Holy Family with St. John the Baptist. "Circa 1529." Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
Vasari's Lives of the Artists
AT LENGTH, after the Lives of many craftsmen who have been excellent, some in coloring, some in drawing, and others in invention, we have come to the most excellent Andrea del Sarto, in whose single person nature and art demonstrated all that painting can achieve by means of draughtsmanship, coloring, and invention, insomuch that, if Andrea had possessed a little more fire and boldness of spirit, to correspond to his profound genius and judgment in his art, without a doubt he would have had no equal. But a certain timidity of spirit and a sort of humility and simplicity in his nature made it impossible that there should be seen in him that glowing ardour and that boldness which, added to his other qualities, would have made him truly divine in painting; for which reason he lacked those adornments and that grandeur and abundance of manners which have been seen n many other painters. His figures, however, for all their simplicity and purity, are well conceived, free from errors, and absolutely perfect in every respect. The expressions of his heads, both in children and in women, are gracious and natural, and those of men, both young and old, admirable in their vivacity and animation; his draperies are beautiful to a marvel, and his nudes very well conceived. And although his drawing is simple, all that he colored is rare and truly divine.
Andrea was born in Florence, in the year 1478, to a father who was all his life a tailor; whence he was always called Andrea del Sarto by everyone. Having come to the age of seven, he was taken away from his reading and writing school and apprenticed to the goldsmith's craft. But in this he was always much more willing to practise his hand in drawing, to which he was drawn by a natural inclination, than in using the tools for working in silver or gold; whence it came to pass that Gian Barile, a painter of Florence, but one of gross and vulgar taste, having seen the boy's good manner of drawing, took him under his protection, and, making him abandon his work as goldsmith, directed him to the art of painting. Andrea, beginning with much delight to practise it, recognized that nature had created him for that profession; and in a very short space of time, therefore, he was doing such things with colors as filled Gian Barile and the other craftsmen in the city with marvel. Now after three years, through continual study, he had acquired an excellent master over his work, and Gian Barile saw that by persisting in his studies the boy was likely to achieve an extraordinary success. Having therefore spoken of him to Piero di Cosimo, who was held at that time to be one of the best painters in Florence, he placed Andrea with Piero. And Andrea, as one full of desire to learn, labored and studied without ceasing; while nature, which had created him to be a painter, so wrought in him, that he handled and managed his colors with as much grace as if he had been working for fifty years. Wherefore Piero conceived an extraordinary love for him, feeling marvellous pleasure in hearing that when Andrea had any time to himself, particularly on feast-days, he would spend the whole day in company with other young men, drawing in the Sala del Papa, wherein were the cartoons of Michelagnolo and Leonardo da Vinci, and that, young as he was, he surpassed all the other draughtsmen, both native and foreign, who were always competing there with one another.
Among these young men, there was one who pleased Andrea more than any other with his nature and conversation, namely, the painter Franciabigio; and Franciabigio, likewise, was attracted by Andrea. Having become friends, therefore, Andrea said to Franciabigio that he could no longer endure the caprices of Piero, who was now old, and that for this reason he wished to take a room for himself. Hearing this, Franciabigio, who was obliged to do the same thing because his master Mariotto Albertinelli had abandoned the art of painting, said to his companion Andrea that he also was in need of a room, and that it would be to the advantage of both of them if they were to join forces. Having therefore taken a room on the Piazza del Grano, they executed many works in company; among others, the curtains that cover the panel pictures on the high altar of the Servi; for which they received the com- mission from a sacristan very closely related to Franciabigio. On one of those curtains, that which faces the choir, they painted the Annunciation of the Virgin ; and on the other, which is in front, a Deposition of Christ from the Cross, like that of the panel picture which was there, painted by Filippo and Pietro Perugino.
The men of that company in Florence which is called the Company of the Scalzo used to assemble at the head of the Via Larga, above the houses of the Magnificent Ottaviano de' Medici, and opposite to the garden of S. Marco, in a building dedicated to S. John the Baptist, which had been built in those days by a number of Florentine craftsmen, who had made there, among other things, an entrance-court of masonry with a loggia which rested on some columns of no great size. And some of them, perceiving that Andrea was on the way to becoming known as an excellent painter, and being richer in spirit than in pocket, determined that he should paint round that cloister twelve pictures in chiaroscuro that is to say, in fresco with terretta containing twelve scenes from the life of S. John the Baptist. Whereupon, setting his hand to this, he painted in the first the scene of S. John baptizing Christ, with much diligence and great excellence of manner, whereby he gained credit, honour, and fame to such an extent, that many persons turned to him with commissions for works, as to one whom they thought to be destined in time to reach that honorable goal which was foreshadowed by his extraordinary beginnings in his profession.
Among other works that he made in that first manner, he painted a picture which is now in the house of Filippo Spini, held in great veneration in memory of so able a craftsman. And not long after this he was commissioned to paint for a chapel in S. Gallo, the Church of the Eremite Observantines of the Order of S. Augustine, without the Porta a S. Gallo, a panel-picture of Christ appearing in the garden to Mary Magdalene in the form of a gardener; which work, what with the coloring and a certain quality of softness and harmony, is sweetness itself, and so well executed, that it led to his painting two others not long afterwards for the same church, as will be related below. This panel is now in S. Jacopo tra Fossi, on the Canto degli Alberti, together with the two others.
After these works, Andrea and Franciabigio, leaving the Piazza del Grano, took new rooms in the Sapienza, near the Convent of the Nunziata; whence it came about that Andrea and Jacopo Sansovino, who was then a young man and was working at sculpture in the same place under his master Andrea Contucci, formed so warm and so strait a friendship together, that neither by day nor by night were they ever separated one from another. Their discussions were for the most part on the difficulties of art, so that it is no marvel that both of them should have afterwards become most excellent, as is now being shown of Andrea and as will be related in the proper place of Jacopo.
There was at this same time in the Convent of the Servi, selling the candles at the counter, a friar called Fra Mariano dal Canto alia Macine, who was also sacristan; and he heard everyone extolling Andrea mightily and saying that he was by way of making marvellous proficience in painting. Whereupon he planned to fulfil a desire of his own without much expense; and so, approaching Andrea, who was a mild and guileless fellow, on the side of his honour, he began to persuade him under the cloak of friendship that he wished to help him in a matter which would bring him honor and profit and would make him known in such a manner, that he would never be poor any more. Now many years before, as has been related above, Alesso Baldovinetti had painted a Nativity of Christ in the first cloister of the Servi, on the wall that has the Annunciation behind it; and in the same cloister, on the other side, Cosimo Rosselli had begun a scene of S. Filippo, the founder of that Servite Order, assuming the habit. But Cosimo had not carried that scene to completion, because death came upon him at the very moment when he was working at it.
The friar, then, being very eager to see the rest finished, thought of serving his own ends by making Andrea and Franciabigio, who, from being friends, had become rivals in art, compete with one another, each doing part of the work. This, besides effecting his purpose very well, would make the expense less and their efforts greater. Thereupon, revealing his mind to Andrea, he persuaded him to undertake that enterprise, by pointing out to him that since it was a public and much frequented place, he would become known on account of such a work no less by foreigners than by the Florentines; that he should not look for any payment in return, or even for an invitation to undertake it, but should rather pray to be allowed to do it; and that if he were not willing to set to work, there was Franciabigio, who, in order to make himself known, had offered to accept it and to leave the matter of payment to him. These incitements did much to make Andrea resolve to undertake the work, and the rather as he was a man of little spirit; and the last reference to Franciabigio induced him to make up his mind completety and to come to an agreement, in the form of a written con- tract, with regard to the whole work, on the terms that no one else should have a hand in it. The friar, then, having thus pledged him and given him money, demanded that he should begin by continuing the life of S. Filippo, without receiving more than ten ducats from him in payment of each scene; and he told Andrea that he was giving him even that out of his own pocket, and was doing it more for the benefit and advantage of the painter than through any want or need of the convent.
Andrea, therefore, pursuing that work with the utmost diligence, like one who thought more of honor than of profit, after no long time completely finished the first three scenes and unveiled them. One was the scene of S. Filippo, now a friar, clothing the naked. In another he is shown rebuking certain gamesters, who blasphemed God and laughed at S. Filippo, mocking at his admonition, when suddenly there comes a lightning-flash from Heaven, which, striking a tree under the shade of which they were sheltering, kills two of them and throws the rest into an incredible panic. Some, with their hands to their heads, cast themselvesforward in dismay; others, crying aloud in their terror, turn to flight; a woman, beside herself with fear at the sound of the thunder, is running away so naturally that she appears to be truly alive; and a horse, breaking loose amid this uproar and confusion, reveals with his leaps and fearsome movements what fear and terror are caused by things so sudden and so unexpected. In all this one can see how carefully Andrea looked to variety of incident in the representation of such events, with a forethought truly beautiful and most necessary for one who practises painting. In the third he painted the scene of S. Filippo delivering a woman from evil spirits, with all the most characteristic considerations that could be imagined in such an action. All these scenes brought extraordinary fame and honor to Andrea; and thus encouraged, he went on to paint two other scenes in the same cloister. On one wall is S. Filippo lying dead, with his friars about him making lamentation; and in addition there is a dead child, who, touching the bier on which S. Filippo lies, comes to life again, so that he is first seen dead, and then revived and restored to life, and all with a very beautiful, natural, and appropriate effect. In the last picture on that side he represented the friars placing the garments of S. Filippo on the heads of certain children ; and there he made a portrait of Andrea della Robbia, the sculptor, in an old man clothed in red, who comes forward, stooping, with a staff in his hand. There, too, he portrayed Luca, his son; even as in the other scene mentioned above, in which S. Filippo lies dead, he made a portrait of another son of Andrea, named Girolamo, a sculptor and very much his friend, who died not long since in France.
Having thus finished that side of the cloister, and considering that if the honor was great, the payment was small, Andrea resolved to give up the rest of the work, however much the friar might complain. But the latter would not release him from his bond without Andrea first promising that he would paint two other scenes, at his own leisure and convenience, however, and with an increase of payment; and thus they came to terms.
Having come into greater repute by reason of these works, Andrea received commissions for many pictures and works of importance; among others, one from the General of the Monks of Vallombrosa, for painting an arch of the vaulting, with a Last Supper on the front wall, in the Refectory of the Monastery of S. Salvi, without the Porta alia Croce. In four medallions on that vault he painted four figures, S. Benedict, S. Giovanni Gualberto, S. Salvi the Bishop, and S. Bernardo degli Uberti of Florence, a friar of that Order and a Cardinal; and in the centre he made a medallion containing three faces, which are one and the same, to represent the Trinity. All this was very well executed for a work in fresco, and Andrea, therefore, came to be valued at his true worth in the art of painting. Whereupon he was commissioned at the instance of Baccio d' Agnolo to paint in fresco, in a close on the steep path of Orsanmichele, which leads to the Mercato Nuovo, the Annunciation still to be seen there, executed on a minute scale, which brought him but little praise; and this may have been because Andrea, who worked well without over-exerting himself or forcing his powers, is believed to have tried in this work to force himself and to paint with too much care.
As for the many pictures that he executed after this for Florence, it would take too long to try to speak of them all; and I will only say that among the most distinguished may be numbered the one that is now in the apartment of Baccio Barbadori, containing a full-length Madonna with a Child in her arms, S. Anne, and S. Joseph, all painted in a beautiful manner and held very dear by Baccio. He made one, likewise well worthy of praise, which is now in the possession of Lorenzo di Domenico Borghini, and another of Our Lady for Leonardo del Giocondo, which at the present day is in the hands of Piero, the son of Leonardo. For Carlo Ginori he painted two of no great size, which were bought afterwards by the Magnificent Ottaviano de' Medici ; and one of these is now in his most beautiful villa of Campi, while the other, together with many other modern pictures executed by the most excellent masters, is in the apartment of the worthy son of so great a father, Signer Bernardetto, who not only esteems and honours the works of famous craftsmen, but is also in his every action a truly generous and magnificent nobleman.
Meanwhile the Servite friar had allotted to Franciabigio one of the scenes in the above-mentioned cloister; but that master had not yet finished making the screen, when Andrea, becoming apprehensive, since it seemed to him that Franciabigio was an abler and more dexterous master than himself in the handling of colors in fresco, executed, as it were out of rivalry, the cartoons for his two scenes, which he intended to paint on the angle between the side door of S. Bastiano and the smaller door that leads from the cloister into the Nunziata. Having made the cartoons, he set to work in fresco; and in the first scene he painted the Nativity of Our Lady, a composition of figures beautifully proportioned and grouped with great grace in a room, wherein some women who are friends and relatives of the newly delivered mother, having come to visit her, are standing about her, all clothed in such garments as were customary at that time, and other women of lower degree, gathered around the fire, are washing the new born babe, while others are preparing the swathing bands and doing other similar services. Among them is a little boy, full of life, who is warming himself at the fire, with an old man resting in a very natural attitude on a couch, and likewise some women carrying food to the mother who is in bed, with movements truly lifelike and appropriate. And all these figures, together with some little boys who are hovering in the air and scattering flowers, are most carefully considered in their expressions, their draperies, and every other respect, and so soft in color, that the figures appear to be of flesh and everything else rather real than painted.
In the other scene Andrea painted the three Magi from the East, who, guided by the Star, went to adore the Infant Jesus Christ. He represented them dismounted, as though they were near their destination; and that because there was only the space embracing the two doors to separate them from the Nativity of Christ which may be seen there, by the hand of Alesso Baldovinetti. In this scene Andrea painted the Court of those three Kings coming behind them, with baggage, much equipment, and many people following in their train, among whom, in a corner, are three persons portrayed from life and wearing the Florentine dress, one being Jacopo Sansovino, a full-length figure looking straight at the spectator, while another, with an arm in foreshortening, who is leaning against him and making a sign, is Andrea, the master of the work, and a third head, seen in profile behind Jacopo, is that of Ajolle, the musician. There are, in addition, some little boys who are climbing on the walls, in order to be able to see the magnificent procession and the fantastic animals that those three Kings have brought with them. This scene is quite equal in excellence to that mentioned above; nay, in both the one and the other he surpassed himself, not to speak of Franciabigio, who also finished his.
At this same time Andrea painted for the Abbey of S. Godenzo, a benefice belonging to the same friars, a panel which was held to be very well executed. And for the Friars of S. Gallo he made a panel picture of Our Lady receiving the Annunciation from the Angel, wherein may be seen a very pleasing harmony of coloring, while the heads of some Angels accompanying Gabriel show a sweet gradation of tints and a perfectly executed beauty of expression in their features; and the predella below this picture was painted by Jacopo da Pontormo, who was a disciple of Andrea at that time, and gave proofs at that early age that he was destined to produce afterwards those beautiful works which he actually did execute in Florence with his own hand, although in the end he became one might say another painter, as will be related in his Life.