From the time of Cimabue pictures either on panel or canvas had been painted in distemper, although the artists felt that a certain softness and freshness was wanting. But although many had sought for some other method, none had succeeded, either by using liquid varnishes, or by mixing the colours in any other way. They could not find any way by which pictures on panels could be made durable like those on the walls, and could be washed without losing the colour. And though many times artists had assembled to discuss the matter, it had been in vain. This same want was felt also by painters out of Italy, in France, Spain, and Germany, and elsewhere. But while matters were in this state John of Bruges, a painter much esteemed in Flanders, set himself to try various kinds of colours and different oils to make varnishes, being one who delighted in alchemy. For having once taken great pains in painting a picture, when he had brought it to a conclusion with great care, he put on the varnish and put it to dry in the sun, as is usual. But either the heat was too great or the wood not seasoned enough, for the panel opened at all the joints. Upon which John, seeing the harm that the heat of the sun had done, determined to do something so that the sun should not spoil any more of his works. And he began to consider whether he could not find a varnish that should dry in the shade without his having to put his pictures in the sun. He made many experiments, and at last found that the oil of linseed and the oil of nuts were the best for drying of all that he tried. Having boiled them with his other mixtures, he made the varnish that he, or rather all the painters of the world, had been so long desiring. He saw also that when the colours were mixed with these oils, not only were they safe from injury by water when once they were dry, but the colours also had more lustre without the aid of any varnish, and besides, which seemed more marvellous to him, the colours blended better than in tempera.
The fame of this invention soon spread not only through Flanders, but to Italy and many other parts of the world, and great desire was aroused in other artists to know how he brought his works to such perfection. And seeing his pictures, and not knowing how they were done, finally they were obliged to give him great praise, while at the same time they envied him with a virtuous envy, especially because for a time he would not let any one see him work, or teach any one his secret. But when he was grown old he at last favoured Roger of Bruges, his pupil, with the knowledge, and Roger taught others. But although the merchants bought the paintings and sent them to princes and other great personages to their great profit, the thing was not known beyond Flanders. The pictures, however, especially when they were new, had that strong smell which mixing oil with colours gives them, so that it would seem the secret might have been discovered; but for many years it was not.
It came about then that some Florentines who traded in Flanders and Naples sent a picture by John containing many figures painted in oil to King Alfonso I of Naples, and the picture pleasing him from the beauty of the figures and the new method of colouring, all the painters in the kingdom came together to see it, and it was highly praised by all.
Now there was a certain Antonello da Messina, a man of an acute mind and well skilled in his art, who had studied drawing at Rome for many and afterwards worked at Palermo, and came back to Messina his native place, having obtained a good repute for his skill in painting. He, going on business from Sicily to Naples, heard that this picture by John of Bruges had come from Flanders to the and that it could be washed, and perfect. He contrived therefore the vivacity of the colours, and the way 1n wmcn they were blended, had such an effect upon him that, laying aside all other matters, he set off for Flanders. And when he came to Bruges he presented himself to John, and made him many presents of drawings in the Italian manner, and other things, so that John, moved by these and the deference Antonello paid him, and feeling himself growing old, allowed Antonello to see his method of painting in oil, and he did not leave the place until he had learnt all that he desired. But when John was dead Antonello returned to his country to make Italy participate in his useful and convenient secret. And after having spent some months in Messina he went to Venice, where, being a person much given to pleasure, he determined to settle and end is days. T here he painted many pictures in oil, and acquired a great name.
Among the other painters of name who were then in Venice, the chief was a Master Domenico. He received Antonello when he came to Venice with as much attention and courtesy as if he were a very dear friend. Antonello therefore, not to be outdone in courtesy, after a little while taught him the secret of painting in oil. No act of courtesy or kindness could have been more pleasing to him, for it caused him to gain lasting honour in his native place.
Now emulation and honest rivalry are things praiseworthy and to be held in esteem, being necessary and useful to the world; but envy, which cannot endure that another should have praise and honour, deserves the utmost scorn and reproach, as may be seen in the story of the unhappy Andrea dal Castagno, who, great as he was in painting and design, was greater still in the hatred and envy that he bore to other painters, so that the shadow of his sin has hidden the splendour of his talents He was born at a small farm called Castagno, from which he took his surname when he came to live in Florence. Having been left an orphan in his childhood, he was taken by his uncle and employed by him many years in keeping cattle. While at such work it happened one day that to escape the rain he took refuge in a place where one of those country painters who work for little pay was painting a countryman's tabernacle. Andrea, who had never seen anything like it before, excited by curiosity, set himself to watch and to consider the manner of such work, and there awoke within him suddenly such a strong desire and passionate longing for art that without loss of time he began to draw little figures and animals in charcoal, and carve them with the point stones, so as to who saw them. The fame of this new study of Andrea's spread among the country people, and, as fortune would have it, it came to the ears of a Florentine gentleman, named Bernardetto de' Medici, who had land in those parts, and he desired to see the boy. And having heard him talk with much quickness and intelligence, he asked him if he would like to be a painter. And Andrea answering that there was nothing he desired more, he took him with him to Florence, and placed him with one of the masters who were at that time held to be the best. So Andrea, giving himself to study, showed great intelligence in overcoming the difficulties of the art. His colour was somewhat crude, but he was excellent in the movement of figures and in the heads both of men and women. One picture of his which excited the astonishment of artists was a fresco of the Flagellation, which would be the finest of all his works if it had not been so scratched and spoiled by children and simple people, who destroyed the heads and arms of the Jews to avenge, as it were, the injury done to the Lord.
Afterwards he was charged to paint a part of the larger chapel of S. Maria Nuova, another part being given to Alesso Baldovinetti, and a third to Domenico da Venezia, who had been brought to Florence on account of his new method of painting in oil. Then Andrea was seized with envy of Domenico, for although he knew himself to be more excellent than he in drawing, yet he could not bear that a foreigner should be caressed and honoured in such a manner by the citizens, and his rage and anger grew so hot that he began to think how he could rid himself of him. Nevertheless, Andrea was as clever in dissimulation as he was in painting, and could assume a cheerful countenance whenever he liked; he was ready in speech, proud, resolute in mind and in every gesture of his body. Being jealous of others as well as of Domenico, he used secretly to scratch their paintings. Even in his youth, if any one found fault with his works, he would let him know by blows or insults that he knew how to defend himself from injury
But now, resolving to do by treachery what he could not do openly without manifest danger, he feigned great friendship for this Domenico; and he, being a good fellow and amiable, fond of singing and playing the lute, willingly made friends with him, Andrea appearing to be both a man of talent and good company. And this continuing, on one side real and on the other feigned, every night they were found together enjoying themselves, and serenading their loves, which Domenico much delighted in. He also, loving Andrea truly, taught him how to paint in oils, which was not yet known in Tuscany.
Meanwhile, in the chapel of S. Maria Nuova, Andrea painted the Annunciation, which is considered very fine; and on the other side Domenico painted in oils S. Joachim and S. Anna and the birth of our Lady, and below the Betrothal of the Virgin, with a good number of portraits from life: Bernardetto de' Medici, constable of the Florentines, in a red cap, Bernardo Guadagni, the gonfalonier, Folco Portinari, and others of that family. But this work was left unfinished, as will be seen. Andrea, on his side, painted in oils the death of the Virgin, and showed that he knew how to manage oil colours as well as Domenico his rival. In this picture also he put many portraits from life, and in a circle himself like Judas Iscariot, as he was in truth and deed.
Then having brought this work to a successful termination, blinded by envy at the praises he heard given to Domenico, he meditated how to rid himself of him; and having thought of many ways, he at last proceeded in this manner. One evening in summer, Domenico as usual took his lute and departed from S. Maria Nuova, leaving Andrea in his chamber drawing, he having refused to accompany him on the excuse of having to make certain drawings of importance. So Domenico being gone out to his pleasure, Andrea disguised himself and went to wait for him at the corner, and when Domenico came up, returning home, he struck at him with a leaden instrument, and breaking his lute, pierced him in the stomach at the same moment. But thinking he had not done his work as he wished, he struck him on the head heavily, and leaving him on the ground, returned to his room in S. Maria Nuova, and sat down to his drawing as Domenico had left him. In the meantime the servants, having heard a noise, ran out and heard what had happened, and came running to bring the evil tidings to Andrea, the traitor and murderer, whereupon he ran to the place where lay Domenico, and could not be consoled, crying out without ceasing, "Oh, my brother, my brother!" At last Domenico died in his arms, and it could not be found out who it was that had slain him. Nor would it ever have been known, if Andrea on his deathbed had not made confession of the deed.
He lived in honour; but spending much, particularly on his dress and in his manner of living, he left little wealth behind him. When Guiliano de' Medici was slain, and his brother Lorenzo wounded, by the Pazzi and their adherents, the Signory resolved that the conspirators should be painted as traitors on the facade of the palace of the Podesta. And the work being offered to Andrea, he accepted it willingly, being much beholden to the house of Medici. He painted it surprisingly well, and it would be impossible to describe how much art he displayed in the portraits, painted for the most part from the themselves, representing them hanging by feet in all sorts of strange attitudes. The pleased the people so much that from that time he was called no more Andrea dal Castagno, but Andrea degli Impiccati, Andrea of the hanged men.