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The Master Builder of Venice

The Sculpture of Jacopo Sansovino

by Bruce Boucher
Yale University Press, Vol. 2, unpaged pp., $150.00 the set

1.

Visitors to St. Mark’s in Venice, overawed by the Byzantine solemnity of the architectural space, bemused by the shimmering mosaics, and dazzled by the enamels and gems on the opulent twelfth- to fourteenth-century Palo d’Oro—the great high altar-piece—rarely pay much attention to later works of art in the church. Few give more than a passing glance to the mid-sixteenth-century bronze sculptures of Jacopo Sansovino in the choir—statuettes of the Evangelists, reliefs on the singing-galleries and on a door in the apse, unobtrusive additions to the medieval decoration yet obviously works, and very accomplished works, of the High Renaissance. On the door, Sansovino’s reliefs of the Entombment and Resurrection of Christ are surrounded by figures of saints and portrait heads, which include those of Titian, Sansovino himself, and Pietro Aretino, the “triumvirate” who dominated the artistic life of Venice for a prodigiously productive quarter of a century as painter, sculptor-architect, and man of letters.

Being neither as famous as Titian nor as infamous as Aretino, Sansovino is nowadays unlikely to be recognized. In his own day, however, he seems to have been known to—if he did not himself know personally—nearly everyone of importance in Italy, and was highly regarded by most of them, although he had a brief quarrel with Michelangelo and was called a braggart by, of all people, Benvenuto Cellini. In the history of Venetian art and architecture he remains a figure of central importance. And in recent discussions about restoration and conservation in this most beautiful and most notoriously imperiled of all cities his buildings and sculptures are no less central, for they raise all the problems at issue.

There is no shortage of information about Sansovino, even about his appearance and personality. Giorgio Vasari, a personal friend, described him as of

medium stature, not stout, and upright in bearing. He was fair complexioned with a red beard, and in his youth very handsome and graceful, so that many ladies of rank fell in love with him. In age he appeared venerable with a fine white beard, and walked like a young man…. He liked to dress well and was always well groomed, enjoying the company of women to his extreme old age and fond of conversing with them. In his youth his disorders injured his health, but he suffered no ill-effects in old age…. His digestion was so good that he could eat anything, and in summer lived almost exclusively on fruit, often eating three cucumbers at a time with half a lemon. He was of a most prudent disposition, looking to the future and judging things by the past; he was attentive to his affairs, spared no pains and never neglected his workshop for pleasure. He talked well and prudently about anything he understood…. If at times he allowed himself to be overcome by anger, for he was very hot-tempered, it was soon over, and often a few humble words would bring tears to his eyes.

It is easy enough to see why Titian and Aretino found him a congenial spirit.

Most of Vasari’s life of Sansovino (who was still alive when it was published in 1568) was devoted to his work as an architect. But Vasari remarks on Sansovino’s “passionate love for sculpture” and goes on to mention that for certain subjects he was thought superior even to Michelangelo. The comparison was inevitable. Born in Florence in 1486 (the son of a mattress-maker, Antonio de’ Tatti), he was eleven years younger than Michelangelo, from whom he differed in nearly every way. Extrovert, heterosexual, shrewd in business, amenable and willing to comply with his patrons’ wishes, thoroughly reliable and competent, he became eventually the manager of a large and flourishing sculptor’s workshop—not quite the stuff that fictionalized biographies and movies are made on. Likewise his work, both as a sculptor and as an architect, has all the technical accomplishment, the confidence, the serenity, the controlled energy, and classical balance one associates with the High Renaissance: always admirable, and, at its very best, exalting. But seldom exciting and never disturbing.

He began his apprenticeship as a sculptor in Florence just at the time Michelangelo was carving his famous David. His master was Andrea Sansovino, a sculptor whose restrained classicizing style had developed smoothly from the art of the early fifteenth century. He was all but adopted as a son by Andrea, whose name he assumed, and went with him to Rome in 1505 where he assisted in carving two monuments to cardinals commissioned by Pope Julius II (the patron of Michelangelo and Raphael). During the next few years he studied Roman “antiquities” and also made his earliest surviving work (now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London), a small model of the Deposition of Christ with figures of wax and crosses of wood for Raphael’s master, Pietro Perugino, who had been commissioned to paint the subject—a work now lost, if ever executed, and known only through derivations by other artists.

This close and slightly unusual association with painters was to continue when Sansovino returned to Florence in 1510. There he shared a studio with “the faultless painter” Andrea del Sarto, for whom he also made models. However, his independent career as a sculptor is marked at about this date by a small-scale marble Bacchus, which in its sobriety, distinctly chaste nudity, and steadiness of poise makes a striking contrast with Michelangelo’s earlier, more complex, and far more sensual rendering of the same subject. It was one of the few statues of its period to be regarded as a model of classical status until the late eighteenth century, one of the very few to be included in collections of casts, most of which were, of course, of antique sculpture. His major work of these Florentine years was, however, a serenely elegant, larger-than-life-size statue of St. James the Great for the Cathedral, where it joined the series for which Michelangelo had begun but left unfinished his tormented St. Matthew.

Sculpture was, of course, commissioned mainly for churches at this time and the most generous patrons were in Rome. So in 1518 Sansovino went back there and was fully employed for the next nine years. His most notable Roman work, a monumentally classical group of the Madonna and Child in the Church of Sant’Agostino, was to become in the early nineteenth century the object of so much popular veneration from pregnant women that it was entirely surrounded by votive offerings and a metal apron had to be added to cover the Child’s genitals. In Rome he also made his debut as an architect, designing two churches and some secular buildings, though only one relatively small palace was completed and survives.

His career in Rome was brought to an end in May 1527, when the city was sacked and the Pope was taken prisoner. Artists, seeing no hope of further patronage, thereupon dispersed. Sansovino went to Venice, where he had some influential contacts. Although he intended to stay only until the storm had passed he was to remain in Venice for the rest of his long life—more than forty years—during which he continued to regard himself as a Florentine expatriate. The Venetian painter Lorenzo Lotto, whom he seems to have known in Rome, promptly recommended him as a “most excellent sculptor,” second only to Michelangelo; Aretino, another friend from his Roman days, now settled in Venice, also stretched out a helping hand, writing to tell the marquess of Mantua that the “most excellent” sculptor Jacopo Sansovino would be able to supply a statue of Venus “so true to life that it would excite the lust of anyone who looked at it.” Nothing came of this, however, and the statues he executed in Venice are of irreproachable modesty.

Sansovino could not have arrived in Venice at a more propitious moment. The Republic was just then beginning to recover from the economically crippling war of the League of Cambrai—the rapacious alliance of the Papacy, the Holy Roman Empire, France, and various Italian states that had very nearly succeeded in appropriating Venetian territory on the mainland. During these years the art of painting continued to flourish in Venice and by 1527 Titian was the unquestioned master of the Venetian school. But there was no architect or sculptor to answer demands for comparable work, demands made usually by rich but relatively young men who had only recently acquired official positions. Sansovino, with the cachet of having worked in the Rome of Julius II, filled both gaps. In 1529 he was appointed architect to the Procurators of St. Mark’s (the patricians responsible for the maintenance of the church and administration of its revenues), given a house in the Piazza and a good salary. Although this was no sinecure, he had time to work for other corporate or individual patrons. As a sculptor, however, he came to rely increasingly on a staff of assistants. He was quite frank about this, informing Ercole II d’Este, for instance, who had commissioned a heroic-scale statue of Hercules in 1550, that he would make the clay model himself but, according to his usual practice, entrust the carving to an assistant. By this date he was too fully engaged on other work, mainly as architect and administrator, to carve with his own hands.

Nowadays Sansovino is less widely known as a sculptor than as an architect. His work in both arts has been described in only one brief monograph,1 while his architecture has been the subject of two fairly recent books, in Italian by Manfredo Tafuri and in English by Deborah Howard—the latter a model monograph, scrupulous in its scholarship yet accessible to non-specialist readers.2 His sculpture has not been neglected by historians and critics. It is always given due attention in general accounts of Italian Renaissance art and numerous erudite articles have been devoted to individual aspects and problems in learned periodicals. But an up-to-date and exhaustive monograph was lacking. Bruce Boucher’s full-length account in The Sculpture of Jacopo Sansovino, with 477 illustrations, an indispensable catalogue raisonné, a seventeen-page bibliography, and transcriptions of more than three hundred documents (many of them discovered by the author and here published for the first time), admirably fulfills the need. (It is one of three books that have been awarded in Italy this year the well-known Salimbeni prize for the best publications on Italian art.) Although the authenticity of some of the works he attributes to Sansovino—and also of others which he rejects—may be questioned, he provides in each instance the information on which future controversy can be based. But he is not concerned only with such matters of connoisseurship. He provides much else besides, notably a valuable account of the patrons for whom Sansovino worked: and his study of relevant documents has enabled him to illuminate some of the still obscure and often misunderstood ways in which a sculptor’s workshop functioned in the sixteenth century.

  1. 1

    Giovanni Mariacher, Il Sansovino (Milan: Mondadori, 1961).

  2. 2

    Manfredo Tafuri, Jacopo Sansovino e l’architettura del ‘500 a Venezia (Padua: Marsilio, 1969; revised edition 1972). Deborah Howard, Jacopo Sansovino, Architecture and Patronage in Renaissance Venice (Yale University Press, 1975; revised 1987).

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