Melozzo da Forli
Italian painter of the Umbrian School, b. at Forli, 1438; d. there 1494
Melozzo da Forli, an Italian painter of the Umbrian School, b. at Forli, 1438; d. there 1494. Lanzi’s suggestion that Melozzo studied under Ansuino da Forli appears to rest on no foundation. Little is known of this Ansuino, save the slight part he took in the frescoes of the Eremitani Chapel at Padua, which were finished prior to 1460. He would thus have brought to his pupil the teachings of Mantegna, but it is more probable that Melozzo fell under no influence other than that of Piero della Francesca. Piero was always engrossed with perspective, and has even left us a treatise on it; therefore it is to him that Melozzo owes his mastery of the subject, as well as his love for large tableaux and the heroic character of his work. Melozzo was one of the artists summoned to the Court of Urbino by the magnificent Signor Federigo da Montefeltro, to whom perhaps he was introduced by Giovanni Santi, the father of Raphael. None of the work he did there has reached us. However, the Barberini Palace (Rome) contains a part of the Urbino series, and among them a few pictures that adorned the duke’s study and which, like the incrustations, date from 1476. The “Federigo in armour, with his Son Guidobaldo” is attributed to Melozzo. A charming bust “Guidobaldo, when a child”, in the Colonna Palace, is attributed by some to Giovanni Santi, but Berenson thinks it a Melozzo. The famous allegories of the “Arts” and “Sciences” (two paintings in Berlin and two in London) and the busts of the “Philosophers” (in the Louvre and in the Barberini), formerly in Federigo’s palace, are probably not by Melozzo but by the Fleming, Justus of Ghent.. It was doubtless through Federigo that the artist was recommended to Sixtus IV. The importance of this pope’s part in the history of art is well known, for he was the first of the Renaissance popes, the herald of Julius II and Leo X, and the founder of the Sixtine Chapel and the Vatican Library. Melozzo became more or less his official painter. With him he opened the Academy of St. Luke.
The Sixtine chapel was already decorated when Melozzo arrived, but the pope associated him with two other great undertakings. In 1477 he ordered him to paint a picture commemorating the inauguration of the Vatican. This fresco, now in the Pinacoteca of the Vatican, shows the jurisconsult Platina kneeling before the pope and receiving from him the keys of the library. Grouped around are the pope’s four nephews, among whom are the prothonotary, Giulio Riario, ina monk’s robe, and Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, the future Julius II. The scene is set in a hall of marvellous Renaissance style. The beauty of the architecture, the splendor of the decoration, the vigor of the portraits, the calm and dignity of the composition, and the importance of the persons it deals with, make this magnificent work an incomparable page of history. Art has no creation of more unconstrained majesty, so realistically and nobly alive. It is a perfect picture of the papacy of those days, a vision of the court life of the pontiff, who was the first to make Rome the capital of the arts, and the intellectual metropolis of the world, to crown it with the sciences and the masterpieces of art and to invent nepotism. Sixtus IV also commanded Melozzo to paint an “Ascension” for the choir of the church of the Apostles. It was a remarkable painting and Vasari speaks admiringly of it. but unfortunately it was destroyed in 1711 when Clement IX enlarged the choir. He was unwilling, however, that such a work of art should be completely lost, so a few detached figures from the group were saved, of which that of “Christ Triumphant” may be seen on the Quirinal staircase. It is one of the earliest known examples of perspective applied to the human figure on roof or ceiling decoration; that is to say, a figure viewed from below. This foreshortened method, a great novelty at that time, has been surpassed a hundredfold, and by third-rate painters, since the day of Correggio.
Melozzo’s chief merit is that he created a type of supple and nobly sensuous juvenile beauty, and gave expression to it with inspired ease and lyric swing. This quality stands out more prominently in other fragments of the same fresco, preserved in the larger sacristy at St. Peter’s, especially in the choral angels, whose faces are irresistible. No artist of that period, and very few since, would have been able to conceive these poetical and vigorous forms, in which womanly charm blends with virile strength, which are so full of health, joy of life, movement, and passion. This wonderful work was executed in 1482. A less important one (1478), of “Christ as Judge of the World”, can be seen in the Minerva. This power of giving pleasing expression to a life full of richness and harmony, this incomparable gift of plasticity, claims for Melozzo a place apart. Not so great and, especially, not so profound as Mantegna or Signorelli, he has nevertheless a truly Italian charm all his own, in which the other two masters are lacking. This charm he knew how to utilize even in depicting the everyday occurrences of life. To illustrate this, Vasari cites in the fresco work of the church of the Apostles a frieze of vine-gatherers which resembles the genre painting of Benozzo Gozzoli (see his fresco in the Campo Santo at Pisa), but which is treated with quite a new power and with all the grace and technique of a painter of genius. This frieze has been lost, but we can imagine what it was like from a little picture in the College of Forli which shows adruggist’s apprentice (“Pesta, Pepe”) pounding sugar in a mortar. Never was the joy of living expressed in so bewitching a manner. The paintings in the Treasury Chapel at Loretto were merely outlined and begun by Melozzo; their execution is almost entirely the work of his pupil Palmezzano.