The Bishop, the ape and Buffalmacco

by Centro Guide Arezzo

One of the most amusing stories told by Vasari about Guido Tarlati, Lord of Arezzo from 1321 to 1327, is about an ape. We do not know the name of the furry little animal, but we are sure of his mischievous acts and the affection that evoked  in the stern prelate. Franco Sacchetti tells us about it in his book Trecento Novelle and  Vasari includes the episode in his Vite.

You should know that during the decoration of the Cathedral an artist with a particular name had to contend with the ape. The artist was known as “Buffalmacco” (aka Buonamico di Martino). This painter was well known in those years in Tuscany and we can find one of his most famous works in Pisa, where he frescoed an amazing Last Judgement. He was considered to be a smart and well-mannered man, but also ready for the joke. For a long time he was believed to be an immaculate gymnasial character as he is the protagonist of some Novelle by Boccaccio.

But let’s go back to the episode seeing him as protagonist together with our bishop. Buffalmacco had an important job to do in Arezzo : decorate on behalf of Tarlati, a chapel in the Cathedral. Guido would see that work every day and we know how important it was to include the artist’s clients.

Buffalmacco had a problem. He had prepared the draft, he had drawn out the so-called “sinopia” and in other words he had outlined the design on the wall, but every morning when he arrived to begin to spread the color he found his design all smeared.

Who to blame? A careless assistant? One of the canons in the mood for jokes? Maybe a rival painter ready to discredit him?

No. It was the Bishop’s monkey.

The “Bertuccione” as Vasari calls him.

On a Saturday evening, Bertuccione, who had observed Buffalmacco mixing colours,  appeared in the Chair and made a work of his own on top of what Buffalmacco had just created.

At first, Tarlati thought that it was really an enemy of his family or a rival of the painter so he posted his men  to guard overnight.

Being a man of spirit, he laughed when the sentinels told him that the Bertuccione  returned on the crime scene and was correcting the fresco of Buffalmacco.

And what did our artist think?


“Monsignor, you think I have to paint in one way and your Bertuccione wants another. So now that you have a great master in your house, I have no choice but to return to Florence in a quiet manner.”

The bishop laughed for a long time: he decided he preferred Buffalmacco’s style. He put the monkey in detention in a cage and put the cage next to the painter who made the fresco.

We do not know how true this story is. However, between legend and reality, in Arezzo there are many testimonies of the skill of Buffalmacco. In the cathedral you can admire the chapel of Ciuccio Tarlati (will it be the incriminated fresco?) and in the National Museum of Medieval and Modern Art  is a proud Saint Michael ready to defend the city. The last joke the painter left in Arezzo was lost.

The bishop wanted an ‘eagle attacking a lion’ in a fresco on his palace. The problem was the meaning: Tarlati’s supremacy over Florence and its policy.

Perhaps for this or perhaps for revenge, in great secrecy, Buffalmacco did everything the opposite: the lion bit the eagle. When Tarlati saw the work, the painter was already in Florence with an excuse. Tarlati banned him, but it is said that in the end, thinking back, he forgave the painter thanks to the laugh he had provided him.