Painters Of Florence – Andrea Del Sarto

ANDREA DEL SARTO stands in the foremost rank of Florentine painters of the sixteenth century, and, after Leonardo and Michelangelo left home, was the only master who rivalled Fra Bartolommeo in the excellence of his art and the greatness of his reputation. If he never attained the Dominican painter’s depth and elevation of feeling, he excelled him in the beauty of his drawing and in the harmony and transparency of his colouring. The completeness of his technique won for him the name of Andrea senza errori, the faultless painter, and it is a sure prof of his genius that, at a time when Michelangelo and Leonardo reigned supreme, he should have succeeded in retaining his artistic personality. Unfortunately, he lacked the higher intellectual and spiritual gifts which are needful for the artist’s full development, and, in spite of his consummate skill and unerring science, never attained the noble types and ideal beauty of the greatest masters. The natural timidity of his nature and weakness of his character may account in a measure for his comparative failure, and Vasari was convinced that he made a fatal mistake in leaving France, and throwing away the opportunities of larger and more important works than he could find in Florence. But the high opinion which other masters had of his powers is shown by the famous words of Michel-angelo, who had known Andrea in Florence, and who said one day to Raphael : ” There is a little man in Florence who, were he ever employed on such great works as these, would bring out the sweat upon your brow.”

Andrea d’Agnolo, as he generally signs himself, was the son of a tailor named Agnolo, who lived in the parish of Santa Maria Novella, and was born on the 16th of July, 1486, and baptised on the following day. At seven years old he was placed in a gold-smith’s shop, but his talent for drawing soon attracted the notice of an inferior artist, named Barile, who taught him for three years and then recommended him to Piero di Cosimo. Under the influence of this master, who, Vasari tells us, was then held to be one of the best in Florence, Andrea made rapid progress, and amazed every one by the facility of his drawing and his skill in handling colours. Piero, we are told, had the greatest affection for his brilliant pupil and heard with indescribable delight that Andrea spent all his leisure hours in copying the cartoons of Leonardo and Michelangelo in the Pope’s hall, and was already known as the cleverest of all the artists who met to study these masterpieces. But Piero’s eccentricities at length forced Andrea to leave his house, and, when in 1508, he matriculated in the Painters’ Guild, he opened a workshop on the Piazza del Grano, with another promising student, Franciabigio, who had lately left Albertinelli’s bottega. The little panel of Christ appearing to the Magdalene, now in the Academy, is the earliest of Andrea’s works that we have, and is mentioned by Vasari as having been painted for the Augustinian convent outside the Porta San Gallo. The bright tints and charming landscape of this youthful work recall Piero di Cosimo’s style, and already display the peculiar softness and delicacy of colouring for which Andrea became noted. Soon he obtained a more important commission from Fra Mariano, the sacristan of the Servi brothers, who gladly availed himself of this opportunity to secure so promising an artist at small cost. At his suggestion, Andrea agreed to paint five frescoes on the life of S. Filippo Benizzi, in the court of the Annunziata, for the sum of ten florins a piece. The decoration of this entrance-court had been commenced half a century before, by Alessio Baldovinetti, and was now completed by these clever young sixteenth-century painters. Andrea finished the five subjects from S. Filippo’s life by the end of 1510, and was induced to paint two more frescoes, a Nativity and Adoration of the Magi, upon receiving a further payment of forty-eight florins.

These beautiful paintings, which the Servi brothers obtained for less than a hundred florins, were a marvellous production for a youth who was little over twenty, and remain Andrea’s most charming and attractive works. They are full of brightness and animation, and, at the same time, display rare mastery of design and colour. The landscape in the fresco of the Gamblers Struck by Lightning, is remarkably fine and varied, while the dramatic action and skilful composition has caused the work to be compared with Titian’s great picture of S. Pietro Martire. The last scene from the story of S. Filippo Children Healed by the touch of the Saint, is especially lovely in colour, but the finest of the whole series is the Birth of the Virgin, which was not completed till 1514. Ghirlandajo’s well-known fresco of the subject in Santa Maria Novella, was evidently fresh in the artist’s mind when he painted this. The same motives of the Mother receiving visitors on her couch, and of the maid washing the Child in a basin by the fire are repeated, but there is more elegance in the women-forms, greater ease and variety in their movements, and far more charm in the whole composition. The Cupids on the mantelpiece, and the graceful arabesques on frieze and cornice are in the latest style of Renaissance decoration. The general impression of the work is of a singularly modern character. By this time, Andrea’s talents had already attracted the notice of Ottaviano de’ Medici, and in 1515, when Leo X. visited Florence, he was employed to construct a temporory facade for the Duomo, adorned with chiaroscuro statues and bas-reliefs, which excited general admiration, and was pronounced by the Pope to be as fine as marble. Meanwhile, both Andrea and his friend and assistant, Franciabigio, had taken up their residence in the Via della Sapienza, in a house afterwards used as stables by the Tuscan Grand Dukes, close to the Servi convent. It was a favourite abode with young artists, and Leonardo’s friend, the sculptor Rustici, Jacopo Sansovino, and many other well-known masters, were already lodging there. Together they led a gay and joyous life, and Vasari describes the wonderful masques and suppers held in the clubs which they formed among themselves. There was the famous Club of the Paiolo, or Cauldron, which met at Rustici’s house, where dishes of the most elaborate kinds were provided by each of the twelve members, and Andrea, on one occasion, designed a temple in imitation of the Baptistery, with mosaics of jelly, columns of sausages, and choir and priests represented by birds and hooded pigeons. Another evening he recited a comic Greek poem, called the Battle of the Mice, and said to have been composed by Ottaviano de’ Medici, who was himself a member of the Club, which excited great merriment among the company. No less popular were the meetings of the Society of the Trowel, where the members appeared in mason’s clothes, and acted comedies and plays, for which Andrea painted the scenery. A great change had passed over Tuscan art and artists since the days when Cennino wrote his Trattato. The religious spirit which marked societies and guilds of painters in those early times had entirely disappeared, and the very character of the Florentines seemed to have changed. Few sixteenth-century masters approached art with the high seriousness of Leonardo or the deep devotion of Fra Bartolommeo.

But, at least, Andrea was not idle. Hardly had he finished the frescoes in the Court of the Annunziata, than he set to work on the chiaroscuro subjects from the life of the Baptist, in the cloisters of the Scalzi or Bare-footed brothers in the Via Larga. This series was to consist of twelve large frescoes, for which he was to receive 56 lire, and four smaller figures of Virtues, for which he was to be paid 21 lire. Six of these were painted between 1514 and 1517, after which the series was interrupted and never finished until 1526. It is only within the last few years that the Scalzo cloister has been roofed in and glazed, but in spite of the damage which Andrea’s frescoes have suffered from exposure to weather and ill-judged restoration, they reveal his wonderful powers in all their fulness. The figures are admirably drawn and modelled, the grouping and action are singularly fine, and the ornamental framework of the subject is remarkably decorative. Above all, the transparency of the shadows and the luminous tones of the monochrome produce an effect scarcely inferior to colour in richness and variety. The second subject of the Preaching of the Baptist, which the painter finished in 1515, is an especially striking composition, in which the earnest and impassioned gestures of the Saint, and the eager faces of his listeners are given with dramatic force. Several of the figures in this and the other frescoes are, as Vasari remarks, borrowed from Albert Dürer’s engraving, and bear witness to the popularity which the Nürnberg masters were fast gaining in Italy. But, even in the early subjects, we see that fatal tendency to overload the figures with draperies, which Andrea adopted in imitation of Michelangelo, and which grew upon him with the lapse of years, until it completely destroyed the charm of his art.

This unfortunate practice is still more apparent in the later frescoes of the Scalzo, as well as in the lunette of the Madonna del Sacco, which Andrea painted in 1525, over a doorway in the cloisters of the Servi convent. Here the grace of the composition and lovely harmonies of colour are sadly marred by the voluminous folds of draperies which smother the Virgin’s form, and which seem to be introduced solely in order to display the painter’s skill in the arrangement of the folds. Besides the fine panel of the Head of Christ which still hangs in the Madonna’s Chapel of the Annunziata, Andrea painted a Dead Christ, now in the Academy, on a staircase of the con-vent, in return, it is said, for a bundle of votive candles. This, however, was early in his career, about 1512, when he also executed two chiaroscuro frescoes on the Parable of the Husbandmen in the Vineyard, in the friar’s kitchen garden. But the wall on which these subjects were painted, fell in, early in the last century, so that we can only form some idea of these vigorous and animated compositions from old engravings and a series of studies by Lucas van Leyden, which are preserved in the Corsini Gallery.

Several of Andrea’s best easel pictures also belong to this period of his life. The earliest, and one of the finest, is the Annunciation, which he painted in 1512, for his old patrons the Augustinians of the convent outside the Porta San Gallo. In the timid action of the shrinking Virgin, turning away with hand uplifted in fear and wonder, we have a motive which the artist often repeated, while the splendid Renaissance portico in the background lends the subject a new and modern character. The Dispute on the Trinity, an altar-piece executed six years later for the same friars, and like the former picture now in the Pitti, is another masterpiece of faultless drawing and glowing colour. Here three saints, Laurence, Francis, and Peter Martyr listen intently to the eloquent words in which the venerable Father, St. Augustine, descants on the divine mystery, and Sebastian and Magdalene kneel at their feet. This work marks the culminating point of Andrea’s art, and like the famous Madonna delle Arpie, was painted before his memorable journey to France. This last-named picture, which takes its name from the reliefs of harpies carved on the pedestal of the Virgin’s throne, was originally executed for a Franciscan convent in the Via Pentolini, and is now among the chief ornaments of the Tribune of the Uffizi. It was painted early in 1517, a few months after the artist’s marriage to the beautiful widow, Lucrezia del Fede, whose features we recognise in the Virgin’s face. A striped cloth rests on her brown hair and a yellow shawl is folded round her shoulders. The laughing Child clings lovingly to his Mother’s neck, and two fair boy-angels play with the skirts of her blue robe. At the foot of the throne St. Francis stands with a crucifix in his hand, and a youthful St. John is seen in the act of writing his Gospel. Andrea never excelled this composition which, in simple grace and majesty, is unique among his works, and belongs to the happiest moment of his life.

The story of Andrea’s marriage is familiar to us in the pages of Vasari, who was at one time the artist’s pupil, and who in his hatred of his master’s wife has painted her in the blackest colours. But although his language may be exaggerated, the main facts of the case are probably true, and have never been refuted. This handsome woman whose face recurs in almost every Virgin and Saint of Andrea’s pictures, who sat to him for the youthful king in the fresco of the Magi, and appears again as one of the chief figures in the Birth of the Virgin, whom we see by turn as the Madonna on her throne, as the kneeling Magdalene of the Disputa, or the Charity of the Scalzo, was the wife of Carlo di Recanati, a hatter in the Via S. Gallo. Andrea was fascinated by her charms in the early days when he painted his first frescoes in the Annunziata, and after the death of her husband on the 17th of September, 1516, took her for his wife. But the fulfilment of his long-cherished desire brought him little peace. Lucrezia’s violent and overbearing temper drove away his favourite scholar, Pontormo, who was alive when Vasari wrote, and several of his best apprentices, while her vanity excited his jealousy and her extravagance involved him in constant difficulties. He soon found that he had not only his wife, but her father and sisters, to keep, and in order to provide for their needs, was compelled to lead a life of incessant toil, and to neglect his own parents, who, if we are to believe Vasari’s tale, died in miserable poverty. It is certain, however, that Lucrezia herself possessed some fortune, and before Andrea went to France he gave her father a receipt for her dowry of 15o florins, and deposited a sum of money for her benefit in the bank cf S. Maria Nuova.

In May, 1518, he accepted a pressing invitation from the French king, who had been greatly impressed by two of his works, the Holy Family of the Louvre and a Pieta, now at Vienna, which had been sent to France by Giovanni Battista della Palla. Andrea found a generous patron in Francis I., for whom he painted the well-known group of Charity and her Children, and a portrait of the infant Dauphin, for which he received 300 gold crowns.

But while the master was enjoying the change from the narrowness and poverty of his Florentine life to the splendour of the French court, his wife became impatient for his return — ” being more anxious,” remarks Vasari, “to profit by his gains than to see him again.” Her entreaties touched his heart so deeply, that he obtained leave from the king for two months, early in 1519, to go to Florence, and bring back his wife. But once at home again, Andrea forgot his promises in the joy of Lucretia’s company. He lavished presents upon his wife and her sisters, and spent the money which Francis I. had given him to purchase works of art for his palace at Fontainebleau, in buying a plot of land and building a house near the Annunziata. Whether Vasari’s story is true or not, it is certain that Andrea never returned to France, and threw away the prospect of a great and honourable career in that country. But he found plenty of employment in Florence, where, now that Fra Bartolommeo was dead, he had no one left to be his rival. He soon resumed his work at the Scalzo cloister, and designed the beautiful Charity, in which he repeated his former composition in the Louvre, and once more painted Lucrezia’s portrait. In 1521, his old friend Ottaviano de’ Medici, employed him to decorate Leo the Tenth’s villa at Poggio a Caiano, where his fresco of envoys in Florentine costume bringing a motley collection of giraffes, parrots, and monkeys as tribute to Casar, may still be seen in the great hall. This bright and animated, but curiously modern composition, was left unfinished, owing to the Pope’s death, and only completed sixty years later by the painter Allori. Andrea then returned to his work in the Scalzo cloisters, and continued the series at intervals, until it was completed in 1526.

In 1523, Andrea was one of the masters employed by Piero Francesco Borgherini to decorate the furniture of a chamber in his palace in the Borgo Apostoli, for the marriage of his son Francesco with Margherita Acciaiuoli. The two panels of the story of Joseph which formed Andrea’s share in the work, are painted with his usual care and skill, and their rich colour and fine atmosphere produce a highly decorative effect. Granacci, Bacchiacca, and Andrea’s own pupil Pontormo were associated with him in this task, and by their care the richly-carved bedstead, chests, and arm-chairs of walnut were all adorned with paintings of the same story. During the siege of Florence in 1529, Francis the First’s agent, Giovanni Battista della Palla, obtained leave from the Signoria to strip the beautiful chamber of its treasures, and send them to his master. But when he entered the Borgherini Palace, Margherita herself met him on the threshold and bade him begone, telling him that the furniture he wished to carry off had been ordered by her husband’s father for her wedding, and that rather than part from a single stick, she would shed the last drop of her blood. The terrified agent retired in dismay, and was soon afterwards thrown into prison and put to death as a traitor. “Thus,” writes Vasari, “did this brave woman, by her heroic courage and firmness, keep these treasures of art to adorn her home, and show herself to be a worthy daughter of this noble and ancient race.”

In 1524, a sudden outbreak of the plague drove Andrea and his family to take refuge in the convent of S. Piero in Val Mugello, where the abbess and nuns entertained him hospitably, and he painted the well-known Deposition in the Pitti, as well as two smaller pictures which have disappeared. The admirable sketch of the Dead Christ in red chalk is in the Louvre, while a study of the Magdalene’s head is in the Uffizi collection. But masterly as is the drawing and delicate the colour of this fine work, it falls far short of Perugino or Fra Bartolommeo’s Depositions in depth and tenderness of feeling. We are conscious of the same lack of elevation and pathos in the Last Supper, which Andrea painted in the refectory of the Vallombrosan monks at the convent of & Salvi, outside the Porta della Croce. The commission for this fresco had been given to the painter in June, 1519, immediately after his return from France, but the work was only completed seven years later. Andrea bestowed infinite pains on this fresco, “painting,” Vasari tells us, “but little at a time, as he felt inclined, and making every part as perfect as he could.” If he failed to give the subject Leonardo’s ideal grandeur and solemnity, and his Last Supper cannot compare with the Cenacolo at Milan, he has at least succeeded in producing a more pleasing and beautiful representation of the scene than any other Tuscan master. It is said that during the siege of Florence, when the invading army destroyed all the convents and hospitals without the walls, a troop of soldiers pulled down the bell-tower of S. Salvi, and were about to attack the convent, but when they entered the refectory they paused awe-struck before Andrea’s painting, and retired without doing any further damage.

As years went by, Andrea’s style became more and more artificial. He repeated his old compositions, and painted one picture after another with the same marvellous facility, in the same mannered style. In the Virgin-Saints at Pisa, in the Assumptions and Holy Family of the Pitti, we see the same heavy masses of draperies, the same fair women with soulless faces and insipid expression. Even his drawing became academic and conventional, and his once soft and brilliant colouring gave place to monotonous greyness. Here and there we find a touch of the old grace, as, for instance, in the fascinating babies from the large altar-piece which he painted, in ’528, for the hermitage on the heights of Vallombrosa, or the delightful children wearing the white hoods of the S. Jacopo’s Penitents on the processional banner of the Confraternity in the Uffizi.

One phase of art in which Andrea del Sarto ex-celled was that of portrait-painting. The refined and thoughtful head of the Sculptor in the National Gallery is ail excellent example of his direct and simple interpretation of character, while in the successive portraits of himself and his wife he has left us a pathetic record of his own history. Again and again he has painted this beautiful Lucrezia whom he loved too well for his own happiness. In the Uffizi picture we see her clad in a blue robe, holding an open volume of Petrarch’s Sonnets in her hand ; in the later portrait at Berlin she wears a more matronly air in her striped bodice with yellow sleeves, with the white handkerchief folded over the thick coils of chestnut hair. And he has painted himself too, from the early days when he was a graceful youth with dark eyes, sensitive lips, and long brown curls, down to the last year of his life, when he had grown stout and middle-aged, and the coarsened features and listless expression tell a melancholy tale of deterioration of character. A wonderful example of his technical skill is still to be seen in the copy of Raphael’s great portrait of Leo X. and his Cardinals, which he painted, in 1524, for Ottaviano de’ Medici. Pope Clement VII. had desired his kinsman to send this famous Raphael, which hung over a doorway of the Medici palace, as a present to the Duke of Mantua, upon which Ottaviano, unwilling to part from so great a treasure, employed Andrea to copy the picture, and sent his work to Mantua in the place of the original. So admirable was Andrea’s copy, that even Giulio Romano, who had himself helped Raphael in painting the Pope’s portrait, was completely deceived, until Vasari showed him Andrea’s monogram with the interlaced initials on the edge of the panel.

In spite, however, of his untiring industry, and of the great reputation which he enjoyed in Florence, Andrea del Sarto never attained the position to which his rare talents entitled him. During the siege of Florence he suffered many privations, and was glad to accept a commission from the Signory to paint the effigies of some rebels who had been hung as traitors on the walls of the Podestà palace. But being ashamed of the task, and fearing that he might acquire the name of ” Andrea of the Gallows,” which had been applied of old to Andrea del Castagno, he announced that one of his apprentices would fulfil the order, which he really executed himself, going back-wards and forwards by night, and hiding behind a hoarding when he was at work.

All through his later years, Vasari tells us, the painter never ceased to look back with regret at the time which he had spent in France, and made more than one effort to recover the favour of King Francis. The picture of the youthful Baptist, in tilt Pitti, was intended to be sent as a gift to propitiate that monarch, but was eventually bought by Ottaviano de’ Medici. In 1529, however, Giovanni Battista della Palla once more commissioned Andrea to paint a picture for his master. This time the artist, anxious to recover his old patron’s good graces, exerted himself to the utmost, and produced his Sacrifice of Isaac, a picture far finer in design and expression than any work of his later years. But the siege intervened, Giovanni Battista della Palla died in prison, and the picture was never sent to France. After Andrea’s death it was sold by his widow to Filippo Strozzi, and, after changing hands repeatedly, was placed in the Tribune of the Uffizi, in 1633. Seven years afterwards it was exchanged for Correggio’s Riposo, and passed with the chief treasures of the Duke of Modena’s collection into the Dresden gallery. The smaller replica of the picture at Madrid was painted for Paolo di Terrarossa, who, filled with admiration for the original design which he saw in Andrea’s studio, anxiously inquired the price of a small copy, and gladly gave the artist the trifling sum for which he asked—” una miseria,” as Vasari says!

When Florence was taken by the Spaniards, the plague broke out in many parts of the city, and Andrea del Sarto was one of its first victims. He breathed his last on the 22nd of January, 1531, at the age of forty-five, deserted even by his wife, who fled in terror from the house and left him to die alone. Yet his devotion to her had never altered, and in a will which he made four years before his death, he left all his property to his dear wife, ” la mia diletta domina,” and even remembered his step-daughter Maria. Lucrezia survived her husband forty years, and died in January, 1571. One day in the winter of 1570, when the artist Jacopo da Empoli was copying Andrea del Sarto’s Birth of the Virgin in the court of the Annunziata, an old woman of eighty stopped to speak to him on her way to mass, and pointing to the figure of the handsome young matron in the picture, told him that this was her portrait, and that she herself was Lucrezia del Fede, the widow of the artist who painted the fresco. She had vexed him in his life-time and abandoned him on his death-bed, but it was still her greatest pride to remember that she had been the wife of the famous master—” Andrea senza errori.”


Florence.—Accaaemia : 61. Two Child-Angels. 75. Fresco—Dead Christ. 76. Four Saints. 77. Predella. Legends of Saints.

” Pitti : 58. Deposition. 66. Portrait of the Painter. 81. Holy Family. 87. Joseph’s Dream. 88. Joseph in Egypt.

Florence.—Pitti: 124. Annunciation. 172. Dispute on the Trinity. 184. Portrait of the Painter. 191. Assumption. 225. Assumption. 272. The Baptist.

” Uffzi: 93. Noli me Tangere. 188. Portrait of Lucrezia. 280. Portrait of the Painter. 1112. Madonna delle Arpie. 1176. Portrait of the Painter. 1180. Portrait of Lady. 1254. St. James with Two Children. Chiostro dello Scalzo: Frescoes—Eight Scenes from the Life of St. John Baptist. Four Virtues. S. S. Annunziata, Court: Frescoes—Five Scenes from the Life of S. Filippo Benizzi, Adoration of Magi, Birth of the Virgin. Chapel: Head of Christ. Cloisters : Fresco–Madonna del Sacco. S. Salvi, Refectory: Fresco—Last Supper. Poggia a Caiano : Fresco—Cæsar receiving Tribute.

Berlin.—Gallery: 240. Portrait of Lucrezia. 246. Madonna and Child with Saints.

Dresden.—Gallery: 76. Marriage of St. Katherine. 77. Sacrifice of Isaac.

London.—National Gallery: 69o. Portrait of a Sculptor. Hertford House: Madonna and Child with Angels.

Madrid.—Gallery : 385. Holy Family. 387. Sacrifice of Isaac.

Munich.—Pinacothek : 1066. Holy Family.

Paris.—Louvre: 1514. Charity. 1515. Holy Family.

Vienna.—Gallery : 41. Pietà.