1450 - 1517
Francesco Francia belonged to a distinguished Bolognese family, though at the time of his birth the family fortunes were at a low ebb. His father, Marco Raibolini, a wood engraver or carver, apprenticed him to the jeweller Duc, known as Francia, whose nickname Francesco later adopted. Francia became a highly reputed jeweller in his native town, and his works were acquired by men of power and influence. In a letter dated 1546, he is mentioned as the foremost jeweller in Bologna. He also made medals, designed the Bolognese coinage, and cut the first characters used in printing. He is thought to have produced the first Italic fonts, which he supplied to Aldus Manutius. As a goldsmith, he was particularly noted for his niello work. He is generally thought to have been taught by Marco Zoppo and Squarcione.It is believed that Francia’s decision to become a painter was determined by Lorenzo Costa’s arrival in Bologna in 1483. It does not seem likely that Francia was Costa’s pupil, as Francia’s fame as an artist excludes the possibility that he would make himself subordinate to a younger man. But a close friendship was established between the two artists, who lived in the same house. They worked together, in particular on an altarpiece for the church of the Misericordia. The central panel was painted by Francia, the remainder by Lorenzo Costa. The first fruits of this collaboration, or at least the works produced by Francia and Lorenzo at the beginning of their acquaintance, are so similar in style and technique that they could be ascribed to either artist. But, in the long run, Francia’s superiority became evident.The first painting known to be by Francia, dated 1494, is a Madonna and Child with Six Saints, kept at the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna. The technical skill displayed in the painting gives the lie to the idea that this was his first work, as Vasari affirms. Dated from the following year is a Virgin and Child with St Joseph, which Count Jean Palffy acquired at the Dudley Sale in 1892. In 1499, Raibolini painted an altarpiece for Giovanni Benlevoglio for the chapel the latter had built in the church of S Giacomo Maggiore. This work earned Francia a commission to paint a Nativity for the church of the Misericordia; the work is now in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna. For the same church, Raibolini also painted the small predella, depicting the birth and death of Christ (also now in the Bologna Pinacoteca). As well as these works, the Gallery houses the famous Masignoli Madonna, which, according to Vasari, Francia painted for the same church. In 1500, Francia painted an Annunciation for the outside walls of the church of the Annunziata. Dated from 1502 are a Virgin in Glory with the Child Jesus and Saints and two Annunciations, one kept in the Bologna Pinacoteca, the other produced for the duke of Mantua and now in Milan. Vasari also mentions a Birth of Christ, made for Paolo Zambeccaro, now in the Farli Gallery. From the same period date a Madonna and Two Saints, in the Vienna Museum; a St Francis, in the collection of Dr Frizzoni; a Madonna in the Rose Garden, kept in Munich; a Head of the Man of Sorrows Bearing his Cross, kept in Bergamo; a Figure of St Sebastian, belonging to the Duke of Ferman Nuñez, in Madrid; and a Presentation in the Temple, in Cesena. Special mention is due to the major work conserved in the church of S Martino Maggiore in Bologna, which can still be admired in the chapel where the artist placed it, and the Annunciation in the Chantilly collections. In 1505, Francia painted the Madonna of the Earthquake, for the Town Hall in Bologna. From 1506 date the frescoes he painted in the Chapel of St Cecilia, depicting the Marriage of St Celilia and the Burial of St Cecilia. Continuing in chronological order, the Dead Christ, in the Dresden Museum, dates from 1509, and there are references to further works produced in 1512 and 1514, and two in 1515, one in Parma, the other in Turin.
Apart from these works that can be accurately dated, Francia’s corpus of work includes many other paintings, in particular his admirable Madonnas. Vasari reports that, in his lifetime, Francia was regarded by the people of Bologna as a god. Some more modern critics have seen him as an imitator, however.