When Sixtus IV Hired a Painter

Melozzo da Forli

Scarcity of surviving works can wreak chaos on the popularity of an artist once considered a stellar contemporary of Giovanni Bellini, Filippo Lippo and Botticelli.  Listed among the “famous and supreme” artists by mathematician Luca Pacioli, the work of Melozzo da Forli (1436-1494) can be admired in Italy at the Uffizi, but his name is less familiar beyond its borders.

Born in 1436 in Forli near Rimini, little is known of his early life.  The Il Microcosmo della Pittura notes that he came from a ‘noble and affluent family’ but submitted to the menial duties of a domestic servant and color-grinder to some of the principal painters of the time[1].  Melozzo is credited with the successful use of foreshortening and a mastery of unique perspectives.  His paintings offer a captivating nexus of influence.

Urbino and Rimini, under the control of Sigismondo Malatesta and Federigo da Montefeltro, had experienced a transformation by the era’s most distinguished painters and architects, making it a rival in humanism with Florence.  Melozzo was one of the artists summoned to the Court of Urbino by Montefeltro, where he met Giovanni Santi, father of Raphael.  Piero della Francesca was another member of this enlightened circle; a painter and mathematician who worked for both heads of Rimini; and a crucial inspiration for Melozzo.

Through Montefeltro, the artist was recommended to Sixtus IV.  One of the first Renaissance popes, Sixtus is the founder of the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Library.  In 1477 Melozzo received a commission for the inauguration of the Vatican Library.  This fresco shows the jurisconsult Platina receiving the keys to the library from the pontiff.  Grouped around him are the pope’s four nephews (l-r) Giovanni della Rovere, Girolamo Riario, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, the future Julius II, and Raffaele Riario.  Platina, kneeling in the center, points the index finger of his right hand to the trompe l’oeil inscription composed by him that exalts the pope as a builder “of temples, roads, squares, walls and bridges” and for reviving the library itself which had formerly “languished in neglect.”  A representation of the times’ majesty, the beauty of the architecture framing the scene highlights the importance of the figures, making it an incomparable page of history, a vivid vision of papal court life and of Rome as a capital of the arts throughout history.

Melozzo was one of the first artists in Rome to join the Academy of Saint Luke, founded by Pope Sixtus IV.  Given the esteem with which the pope held Forli, it is curious that he was not among the painters called to fresco his chapel, built in 1477.  Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, surmises the masters chosen, such as Ghirlandaio, Perugino and Botticelli, conspired to freeze him out.  Consider, however, that Melozzo, who had been working in the eternal city for several years, was considered “too Roman” at a time when Italy’s en vogue artists hailed from Tuscany.

Eventually returning to the city of his birth, together with his pupil Marco Palmezzano (1459-1539), they decorated the Feo Chapel in the church of San Biagio, that was destroyed during WWII in a Nazi bombing raid, 1944.  A small picture at the College of Forli, portraying a druggist’s apprentice pounding sugar in a mortar termed Pesta Pepe, was originally painted as a grocer’s sign and is the only non-religious subject by Melozzo da Forli.

An exhibition of Melozzo’s work including his distinguished contemporaries and influences, “Human Beauty between Piero della Francesca and Raphael”, is currently ongoing at the Domenico Museum in Forli, through June 12.

Vatican Museum releases angels of Melozzo da Flori, a video from RomeReports.com, is available in English, with a great overview of paintings in the exhibition.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “When Sixtus IV Hired a Painter

  1. Great Post! Love the Vatican Library picture. One thing I have always loved about Renaissance Art is the massive amount of subtle detail that permeates the canvas.

  2. It is the subtle propaganda that really tells the story.

  3. His architectural detail is quite pronounced, almost to the point of distracting attention from his figures. It’s beautiful work. Thanks for the post!

  4. Hi John!
    The painting looks like a book plate! So many things going on, just like life then.

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