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Andrea Sansovino (ca. 1460-1529)

Vasari's Lives of the Artists








ALTHOUGH Andrea, the son of Domenico Contucci of Monte Sansovino, was born from a poor father, a tiller of the earth, and rose from the condition of shepherd, nevertheless his conceptions were so lofty, his genius so rare, and his mind so ready, both in his works and in his discourses on the difficulties of architecture and perspective, that there was not in his day a better, rarer, or more subtle intellect than his, nor one that was more able than he was to render the greatest doubts clear and lucid; wherefore he well deserved to be held in his own times, by all who were qualified to judge, to be supreme in those professions. Andrea was born, so it is said, in the year 1460; and in his childhood, while looking after his flocks, he would draw on the sand the livelong day, as is also told of Giotto, and copy in clay some of the animals that he was guarding. So one day it happened that a Florentine citizen, who is said to have been Simone Vespucci, at that time Podesta of the Monte, passing by the place where Andrea was looking after his little charges, saw the boy standing all intent on drawing or modeling in clay. Whereupon he called to him, and, having seen what was the boy's bent, and heard whose son he was, he asked for him from Domenico Contucci, who graciously granted his request; and Simone promised to place him in the way of learning design, in order to see what virtue there might be in that inclination of nature, if assisted by continual study.

Having returned to Florence, then, Simone placed him to learn art with Antonio del Pollaiuolo, under whom Andrea made such proficience, that in a few years he became a very good master. In the house of that Simone, on the Ponte Vecchio, there may still be seen a cartoon executed by him at that time, of Christ being scourged at the Column, drawn with much diligence; and, in addition, two marvelous heads in terracotta, copied from ancient medals, one of the Emperor Nero, and the other of the Emperor Galba, which heads served to adorn a chimney-piece; but the Galba is now at Arezzo, in the house of Giorgio Vasari. Afterwards, while still living in Florence, he made an altarpiece in terracotta for the Church of SantU Agata at Monte Sansovino, with a St Laurence and some other saints, and little scenes most beautifully executed. And no long time after this he made another like it, containing a very beautiful Assumption of Our Lady, Sant'Agata, Santa Lucia, and San Romualdo; which altarpiece was afterwards glazed by the Della Robbia family.

Then, pursuing the art of sculpture, he made in his youth for Simone del Pollaiuolo, otherwise called II Cronaca, two capitals for pilasters in the Sacristy of Santo Spirito, which brought him very great fame, and led to his receiving a commission to execute the antechamber that is between the said sacristy and the church; and since the space was very small, Andrea was forced to use great ingenuity. He made, therefore, a structure culture of greystone in the Corinthian Order, with twelve round columns, six on either side; and having laid architrave, frieze, and cornice over these columns, he then raised a barrel-shaped vault all of the same stone, with a coffer-work surface full of carvings, which was something novel, rich and varied, and much extolled. It is true, indeed, that if the moldings of that coffer-work ceiling, which serve to divide the square and round panels by which it is adorned, had been contrived so as to fail in a straight line with the columns, with truer proportion and harmony, this work would be wholly perfect in every part; and it would have been an easy thing to do this. But, according to what I once heard from certain old friends of Andrea, he used to defend himself by saving that he had adhered in his vault to the method of the coffering in the Ritonda at Rome, wherein the ribs that radiate from the round window in the center above, from which that temple gets its light, serve to enclose the square sunk panels containing the rosettes, which diminish little by little, as likewise do the ribs; and for that reason they do not fall in a straight line with the columns.

Andrea used to add that if he who built the Temple of the Ritonda, which is the best designed and proportioned that there is, and made with more harmony than any other, paid no attention to this in a vault of such size and importance, much less should he do so in a coffered ceiling with far smaller panels. Nevertheless many craftsmen, and Michelangelo in particular, have been of the opinion that the Ritonda was built by three architects, of whom the first carried it as far as the cornice that is above the columns, and the second from the cornice upwards, the part, namely, that contains those windows of more graceful workmanship, for in truth this second part is very different in manner from the part below, since the vaulting was carried out without any relation between the coffering and the straight lines of what is below. The third is believed to have made the portico, which was a very rare work. And for these reasons the masters who practice this art at the present day should not fall into such an error and then make excuses, as did Andrea.

After that work, hawing received from the family of the Corbinelli the commission for the Chapel of the Sacrament in the same church, he carried it out with much diligence, imitating in the low reliefs Donato and other excellent craftsmen, and sparing no labor in his desire to do himself credit, as, indeed, he did. In two niches, one on either side of a very beautiful tabernacle, he placed two saints somewhat more than one braccio in height, St. James and St. Matthew, executed with such spirit and excellence, that every sort of merit is revealed in them and not one fault. Equally good, also, are two Angels in the round that are the crowning glory of this work, with the most beautiful draperies--for they are in the act of flying--that are anywhere to be seen; and in the center is a little naked Christ full of grace. There are also some scenes with little figures in the predella and over the tabernacle, all so well executed that the point of a brush could scarcely do what Andrea did with his chisel. But whosoever wishes to be amazed by the diligence of this extraordinary man should look at the architecture of this work as a whole, for it is so well executed and joined together in its small proportions that it appears to have been chiseled out of one single stone.

Much extolled, also, is a large Pieta of marble that he made in half relief on the front of the altar, with the Madonna and St. John weeping. Nor could one imagine any more beautiful pieces of casting than are the bronze gratings that enclose that chapel, with their ornaments of marble, and with stags, the device, or rather the arms, of the Corbinelli, which serve as adornments for the bronze candelabra. In short, this work was executed without any sparing of labor, and with all the best considerations that could possibly be imagined.

By these and by other works the name of Andrea spread far and wide, and he was sought for from the elder Lorenzo de' Medici, the Magnificent, in whose garden, as has been related, he had pursued the studies of design, by the King of Portugal; and, being therefore sent to him by Lorenzo, he executed for that King many works of sculpture and of architecture, and in particular a very beautiful palace with four towers, and many other buildings. Part of the palace was painted after designs and cartoons by the hand of Andrea, who drew very well, as may be seen from some drawings by his own hand in our book, finished with a charcoal point, and some other architectural drawings, showing excellent design.

He also made for that King a carved altar of wood, con containing some Prophets; and likewise a very beautiful battlepiece in clay, to be afterwards carved in marble, representing the wars that the King waged with the Moors, who were vanquished by him; and no work by the hand of Andrea was ever seen that was more spirited or more terrible than this, what with the movements and various attitudes of the horses, the heaps of dead, and the vehement fury of the soldiers in combat. And he made a figure of St. Mark in marble, which was a very rare work. While in the service of that King, Andrea also gave his attention to some difficult and fantastic architectural works, according to the custom of that country, in order to please the King; of which things I once saw a book at Monte Sansovino in the possession of his heirs, which is now in the hands of Maestro Girolamo Lombardo, who was his disciple, and to whom it fell, as will be related, to finish some works begun by Andrea.

Having been nine years in Portugal, and growing weary of that service, and desirous of seeing his relatives and friends in Tuscany again, Andrea determined, now that he had put together a good sum of money, to obtain leave from the King and return home. And so, having been granted permission, although not willingly, he returned to Florence, leaving behind him one who should complete such of his works as remained unfinished. After arriving in Florence, he began in the year 1500 a marble group of St. John baptizing Christ, which was to be placed over that door of the Temple of San Giovanni that faces the Misericordia; but he did not finish it, because he was almost forced to go to Genoa, where he made two figures of marble, Christ, or rather St. John, and a Madonna, which are truly worthy of the highest praise. And those at Florence remained unfinished, and are still to be found at the present day in the Office of Works of the said San Giovanni.

He was then summoned to Rome by Pope Julius II, and received the commission for two tombs of marble, which were erected in Santa Maria del Popolo--one for Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, and the other for the Cardinal of Recanati, a very near relative of the Pope--and these works were wrought so perfectly by Andrea that nothing more could be desired, since they were so well executed and finished, and with such purity, beauty, and grace, that they reveal the true consideration and proportion of art. There may be seen there, also, a Temperance with an hourglass in her hand, which is held to be a thing divine; and, indeed, it does not appear to be a modern work, but ancient and wholly perfect. And although there are other figures there similar to it, but on account of its attitude and grace it is much the best; not to mention that nothing could be more pleasing and beautiful than the veil that she has around her, which is executed with such delicacy that it is a miracle to behold.

In Sant'Agostino at Rome, on a pilaster in the middle of the church, he made in marble a St. Anne embracing a Madonna with the Child, a little less than lifesize. This work may be counted as one of the best of modern times, since, even as a lively and wholly natural gladness is seen in the old woman, and a divine beauty in the Madonna, so the figure of the Infant Christ is so well wrought, that no other was ever executed with such delicacy and perfection. Wherefore it well deserved that for many years a succession of sonnets and various other learned compositions should be attached to it, of which the friars of that place have a book full, which I myself have seen, to my no little marvel. And in truth the world was right in doing this, for the reason that the work can never be praised enough.

The fame of Andrea having thereby grown greater. Leo X, who had resolved that the adornment with wrought marble of the Chamber of the Madonna in Santa Maria at Loreto should be carried out, according to the beginning made by Bramante, ordained that Andrea should bring that work to completion. The ornamentation of that Chamber, which Bramante had begun, had at the corners four double projections, which, adorned by pillars with bases and carved capitals, rested on a socle rich with carvings, and two braccia and a half in height; over which socle, between the two aforesaid pillars, he had made a large niche to contain seated figures, and, above each of these niches, a smaller one, which, reaching to the collarino of the capitals of those pillars, left a frieze of the same height as the capitals. Above these were afterwards laid architrave, frieze, and richly carved cornice, which, going right round all the four walls, project over the four corners; and in the middle of each of the larger walls--for the Chamber is greater in length than in breadth-- were left two spaces, since there was the same projection in the center of those walls as there was at the corners; whence the larger niche below, with the smaller one above it, came to be enclosed by a space of five braccia on either side. In this space were two doors, one on either side, through which one entered into the chapel; and above the doors was a space of five braccia between one niche and another, wherein were to be carved scenes in marble.

The front wall was the same, but without niches in the center, and the height of the socle, with the projection, formed an altar, which was set off by the pillars and the niches at the corners. In the same front wall, in the center, was a space of the same breadth as the spaces at the sides, to contain some scenes in the upper part, while below, the same in height as the spaces of the sides, but beginning immediately above the altar, was a bronze grating opposite to the inner altar, through which it was possible to hear the Mass and to see the inside of the Chamber and the aforesaid altar of the Madonna. Altogether, then, the spaces and compartments for the scenes were seven: one in front, above the grating, two on each of the longer sides, and two on the upper part--that is to say, behind the altar of the Madonna; and, in addition, there were eight large and eight small niches, with other smaller spaces for the arms and devices of the Pope and of the Church.

Andrea, then, having found the work in this condition, distributed over these spaces, with a rich and beautiful arrangement, scenes from the life of the Madonna. In one of the two side walls, he began in one part the Nativity of the Madonna, and executed half of it; and it was completely finished afterwards by Baccio Bandinelli, In the other part he began the Marriage of the Virgin, but this also remained unfinished, and after the death of Andrea it was completed as we see it by Raffaello da Montelupo. On the front wall he arranged that there should be made, in two small squares which are on either side of the bronze grating, in one the Visitation and in the other the scene of the Virgin and Joseph going to have themselves enrolled for taxes ; which scenes were afterwards executed by Francesco da San Gallo, then a young man. Then, in that part where the greatest space is, Andrea made the Angel Gabriel bringing the Annunciation to the Virgin--which happened in that very chamber which these marbles enclose--with such grace and beauty that there is nothing better to be seen, for he made the Virgin wholly intent on that Salutation, and the Angel, kneeling, appears to be not of marble, but truly celestial, with "Ave Maria" issuing from his mouth.

In company with Gabriel are two other Angels, in full relief and detached from the marble, one of whom is walking after him and the other appears to be flying. Behind a building stand two other Angels, carved out by the chisel in such a way that they seem to be alive. In the air, on a cloud much undercut--nay, almost entirely detached from the marble--are many little boys upholding a God the Father, who is sending down the Holy Spirit by means of a ray of marble, which, descending from Him completely detached, appears quite real ; as, likewise, is the Dove upon it, which represents the Holy Spirit. Nor can one describe how great is the beauty and how delicate the carving of a vase filled with flowers, which was made in this work by the gracious hand of Andrea, who lavish so much excellence on the plumes of the Angels, the hair, the grace their features and draperies, and, in short, on every other thing, that this divine work cannot be extolled enough. And, in truth, that most holy place, which was the very house and habitation of the Mother of the Son of God, could not obtain from the resources of the world a greater, richer, or more beautiful adornment than that which it received from the architecture of Bramante and the sculpture of Andrea Sansovino; although, even if it were entirely of the most precious gems of the East, it would be little more than nothing in comparison with such merits.

Andrea spent an almost incredible amount of time over this work and therefore had no time to finish the others that he had begun; for in addition to those mentioned above, he began in a space on one of the side-walls the Nativity of Jesus Christ, with the Shepherds and four Angels singing; and all these he finished so well that they seem to be wholly alive. But the story of the Magi, which he began above that one, was afterwards finished by Girolamo Lombardo, his disciple, and by others. On the back wall he arranged that two large scenes should be made, one above the other; in one, the Death of Our Lady, with the Apostles bearing her to her burial, four Angels in the air, and many Jews seeking to steal that most holy corpse; and this was finished after Andrea's lifetime by the sculptor Bologna. Below this one, then, he arranged that there should be made a scene of the Miracle of Loreto, showing in what manner that chapel, which was the Chamber of Our Lady, wherein she was born, brought up, and saluted by the Angel. and in which she reared her Son up to the age of twelve and lived ever after His Death was finally carried by the Angels, first into Sclavonia, afterwards to a forest in the territory of Recanati, and in the end to the place where it is now held in such veneration and continually visited in solemn throng by all the Christian people. This scene, I say, was executed in marble on that wall, according to the arrangement made by Andrea, by the Florentine sculptor Tribolo, as will be related in due place. Andrea, likewise blocked out the Prophets for the niches, but did not finish them completely, save one alone, and the others were afterwards finished by the aforesaid Girolamo Lombardo and by other sculptors, as will be seen in the Lives that are to follow. But with regard to all the works wrought by Andrea in this undertaking, they are the most beautiful and best executed works of sculpture that had ever been made up to that time.

In like manner, the Palace of the Canons of the same church was also carried on by Andrea, after the arrangements made by Bramante the commission of Pope Leo. But this, also, remained unfinished after the death of Andrea, and the building was continued under Clement VII by Antonio da San Gallo, and then by the architect Giovanni Boccalino, under the patronage of the very reverend Cardinal Carpi, up to the year 1563. While Andrea was at work on the aforesaid Chapel of the Virgin, there were built the fortifications of Loreto and other works, which were highly extolled by the all-conquering Signor Giovanni de' Medici, with whom Andrea had a very strait friendship, having become first acquainted with him in Rome.

Having four months of holiday in the year for repose while he was working at Loreto, he used to spend that time in agriculture at his native place of Monte Sansovino, enjoying meanwhile a most tranquil rest with his relatives and friends. Living thus at the Monte during the summer, he built there a commodious house for himself and bought much property; and for the Friars of Sant'Agostino in that place he had a cloister made, which, although small, is very well designed, but also out of the square, since those Fathers insisted on having it built over old walls. Andrea, however, made the interior rectangular by in creasing the thickness of the pilasters at the corners, in order to change it from from an ill-proportioned structure into one with good and true measurements. He designed, also, for a Company that had its seat in that. cloister, under the title of SantU Antonio, a very beautiful door of the Doric Order; and likewise the tramezzo and pulpit of the Church of Sant' Agostino.

He also caused a little chapel to be built for the friars half way down the hill on the descent to the fountain, without the door that leads to the old Pieve, although they had no wish for it. He made the design for the house of Messer Pietro, a most skillful astrologer, at Arezzo; and a large figure of terra-cotta for Montepulciano, of King Porsena, which was a rare work, although I have never seen it again since the first time, so that I fear that it may have come to an evil end. And for a German priest, who was his friend, he made a lifesize San Rocco of terracotta, very beautiful; which priest had it placed in the Church of Battifolle, in the district of Arezzo, This was the last piece of sculpture culture that Andrea executed.

He gave the design, also, for the steps ascending to the Vescovado of Arezzo; and for the Madonna delle Lagrime, in the same city, he made the design of a very beautiful ornament that was to be executed in marble, with four figures. each four braccia high ; but this work was carried no farther, on account of the death of our Andrea. For he, having reached the age of sixty-eight, and being a man who would never stay idle, set to work to move some stakes from one place to another at his villa, whereby he caught a chill; and in a few days, worn out by a continuous fever, he died, in the year 1529. The death of Andrea grieved his native place by reason of the honor that he had brought it, and his sons and the women of his house hold, who lost both their dearest one and their support. And not long ago Muzio Camillo, one of the three aforesaid sons, who was displaying a most beautiful intellect in the studies of learning and letters, followed him, to the great loss of his family and displeasure of his friends.

Andrea, in addition to his profession of art, was truly a person of much distinction, for he was wise in his discourse, and reasoned most beautifully on every subject. He was prudent and regular in his every action, much the friend of learned men, and a philosopher of great natural gifts. He gave much attention to the study of cosmography, and left to his family a number of drawings and writings on the subject of distances and measurements. He was somewhat small in stature, but robust and beautifully made. His hair was soft and long, his eyes light in color, his nose aquiline, and his skin pink and white; but he had a slight impediment in his speech.

His disciples were the aforesaid Girolamo Lombardo, the Florentine Simone Cioli, Domenico dal Monte Sansovino (who died soon after him), and the Florentine Leonardo del Tasso who made theSt. Sebastian of wood over his own tomb in Sant'Ambrogio at Florence, and the marble panel of the Nuns of Santa Chiara. A disciple of Andrea, likewise, was the Florentine Jacopo Sansovino--so called after his master--of whom there will be a long account in the proper place. Architecture and sculpture, then, are much indebted to Andrea, in that he enriched the one with many rules of measurement and devices fordrawing weights, and with a degree of diligence that had not been employedbefore, and in the other he brought his marble to perfection with marvelous judgment, care, and mastery.



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