Andrea Del Sarto
“The painter without error” (Senza errori)
Research essay by Brian Batista
It was a real treat to discover a new artist during St. Mary’s travel study course. Andrea Del Sarto’s fresco The Last Supper in San Salvi, Florence, was breathtaking and inspired me to delve deeper and learn more about this artist. What was it about Del Sarto that peaked my interest? Why did his work jump out at me amongst the innumerable master works we saw in Italy? It wasn’t until I began my research, that I discovered in his work, lessons that surface for some of the challenges I’ve been facing in my artistic practice.
Andrea Del Sarto, was born in Florence on July 16, 1486. His father Agnolo was a tailor (sarto) so he became known by the epithet “Del Sarto” the “tailors son”. Del Sarto began training as a goldsmiths apprentice but his drawing skills were quickly recognized by an unknown artist, who instructed him in painting. He was then sent to apprentice under Piero Di Cosimo and later Raffaellino del Garbo. Andrea Del Sarto's rose quickly in the ranks of Florentine painters and was in high demand while still a young painter earning him the nickname Senza Errori “the painter without error”. His reputation was so great that the King of France invited him to court.
We know about Del Sarto from the 16th century writings of Giorgio Vasari. His writings are considered the ideological foundation for art-historical writing making it an excellent resource to reference. Little of note is known about Del Sarto’s personal life. It was considered uninteresting and uneventful as he spent most of his life working in Florence. For a time, Del Sarto’s hometown of Florence was under siege by papal forces, subject to invasion and political intrigue. After the expulsion of the Medici, once again, in 1527, he worked for the republican government of Florence. Work was found for artists but of a dubious and unpleasant nature. Del Sarto was commissioned to paint effigies of traitors, but he dared not refuse, nor did he want to scar his reputation so he did them in secret until their unveiling. His Sacrifice of Isaac, intended as a political present to Francis I, was painted in this period.
Del Sarto was born at the beginning of the development of the modern world, the world was in transition and times were tumultuous and restless. The influence and power of the church diminished as feudal systems crumbled and towns expanded. The rise of the merchant class accompanied religious reform and the invention of the printing press. People were becoming fascinated with art, science, politics and travel to far off lands. The Medici families where influential and gave him his most significant contract of his career—for part of the decoration of the Villa Medici at Poggio a Caiano, near Florence. The patron was in fact the pope, Leo X, whom Sarto almost certainly visited in Rome in 1519–20; but the project, the only one that ever offered Florentine artists the scope that Raphael had in the Vatican Palace, collapsed when the pope died in December 1521. Sarto’s fresco Tribute to Caesar is a fragment now incorporated into a much later decorational scheme.Del Sarto married Lucrezia (del Fede), widow of a hatter named Carlo, of Recanati, on 26 December 1512. He thought she was so beautiful, he would dress her in the mornings, she was his muse. Lucrezia appears in many of his paintings, as a Madonna. However, Vasari describes her as "faithless, jealous, and vixenish with the apprentices." She is similarly characterized in Robert Browning's poem titled Andrea Del Sarto published in 1855.
Browning’s poem implies that Del Sarto is not as famous as many other artists because he “shies away from the vivid and necessarily sexual fullness of life, and the spirituality that is a part of that fullness.” Literary Scholar, Stephen Hawlin further explains that “Del Sarto’s wife's beauty is without a soul to Del Sarto, it’s only a beauty on the outside, which perfectly matches the state of Del Sarto's art, which is beautiful, but spiritually empty.” Browning’s Andrea Del Sarto explores broad themes such as if all human interactions are governed by aesthetic or exchange value, failure, whether one's wife is a possession, and morality in general. Browning chose to use renaissance painters as his subjects because art was much easier to access than writing was, writing was only accessible to those of wealth.
A few other things of note are known about Del Sarto. He was notably short in stature and known to his friends as Andreino. In 1506 Andrea del Sarto set up a joint workshop with his older friend Franciabigio. They painted many notable frescos from 1508 – 1514. Del Sarto was active in the generation which followed Leonardo, Botticelli, Perugino and Pinturicchio and worked at the same time as Raphael. He was the instructor to Fiorentino and Pontomoro who carried on many aspects of his style.Andrea Del Sarto died in Florence at age 43 during an outbreak of Bubonic Plague in either 1530 or 1531. He was buried unceremoniously in the church of the Servites. Amy Steedman, describes his last few days thusly "Perhaps Andrea had suffered for want of good food during the siege, perhaps he was overworked and tired; but, whatever was the cause, he was one of the first to be seized by that terrible disease. Alone he fought the enemy, and alone he died. Lucrezia had left him as soon as he fell ill, for she feared the deadly plague, and Andrea gladly let her go, for he loved her to the last with the same great unselfish love. So passed away the faultless painter, and his was the last great name engraved upon that golden record of Florentine Art which had made Florence famous in the eyes of the world. Other artists came after him, but Art was on the wane in the City of Flowers, and her glory was slowly departing." After his death his renown was eclipsed by that of his contemporaries, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael.
Del Sarto’s Style
Andrea Del Sarto was instrumental in the development of the Florentine mannerist style, which dominated the majority of the 1500’s until it was replaced with the onset of the Baroque period. Del Sarto worked mainly in oil but completed fresco cycles in the cloisters of the Scalazi and SS Annunziata in Florence. His work shows strong Mannerist tendencies in its agitated composition, formless and indeterminate space, and in the tortured poses and exaggerated musculature of it’s bunches of nude figures. The characteristics of mannerism are characterized by artiness and artificiality through self-conscious cultivation of technical ability and elegance. The figures are posed in seemingly contrived positions with elongated stretched limbs, small heads and stylized facial feature, giving them an overall appearance of gracefulness.Mannerism is notable for its intellectual sophistication, favoring compositional tension and instability rather than the balance and clarity of earlier Renaissance painting. The deep, linear perspectival space of High Renaissance becomes flattened and obscured so that the figures appear as a decorative arrangement of forms in front of a flat background of indeterminate dimensions. Mannerists sought a continuous refinement of form and concept, pushing exaggeration and contrast to great limits. The results included strange and constricting spatial relationships, jarring juxtapositions of intense and unnatural colours, an emphasis on abnormalities of scale, a sometimes totally irrational mix of classical motifs and other visual references to the antique, and inventive and grotesque pictorial fantasies.
Sarto combined Venetian colours with Florentine disegno, producing mainly religious pieces. Disegno is “drawing” or “design” is the foundation for any artistic endeavor and tries to approximate nature. For the Florentines artists, the act of drawing was not only the art of using line to define form: it was the artistic underpinning of a work whereby an artist could express his inner vision.
As noted earlier, from a young age Del Sarto’s was an accomplished draughtsman, his drawings are highly respected, especially his numerous works in chalk and red chalk. His drawings are refreshingly natural, marked by skillful arrangements and groupings of figures, harmonious coloration and a graceful composition in combination with clever drawing.
Del Sarto’s used Venetian colour which is softer and less vivid than Florentine color. Venetian color application suggests form without sharp edges, creating a difficult to achieve sense of depth and realism. Focusing more on the process of layering and blending colors to achieve a glowing richness while remaining naturalistic.
Best Known Works
Del Sarto is best known for his painting of the Last Supper and the Madonna of the Harpies. The first work of Del Sarto’s that spurred my interest was the Last Supper at San Salvi. He worked on this fresco of this ancient Vallombrosan monastery from 1511 until 1527.
The scene takes place in a very plain setting. As noted, with the mannerist style the setting tends to be plain and subdued while the grouping of figures is dynamic and draws the eye around the picture plane. Clearly Del Sarto was knowledgeable of Leonanrdo’s fresco of the Last supper when he painted his rendition. The impact and movement of Leonardo's figural composition have been moderated by Del Sarto. Del Sarto chose to depict the moment Christ reveals that someone will betray him, “the one who will betray me for a piece of dipped bread”, he depicts in the center of the fresco Jesus passing a piece of bread to Judas who is seated next to him rather than at the other end of the table as is the usual convention.
The Personages’ painted in the fresco appear to be portraits rather than idealized inventions. The apostles are represented without halos and they are depicted emotionally astonished and upset. All of these elements come together to make Andrea's narrative more human and touching; it reduces the heroic drama of gestures and figures. It shows a nearly enclosed hall, in whose articulations the row of apostles is embedded. The community at table with Christ is given a formal pendant in the form of a window loggia. A charming, anecdotal subsidiary motif results: two servants are conversing in the central opening. Above the entire scene is a large arch painted with medallions displaying the Trinity and the saint protectors of the Vallombrosan Order.
At the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, there are a number of self-portraits by Del Sarto and his Madonna and the Harpies. Originally completed in 1517 for the convent of San Francesco dei Macci, the altarpiece now resides in the Uffizi. The reason this piece was called Madonna of the Harpies is the figures on the carved pedestal below. In this piece Del Sarto depicts the Virgin Mary and child on a pedestal flanked by angels and two saints, Saint Bonaventure or Francis and John the Evangelist on the right. I am drawn into Del Sarto’s work through his rendering of clothing. I think his drapery and cloth work is stunning. St. Francis on the left has clothing which serves as a great example of Del Sarto’s clothwork. It is crisp and almost metallic, while remaining soft and deep and dimensional. This work is pyramidal shaped in composition with deep shadows resonating from behind the figures allowing them to appear to pop out of the picture plane.
In my own art practice, I have always had a real challenge in creating depth and illusionistic space, this can be attributed to skillful use of values. Which brings me Del Sarto’s most ambitious monument, the studio frescos he created around 1511 for the brotherhood in the Chiostro dello Scalzo. Here Andrea del Sarto painted frescos on the subject of the life of John the Baptist and the Baptism of Christ a gray on gray monochrome (grisaille).The cloister garden paintings have been outside for 500 years and have survived in fantastic condition. Here one can learn a lot from his use of values. Young artists use to visit these frescos and make studies of how the masters utilize chiaroscuro.
Below we can see how Del Sarto depicts the virtues, Faith, Hope and charity figures are drenched in light over a medium valued backdrop. The shadows are deep and dark below. Showing skillful use of value to differentiate the background and foreground elements. He skillfully represents 3 dimensions on a 2 dimensional surface just with his use of lights and darks. Some characters have less deep values to give them less emphasis in the overall compositions while important central figures like the Christ appear more predominant because of a greater range of values. This draws your eyes to the most important elements. Deep shadows and bright highlights help draw your eye through his dynamic compositions.
Del Sarto’s work really popped out for me. I think in part I am inspired by it in order that I can learn from the things I most admire in his work and study them so that I may apply them to my own. In looking at these works for their skillful use of dark and lights or chiaroscuro, and having great examples in his grisaille frescos one can see why he is a hugely influential high renaissance painter. I not only value his work but how he masterfully applies his values.
Aston, Margaret ed. The Panorama of the Renaissance. Thames and Hudson, 1996.
Fantechi, Chiara Migliorini. Florence Guide to the City. Florence, Italy: Editrice Giusti de Becocci S.r.l., 2005
Shearman, John K.G ed. Andrea Del Sarto Italian Painter. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2014.
Sorabella, Jean. Venetian Color and Florentine Design. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/vefl/hd_vefl.htm (October 2002)
Vasari, Giorgio. The Lives of the Artists. Translated by George Bull. Baltimore: Penguin, 1965. A widely available English translation of the sixteenth-century Italian original.
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