Vindicating del Sarto

Divinely Painted—Andrea del Sarto: The Holy Family in Munich and Paris

an exhibition at the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, October 1, 2009–January 6, 2010
Catalog of the exhibition edited by the Bavarian State Picture Collections, with essays by Vincent Delieuvin, Patrick Dietemann, Peter Lüdemann, Bruno Mottin, Wibke Neugebauer, Jan Schmidt, Heike Stege, and Cornelia Syre. Munich: Hirmer, 248 pp., �?39.90
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Andrea del Sarto: The Holy Family with John the Baptist, Elizabeth, and Two Angels, circa 1514; from the collection of the Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Extravagant shows of old master art have been one of the most significant cultural phenomena of recent decades. Just as music festivals celebrate the giants of music history, museums in London, New York, Washington, and Paris highlight the great painters and sculptors of the past. In Germany, however, this blockbuster culture has never really taken hold, which sometimes surprises and disappoints curators in other countries. Of course, there have been some first-rate exceptions such as the Rembrandt show in Berlin and the Adam Elsheimer show at Frankfurt’s Städel Museum, both in 2006. But the blockbuster whirlwind has almost completely bypassed Munich, with its more low-key and conservative museum culture.

Yet along with such music festival–like extravaganzas, there are also on occasion much smaller exhibitions, ones that are more like chamber music concerts. These are shows in which a museum displays a single treasure from its collection together with a few comparable works, accompanied by documents illuminating its history or the technique used by its author. Such shows are less costly and more concentrated and informative than blockbusters. They encourage leisurely observation and critical comparison. As Paul Claudel wrote, “The eye listens.” Munich is fortunate to have had a series of such shows in the Alte Pinakothek. They have brought visitors closer to Rubens’s Lion Hunt, the moonlit magic of Elsheimer’s Flight into Egypt, Tintoretto’s Gonzaga cycle, and Leonardo’s The Madonna of the Carnation.

In its current exhibition, “Divinely Painted—Andrea del Sarto: The Holy Family in Munich and Paris,” nothing less is at stake than the rehabilitation of a neglected masterpiece from the Alte Pinakothek’s own collection and aesthetic vindication for a genius of Italian painting who has long suffered undeserved censure. Andrea del Sarto, the son of a tailor, was born in Florence in 1486 and died there of the plague in 1530. His beginnings as a painter thus coincided with the flowering of the Florentine Renaissance under Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael. Apart from a brief stay at the French court in 1518, Andrea seems hardly ever to have left his native city, where, beginning in about 1515, he achieved the highest renown.

He painted religious subjects almost exclusively, most often the Madonna or the Holy Family. Andrea seems to have been a pious man. His self-portrait in the Uffizi shows him with a rounded, sensitive face, lacking pretense but with a hint of ironic bashfulness. Suffused with a hovering, poetic magic, his works are never strident and avoid overbearing pathos. Andrea was above all a divine colorist who avoided tones that make a shrill or brilliant impression, deploying instead a palette of shimmering warmth played about by shadow. There is something of Leonardo, something of Raphael in them, but the gentle beauty of Andrea’s paintings remains unmistakably his own.

Andrea del Sarto’s critical history has …

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