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.
That Sansovino’s buildings and sculptures have usually been discussed independently of one another may be owing partly to academic specialization. Students of architectural history have their own periodical publications and all too often tend to hold themselves apart from art historians. In Sansovino’s case there might seem to be some justification in that most of his buildings are severely architec-tonic with no sculptural ornament apart from the classical orders; indeed some are of such rational austerity that they have made a strong appeal to modern—or rather International Modern—taste. However, there are two exceptions and these are Sansovino’s two best known and most prominent buildings, the Library of St. Mark’s and the nearby Loggetta at the base of the Campanile. In them architecture and sculpture are more successfully integrated than in any other building of the period. And both have become no less integral parts of the image of Venice than the Doges’ Palace and the Basilica of St. Mark.
Palladio described the Library as the richest and most ornate building that had been erected since ancient Roman times. The great German Romantic architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel remarked in 1803 on its “nobility” and on the “most beautiful invention” displayed in the sculptural decoration, “rich without departing from the simplicity of the general design.” Even John Ruskin felt bound to call it “graceful and effective in its kind.” He objected to the “vulgar and painful mode of filling spandrels by naked figures in alto relievo, leaning against the arch on each side and appearing as if they were continually in danger of falling off,” though conceding that many of them had “some merit in themselves.” (It should be mentioned here that this sculpture was carved by Sansovino’s followers, the library being unfinished when he died in 1570.) However, Ruskin had in general little liking for Sansovino’s architecture and less for his sculpture, describing the severely handsome Palazzo Corner on the Grand Canal as “one of the worst and coldest buildings of the central renaissance,” while dismissing as of “no importance” the church of San Giuliano with Sansovino’s magnificent bronze statue of Tommaso Rangone on the façade.
The Loggetta (where patricians fore-gathered before and after political and business sessions in the Doges’ Palace) was completed by about 1545 with a lavishness of materials and ornament that proclaimed the recently recovered opulence and power of Venice. Four bronze statues, which are among Sansovino’s masterpieces, and numerous marble reliefs carved under his supervision were incorporated in a structure of such polychromatic richness that one is tempted to infer some attempt to emulate his friend Titian—eight columns of mottled oriental marble, and a cladding of white Istrian stone and light red and dark green marble.
The little building was given the form and symbolic significance of an ancient Roman triumphal arch, adorned with sculpture expressing, and intended to help promote and maintain, that closely knit fabric of the Serene Republic’s political and social principles. Whether the allegorical program was devised by Sansovino himself or, as seems more probable, by a Venetian humanist, it was expounded by his son Francesco with an array of multiple levels of meaning that might confound even the most ingenious of modern iconographers. According to Francesco the statue of Apollo, for example,
stands for the sun (sole) and the sun is truly single, as this Republic is unique in the world, through its constitution, unity, and complete liberty, governed with justice and wisdom. And the Apollo was made because a rare harmony, making this government secure, issues from the unity of the magistrates, joined together as they are in inexpressible concord.
This “glorious little building” of “singular and incomparable beauty”—as Thomas Coryate wrote of it in 1611—was destined to have as unfortunate a later history as the Republic it celebrated. Unhappy additions were made in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and when the campanile collapsed on top of it in 1902 all the sculpture was damaged and a beautiful terra-cotta group of the Madonna and Child modeled by Sansovino for the interior was smashed. Although the whole building was reconstructed with as much of the original materials as had survived, many new pieces had to be added and substitutes found for five of the columns. In the course of the next sixty years the surface was gradually encrusted with dirt, latterly from the fumes of oil-fired central heating plants (now prohibited in Venice, where only methane gas may be burned). After the severe floods and high tides of 1966 and 1967 drew worldwide attention to the plight of Venice, the Loggetta was one of the first buildings to be restored (at the expense of the British “Venice in Peril Fund”), and the brilliance of its poly-chromy was once more revealed. It does not look quite as bright now, either because it has again begun to gather grime or, as some critics of the restoration say, from the action of chemicals used to treat the marble and now spreading a gray film over the surface (though I was unable to detect this on a recent visit). But the Loggetta is not the only one of Sansovino’s works to have been cleaned since the 1960s.
The cleaning and restoration of works of art and architecture have aroused controversy from at least as early as the late seventeenth century—though at first generally about the proficiency of the restorers rather than the advisability of restoration as such—and has been ever more acerbically discussed since the late eighteenth century—the beginning of the Romantic period. Then as now tempers were soon frayed as opponents argued from aesthetic or merely nostalgic premises while restorers invoked history and science in their replies. A recent dispute about the cleaning of Jacopo della Quercia’s very well-known early fifteenth-century monument of Ilaria del Carretto in Lucca cathedral is a case in point. The American scholar and historian Professor James Beck claimed that irreparable damage had been done and this was given a great deal of local publicity in Tuscany and later all over Italy. Eventually the horror story was taken up in the international press. The Italians responsible for the restoration took Beck to court for defamation, and although he was not allowed his costs the judgment went in his favor, which was just as well for otherwise all future critics of restoration and cleaning in Italy would have been muzzled.
In his recent monograph on della Quercia,3 Professor Beck has toned down his objections. He remarks simply that “in 1989 the Ilaria suffered an energetic cleaning that wiped away the patina of centuries.” My own impression is that the monument, which I have seen very frequently indeed over the past thirty years, has certainly been relieved of dirt “besmeared by sluttish time” but is otherwise little if at all changed. Professor Beck was one of the leaders of the protest against the cleaning of Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel (now generally accepted as having been beneficial); he has recently founded an association called Art Watch, whose members will report on works of art in danger either from neglect or proposed restoration. It is much to be feared that this will be counterproductive—resulting in such a widespread calling of “wolf” that no notice will be taken of warnings that merit attention.
That the monument to Ilaria is not only one of the finest but also among the most famous works of sculpture in Italy is due, in the English-speaking world, to Ruskin’s infatuation with it and his memorable eulogy of it, echoed in one guidebook after another. His deepest feelings were stirred by this image of innocent, unchallenging sexuality, youth, and death, and he fell in love with Ilaria at first sight, later identifying her obsessively with his adolescent girl idol Rose La Touche. No work of sculpture in Venice aroused such sentiments in him—or in anyone else—and at least partly for this reason it has been possible to carry out a great deal of restoration in Venice without criticism.
There have been some unfortunate incidents, however. Sansovino’s delicately carved statue of St. John the Baptist in the Church of the Frari was cleaned and, in the process, the right arm found to be of different type of marble and inferior workmanship (though this had not previously been noted). Recognized as a substitution for the original, the arm was removed and the figure returned to its place in the center of a font, distressingly mutilated like a war veteran. Its value and significance as a devotional image have thus been diminished for the benefit of art historians, and one may question whether this increasingly common practice is justified. No one can, however, reasonably object to the cleaning of Sansovino’s great monument to Doge Francesco Venier in the Church of San Salvatore, which has beautifully revealed the fine quality of the figurative carvings as well as the colors of the various types of marble used in the architectural framework.
The seated bronze statue of Tommaso Rangone (see opposite page) modeled by Sansovino with assistance from his pupil Alessandro Vittoria (how much is a matter of debate) has been restored, very well it is said, though I was refused permission to see the statue on a recent visit since it had been packed away in storage until the façade of the church to which it belongs is cleaned (by the American Save Venice Fund). It will presumably be returned eventually to the place for which it was made. Proposals that imperiled works of sculpture in the open air should be removed to a museum are, however, circulating. So the death knell of Venice as the last great open air museum in the world is sounding. (Much of the sculpture in Florence, the other great open air museum, has long since been taken indoors.)
About ten years ago there was a project to install a museum of sculpture in the Scuola Grande della Misericordia, thereby also saving this noble building from its present lamentable state of continual deterioration. It would be difficult to conceive of a more suitable building for the purpose. It was designed by Sansovino (begun in 1535) as new premises for one of the richest of the Venetian confraternities. And although the brick exterior was never given its intended marble cladding, the interior with a vast hall on each of its two floors was completed with dignified marble colonnades. After the fall of the Republic the Scuola was suppressed and the many works of art it had accumulated were sold. From 1815 the building was used as an army warehouse by the Austrians and after 1866 by the Italians. Since the last war the upper story has become a gymnasium and the ground floor a basketball court. Today the whole interior—one of the noblest, if not the noblest, created in sixteenth-century Venice—is in a lamentable state of degradation and squalor. Suitable nearby alternative accommodation for sports has been offered and indeed provided, but without the desired result. There is no building in the city that more urgently calls for attention, and none that would provide better spaces for the display of sculpture.
Whether or not sculpture need or should be removed from open air display and be replaced by copies has, of course, been debated for many years. The practice seems to have started in Florence where Michelangelo’s David was removed from the Piazza della Signoria in 1873 and Donatello’s St. George from Or San Michele in 1892. In recent years the Florentine authorities have rescued several other works of sculpture including fourteenth-century reliefs from the Campanile and Ghiberti’s gilt bronze doors from the Baptistry. The objection that tourists are deceived by the replacements could, and certainly should, be resolved by plaques recording that they are copies and indicating where the original sculptures may be seen. It may also be argued that the contrast between the impermeable surface of the copies and the deteriorating condition of the surrounding stonework will in time become painfully obvious—from normal weathering, even if atmospheric pollution is reduced. (This point was made in an excellent editorial on the restoration of sculpture in Florence in the Burlington Magazine, December 1991.)
In Venice the same process began much later with the removal of Antonio Rizzo’s marble Adam and Eve from the courtyard of the Doges’ Palace and their replacement by bronze copies (Eve in the 1920s followed some years later by Adam), and has only quite recently been resumed with the four antique bronze horses of St. Mark’s. They were restored in the 1970s, trotted round the Western world, and finally stabled in an upper chamber of the church near their former site on the façade, where they are now replaced by copies. But otherwise sculptures have been allowed to remain (or after restoration been returned to) the places for which they were created. The elaborate Gothic entrance to the Doges’ Palace, the Porta della Carta, for instance, was admirably restored in situ. At the expense of the Boston Chapter of Save Venice Inc., work is currently in progress, beneath a large wooden construction, on the two large Byzantine pillars looted by Venetians from the Church of St. Polyeuktos in Constantinople (formerly thought to have come from Acre).
An internationally concerted campaign for the restoration of works of art in Venice was only initiated after the city was partially submerged by an unusually high acqua alta, or flood, in 1966. (These floods, which occur when a south wind stirs up the Adriatic and prevents the tidal waters of the lagoon from escaping into the open sea, are an ancient phenomenon but have become higher and more frequent as the level of the sea has risen and the urban fabric of Venice has sunk.) Committees were formed in Italy, in the United States, in Great Britain, and in other European countries, very considerable sums of money were subscribed, mostly by generous and concerned private donors, and spent on the restoration of buildings, paintings, and sculptures under the superintendence of the local fine arts administrators.4
To attack the basic problem of the acqua alta, laws have been passed in Rome, large financial subsidies have been promised, and projects, sometimes of science-fiction ingenuity, have been devised. Yet no action whatever has been taken in the more than a quarter of a century that has passed since 1966. But unless the problem is solved, and solved soon, all the excellent work of restoration will have been in vain and the hospitalizing of sick sculptures in a museum will merely prolong their death agony. The sculptures and buildings of Sansovino will perish together with all other works of art in this extraordinary city, which seems likely to survive eventually as a deserted, half-submerged labyrinth of ruins, to be visited only by small boats—as used to be the great temple at Philae in the Nile.
September 24, 1992
Giovanni Mariacher, Il Sansovino (Milan: Mondadori, 1961). ↩
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). ↩
James Beck, Jacopo della Quercia, two volumes (Columbia University Press, 1991), with full catalogue raisonné and transcriptions of more than five hundred documents. ↩
A well-illustrated survey of the restorations appears in a UNESCO publication, Venice Restored 1966–1986 (Milan: Electa, 1991)—an English translation of a book published in Italian in 1986. ↩