Nicolò dell'Abate probably first trained with his father, a stuccoist. After serving as a soldier, he assisted a local painter in Modena in 1537, helping to decorate a slaughterhouse facade.
Nicolò earned his first major success in 1546, with twelve frescoes of the Aeneid for a castle near Modena. In the next year, he moved to Bologna, where his projects included decorating four rooms in a palace with elongated, refined Mannerist figures and putti in disdainful poses. His sophisticated style--incorporating Andrea Mantegna's illusionism and Correggio's softness--influenced future Bolognese artists, including the Carracci.
In 1552 Nicolò arrived at Henri II's court at Fontainebleau as Primaticcio's assistant. He executed Primaticcio's designs for the Gallery of Ulysses and decorated the Gallery of Henri II, now mostly destroyed or in poor condition.
Nicolò's sensuous Mannerist landscapes influenced many French artists. He combined Italian and Flemish elements, the mythological and the bucolic, and peopled his scenes with elegant porcelain figures in works that anticipated Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin.