Mallius’s Wife

Open Inquiry Archive Vol. 1, No. 4 (2012)

Mallius’s Wife:

A Brief History of a Joke

By Norman E. Land

Two of the most important dimensions of human existence, art and sex, or artistic creation and human procreation, have long been associated, sometimes seriously, even philosophically, but often also in jest. An early instance of a humorous association of art and sex is in the Greek Anthology (11. 215) where Lucilius writes that the portrait-painter, Eutychus was never able to achieve a likeness, even among his twenty sons.[Note 1] Here getting a likeness is important to both creation and procreation. Eutychus was not very good at portraying his subjects because of his lack of skill as an artist, and none of his numerous sons looked like him because, as Lucilius implies, he was not their biological father.


Sexual reproduction is also linked to artistic creation in the Convivia Saturnalia (2. 2, 10) of the fifth-century A. D. Roman author and Neo-Platonic philosopher Macrobius. In his book the author has a series of speakers give brief accounts of famous people. One speaker, named Evangelus, tells the following anecdote. While dining at the house of Lucius Mallius, “the best painter in Rome,” Servilius Geminus noticed how ugly (“deformes”) the artist’s sons are. Mallius responds that conceiving children (“fingis”) is not the same as painting figures (“pingis”): “I conceive [“fingo”] in the dark and paint [“pingo”] in the light.”[2] We are not told why Mallius’s ugly children are remarkable, but his position as a superior painter seems relevant, for it implies that he is a skilled artist. We may assume, then, that Geminus notices the difference in appearance between Mallius’s ugly children and his beautiful figures. The implication is that Mallius is more skillful at creating figures than he is at making children. In effect, Mallius answers that the difference lies not in skill but in the conditions under which he carries out each kind of creation.

As we shall see, Mallius’s joke has a long history during which time it undergoes several significant permutations.  Still, the essential meaning and humor of the story remains constant even into the Renaissance and beyond, when it turns up virtually throughout Europe.


A Latin version of Macrobius’s joke circulated around the time of Petrarch (1304-1374).  In this version an anonymous painter replies to the question about his children and his painted figure.[3] Petrarch, however, seems to be the first modern author to record Macrobius’s joke, and he does so in his Rerum memorandarum libri (2. 48), which was written between 1343 and 1345.

The famous painter Lucius Mallius had ugly children. A friend who was dining with him said on seeing the children: “Your children are not as attractive as your pictures, Mallius.” But Mallius replied: “that’s true, because I make children in the dark, but pictures by daylight.[4]

Petrarch, who clearly understood the implication of Macrobius’ joke, refers to it again in one of his letters on familiar matters (Familiarum rerum, 5, 17), addressed to his friend, Guido Sette (1304?-1367).[5] There Petrarch, who notices that ugly artists often make beautiful works, rejects the joke as an explanation of that phenomenon.[6] Petrarch implies that because Mallius was an ugly man, his children would naturally be ugly too.

Petrarch twice repeats Macrobius’s joke, but another fourteenth-century author uses it as the basis of a tale about a famous painter and a renowned poet. Around 1376, in his commentary on the Divine Comedy, Benvenuto da Imola (ca. 1330-ca.1390), a scholar who lectured at Bologna, tells of an alleged meeting in Padua between Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) and Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337), while the painter was working on his frescoes in the Arena Chapel. As the story goes, Giotto invited Dante to his house and when the poet saw the painter’s children, “all extremely ugly and [. . .] resembling their father closely,” he asked, “ ‘Good master, since you are said to have no equal in the art of painting, I greatly wonder how it is that you make the appearance of others so attractive while your family is so dreadful’?” Giotto quickly responded, “ I paint during the day and create at night.” Benvenuto says that Dante was impressed and delighted by Giotto’s reply, not because it was original (he cites Macrobius as the source) but because it appeared as a product of Giotto’s own “ingenio,” or genius. In other words, Dante (and by implication Benvenuto) admired Giotto’s verbal wit because the artist recognized immediately that he and Dante were acting out Macrobius’s joke. Dante plays Geminus, and Giotto at once joins in as Mallius.[7]

We should notice here that nineteenth-century writers continued to tell Benvenuto’s anecdote about Giotto.  One of them is the French painter Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), who repeated a version of this tale in a journal published by his son twenty years after his father’s death: “Giotto had some very ugly children.  Someone having asked why he made such lovely faces in his paintings and such ugly children in his life, he answered, ‘My children are night work . . . my pictures are my day work.’ ”[8]

Leonardo da Vinci

A few years after the publication of Macrobius’ Convivia Saturnalia in Venice in 1472, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) records in one of his notebooks the version of the joke in which the painter is anonymous. He also adds a new dimension to it.

A painter was asked, given that he made such beautiful figures, which are lifeless things, what caused him to have made such ugly children. The painter replied that he made his paintings during the day, and his children at night.[9]

The voice that queries the painter implies that he has the skill to perform the difficult task of transforming dead matter (i. e., paint) into beautiful, seemingly living figures, but that he is unable successfully to carry out the less demanding job of making beautiful children, who actually live and breathe. As usual, the artist replies that skill is not the determining factor. All depends on when he must do his work, at night or during the day.

English Versions

Versions of Macrobius’s anecdote were widely repeated throughout sixteenth- and seventh-century Europe.[10] For example, an anonymous English author recorded a version around 1535, and in it skill is again an important factor. The author writes about a “paynter that had foule children.”

There was a peinter in Rome that was an excellent connynge man: and bycause he had foule children, One sayde to hym: By my seyth I marvayle that you paynte so goodelye, and gette so foule children: yea, quod the peynter, I make my chyldren in the darke, and I peynte thoses fy[g]ures by daye light.[11]

Here we have an accomplished Roman painter — presumably a reference to Mallius — whose “cunning,” or skill, makes people wonder why he cannot also achieve excellent results when he makes children. Like Leonardo’s painter, he, in effect, claims that his skill is not to be questioned. The quality of his creations and procreations is determined by the circumstances in which each is made.

Another sixteenth-century English writer, Sir Nicholas Bacon (1509-1579), Lord Keeper of the Great Seal of England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, also made use of Macrobius’s joke, this time in a poem titled, “Of A Mayde and a Paynter,” which begins:

A merye Mayde

To a Paynter sayde

That muche she mused to see

His pictures soe fayer,

And his sonne and heye

Soe muche deformed to bee.[12]

We can easily imagine the remainder of the poem, which was excluded from the only printed edition of Bacon’s works.

In the eighteenth century an anonymous translator produced a version of Macrobius’s joke as recorded by Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536).  “Servilius Geminus, at supper with Lucius Mallius, a very prominent painter at Rome, [observed] that all his children were, one way or another, considerably deformed.” “Mallius,” Geminus remarks, “you don’t mould as you paint.”  The artist replies, “I mould in the dark but paint in the light.”[13] In this context, the translator’s use of the word “mould” means “to shape, or give form to.”  Procreation is a means of “shaping” children; painting is a means of shaping figures.

Master Gherardo

Other tales are less directly and obviously related to Macrobius’ joke: for example, an almost forgotten anecdote about a seemingly fictional Florentine painter named Gherardo.[14] The story, which has been attributed to Niccolò Angèli dal Bùcine (1448-1532?), goes as follows.

There was in Florence a painter named Gherardo, who was not the best master of his times. A man who wanted a painting made went to him and not being very confident in the said Gherardo, repeatedly showed him a drawing [of the work he wanted], asking again and again if he [Gherardo] knew how to serve him [the patron]. When it appeared to Gherardo that the man had bothered him too much [and] having with him a rather beautiful young son, he turned angrily to the man and said, “Does this child appear beautiful to you?” The man responded, “Heaven protect him, yes.” Gherardo then added, “I made him with my prick; just think what I can do with a brush.”[15]

Gherardo seems to claim that his ability to employ his relatively blunt and awkward “cazzo” to create a beautiful figure is proof that he is capable of excellent performance with his finer and more elegant brush. In effect, he asserts that the making of beautiful creations is not simply a matter of skill, nor is it dependent upon whether the sun or the moon is shining; one also has to consider the instruments of creation as well.


In his Lives of the Artists (Florence, 1568) Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) also tells a relatively elaborate story that is in part a variation on the ancient example. According to Vasari, while Michelangelo (1475-1564) was making the (now-destroyed) bronze figure of Pope Julius II in Bologna, a local painter Francesco Francia (1450-1517) paid him a visit and marveled at the sculptor’s work. At last Michelangelo asked Francia what he thought of the bronze figure and the latter replied that the sculptor had used good material and had cast it well. Michelangelo, who was certain that Francia had praised the bronze rather than his artistry, grew angry and called the painter “un goffo,” a doofus. Later, when Michelangelo met one of Francia’s sons, who was very handsome, he said: “Your father makes living figures that are more beautiful than his painted ones.”[16] Michelangelo uses Geminus’ observation, not to question the discrepancy between the quality of an artist’s painted figures and the appearance of his children, as Macrobius and others had. Rather, Michelangelo insults Francia by pointing out that his skill at procreation far outstrips his abilities as a painter. Michelangelo, who, Vasari tells us, considered his works to be his children, believes that, in effect, Francia has accused him of making his figure of the pope in the dark. Feeling insulted, Michelangelo implies that Francia paints in the dark but procreates in the light.

Mallius’s Wife

There is yet another version of Macrobius’s joke that significantly departs from the original. In this version, Mallius is said to have a beautiful young wife. The Italian author and editor Lodovico Domenichi (1514-1564) recounts one example of that version.

One day Servilius Geminus was in the house of Lucius Mallius, an excellent painter, who was staying in Rome at that time. Mallius had a very beautiful young woman for a wife, but his children were ugly. Geminus said to the painter: “O, Mallius, it appears strange to me that you do not make children as beautiful as you make the figures in your paintings.” To which, Mallius replied, “I make children at night in the dark, and I make my pictures during the day, in the light.[17]

The English boatman John Taylor (1577-ca. 1653), who called himself a “Water-poet,” followed Domenichi’s example in his long poem about rowing, first published in London in 1612. Taylor does not name Mallius; rather he refers to the “pretty” wife of an anonymous painter.

A Skilfull Painter such rare pictures drew,

That every man his workemanship admir’d:

So neere the life in beautie, forme and hew,

As if dead Art ‘gainst Nature had conspir’d.

Painter, sayes one, thy wife’s a pretty woman,

I muse such ill-shapt children thou hast got,

Yet mak’st such pictures as their likes makes no man,

I prethee tell the cause of this thy lot?

Quoth he, I paint by day when it is light,

And get my children in the darke at night.[18]

Everyone admires the skill of the singular artist who uses his colors to make beautiful figures that rival nature. People wonder why an artist of so great a talent makes such ill-shaped children. The artist gives the standard answer: he paints by daylight, but begets children in the dark.

Perhaps Domenichi and Taylor give Mallius and the anonymous artist, respectively, an attractive young wife because such a figure lends the tale a specifically marital and domestic quality only implied in the original version.  Significantly, too, she is the mother of the ugly children and therefore participates in their creation.  In other words, she is not merely an addition to the joke; she seems to have deeper significance.  The Italian philosopher Antonio Persio (1550-1610) helps us to grasp that significance.

Persio makes a connection between artistic creation and procreation in his Treatise on the Human Mind (Venice, 1576).  Speaking of children born out of wedlock, he explains that they are usually born to a man and a woman who are beautiful, or at least one of them is beautiful. Because the couple is able to meet only infrequently their illicit love is all the stronger, and when they meet, they are united in body and in soul. As a result of “such well-executed labor in most cases one cannot expect anything but perfect offspring — beautiful, vigorous and distinguished in mind.”  Persio goes on to compare the act of procreation with Titian’s method of painting. When representing human beings, the Venetian painter, who was known for his beautiful and sensuous female figures, would be so affected by the sight of the living model that he would seem to be in a trance, and his spirit would enter into his figure, making it like “another Nature.”[19]

Seen from the perspective of Periso’s explanation of creation and procreation, the beautiful wife in the versions of Macrobius’s joke told by Domenichi and Taylor make Mallius and the anonymous painter seem especially inept as lovers, and we understand what happens when they procreate at night. Even though they work in the dark, if they were capable and passionate lovers, the beauty of each wife — we assume that the painters are ugly — would be passed on to their children.


In the late eighteenth century, Richard Cumberland (1732-1811), who recorded the joke without reference to Macrobius, presented it in a new light: “A man’s fame shall be recorded to posterity by the trifling merit of a jest, when the great things he has done would else have been buried in oblivion.”  In other words, a mere joke can save the fame of a reputable man.

Who would now have known that L. Mallius was once the best painter in Rome, if it was not for his repartee to Servilius Geminus? — You paint better than you model, says Geminus, pointing to Mallius’s children, who were crooked and ill-favoured. — Like enough, replied the artist; I paint in the daylight, but I model, as you call it, in the dark.

Mallius — the great painter and poor lover — makes a witty reply that saves him from oblivion.[20]


Norman E. Land is Professor of Italian Renaissance and Baroque Art History at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He is working on a book titled, “The Psychopathic Artist: A Tale of Tale.”  Contact him here.


[1] The Greek Anthology, trans. W. R. Paton, 5 vols. (Cambridge [MA] and London: 1958 1963), III, p. 215: “Eutychus the painter was the father of twenty sons, but never got a likeness even among his children.”

[2] Ambrosius Aurelius Theodosius Macrobius, Saturnalia, ed. Jacob Willis (Leipzig: 1963), pp. 137-138: “Hic Evangelus: Apud L. Mallium, qui optimus pictor Romae habebatur, Servilius Geminus forte coenabat: cumque filios eius deformes vidisset: Non similiter, inquit, Malli, fingis et pingis. Et Mallius: In tenebris enim fingo, inquit, luce pingo.” See also Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz, Legend, Myth, and Magic in the Image of the Artist: A Historical Experiment (New Haven and London: 1979), pp. 115-116, who discuss this anecdote and its imitators in relation to the tradition “which regards the work of art as the ‘child’ of the artist and attempts to view the process of artistic creation according to the model of sexual life.”

[3] A Selection of Latin Stories: from manuscripts of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth centuries, ed. Thomas Wright (London: 1842), p. 122: CXXVIII. De quodam pictore. Pictor quidam pulcherrimas fecit imagines, et turpes habuit filios, de quo cum aliqui loquerentur, dixit non mirabile, quia pinxit de die, et finxit de nocte.

[4] For the Latin text and translation, see Barbara C. Bowen, One Hundred Renaissance Jokes: An Anthology (Birmingham [AL]: Summa Publications, 1988), p. 3: “Lucius Mallius pictor egregious deformes filios habebat. Quibus visis amicus apud eum cenans: “Non similiter,” ait, “fingis et pingus, Malli.” Ille auten: “Nimirum, fingo enim in tenebris, in luce pingo.”

[5] For the Latin text of Petrarch’s letter, see Petrarch, Le Familiari, ed. Vittorio Rossi. 2 vols. (Florence: 1934), II, pp. 38-41. An excellent translation of the letter is in Petrarch, Letters on Familiar Matters: Rerumiamiliarium libri IX-XVI, trans. Aldo S. Bernardo (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1982), pp. 272-275.

[6] For further discussion of the letter, see Norman E. Land, “Giotto as an Ugly Genius: A Study in Self-Portrayal,” in Andrew Ladis, ed., Giotto as a Historical and Literary Figure: Miscellaneous Studies, 4 vols.( New York: 1998), I, pp. 183- 196.

[7] For the original text, see Benvenuto da Imola, Comentum super Dantis Aldigherij Comcedia, ed. Jacopo Filippo Lacaita, 3 vols. (Florence: 1887), III, pp. 312-313. I have used the translation by John Adams in Laurie Schneider, ed., Giotto in Perspective (Englewood Cliffs: 1974), pp. 31-32.

[8] Paul Gauguin, Gauguin’s Intimate Journals (Mineola [NY]: Dover, 1997), p. 47.

[9] The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci, ed. Jean Paul Richter, 2 vols. (London: 1970), II, p. 289: “Fu dimandato un pittore perchè, facciendo lui de’ figure sì belle che erano cose morte, per che causa esso avesse fatti I figlioli sì brutti; allora il pittore ripose che le pitture le fecie di dl, e i figioli do notte.”

[10] For other repetitions and variations on Macrobius’ joke, see Johannes Pauli, Schimpf and Ernst, ed. Johannes Bolte, 2 vols. (Berlin: 1924), II, pp. 352-353.

[11] Anonymous, Tales and quicke answers, very mery, and pleasant to rede (London, n.d.), n.p., no. 101.

[12] Bacon, Nicholas, The Recreations of His Age, (Oxford: Daniel Press, 1903 [issued 1919]), p. 39.

[13] Desiderius Erasmus, The Apophthegms of the Ancients, 2 vols. (London, 1753), 2, p. 139.

[14] Vasari, 3, pp. 471-473 for Vasari’s vita of the Florentine miniaturist, Gherardo (act. 1460-1497).

[15] I have translated the text in Anonymous, Facezie e Motti dei secoli XV e XVI: Codice Magliabechiano (Bologna: 1874), pp. 71-72. For a different version of the joke, see Charles Speroni, Wit and Wisdom of the Italian Renaissance (Berkeley and Los Angeles: 1964), pp. 160-161. For the attribution to Niccolò Angèli dal Bùcine, see Barbara C. Bowen, “Renaissance Collections of facetiae, 1344-1490: A New Listing,” Renaissance Quarterly, 39, 1 (1986): 1314. For Agnolo Bronzino’s “saucy equating of artistic creation with copulation,” see Deborah Parker, Bronzino: Renaissance Painter as Poet (Cambridge: 2000), pp. 24-25. Parker, p. 106 also discusses the paintbrush as a type of penis.

[16] Giorgio Vasari, Le vite de più eccellenti pittori scultori e architettori, ed. Rosanna Bettarini, 6 vols. (Florence: 1987), VI, pp. 31-32.

[17] Lodovico Domenichi, Facecies et mots subtilz, d’aucuns, trans. Bernard de Girard Du Haillan (Lyon, 1559), p. 42. This is a bilingual edition. My translation. Seruilio Geminio cenando vn giorno in casa di Lucio Mallio, excellentissimo pittore, il qual staua in quel tempo a Roma, e haueua vna bellissima giouena per donna, ma i figliuoli erano brutti, per che gli dice: O Mallio, io mi smarauiglio che tu non fai de cossi belli figliuoli, come tu fai delle belle pitture, alqual rispose Mallio: io facio i figliuoli la notte a l’oscuro, e al contrario dipingo le mei pitture il giorno, e in luogo chiaro.

[18] John Taylor, Works, 3 vols. (London, 1630), 3, p. 22.

[19] Antonio Persio, Trattato dell’ingegno dell’huomo, ed. Luciano Artese (Rome and Pisa: Istituti editoriali e poligrafici internazionali, 1999), pp. 69-70.

[20] Richard Cumberland (1732-1811), The Observer: Being a Collection of Moral, Literary and Familiar Essays, 5 vols. (London, 1786), 3, p. 253.  Cumberland’s version was often repeated over the course of the nineteenth century.


Text copyright 2012 Norman E. Land

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