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Sublime, Exhilarating del Sarto

Andrea del Sarto: The Renaissance Workshop in Action

an exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, June 23–September 13, 2015; and the Frick Collection, New York City, October 7, 2015–January 10, 2016
Catalog of the exhibition by Julian Brooks with Denise Allen and Xavier F. Salomon.
Getty Publications, 222 pp., $59.00
Andrea del Sarto: Study for the Head of Saint Joseph, circa 1526–1527
Private Collection
Andrea del Sarto: Study for the Head of Saint Joseph, circa 1526–1527

Faced with a choice between advancing his career abroad—in Paris, no less—and returning home, the Florentine painter Andrea del Sarto chose to come home, a choice for which his ambitious student Giorgio Vasari never quite forgave him. Vasari’s capsule description of his master in his Lives of the Artists is as sharply critical as it is memorable:

And now we come to Andrea del Sarto, in whom nature and art revealed all that painting can accomplish in a single person through draftsmanship, color, and invention, so much so that if Andrea had been a man of a slightly more courageous and daring spirit (for he was profound in his talent and judgment), he would undoubtedly have had no equals.

But a certain timidity of spirit and a certain retiring simplicity of his nature never allowed him to develop a certain lively ardor, or that confidence which, added to all his other gifts, would have made him truly divine as a painter. For this reason he lacked the elaboration, grandeur, and versatility of style that can be seen in others. His figures, though simple and pure, are nonetheless well conceived, free from error, and supremely perfect in every respect.

This carefully crafted account comes from the second edition of the Lives, published in 1568. At fifty-seven, Vasari had become an illustrious teacher in his own right, the founder of a pioneering state-sponsored art school, the Florentine Academy and Company of the Arts of Drawing (Accademia e Compagnia delle Arti del Disegno), as well as the preferred artist and architect for two competing heads of state, the Grand Duke of Tuscany and the pope. A man of such enormous influence had good reason to temper his words.

Twenty years earlier, a leaner, hungrier Vasari had written about Andrea at far greater length and with blistering intimacy. Nervous, struggling, and in debt, the neophyte writer had staked his career on the idea that people might want to read the biographies of artists, and hence for the inaugural edition of the Lives, published in 1550, Andrea del Sarto came wrapped in a cloud of gossip:

The most excellent painter Andrea del Sarto, more excellent in his life than in his art, was deeply obliged to nature because of a rare talent in painting. If he had devoted himself to a more civil and respectable life and not neglected himself and his neighbors for his craving for a woman who always kept him poor and lowly, he would have stayed in France, where he was summoned by that King [François I] who adored his work and esteemed him greatly, and would have rewarded him on a grand scale. Instead, to satisfy his own appetite and hers, he returned home and always lived in a lowly manner, and was never paid more than poorly for his work, while she, whom he regarded as his only good, finally abandoned him as he lay dying.

The bitterness of this passage is the bitterness of personal experience. Like Andrea’s other apprentices and assistants, Vasari lived in the master’s house (which is still standing today, at the corner of Via Giuseppe Giusti and Via Gino Capponi), experiencing both Lucrezia’s physical beauty and her volatile character. The first edition of the Lives complains:

And although [Andrea’s] assistants put up with the situation in order to learn something in his company, no one, great or small, got away without some malicious word or deed from her.

Andrea del Sarto: Portrait of a Young Man, circa 1517–1518
National Gallery, London
Andrea del Sarto: Portrait of a Young Man, circa 1517–1518

Vasari lived and worked for many years in Florence, but he was not a Florentine himself; for him, home was Arezzo, another Tuscan city. If his artistic world had a center at all, it was probably Rome. But a native Florentine like Andrea del Sarto can be excused for putting Paris behind him in 1519: like many of his contemporaries, he regarded his own city as the artistic capital of the world. It was precisely his return from France, moreover, that enabled Andrea and his pupils, numerous and talented, to forge an entirely new artistic style for the new Medici rulers of a new, modern Florentine state.

For generations, drawing—disegno—had been the activity that best defined Florentine art. Long before they were allowed to apply color, apprentice artists were expected to hone their skills at drawing everything around them, from nature to people to works of art and architecture. Michelangelo’s advice to one member of his workshop was typical: “Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and don’t waste time.” He himself spent long hours in the garden of Palazzo Medici sketching works of ancient sculpture before he began to learn how to hew costly blocks of marble, just as his elder contemporary Leonardo would draw endless plans on paper before he began to paint or build. Goldsmiths drew, embroiderers drew, architects drew, and thanks to a solid background in drawing a master in one medium could become a master in others. Filippo Brunelleschi turned his talents from the miniature scale of gold jewelry to the gigantic dome of Florence Cathedral, Michelangelo turned from his marble David to the frescoed ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and Raphael revealed a skill for architecture that equaled his command of paint. They were all trained in Florence.

Normally, drawings were only the means to an end, tools to be thrown away when they had served their purpose. Cartoons, the paper mockups for paintings, were particularly vulnerable. Pricked with holes or scored with a sharp point, they were often destroyed when their essential lines were transferred to a wall or wooden panel. Sculptors who drew their designs on a block of wood or stone inevitably hacked their disegno away in the act of carving.

Paper, moreover, was expensive (and as durable as it was costly). Drawing sheets were pressed into service over and over again. On occasion, artists and architects would use more elaborate, finished drawings to present the projected design of a painting, sculpture, or building to a potential patron, and sometimes these presentation drawings were exhibited or passed around as artworks in their own right, as when Leonardo, perennially behind schedule, displayed his cartoons in public. Michelangelo sometimes supplied drawings to his friends for enjoyment and to his pupils for use in their own creations. In general, however, drawings were as likely to be discarded as kept. At the very least, the sheet of paper would be reused for more drawings until there was no room left on it.

In part because of his connection with Michelangelo, and in part because of his own ravenous curiosity, Giorgio Vasari was one of the first collectors to value drawings as legitimate works of art. He had taken to studying old master drawings as an aspiring artist, and when he gathered information about colleagues as an aspiring biographer for his Lives, he also sought out their drawings, binding them into a series of books. The books, unfortunately, have been lost, though isolated pieces survive.

One leaf from Vasari’s vanished collection, a pensive Study for the Head of Saint Joseph, is now on display at the Frick Collection in New York, part of a comprehensive traveling exhibition of the exquisite drawings produced by his master, Andrea del Sarto. Vasari has inked a delicate frame around the figure, a black chalk study with delicate highlights of red on the cheeks. A scrolled label at the bottom identifies Andrea del Sarto as the author in elegant classical capitals. Here, at least, the pupil’s awe at his teacher’s talent has silenced every criticism.

This cherished drawing, along with a choice selection of other disegni from the master’s hand, three paintings, and a thoughtful catalog edited by Julian Brooks, Denise Allen, and Xavier Salomon make up “Andrea del Sarto: The Renaissance Workshop in Action,” the first show in the United States ever to be dedicated exclusively to this exceptionally influential artist. With works that represent virtually every stage of the artistic process except the first spark of an idea inside the painter’s head, and helpful labels to point out the essentials of each drawing, we can see why Vasari could find his extraordinary master both so sublime and so exasperating.

Like Brunelleschi before him and Benvenuto Cellini after, Andrea, the son of a tailor (sarto), trained first as a goldsmith. Long before he touched gold, however, he had learned to draw, with pen and ink, the standard medium for disegno in the fifteenth century, and also with sticks of hard red and softer black chalk. Leonardo and Michelangelo had been pioneers in the use of rust-red chalk, mined near Siena, and Andrea followed their example just as he adopted their innovations in his paintings. The hardness of red chalk provided a strong, definite line—brilliant talent that he was, Andrea normally laid out his compositions in a few flawless strokes—but chalk could also be smudged to create delicate contrasts of light and shadow. Sometimes the artist created wash effects by going over his chalk drawings with a watery paintbrush.

As a child of the late fifteenth century (Andrea was born in 1486, three years after Raphael), he learned to draw with pen and ink and to paint with egg tempera, a quick-drying medium that created hard edges and glossy surfaces, as well as fresco, which produced equally crisp outlines on chalky white plaster. By the early sixteenth century, however, Florentine painters like Fra Bartolommeo and Andrea had begun to prefer oil, which dried more slowly and could be applied in diaphanous layers to produce a softer sheen. Andrea reveled in his own version of Leonardo’s sfumato—“smoky”—technique, which created dramatic shifts between light and shadow, but with such subtle changes in color that human flesh seemed soft to the touch and landscapes seemed to be shrouded in mist.

To these delicate textures, he added the blazing pastel colors that Michelangelo had unveiled on the Sistine Chapel ceiling in 1512 and the stately grace that Raphael was developing for his human figures in the teens of the sixteenth century. Andrea’s painting is softer-edged than Raphael’s, and his faces, with their deep-set eyes, have a brooding quality all their own that would inspire his pupil Jacopo Carucci da Pontormo to strive for that same intensity of expression.

Like any ambitious artist of his time, Andrea drew from ancient sculpture as well as nature; for artists of the Renaissance, the work of the ancients was nearly as divine as the work of the Creator. Sometimes the sculptural derivation of a drawing is obvious, as in the case of the red chalk Study of the Head of an Old Man in Profile from Berlin—this is an ancient Roman portrait of the poet Homer, and Andrea has perfectly captured the chilly sheen of light reflecting from marble. At other times, we may wonder whether the study of an arm or leg is based on the observation of stone or skin. Amusingly, we also find Andrea’s assistants pressed into service as models from classical or biblical antiquity. One kneels reverently, holding a sack that the master will turn into a lamb offered to the Christ Child for an Adoration of the Shepherds. And the red chalk portrait of Julius Caesar that starts off the exhibition sprouts an almost transparent wisp of beard; this Caesar is drawn not from sculpture, but from life, and perhaps from life as it was lived in Andrea’s studio (see illustration on page 30).

Some of these drawings from half a millennium ago strike an uncannily modern note: the luminous figure of a young woman emerges from a densely cross-hatched shadow like the young girls in some of Picasso’s Minotaur etchings from the 1930s; the black chalk drawing of a draped leg can also read as an abstract pattern of spiky, jagged lines. Visitors seem to linger with particular attention over the refined red chalk figure of a young girl who bows her head as tendrils of hair fall around her face, perhaps the sketch for a penitent Mary Magdalene.

The sitter is not Andrea’s wife Lucrezia, who makes her appearance elsewhere, in a gorgeous black chalk portrait that makes the most of a medium that emphasizes the contrast between light and shade. Unmarked paper creates the highlights on Lucrezia’s skin; the rest has been smudged to a delicate sfumato. In a masterful touch, tiny, almost imperceptible patches of light outline the bottom of her nose and chin to give her a lifelike glow; this is the work of a man who has looked long and lovingly at this beautiful face, perhaps as young Giorgio Vasari was looking daggers from the sidelines.

Three paintings provide insight into the way that disegno accompanied Andrea at every step of creation, from idea to paper preliminaries to painted panel (as a legacy of his tempera tradition, he preferred wood to canvas). His relentless activity of drawing and redrawing did not stop with sketches and cartoons; it continued as underdrawing on the panel itself and then in incessant revisions of outlines and figures before the paint finally dried once and for all. Because pigments change with time, details that were once covered over by a layer of paint sometimes begin to emerge again; these ghosts are termed, not quite accurately, pentimenti, “repentances” (when they are really the original sin, not the repentance).

In the Holy Family that Andrea painted for Ottaviano de’ Medici, the painter turns out to have struggled long and hard with one of the Christ Child’s legs, yet after two or three tries, all of them now visible in a smear of pentimenti, it still seems to have come out too small. Curators can penetrate still deeper into a painting with the help of a technique known as infrared reflectography, which uses a special camera to photograph how wavelengths longer than the range of visible light reflect from its layers of pigment. In the case of the Medici Holy Family, the detailed red chalk drawing of a wizened elderly woman looks very much like Andrea’s underdrawing for the figure of Saint Elizabeth on the painting itself. But the features of the Saint Elizabeth we see in the final painting have been smoothed and softened, her face turned into a more perfect oval, her wrinkles blurred. The unblinking detail of the drawing has been transformed into an ethereal vision.

This gauzy, ethereal softness seems to be one of the ways that Andrea del Sarto identifies his holy figures as belonging to another realm. We can see the same transformation from the exquisite black chalk portrait of a youth—who seems to be somewhat surprised that he has been taken into the artist’s studio for a sitting—to the serene painted figure of a young John the Baptist in the wilderness. Between these two large sacred paintings in the Frick’s Oval Room hangs Andrea’s portrait of a young scholar with unmistakably individual features, including a cleft chin, strong nose, and brilliant eyes, the eyes and nose equally prominent in a swift preliminary sketch executed in red chalk.

He is a scholar, not a saint, and Andrea portrays him with precision in a clear beam of light as he looks back over his shoulder in an arresting pose that owes something to Raphael’s equally arresting portrait of the handsome Florentine banker Bindo Altoviti. But not everything about this precisely lit image is clear; the whitish object the young man holds has sometimes been identified as a block of marble, clay, or a brick, which would make this painting the portrait of an artist, whereas the catalog identifies the object in his hands—as did this viewer—as a book.

The Frick is a marvelous place to compare Andrea’s virtuosity with that of other great painters from the same Italian tradition. In contrast to an artist like Paolo Veronese, who paints with unrelenting intensity right to the very corners of his canvases, or Raphael, who can give a tiny background the same definition as the main event, Andrea concentrates his effort on a few central figures, or, as in the case of the scholar with the book that can also read as a block, on a face, leaving the rest in a pleasant haze. This uneven level of attention is surely what Vasari meant when he said that Andrea “lacked the elaboration, grandeur, and versatility of style that can be seen in others.” His paintings, beneath their ravishing surfaces, are rather stark and simple compared with the pinpoint detail of Bronzino, or Vasari’s crowd scenes, or Pontormo’s intricately interlaced compositions.

Like his contemporary Baccio Bandinelli, a divine draftsman and a competent sculptor, Andrea del Sarto may be one of those Florentine artists for whom drawing had become an activity that Giorgio Vasari was perhaps the first to understand in all its significance: the most essential act in the mysterious process of making art.