The Master Builder of Venice

The Sculpture of Jacopo Sansovino

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


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…

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