It has two small churches within a few hundred yards of one another: San Donnino a Campi, where Domenico was buried; and Sant’Andrea, where there are frescoes in the Ghirlandaio manner, as well as a lunette attributed to the workshop of Francesco Botticini. These belong to the 1480s, but the church’s fine panel crucifix, intricately painted in tempera, is certainly earlier, and may possibly contain some brushwork by the local painter Domenico.

The removal of any reference to Andrea leaves just one possible link between the actual death of Domenico di Marco and the fictional death of Domenico Veneziano – his broken head. Both Billi and Vasari claim that Domenico Veneziano had his head smashed in, though they differ about the weapon that did the damage. But of course we have no way of knowing whether the cause of Domenico di Marco’s fractured skull was a violent assault by an ‘enemy of his’ (as Milanesi imaginatively has it) or merely an accident. As it happens, another story told by Vasari about Andrea del Castagno offers a plausible context for the latter. When he was working on his portrait of Niccolò da Tolentino on a wall of the Duomo, ‘a boy who was passing by jostled his ladder, and he flew into such a temper, brutal man that he was, that he jumped down and chased the boy as far as the Canto de’ Pazzi.’ A painter working on a rickety ladder high above a stone floor was in danger of serious injury, and it would be hard not to sympathise with Andrea’s angry reaction when the ladder got knocked. Poor health and safety among Quattrocento painters is likely to be the cause of Domenico di Marco’s death.

The idea that he was a victim of assault is further weakened by negative evidence. If it was a case of homicide – as Alberto Fortuna has reasoned – it would have been investigated by the Capitano del Popolo, which can broadly be described as the Florentine CID, but there is no mention of it in their extensive records. In the course of his search Fortuna serendipitously discovered a separate reference to an ‘Andrea pictor’. In January 1449, just a couple of months after Domenico di Marco’s demise, this pictor was standing at or near the Loggia de’ Pulci when a fight broke out between a perfumer (‘aromatarium’) wielding a wooden club and a bank official. If this painter is indeed Andrea del Castagno, as Fortuna argues, it is his only actual appearance in the police records of the day. He features not as a murderer, not as a transgressor of any sort, but merely as a bystander who was called as a witness.