To a Fault

John Haber
in New York City

Andrea del Sarto

The Renaissance did not die with Andrea del Sarto, but it may have seemed that way in Florence. Events came fast and, alas, furious.

Already the fiery preaching of Savonarola had shaken the image of a princely republic that had, in reality, abandoned democracy. By 1529 the pope, who had returned the Medici family to power, turned against them, and Rome laid siege. Florence fell the next year, and the plague swept in as well, killing Andrea at an age of just forty-four. They were productive years all the same—the years of his Medici Holy Family in Florence's Pitti Palace and Borgherini Holy Family in the Met. He also adapted the latter to a painting of Charity, now in the National Gallery in Washington, with that cardinal virtue standing in for Mary and three infants for Joseph, Jesus, and John. The artist could have stood with a little charity. Andrea del Sarto's Portrait of a Young Man (Frick Collection, c. 1518)

These and more are on display in New York, in exhibitions that focus on his working methods. The Met pairs the two related paintings with each other, with an earlier Madonna in its collection, and with infrared images that show the adaptation in action. The Frick applies the same tool to the Medici Holy Family, as part of a larger display of his drawings. It also includes a portrait in its collection and Saint John the Baptist from, again, the Pitti Palace. Together, they show not just works in development, but unsettling changes in art itself—in that moment between the Renaissance that nurtured Andrea and the Mannerism that he left behind. Unfortunately for him, one of his own pupils was less than charitable.

Never at rest

Be careful when an artist shows a gift for words. Andrea's most famous pupil, Giorgio Vasari, all but created art history with his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. You may not realize that he painted at all. For the life of his teacher, he came as close as anyone could to an insider's account, but its take-away point was cool and detached. Andrea del Sarto was "free from errors and absolutely perfect in every respect." And that was not altogether good.

Robert Browning, the poet, cemented Andrea's reputation for an age that prized self-expression and sought the artist in his work—as, in fact, the Renaissance never could. For Vasari, freedom from error came with a certain excess of caution, but Browning's "faultless painter" is a total loser. "My works are nearer Heaven, but I sit here." Vasari also slammed Andrea's wife, calling her "faithless, jealous, and vixenish with the apprentices." Oh, and the artist used her too often as a model. As for Browning on his love life, well, suppose I stop there.

No one can know Vasari's motives for certain. He was one of those apprentices pursued by a vixen (and a profligate one at that), but he also held the Renaissance to the standards of his idol, Michelangelo. Maybe, too, he felt a lack of appreciation for his own taking liberties. In his mature work, bodies fly everywhere—part of why the late Renaissance is now stuck with the label Mannerism. But perfection? The Met and the Frick show an artist never at rest.

Was the Holy Family in the Met perfect? If so, that did not stop Andrea from reworking it to become quite another painting. Even then, he completed study after study before setting to canvas. One sheet has six different versions of an arm. He sketched Laocoön, perhaps the most highly regarded classical sculpture in Rome—still hot news after its excavation in 1506. And then he reworked that, too.

Composition studies came next, although fewer survive than figure studies. (The Frick gives them a separate room.) Like others of his time, Andrea often had assistants pose for them in the nude, to strip things to their essentials. Drapery studies then allowed him to return to details—and once again to change his mind. Then he would prepare a full-scale drawing, or cartoon, which he or, more likely, assistants like Vasari would transfer to canvas. If that were not enough, he often reused a cartoon in constructing yet another painting, as he did for the Holy Family at the Frick.

There, too, he was never at rest. He might overlay or replace a cartoon with freehand drawing, and he added washes for shading, so that the primed canvas once looked as finished as a work in itself. A painting reflects ordinary light, but infrared passes right through, so infrared reflectography (or IRR) offers a peek. It does not really prove more about Charity and its source than one could learn from comparing the two compositions, but it is revealing in itself. Andrea gives the neck of Saint Elizabeth in the Holy Family both musculature and wrinkles, and then in oil they vanish into shadow. And then, with a little time and effort, one has a painting.

The Renaissance on the surface

Think of the process as a repeated cycle of addition and paring back, all in search of life. Vasari's full account is actually more admiring than one remembers. (Browning's dramatic monologue drew just as much on a stage play about something else again.) When a patron did not respond quickly enough to a work in progress, he writes, Andrea "painted himself instead so well that the portrait seems alive." He did well enough with the portrait in the Frick, perhaps of a young sculptor or scholar, that it was long considered a self-portrait, too. Regardless, it began with a sketch of a studio assistant in motion, quickly turning his head.

It is one of the few glimpses of his studio in a show called, oddly, "The Renaissance Workshop in Action." Andrea executed all three paintings and fifty drawings at the Frick himself. Still, it gets the part about action right. One can imagine him telling the pupil just when to turn his head. Upstairs, the Frick shows all three stages of Elizabeth in photographs—of a drawing, the IRR, and then the section of the painting. The other two paintings hang on the facing wall between three sketches on pedestals standing forward, like a gateway to drama.

Andrea del Sarto's Sacrifice of Isaac (Cleveland Museum of Art, c. 1528–1530)The drawings continue downstairs, starting with as close as he comes to perfection. Julius Caesar in profile turns slightly into the paper, adding a sense of space, thought, aristocratic reserve. Andrea brings lips, nose, eye, and ear closest to finish, for a greater presence. Parallel stokes add volume beneath the chin, while looser strokes set individual hairs flying as if from their own reserves of energy. Much the same curls embellish the few wisps of beard and surrounding shadow so that one hardly knows where each ends, but both look all the more real for that. They create not an unkempt portrait, but a man of action.

Is it all surface? The question may dog him yet. When it comes down to it, Andrea is not all that concerned for inner states, deep reflection, or humanity with a capital H, warts and all. The anxious eyes in his pupil, in the study for that portrait, have more to do with living up to the teacher's expectations than with personality. Nor is he going out of his way toward timelessness or sublimity. He is moving in the opposite direction, toward the moment.

He does not even make a show of what mattered so much to formal training in the Renaissance, anatomy. He is into surface, big time, as the ultimate test of reality. He lingers over a merchant's flowing hair and lips. He lingers over Laocoön's thighs and stomach muscles, focuses on a toe pressing against the ground, and lets loose the statue's testicles to set marble in motion. He works on a grip not as a testimony to character but as a moment in time. Multiple versions on a single sheet function like stop-action photography.

For all his limits, the drawings prize the humanity behind a finished painting. He addresses the pupil's anxiety, even if he is responsible for it. Elizabeth in the drawing is decidedly old. Saint Joseph's weathered face makes him look tired, and the sitter for Mary Magdalene looks lost in thought. A donkey's harness bears real weight, and the enormous eye sockets of a skull are downright scary. And then Andrea will discard all this when he comes to painting—at least on the surface.

Managing them all

On the surface, for at least two reasons. Andrea's care for surfaces turns its back on the grander volumes of the Renaissance. And his surfaces hold a profound anxiety of their own. Both reflect the substance that a label like the faultless painting misses. In a period of turmoil, artists like him were responding by reflecting, critically, on the Renaissance they knew so well. Instead of Mannerism, I have suggested, one might call it a Post-Renaissance, with parallels to what Jerry Saltz and Peter Schjeldahl have called Neo-Mannerism today.

Andrea had a background in both skill and eccentricity. His father was a tailor (or sarto), and he first trained as a goldsmith, giving him plenty of appreciation of surfaces and details. He also studied with Piero di Cosimo, whose mythological scenes go behind whimsy to a war of humanity against all. Just three years younger than Raphael and eleven years younger than Michelangelo, he would have learned from their mastery of the High Renaissance as well. And yet all three took their art into Mannerism. Andrea's pupils also included Rosso Fiorentino and Pontormo—two of three more revolutionary painters in the new style, along with Parmigianino.

Andrea never embraces darkness as openly as his students, but he gets a good start. Motion matters so much, in part, because a High Renaissance stability is breaking up. The Medici Holy Family still forms roughly a pyramid, but it is starting to collapse toward the left, with Saint John the Baptist cut off entirely at the waist. Hands in each Holy Family reach across to connect the four figures in a loving embrace. Yet, especially in the Met, they also point every which way to the point of confusion. And there again John has nowhere to stand.

Anxiety appears in cautious glances and in wild or downcast eyes. It appears in dark backgrounds and their indefinite space. Joseph's head at the Met anchors the painting, with a reassuring gaze directly at the viewer. Yet is also sinks into shadow right at the scene's center. Anxiety appears, too, in Andrea's harsh colors, like green curtains and purple fabrics shot through with blue. John's private parts slip out beneath his loin cloth, as a reminder of the heroic Renaissance nude, but with a suggestive sexuality.

Faultless? In all these ways, Andrea nurses his faults and makes them impossible to overlook. Consider at last his Charity. A fire rages at the rear, leaving the space puzzling and incomplete. One child could be floating on hot air. His eyes look somewhere between glee and fear.

A second child points out of the picture, as if to a vision, but of what? The book beneath them lies fallen or discarded, on a tablecloth of clashing colors. Charity looks intent on the difficulty of managing them all. She offers her breast, of course, to the youngest and most prominent child—who twists and turns away. Maybe Andrea's time can no longer expect or believe in Charity. Or maybe he alone still does, to a fault.

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Andrea del Sarto ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Frick Collection through January 10, 2016.


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