Rosso FiorentinoGiovanni Battista di Jacopo di Gaspare (or Guasparre), called Il Rosso Fiorentino (the red-haired Florentine), was born in Florence on 8 March 1494. His father, Jacopo di Guasparre, was a palace guard for the Florentine Signoria. Nothing is known of Rosso’s earliest artistic training, which could have taken place in one of Florence’s humbler workshops. He was later either a pupil of Andrea del Sarto or an independent painter in his workshop, and painted the fresco of the Assumption in the courtyard of the Annunziata in 1513-14. Other early influences included Michelangelo (Vasari says that Rosso drew from the famous Battle of Cascina cartoon which was then on public view in Florence) and German engravers, particularly Dürer.
Perhaps because of a dearth of suitable commissions, Rosso left Florence around mid-1519. He spent part of 1520 at the court at Piombino (a port on the west coast of Italy) and arrived by April 1521 in Volterra, where he painted his most famous work – the Deposition now in the Pinacoteca there. He also appears to have visited Naples around 1520-21. Back in Florence, he received important commissions for Santo Spirito (the Dei Altarpiece of 1522, now in the Pitti Gallery) and San Lorenzo (the Sposalizio of 1523, still in situ). In 1524, he went to Rome. There he came in contact with other young Mannerist painters such as Parmigianino and Perino del Vaga, and saw the new style of grotesque ornament based on antique Roman motifs which Raphael’s workshop had used in the Vatican. Few paintings survive from this period, but he made many drawings for prints, including a series of the Labours of Hercules engraved by Jacopo Caraglio. During the Sack of 1527 he was taken prisoner by the Duke of Bourbon’s landsknechte and is said to have been terribly abused (being made ‘in bare feet and with nothing to cover his head carry heavy loads on his back and empty a cheese shop of almost all its stock’). He wandered around central Italy for the next three years (working in Perugia, Sansepolcro, Arezzo and Città di Castello), and in 1530 went to France, passing through Venice (where he stayed with Pietro Aretino) on the way.
He spent the last ten years of his life at the court of Francis I, who put him in charge of the decoration of the new royal château at Fontainebleau, and gave him a large allowance of 400 crowns, a house in Paris and a lucrative canonry at Sainte Chapelle. As well as working on mural and stucco decorations, he produced designs for masquerades and triumphs, church monuments, tapestries and silverware, and prepared a book on anatomy (now lost). He painted few panel pictures in France: Vasari mentions only a Dead Christ (now in the Louvre) and a Saint Michael (lost). He died in Paris on 14 November 1540. Vasari’s story that he poisoned himself out of remorse for wrongly accusing a fellow painter of theft may be unreliable, as he apparently received a normal burial.
Rosso’s paintings are rare: only some two-dozen survive and many of these are in poor condition. His early works belong to Mannerism in its earliest and most vehement phase, and several were left unfinished or rejected by their patrons. From around 1523, with the Sposalizio for San Lorenzo, his style became more ornamental, graceful and refined. His figures are often muscular nudes, based on Michelangelo, but sometimes impossibly elongated. His colour is bright and unrealistic, with shot-silk effects and bold contrasts. With his principal collaborator Francesco Primaticcio, Rosso was the virtual creator of the suavely elegant Fontainebleau style, which had a great influence on the development of the fine and decorative arts in France.
Arezzo. Badia of Sante Flora e Lucilla.
Visitation (executed by Giovanni Antonio Lappoli from a drawing by Rosso). Wood, 240 wide.
According to Vasari, Rosso stopped at Arezzo on his way from Florence to Rome in 1524 and stayed with the young painter Giovanni Antonio Lappoli. Rosso provided Lappoli with a compositional drawing ('a small sketch of naked figures, very beautiful') for a picture of the Visitation that had been commissioned for an altar being constructed by Cipriano d'Anghiari in the Badia of Sante Flora e Lucilla. The altarpiece was completed by March 1526 and has remained in the church (though not in its original location). Rosso's drawing – measuring just 13 by 12 cm – passed into the hands of the eighteenth-century Dutch painter August Christian Hauck. It was assumed lost, but surfaced very recently, having remained with Hauck's descendants. It was sold at Sotheby's, London, on 3 July 2019 for £417,000.
Baltimore. Walters Art Gallery.
Holy Family with St John. Wood, 64 x 43.
A thinly painted, unfinished sketch, dating from Rosso’s early, Florentine period. In the late nineteenth century, it was in the collection of Don Marcello Massarenti in Rome, where it was catalogued (bizarrely) as a work of Correggio. Massarenti's vast collection was acquired by the Baltimore rail tycoon Henry Walters in 1902. The picture remained neglected in the museum storeroom until 1950, when John Clark recognised it as a work of Rosso. It was restored in 1961, when heavy repaint was removed and strips added to the top and sides were detached.
*Portrait of a Young Man. Wood, 82 x 60.
The young sitter, seen against a deep blue-green sky and a landscape of craggy hills, wears a flat black cap over long reddish brown hair. His dark brown mantle is trimmed with black fur, and his grey doublet has richly brocaded sleeves. This impressive portrait was purchased by the Berlin museum in 1876 from the Marchese Patrizi of Rome. While the picture is fairly clearly Florentine and probably dates from around 1516-18, the precise attribution has not been conclusively settled. It was catalogued in 1891 (by Wilhelm Bode) as a work of Franciabigio, and this attribution was retained by the museum for many years. An attribution to Rosso, as an early Florentine work, was published first by Claude Phillips in the 1911 Burlington Magazine and, many years later, was influentially repeated by Roberto Longhi in a 1951 issue of the Italian journal Paragone. John Shearman (Andrea del Sarto (1965)) tentatively advanced a new name: Alonso Berruguete, a Spanish artist active in Florence in the early sixteenth century. The Rosso attribution was accepted by Antonio Natali in his recent Italian monograph on the painter (2007).
Boston. Museum of Fine Arts.
*Dead Christ. Wood, 134 x 104.
This fine, well-preserved, signed picture is probably the ‘Dead Christ held up by two angels’ (there are actually four angels but only two are very prominent) which Vasari says Rosso painted in Rome for Bishop Lorenzo Tornabuoni of Sansepolcro. It also fits the description of a Pietà ‘with four angels surrounding the holy figure’ mentioned in a legal document of 29 September 1527. Rosso was trying to recover the picture and other possessions, which he had left with the Poor Clares at San Lorenzo in Panisperna during the Sack of Rome. Rosso is likely to have drawn inspiration from Roman sources (the pose of the dead Chrst, with dangling arm and head tilted back, could have been inspired by a relief of the Bed of Polyclitus, while his muscular torso resembles the Gaddi Torso in Florence). The intended destination of the painting, which is unusually small for a church altarpiece, is unknown. (It has been suggested that the panel might have been intended for a private altar in a palace. Another suggestion is that it was commissioned by Bishop Tornabuoni for a church in Sansepolcro. Yet a third theory is that it was painted as the altarpiece for the Cesi Chapel in Santa Maria della Pace in Rome: Rosso was commissioned in April 1524 to decorate the entire chapel, but there is no evidence that he got as far as painting the altarpiece.) When mentioned by Vasari, the picture belonged to the poet Giovanni della Casa (1550) and his heirs (1568). It is not recorded again until 1820, when, having been acquired in Italy by King Charles IV, it was taken to Spain. It remained in Madrid until 1958, when it was acquired by Heinemann of New York from the collection of Infante Don Enrique Bourbón and then bought by the Boston Museum for $85,000.
Brunswick. Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum.
Death of Cleopatra. Wood, 88 x 75.
Cleopatra’s pose is based on a Roman marble of the Sleeping Ariadne in the Vatican. (The statue, which was thought at the time to represent Cleopatra, was acquired by Julius II in 1512 and Rosso could have seen it in the courtyard of the Belvedere Palace.) The painting was ascribed to Titian when first recorded in 1706 in Anton Ulrich’s collection, and there was an extraordinary range of subsequent attributions (Guido Reni, Morandini, Cagnacci, Schedoni and even Netherlandish School). The attribution to Rosso was made only in 1984 by Frederiksen, but has been widely accepted since. There are many old copies. (One in the British Royal Collection was formerly ascribed to Ludovico Carracci and is now given to Aert Mytens, a Flemish painter active in Rome in the late sixteen century.)
Città di Castello. Museo del Duomo.
*Christ in Glory. Wood (irregular octagon), 348 x 258.
This altarpiece is the last picture Rosso produced in Italy before his departure for France in 1530. It was commissioned on 1 July 1528 by the Company of Corpus Domini at Città di Castello. The work was interrupted, according to Vasari, when the panel Rosso had started was destroyed when a roof collapsed and he fell seriously ill of fever. The picture was later finished at Sansepolcro. The subject has been sometimes interpreted, probably wrongly, as the Transfiguration or the Resurrection. Vasari describes it as ‘Christ in the air adored by four figures, introducing Moors, gipsies, and the strangest figures in the world’. In fact, Rosso seems quite faithfully to have followed the contract, which stipulated that the picture should represent ‘the Risen Christ in Glory with the figures of Our Lady, St Anne, St Mary Magdalene and St Mary Amptiana (Mary of Egypt); [and] below them, in the said panel, several different figures to denote the people’. The panel was given its octagonal shape in 1685, when it was moved from the left transept of the Cathedral to the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament. The mutilation took place without the knowledge of the Canons, who took legal action against those responsible. Restored in 1982.
*Madonna and Four Saints (‘Madonna dello Spedalingo’). Wood, 172 x 141.
On the left are John the Baptist and a grey-haired Anthony Abbot. On the right are St Stephen and an emaciated St Jerome. On the step in front of the Virgin’s throne are two putti reading. The picture is Rosso’s first surviving altarpiece. It was commissioned on 30 January 1518 by Leonardo di Giovanni Buonafé, the spedalingo (director) of the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, in accordance with the will of Francesca Ripoi, a Catalan widow who lived in Florence. The altarpiece was to depict the Virgin and Child with SS. John the Baptist, Jerome, Leonard and Benedict. It was intended for Francesca’s burial chapel, dedicated to John the Baptist, in the left transept of the church of Ognissanti, but it was never installed there. According to Vasari, the picture filled Buonafé with horror when he saw it sketched-in, as he thought the saints looked like devils. He called in assessors, who cut the agreed fee (twenty-five large gold florins) by more than a third (to sixteen florins). After being adapted and partly repainted (the St Leonard, Buonafé’s name saint, was transformed into St Stephen, and St Benedict, the name saint of Francesca’s father, was turned into Anthony Abbot), the rejected picture was placed in an outlying church under Santa Maria Nuova’s patrimony (Santo Stefano in the village of Grezzano, near Borgo San Lorenzo). It was replaced by an altarpiece (now lost) by Ridolfo Ghirlandaio. By 1841 Rosso’s picture was in the gallery of paintings at Santa Maria Nuova. Transferred to the Uffizi in 1900. Unusually well preserved for a painting by Rosso (restored in 1995).
*Moses defending the Daughters of Jethro. Canvas, 160 x 117.
The unusual subject is taken from Exodus II, 15. In the background are the daughters of Jethro and their frightened sheep by the well. In the foreground, in a violent struggle of muscular nudes, Moses drives away the shepherds who had prevented them from watering their flock. The picture is usually identified with one of ‘some beautiful nudes in a scene of Moses slaying the Egyptians’, which Vasari mentions was painted by Rosso for Giovanni Bandini. (Bandini seems to have been a disreputable character, who helped to keep a brothel outside Florence and was repeatedly in trouble with the law.) It was probably painted around 1523-24 – either shortly before Rosso’s departure for Rome or shortly after his arrival there. Vasari says that it was sent to France, and corroborative documentary evidence has been uncovered recently suggesting that it was sold to Francis I in about 1530 by Battista della Palla. If the picture mentioned by Vasari is the one in the Uffizi, it was back in Florence by 1587, when it is recorded in the collection of Don Antonio de’ Medici (the illegitimate son of Grand Duke Francesco I and Bianca Cappello) at the Casino di San Marco. Unusually for Rosso, the picture is painted on canvas rather than panel, and it is in poor condition (with numerous repaired tears). It has been suspected (by Antonio Natali) that it is only an early copy of a lost original on wood that went to France and may have remained there. However, the presence of pentimenti and variable underdrawing on the canvas has been cited in support of its being Rosso’s original. It appears to be slightly unfinished (particularly the background). Vasari mentions a companion painting of Jacob at the Well, which he says was sent to England. This was once (optimistically) identified with a ruined painting discovered in 1956 and now in the Pisa Gallery.
*Angel with a Lute. Wood, 39 x 47.
This charming and popular little picture is almost certainly a fragment from a large altarpiece showing the Madonna and Child with Saints. The little angel tuning a lute would have been seated at the base of the Virgin's throne. A signature and date of 1521 were recently discovered under infra-red examination. (1521 was the year in which Rosso painted two altarpieces in Volterra.) The painting must have been cut down before 1605, when the fragment is recorded (as a Rosso) in the Tribuna of the Uffizi.
Portrait of a Young Girl. Wood, 45 x 33.
At some later date, this little panel was altered to portray the sitter as a saint (Mary Magdalene?) and make her dress appear more modest. A halo and veil were added, a red cloak was painted over her right shoulder, and the coral necklace was painted out where it overlapped the front of the dress. These additions were removed during a 2012 restoration. The portrait is of unknown provenance, and was first exhibited only in the 1890s (as ‘School of Andrea del Sarto’). The attribution to Rosso, as a very early work, was proposed by Kusenberg in 1931 and (tentatively) by Berenson in 1932. It has been doubted by some recent critics, including David Franklin (1994). A tentative alternative attribution has been made to Giovanni Larciani (the 'Master of the Kress Landscapes').
Portrait of a Man in Black. Wood, 83 x 64.
He is young and clean-shaven, wears a broad hat and a black tunic showing a white shirt over the chest, and holds a book and a scroll of paper. This little known portrait had been previously attributed to Domenico Puligo and to the highly obscure Tommaso di Stefano Lunetti (by whom there is a signed portrait in the Metropolitan Museum, New York). The attribution to Rosso, as a very early work, is recent and tentative. It was made by Antonio Natali, the Uffizi's Director, and is based on comparisons with apostles in the Assumption fresco of 1513-14 at Santissima Annunziata.
*Madonna and Saints ('Dei Altarpiece'). Wood, 350 x 259.
The Madonna and Child, enthroned in front of an arched classical niche, are surrounded by ten saints. In the foreground are St Peter (standing on the left with a book and key in his left hand), St Bernard of Clairvaux (kneeling in devotion in a white Cistercian habit), St Sebastian (pierced with arrows and with his hands bound behind his back), and St Catherine of Alexandria (seated on the step; the sword and broken wheel are later additions). The other saints are harder to identify, but probably include Augustine (standing on the far right with bishop's mitre and crozier), James or Roch (with pilgrim's staff), Joseph (the elderly bearded man resting on his staff) and Maurice (standing on the far left with a red banner). The picture was commissioned for the Dei family chapel in Santo Spirito as a substitute for the Madonna del Baldacchino (also in the Pitti), which was left unfinished when Raphael left Florence for Rome in 1508. It is signed and dated 1522. It remained in the church until 1691, when it was acquired by Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici, taken to the Pitti and considerably enlarged. It was originally almost square: the architecture at the top is not part of the original, and there are also additions at the sides and bottom. (The additions are traditionally attributed to the Medici court painter Niccolò Cassana.) The monumental original frame, attributed to Baccio d’Agnolo, remained in the church with a copy of Rosso’s picture by Francesco Petrucci. Picture and frame were reunited for the L’Officina della Maniera exhibition at the Uffizi in 1996-97. A nine-year restoration of the painting, completed in 2005, has revealed the bright, vivid colours. One of Rosso's rare surviving drawings is a red chalk study in the Uffizi for the figure of St Sebastian.
Profile Portrait of a Man (Francesco da Castiglione?). Wood, 51 x 40.
The identification of the sitter as Canon Francesco da Castiglione is doubtful, resting only on his supposed resemblance to Castiglione's portrait in Vasari’s fresco of the Entrance of Leo X into Florence in the Palazzo Vecchio. The sitter does not appear to be wearing the ecclesiastical garb appropriate to a canon. A resemblance has been noted recently between the sitter's profile and that of the Neapolitan poet Jacopo Sannazzaro on portrait medals, but this resemblance could well be simple coincidence. The attribution to Rosso, which is unsupported by documentary evidence or tradition, is disputed – it is rejected by David Franklin in his 1994 monograph but accepted by the 2003 gallery catalogue and by the catalogue of the 2014 Pontormo e Rosso Fiorentino exhibition held at the Palazzo Strozzi. The other leading candidate is Pontormo (to whom the portrait was attributed in an 1828 inventory).
Florence. SS. Annunziata. Courtyard.
*Assumption of the Virgin. Fresco, 360 x 305.
The Virgin ascends in a circle of dancing putti, two of which dangle her girdle in front of St Thomas. Vasari criticised the apostles’ ponderous draperies. It has been suggested that the St James (at the left edge, wearing a pilgrim’s hat) could be a portrait of Fra Jacopo, Rosso’s patron and prior of the church. The Assumption is one of a cycle of five frescoes by Andrea del Sarto (two), Franciabigio, Pontormo and Rosso representing scenes from the Life of the Virgin. It was painted in 1513-14 (three payments are recorded between November and June), when Rosso, whose brother was a Servite friar at the church, was only 19-20 years old. The Servite monks evidently did not like the result: they contracted Andrea del Sarto in June 1515 to repaint it, but this commission was never carried out. Like the other frescoes in the series, the Assumption has suffered from exposure and damp, and is very damaged and much restored. (Some of the heads have been completely repainted, and the blues on the Virgin's mantle and Apostles' garments have largely disappeared.) It was detached from the wall in 1957. It was newly restored for the Pontormo e Rosso Fiorentino exhibition held in 2014 at the Palazzo Strozzi.
Despite the negative reaction to the Assumption, Rosso was allotted another fresco in the Annunziata courtyard in April 1517, but he seems never to have started the work.
Florence. San Lorenzo.
*Marriage of the Virgin (‘Sposalizio’). Wood, 325 x 250.
Joseph holds his flowering staff and is depicted, very unusually, as a young man. He places the ring on the Virgin's finger in the presence of the High Priest. Only three of the other figures in the crowded composition can be plausibly identified. The two female saints seated on the steps are Apollonia (right, holding a book and pincers with a single tooth) and probably Anne (the Virgin's elderly mother, whose hands are clasped in prayer). The Dominican friar seated at the right edge – either gesturing towards the couple or pointing towards Heaven – is probably the Spanish preacher Vincent Ferrer. He is possibly a portrait of the donor. The altarpiece was painted for Carlo di Leonardo Ginori, a wealthy Florentine merchant banker, and it still hangs in the Ginori Chapel (second on the right in the nave). It was Rosso's last major Florentine commission before his departure for Rome, and is signed (both on the step and on the book held by St Apollonia) and dated 1523. The picture is well preserved and was recently restored. It left Florence for the first time in 2014, when it was exhibited briefly at the Italian Embassy in Paris, before returning for the Pontormo e Rosso Fiorentino exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi. The frame (of wood imitating pietra serena) dates only from the nineteenth century.
Florence. Tabernacle on the Via delle Campora (opposite the Villa Fossi).
Dead Christ with Saints. Ruined fresco, 260 x 180.
The outdoor tabernacle was open to the elements, and the fresco is so damaged by exposure that it is hard to decipher. It seems to have depicted a Pietà, above, with St Jerome on the right and two other saints on the left. It was identified in 1991 (by Antonio Natali) with the first independent painting by Rossi mentioned by Vasari – a Dead Christ in a tabernacle painted for Piero Bartoli near his villa on the Marignolle Hill outside the Porta Romana. It was detached, restored and returned to its original position.
*Gallery of Francis I. Frescoes and stucco reliefs.
Building work on the enormous gallery (almost sixty metres long) started in 1528, and the decoration was underway by November 1535, when the first payment is recorded for the stucco work. The gallery was probably finished by December 1539, when Charles V was taken on a tour of the palace. The lower part of the walls was panelled. In the upper part of the long sidewalls are twelve allegorical and mythological scenes (each 250 x 170), drawing on stories from the Iliad and the Odyssey and Ovid’s Metamorphoses but extolling the glory of the French king. The king is usually represented allegorically as some hero of the ancient world, such as Mars or Achilles. But in the scene of the Unity of the State he is unequivocally portrayed as himself, dressed as a Roman emperor with a crown of laurel. Much of the subject matter is obscure, and no documentation or preparatory drawings survive to aid interpretation. Many of the titles now usually given to the scenes were proposed by Panofsky (Gazette des Beaux-Arts (September 1958)).
The scenes do not appear to be in any particular order. Reading from left to right, those on the north wall represent: a Sacrifice (an elderly priest gestures towards the sacrificial altar, which bears Francis I's monogram); the Royal Elephant (the French fleur-de-lys and Francis I's emblem of a salamander appear on the animal's headdress and the king's monogram appears on its flank); Fire in Cantania or Filial Piety (interpreted either as the twins Amphinomus and Aenapias of Catania saving their parents when Mount Etna erupted or as Aeneas fleeing burning Troy with his father Anchises on his back); the Revenge of Nauplius (King Nauplius, seeking revenge for the killing of his son Palamedes, lures the Greek fleet onto the rocks by lighting beacons on the treacherous shore); Education of Achilles (the centaur Chiron gives the budding warrior lessons in swimming, fencing and hunting); and Venus Frustrated (the disconsolate-looking goddess, standing naked in her bath, appears to have been abandoned by her lover Mars, whose arms and armour are held by putti).
The scenes on the south wall are: Ignorance Banished (Francis I enters the Temple of Jupiter with a sword and book, while a crowd of blindfolded men and women grope and stumble outside); the Unity of the State (Francis I, depicted as a Roman Emperor holding court, displays a pomegranate – symbolising his power to unify his people as the fruit holds together its many seeds); Cleobis and Biton (the two sons of the priestess Cydippe take their elderly mother to the temple in a cart); either the Death of Adonis (Venus descending in a chariot to mourn the beautiful youth gored by a wild boar) or the Punishment of Attis (Cybele coming in her chariot to punish the infidelity of her son-lover, who has castrated himself in his madness); the Fountain of Youth (eternal youth, symbolised by a beautiful young woman seated on a donkey, is bestowed on a snake by a kiss); and the Battle of the Centaurs (drunken centaurs fight the Lapiths at the wedding feast of King Pirithous).
The extravagantly ornate stucco decoration framing the scenes incorporates figures of nymphs, putti and Michelangelesque nudes, elements of classical architecture (pediments, columns, volutes, triglyphs and brucania), garlands of fruit, masks, scrolls, and 'strapwork' (reminiscent of rolled leather). Above each scene is the king's symbol of a golden salamander in a ring of fire. At the two ends of the gallery there were originally oil paintings by Rosso of Bacchus and Venus and Cupid and Venus. The Bacchus and Venus, or a copy of it, is now in Luxembourg.
The frescoes are in a poor state and were repainted on at least three occasions. A restoration in the 1960s removed the repaint, but much of the original colour and detail are irreparably lost. Engravings by Rosso's assistant Antonio Fantuzzi help clarify some details; but the prints differ from the frescoes in significant ways, and were presumably made from the preparatory drawings rather than from the murals themselves. The frescoes are all that remain of Rosso’s extensive decorations at the château, which were partly destroyed soon after his death by Primaticcio. Rosso led a large team of artists and craftsmen (Vasari mentions eleven by name and says there were many others), and much of the work, both in fresco and stucco, must be by assistants. The technique of high relief stucco decoration was probably brought by Primaticcio from Mantua, where he had worked on the Palazzo del Te under Giulio Romano.
Frankfurt. Städel Museum.
Madonna and Child with St John. Wood, 102 x 78.
The Christ Child, standing on a step, gazes intently down at the little St John the Baptist, who sits on a cushion. St John's reed cross lies in the foreground. The flowers strewn on the step have been identified as lilies, jasmine and violets (symbolising grace, purity and humility). The picture is attributed to Rosso's earliest (and most Sartesque) period (around 1514-17). The attribution was formerly disputed, but seems to have won general support since its strong endorsement in John Shearman's Andrea del Sarto (1965). The picture was acquired by the Frankfurt gallery in 1852 from the Marchese Andrea Gerini of Florence (via a London dealer called Farrer). It has been recently identified (by Charles Avery in the March 2018 issue of Colnaghi Studies) with a painting of the Virgin by Rossi recorded in 1717 in the collection of the Florentine writer Filippo Baldinucci.
Liverpool. Walker Art Gallery.
Portrait of Man with Helmet. Wood, 81 x 65.
The young man is seated, his right arm resting on the arm of his chair and his left hand resting on the splendid helmet balanced on his knee. The portrait featured in William Roscoe’s sale at Liverpool in 1816 as ‘Federigo, Duke of Urbino, by Giorgione’. It was bought for 46 guineas by Doctor Peter Crompton, a wealthy brewer and political radical, who donated it to the Liverpool Royal Institution. Berenson’s attribution to Dosso Dossi in the first (1907) edition of his North Italian Painters was largely accepted until 1950, when the picture was cleaned and Rosso’s signature (‘Rubeus Faciebat’) revealed on the arm of the chair. It is Rosso's only signed portrait, and was probably painted in the early to middle 1520s, either in Florence or Rome. It seems to have been damaged by fire at some time and is much restored. The best preserved parts are the helmet and the crumbled silk fabric of the voluminous right sleeve.
London. National Gallery.
*Portrait of a Young Man with a Letter. Wood, 86 x 67.
The young man, elegantly dressed in a black silk gown with damask sleeves, stares at the viewer, as though interrupted in the act of reading the letter he is holding. Dated 22 June 1518 on the letter (which is otherwise illegible), the picture is probably the earliest of Rosso’s few surviving portraits, painted when he was still associated with Andrea del Sarto’s workshop. Unrecorded before 1965, when sold (as Rosso) by Colnaghi. Acquired by the National Gallery in 2000 for around £2 million. The picture is exceptionally well preserved and the sketchy brushstrokes are clearly visible.
Knight of St John. Wood, 97 x 76.
Much darkened, damaged and restored (the original paint on the beard, ear and bottom of the costume is largely lost). The cross that identifies the sitter as a Knight of St John is worn on his wrist. His left hand rests on a sword hilt. The portrait was once ascribed to Sebastiano del Piombo (when in the collection of King Louis Philippe), and was long catalogued simply as Italian or Florentine School. The attribution to Rosso was advanced by Zeri (1976) and supported by Franklin (1989 and 1994) and Natali (2006). Natali suggests that the sitter could be Rinieri Dei, who commissioned Rosso’s altarpiece for Santo Spirito (now at the Pitti) and had links with the Knights of St John. A date of around 1520 has been suggested. An alternative attribution to Polidoro da Caravaggio was made by Pierluigi Leone de Castris in his 2001 monograph on Polidoro and was accepted by the National Gallery in 2003. However, the gallery has since reversed that decision, and the portrait was included as a work of Rosso in the Pontormo e Rosso Fiorentino exhibition held at the Palazzo Strozzi in 2014. One of ninety-two paintings bequeathed to the National Gallery in 1876 by the London merchant Wynn Ellis.
London. Royal Academy.
Leda and the Swan. Paper, 180 x 256.
The large cartoon, now badly rubbed, was drawn in black chalk on sixteen sheets of paper joined together. It was acquired in Italy around 1771 by the English collector William Lock, whose son presented it to the Royal Academy in 1821. It is a copy of Michelangelo's Leda and the Swan, which was painted during the Siege of Florence (1529-30) for Alfonso d'Este, Duke of Ferrara. Michelangelo's painting was never delivered to the Duke, but was sent instead to France, where it was acquired by Francis I and, in the seventeenth century, burnt on the grounds of its indecency. The Royal Academy's drawing was long believed to be Michelangelo's original cartoon for his painting. It was Maurice Roy in 1923 (Gazette des Beaux-Arts) who first identified the drawing with the cartoon of Leda 'of singular beauty' mentioned by Vasari that was left in Rosso's studio after his death. The Rosso attribution has been accepted by some scholars (including the curators of the 2013 Rosso exhibition at Fontainebleau) but remains open to debate. There is a damaged early painted copy of MIchelangelo's Leda in the National Gallery, London. This, too, has sometimes been ascribed to Rosso (particularly by Italian critics), but is classed by the museum simply as 'after MIchelangelo'.
Los Angeles. Museum of Art.
*Virgin and Child with St Elizabeth (or Anne), St John and Two Angels. Wood, 161 x 119.
It is unclear whether this strange, unfinished picture – the figures only broadly sketched in – was intended as a small altarpiece or for private devotion. The exact subject is obscure. The Virgin, kneeling on the right, appears to be comforting the Christ Child, who clings to the front of her blue dress. The infant St John the Baptist reclines on the left, as though in troubled sleep. The emaciated old woman seated on the left with a book wedged under her arm has been variously identified as St Anne (the Virgin's mother), St Elizabeth (the Baptist's elderly mother) or a sibyl (prophetess of the ancient world). The old woman (whoever she is) may have frightened the Christ Child by prophesying his tragic destiny. Two outsized child angels embrace as they hover in the background. The picture has sometimes been called simply a Holy Family and sometimes an allegory of salvation or of redemption. It is an early work, close in style to the famous Volterra Descent from the Cross (1521), and the composition seems to derive in part from Andrea del Sarto’s Holy Family in the Louvre.
The picture came from a private collection in Rome, where it was traditionally ascribed to Michelangelo. The attribution to Rosso was made by Roberto Longhi in 1951. Donated to the museum by Dr and Mrs Herbert T. Kalmus in 1954. Herbert Kalmus, the founder of technicolor, had been given the picture in 1939 by his German cousin, Ernest Remak, whom he had helped to escape Europe at the outbreak of the Second World War.
Luxembourg. Musée de L’Etat.
Bacchus, Venus and Cupid. Canvas, 209 x 162.
This picture has been identified with an oil painting that hung at one end of the Gallery of Francis I at Fontainebleau. According to Vasari’s description, this represented Bacchus (‘a naked youth, tender, delicate and soft’), ‘a satyr raising part of a canopy’, and ‘a child riding a bear’ (actually a lion in the Luxembourg picture). The damaged picture may be by Rosso himself or, perhaps more likely, one of his collaborators in France. (The canvas support would suggest a copy, as Rosso generally painted on panel and Vasari called the original a tavola.) It has been on public view only since 1989, after restoration had removed layers of dirty varnish.
*Portrait of a Young Man. Wood, 120 x 86.
The youth sits, left hand on his hip with a rather precocious air, on a table covered with an oriental carpet. In the left background, the marble cornice of a doorway has a large Ionic capital with a grotesque head. In the right background, there is an icon of the Virgin and a draped curtain showing a knight holding a banner. Unfinished: the only fully worked parts appear to be the carpet and the young man's head and shirt. The portrait, which had been considered since the end of the seventeenth century (when it was in the Farnese collection in the Palazzo del Giardino at Parma) to be by Parmigianino, was attributed to Rosso only in 1940 (by Roberto Longhi). It has been suggested recently (by Philippe Costamagna in the catalogue of the 2014 Pontormo and Rosso exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi) that the sitter could be Giampaolo dell'Anguillara – a young aristocrat of Orsini blood who fought as a soldier in the papal cause. Rosso stayed with the Count of Anguillara at Cerveteri in the summer of 1524 or 1525. (Rosso was joined at Cerveteri by Benvenuto Cellini, who mentions the visit in his autobiography.) Alternatively, the portrait could have been painted in Rome and left unfinished when the city was sacked by Charles V's mercenaries in May 1527. Previously much repainted; cleaning in 1957 revealed the marble cornice, wall hangings and curtain in the background.
*Pietà. Canvas (transferred from panel in 1802), 125 x 159.
The figures are viewed close up against the dark mouth of the rock-cut tomb. The face of the red-bearded Christ is still twisted in pain. His emaciated, deathly grey body rests on cushions between Mary Magdalene, who holds his feet, and a youthful, athletic John the Evangelist, who kneels with his back turned towards us. The distraught Virgin is supported by one of the Holy Women. Her arms are extended across the full width of the picture in the attitude of her son on the cross, and her face resembles Michelangelo's Dawn from the Medici tombs in San Lorenzo. This intensely emotional picture is the only indisputable easel painting of Rosso’s French period (1530-40), and probably one of his last works. It was painted for Anne de Montmorency, Constable of France, whose crest (blue alérions on an orange ground) is emblazoned on a cushion. Vasari describes the picture at Montmorency’s château at Ecouen, where it remained until the Revolution. There is no record of the painting’s original location in the château, but the subject suggests that it was intended to hang in a funerary chapel. It was confiscated in 1793 and entered the Louvre in 1798. The picture, originally on panel, has been twice transferred to a new canvas support and is severely damaged. X-rays have revealed another, very different composition beneath the paint surface in which the figures are reversed and the Virgin passionately embraces the dead Christ.
Challenge of the Pierides. Canvas (transferred from panel), 13 x 21.
The subject is taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The nine Pierides, daughters of the Macedonian king Pierus, unwisely challenged the nine Muses to a singing contest on Mount Parnassus. The adjudicating nymphs declared the Muses the winners and the Pierides, clamorous in disputing the decision, were transformed into chattering magpies. The composition was originated by Rosso in Rome in 1524-27, under the influence of Raphael’s Parnassus in the Vatican Stanze, and was engraved by Jacopo Caraglio. The little panel in the Louvre was once accepted as Rosso’s original, but is now sometimes regarded as an early copy. It is first recorded in 1614 in the possession of Marquis Crescentius, architect to the King of Spain, was subsequently owned by Charles I of England, and was acquired by Louis XIV in 1662 from Jabach. The painting was transferred from panel to canvas in 1765 by Robert Picault (who signed and dated his restoration on the back of the canvas).
Mars and Venus. Paper, 43 x 34.
A highly finished drawing executed in pen and black ink, with white highlights, on brown paper. Venus is undressed by the Graces and Mars is disarmed by Cupid. Swarms of putti scatter Venus's roses, play with Mars's armour and shoot arrows of love. The drawing is mentioned by Vasari, who says it was made during Rosso's brief visit to Venice (1530) and given to Pietro Aretino. Aretino is thought to have given it to Francis I to promote Rosso's move to the French court. The drawing was made famous by an engraving, also mentioned by Vasari, which was formerly attributed to Jacopo Caraglio but is now given to the German Jacob Binck or to the anonymous 'Master HCB' (named after a monogram on the unique first-state impression of the print in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France).
Paris. Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts.
Pandora's Box. Paper, 24 x 39.
Pandora lifts the lid from a small jar (pyxis). A bird, representing Hope, clings by its beak to the rim. Seven full-size figures, symbolising the evils released into the world, fight each other or flee from the scene. Sloth leans on a stick, Pride reaches towards heaven, Anger stabs a man, Dispair tears her hair, Envy bites a snake, and Avarice clutches a money bag. The hooded figure threatening Pandora with hammers might represent Remorse. This fine study, fluidly executed in brown ink and wash, is one of Rosso's few surviving French drawings. It has been suggested that the composition was intended for a fresco in the Gallery of Francis I at Fontainebleau, but there is no hard evidence for this. A print was made after the design by Antonio Fantuzzi, a Bolognese painter and printmaker active at Fontainebleau.
Pisa. Museo Nazionale di San Matteo.
Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well. Wood, 164 x 117.
This extremely damaged painting came to public attention in 1956, when it was included in the Mostra del Pontormo e Del Primo Manierismo at the Palazzo Strozzi, Florence. It was identified with a picture described by Vasari, showing ‘Jacob taking water to drink from the women at the spring, which was regarded as inspired, as it contained male nudes and women executed with consummate grace …’ This picture, a companion work to the Daughters of Jethro in the Uffizi, was painted for the Florentine merchant Giovanni Cavalcanti, and Vasari says that it was sent to England. The picture in Pisa is now generally regarded as only an old copy.
Rome. Galleria Borghese.
Holy Family. Wood, 64 x 40.
The picture seems to be slightly unfinished. It is recorded in the 1693 Borghese inventory as a work of Parmigianino. Venturi catalogued it in 1893 as ‘Florentine School’ and Berenson listed it in 1936 under the Sienese painter Domenico Beccafumi. The attribution to Rosso, as a very early work, was made by Roberto Longhi in 1951. There is a similar picture in the gallery at Arezzo.
Rome. Santa Maria della Pace.
Creation of Adam and Fall of Man. Frescoed lunette.
The fresco is over the second chapel on the right of the nave. Rosso was contracted on 26 April 1524 by Angelo di Piero Cesi, a consistorial lawyer and apostolic secretary to Julius II, to decorate the entire chapel, paint the altarpiece and produce stucco ornamentation. He seems to have quarrelled with Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, the architect of the chapel, and he completed only this Michelangelesque fresco in the window lunette. It is the only documented painting of his Roman period. Vasari criticised it severely as ‘the worst he ever did in all his days’. Very damaged and restored, and difficult to see in the poor light.
St Petersburg. Hermitage.
Madonna in Glory. Canvas (transferred from panel in 1862), 111 x 76.
This strange painting has similarities with the upper part of Rosso’s fresco of the Assumption in the Annunziata courtyard. The attribution to him is traditional. It has often been accepted – though Roberto Longhi (1969) and Philippe Costagna (1984) have ascribed the picture to the Spanish Mannerist Pedro Machuca. If by Rosso, it would be an early or comparatively early work, painted in Florence or Rome: datings have ranged from ‘1512-13’ to ‘about 1524-5’. The picture was purchased in Paris by Emperor Alexander I in 1810. (It was acquired through Baron Vivant Denon, Director of the new Musée Napoléon, and had presumably been looted in Italy by the French occupiers.) The paint surface has been damaged by overcleaning and by the transfer (in 1862) from panel to a canvas. A thorough recent restoration, completed in 2018, removed old repaint and a thick layer of brownish varnish. The background now appears bluer and less green, and the flesh tones are less red. The angels in the upper corners are now more clearly visible, and one of the muscular putti frolocking at the bottom of the picture was revealed to be wearing an ivy wreath.
A small fragment of what appears to have been another version of the picture has been discovered recently in a private collection. The fragment (only 39 x 33) shows the two putti embracing from the lower centre of the composition. It was sold, with an attribution to Rosso, at Sotheby's, New York, in January 2014.
Sansepolcro. San Lorenzo.
*Deposition from the Cross. Wood, 270 x 201.
The altarpiece has always been in a building on this site. This was originally the church of Santa Croce, which was enlarged in 1554 to house the Benedictine nuns of San Lorenzo, and converted into a female orphanage (the Orfanelle) in 1810 when the convent was suppressed. The picture was commissioned by the Confraternity of Santa Croce (a brotherhood of flagellants) on 23 September 1527 and must have been completed by 1 July 1528, when Rosso signed the contract for the Città di Castello altarpiece. Rosso, then at a low point in his fortunes following the Sack of Rome, was paid the modest price of forty-five large florins. The Santa Croce Confraternity asked Rosso to paint ‘the Deposition from the Cross with other figures and images appropriate to the Deposition mystery’. His conception of the subject is highly original and violently emotional. The naked body of the dead Christ is placed across the Virgin’s knees by the young St John the Evangelist and the elderly Nicodemus. The fainting Virgin is supported from behind by Joseph of Arimathea (in a red turban, holding her raised right arm) and a nun saint (possibly Clare). One of the Maries kneels, bottom left, with the winding sheet, while the Magdalen prostrates herself by Christ’s left foot. A most curious detail is the presence of a monkey among the crowd of figures behind the Virgin. (The monkey is conceivably a portrait of Rosso's own pet Barbary ape, which was the subject of one of Vasari's most amusing anecdotes.)
The lunette above the altarpiece is attributed to the local painter Raffaellino dal Colle, who according to Vasari was originally offered the commission but generously withdrew in Rosso’s favour. The frame (commissioned four and a half years before the altarpiece from two local woodworkers called Romano Berto Alberti and Schiatto Angelo Schiatti) is lost.
Restored in 1981, and again under restoration in recent years.
Vienna. Kunsthistorisches Museum.
Tapestries after Frescoes at Fontainebleau. Wool and silk, with gold and silver thread, each around 320 x 620.
A set of six tapestries reproducing frescoes by Rosso and Primaticco in the Gallery of Francis I at Fontainebleau. The tapestries were woven in the workshop established by Francis I at Fontainebleau during the 1540s. Their original purpose is unclear; but they may have been intended as a gift to the Emperor Charles V, who visited Fontainebleau in December 1539. They came to Vienna in 1570 when Charles IX of France married Elizabeth of Habsburg. Restored and partly rewoven in 1688-90.
Volognano. San Michele.
‘Madonna della Cintola’. Wood, 280 x 184.
The picture hangs over an altar on the right of the church. The Virgin ascends from the tomb holding her girdle, surrounded by putti. On the left, St Thomas and Anthony Abbot; on the right, Jacob and St Francis. An early work of Rosso according to Liciano Berti (Il Primato del Disegno (1980)), dating perhaps from 1514-16, when he was still strongly under the influence of Andrea del Sarto. Alternatively ascribed to Andrea del Sarto’s workshop, to Puligo, or to the sculptor Baccio Bandinelli (as one of his rare paintings). It was with an attribution to Andrea del Sarto's workshop that the picture was included in the Pontormo e Rosso Fiorentino exhibition held at the Palazzo Strozzi in 2014. It was suggested that Andrea may have been responsible for the general design and for the execution of the figure of the Virgin, while much of the rest of the picture, particularly the lower part, was painted by Rosso and Pontormo. Jacob may be a portrait (possibly even a self-portrait) of Pontormo.
**Descent from the Cross. Wood, 341 x 201.
Labourers, standing on three ladders, struggle to support the dead weight of Christ's body. A weirdly Lear-like Joseph of Arimathea hangs over the crossbeam, while Nicodemus directs operations from the ladder on the left. On the ground, John the Evangelist turns away from the scene, burying his head in his hands. The Virgin faints into the arms of two Holy Women, while the kneeling Mary Magdalene stretches forward to embrace her legs. The large vertical panel was painted as the altarpiece of the fourteenth-century chapel of the Croce di Giorno, attached to the church of San Francesco at Volterra, where it replaced an old wooden crucifix. (A Crucifixion attributed to Bartolomeo Neroni now hangs over the altar.) Signed and dated 1521, lower right on the ladder.
The picture is probably Rosso's best known work. The overall composition owes something to the Deposition (now in the Florence Academy) started by Filippino Lippi in 1503 and finished by Perugino for the high altar of SS. Annunziata, while several of the figures are derived from works of Michelangelo. (The lower figure on the left ladder is taken from a nude in the foreground of the cartoon of the Battle of Cascina; the weeping St John has a pose similar to Eve in the Sistine Chapel fresco; and the figure of Christ could be based on the St Peter’s Pietà or on a drawing for a Pietà now in the Louvre.) Rosso's figures, however, are stylised towards geometric abstraction. Their angular forms are dramatically illuminated with white light, and the discordant combination of hot and cold colours (orange-red, scarlet, ochre, pale yellow, slate blue and sea green) contributes to the emotion of the scene and the sense of unease.
The picture was moved in 1877 to the San Carlo Chapel of the Cathedral, and transferred thence to the Pinacoteca in 1905. It has been suggested that it is slightly unfinished, though the signature would suggest otherwise and the surface may have been somewhat abraded by cleaning. It has suffered from flaking, particularly along the five vertical joins in the panel. There were restorations in 1975 (when rigid metal batons were ill-advisedly attached to the back of the panel to prevent movement) and the 1980s, and there was an intervention in 2003 to repair damage caused by a sudden drop in winter temperature. A major new restoration was launched at the end of 2021.
Volterra. Museo Diocesano (Museo dell’Opera del Duomo).
Madonna and Saints. Wood, 169 x 133.
The Virgin is enthroned between John the Baptist and St Bartholomew. The picture, signed and dated 1521 in the bottom left corner, is the smallest of Rosso’s surviving church altarpieces. It is from the Romanesque Pieve di Villamagna (San Giovanni Battista), some ten kilometres from Volterra, where it was discovered only in 1925 and first photographed only in 1941. It remained in situ until 1956 and was quite recently cleaned. According to a late eighteenth-century guidebook, it originally had a predella with roundels of St Nicholas of Tolentino, St Sebastian and St Anthony Abbot.
Washington. National Gallery.
*Portrait of a Man. Wood, 89 x 68.
The plumpish young man, haughty yet melancholy, wears a broad brimmed hat and a silk tunic with a voluminous upper sleeve. He is shown facing a little to the right, one hand on his hip and the other on the hilt of his sword. This is probably the best preserved of Rosso’s few surviving portraits. It probably dates from his early, pre-Roman period (1520-23). It is said to have belonged to the Florentine Pazzi family. By the mid-nineteenth century, it was in the collection of Thomas Sebright at Beechwood, near Boxmoor, with an attribution to Andrea del Sarto. It was still ascribed to Sarto in 1937, when the Sebright collection was sold at Christie’s. The attribution to Rosso was apparently made verbally by Roberto Longhi when the picture was still in a private collection. Acquired by the Kress Foundation in 1950 from Contini Bonacossi.