Andrea del Sarto was born Andrea d’Agnolo di Francesco di Luca on July 16, 1486, in Florence. His family name is not really known for sure; some scholars have said it was probably Lanfranchi, others have argued that it was Vannucchi. However, since his father, Agnolo, was a tailor (sarto), he became known to everyone as “del Sarto” (son of a tailor). He was one of five children born to Agnolo. Not much is known of his early life, so it most likely was uneventful. He probably lived an early life similar to any boy born into a craftsman’s family in Florence toward the end of the 15th century. He was notably short in stature and, thus, was known to his friends as Andreino (Little Andrea).
According to Giorgio Vasari, a pupil of Andrea, he was apprenticed to a goldsmith in 1494. He disliked this occupation, so he began drawing from his master’s models. This apprentice experience helped develop his love for drawing and draftsmanship. He was soon transferred to a skillful woodcarver and inferior painter named Gian Barile, with whom he remained until 1498. Barile would not stand in the way of the advancement of his promising young apprentice, so he recommended him to the artist Piero di Cosimo, also known as Piero di Lorenzo, (not to be confused with Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici) as draftsman and colorist. Piero retained Andrea for several years, allowing him to study from the famous cartoons of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo that were in his possession. It was under the tutelage of Piero, who commented favorably on his student’s aptitude for color and his studious mentality, that Andrea truly came into his own.
Andrea began producing independent work around 1506 and this phase was marked by his youthful spontaneity that gave rise to a naturalistic treatment of his figures. He was greatly influenced by Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci and Fra Bartolomeo. His art was rooted in traditional 15th-century painting; but he combined Leonardo’s sfumato technique with Raphael’s compositional harmony in a style that was typical of the 16th century.
In 1506, at the age of 20, Andrea and an older friend, Francesco di Cristofano (aka Franciabigio), opened a studio together at their lodging in the Piazza del Grano. (However, Andrea did not matriculate in the painters’ guild until two years later, on Dec. 11, 1508). This partnership with Franciabigio lasted only for a short time.
In 1509 Andrea received his first important public commission from the Servite Order for five frescoes in the entrance to the cloister of the Church of Santissima Annunziata in Florence. The commission was set to last for five years. Andrea completed seven frescoes in the atrium of the Servite church, five of which illustrated the life and miracles of Filippo Benizzi, who had been general superior of the Order of the Servites, and was credited with reviving the order. He had died in 1285 (and was ultimately canonized in 1671). Andrea executed the frescoes rapidly (all five frescoes were completed before the close of 1510) and they depicted Benizzi healing a leper by giving him his undertunic; predicting the bad end of some blasphemers; and restoring a girl possessed by a devil. The two final frescoes of the series depicted the healing of a child at Benizzi’s death bed and the curing of sick adults and children by their touching of his garment, which was a relic held in the church.
The original contract also required Andrea to paint five scenes of the life and miracles of St. Sebastian, but he told the Servites that he no longer wished to continue with the second cycle, most likely due to the low wages they paid him. However, the Servites convinced him to do two more frescoes in the forecourt, although of a different subject matter, and he completed these by the end of his commission in 1514: Procession of the Magi (1511), which contains a self-portrait, and his masterpiece, the Nativity of the Virgin (1513-14), which fuses the influence of Leonardo da Vinci, Ghirlandaio and Fra Bartolomeo. These two paintings show the very rapid development of his style and were critically acclaimed, with particular admiration for the correctness of the contours. They earned for Andrea the nickname Andrea senza errori (Andrea without errors, i.e. Andrea the perfect).
In addition to the pieces commissioned by the Servites, around this time he also painted other works, most notably the Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine (c. 1512–1513), which shows his deep understanding of Leonardo’s art, particularly in the expressive and compositional use of chiaroscuro (light and shade). Andrea was very selective in the ideas and motifs that he derived from his great contemporaries Leonardo, Fra Bartolomeo, Michelangelo and Raphael. His figures are not idealized but warmly human and even humorous. Another important work done at this time was the Annunciation (c. 1513–1514), sometimes called the San Gallo Annunciation, located in the Church of San Gallo, a 15th-century church built outside the walls of Florence.
In 1509, Andrea also began his most striking work, a series of grisaille frescoes on the life of St. John the Baptist. (Grisaille means that the whole painting is done in different shades of one color, in this case gray monochrome similar to a black and white photograph. The style almost convinces you that it is carved in stone and not a painting on a wall). The work was commissioned for the Chiostro (Cloister) of the Confraternity of St. John the Baptist in Florence, commonly known as il Scalzo (The Barefoot, because the leader and the cross-bearers in the Confraternity’s processions through Florence walked with bare feet as a sign of humility). It is one of the masterpieces of High Renaissance art. With its elaborate, painted architectural setting and the sculptural clarity of the narrative, Andrea established new standards in monumental fresco painting. He worked on the fresco series on and off throughout his career, although two of the works were painted by Franciabigio while Andrea was in France. The total work was not completed until 1526, four years before his death, so it reads like an artistic autobiography covering the greater part of his career. If one compares the beginning work in 1509 with the last one painted in1526, one will see how far Andrea matured, both technically and in terms of dramatic invention, in the intervening 17 years.
The frescoes show 12 main scenes presented in large, horizontal frames, subdivided by stylish motifs. The 12 distinct moments from life of Saint John the Baptist are: Baptism of Christ (1509-10), Preaching of the Baptist (1515), Baptism of the People (1517), Arrest of the Baptist (1517), Meeting of Christ and St. John (done by Franciabigio, 1518), Blessing of the Baptist (done by Franciabigio, 1519), Dance of Salome (1522), Beheading of the Baptist (1523), Presentation of the Head of the Baptist (1523), Annunciation to Zacharias (1523), Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth (1524), Birth and Naming of the Baptist (1526). The sequence of the scenes on the walls is not presented in chronological order. In addition to the large panels depicting the saint’s life, four tall, vertical paintings represent the Virtues on the sides of the two main axes: Charity (1513), Faith (1523), Justice (1525) and Hope (1523).
In 1512, Andrea fell in love with Lucrezia di Baccio del Fede, the widow of a hatter named Carlo of Recanati. They were married on December 26, 1512 (although some historians list the marriage as occurring in 1517). She brought property and a useful dowry to the marriage. She was described as a very handsome woman, and Andrea did a beautiful portrait of her in 1513. She also appeared as a model in many of his paintings, often pictured as the Madonna, for example, in signature works including The Nativity of the Virgin (1514) and Madonna of the Harpies (1517). Even in painting other women, he made them resemble Lucrezia in general type. His use of posing his wife explains why his religious figures often possess the immediacy of portraits.
Despite Vasari’s condemnation (that Lucrezia was “faithless, jealous, and vixenish with the apprentices”) which was so readily accepted and elaborated on during the 19th century (e.g., Robert Browning’s 1855 poem Andrea del Sarto), there seems to be no real evidence that Andrea suffered either moral or financial ruin as a result of his marriage. Such depictions of her were false and fodder for gossip. Of the painter, and one of
In 1517 Andrea painted one of his most famous panels for the altar of a chapel in the Augustinian Church of San Gallo, Disputation on the Trinity. Andrea sets his figures against a somewhat stormy sky from which emerges the symbol of the Trinity, and which is pictured being debated by St. Augustine, St. Lawrence, Peter Martyr and St. Francis. St. Sebastian and Mary Magdalen, modelled on Lucrezia, are in the foreground looking on.
Also painted in 1517, Andrea’s important work The Madonna of the Harpies is a depiction of the Virgin and child on a pedestal, flanked by two saints (Bonaventure or Francis and John the Evangelist), and at her feet two cherubs. Once again, Lucrezia is the model for the central Madonna figure. The pedestal is decorated with a relief depicting some feminine figures interpreted as “harpies” and thus gave rise, in English, to the name of the painting. Originally, the painting was done as an altarpiece for the Florentine convent of San Francesco dei Macci, (it is now in the Uffizi). In an Italy swamped with numerous pictures of Madonnas, it would be easy to overlook this work; however, this commonly copied theme helps us analyze Andrea’s style with that of his contemporaries. His style here carries the influence of Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo, whose works he studied meticulously. The elegant compositional structure carries echoes of Raphael (and in particular the pyramidal arrangement of the Virgin Mary); the monumental and statuesque bodies of the figures associated with Michelangelo; and the delicate shading of color and shadow that were trademarks of Leonardo da Vinci.
Before the end of 1516, two paintings, a Pietà and afterwards a Madonna, were sent to the French Court. This led to an invitation from Francis I, in 1518, for Andrea to come to his court in Fontainebleau and serve as court painter. Andrea journeyed to Paris in June 1518, along with his pupil Andrea Squarzzella, leaving Lucrezia in Florence. He was very cordially received, and for the first and only time in his life was handsomely paid for his work. However, it is unlikely that Andrea found the life of a court artist to his liking, and he remained for a year or less without beginning any major commissions. While in France, Charity (1518) and Portrait of a French Lady (1518) were produced during his short stay.
He returned to Florence, and soon after his return, his connections with the Medici family (powerful since their return to Florence from exile in 1512) led to the most significant contract of his career—a portion of the decoration of the Villa Medici at Poggio a Caiano, just outside Florence. The patron for this project was the Medici pope, Leo X, the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Andrea almost certainly visited the pope in Rome in 1519–20; but the project, the only one that ever offered Florentine artists the scope that Raphael had in the Vatican Palace, collapsed when Pope Leo died in December 1521. The portion that Andrea had finished by the time of Pope Leo’s death, a fresco entitled Tribute to Caesar (1520), was a fragment that was much later incorporated into a larger fresco in the Villa by the Florentine Mannerist painter, Alessandro Allori.
Comparatively little is known of the last ten years of Andrea’s life, although his presence is frequently documented in Florence and his paintings offer no real evidence of any extensive travels. What we do know is that in 1520 he purchased a site on the Via della Crocetta in Florence and built a house for his wife and himself. It was described as a substantial building without being a palace, and it was later inhabited and modified by several other artists. By 1523 he had a manservant as well as apprentices working for him there. This was a complete turnaround from his prior way of life. Throughout his life he had always been content to work, when it suited him, for nominal fees, or for no remuneration at all , or for only part of a fee offered to him, probably because he was in comfortable, although not grand, circumstances. He once told a colleague that he would paint for a carpenter or a king; he had no pretensions about his relationships with patrons.
An outbreak of the bubonic plague in Florence (1523–24) drove Andrea and Lucrezia to seek security in Luco, in the Mugello valley north of Florence. By this point in his career, Andrea’s artistic style had fully matured and his works exhibit a highly expressive use of color which was exceptional in Florentine painting. After their brief stay there, they returned to Florence and Andrea produced what is now felt to be one of his most important pieces, Madonna del Sacco (1525). It was painted for the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata in Florence where the lunette-shaped fresco graces the entrance door of the church’s Great Cloister, known as the Chiostro dei morti (Cloister of the Dead). Although this work exhibits the influence of Michelangelo, especially his painted figures in the vault of the Sistine Chapel, the painting is its own celebration of Andrea’s unique style: especially the painting’s elegant balance and figures that possess at once an air of grandeur and repose.
After the expulsion once again of the Medici from Florence in 1527, Andrea worked for the republican government of Florence. His Sacrifice of Isaac (circa 1527) was intended as a political present by the Republic to Francis I of France. It pictured the dramatic test of faith of Abraham, from the Old Testament book of Genesis, who agrees to slay his son Isaac on God’s command. The painting depicts the exact moment when Abraham raises the knife and an angel suddenly appears to halt the sacrifice. The work gains its power from the complex expressions of father and son, combining grief, strength, resignation, fear, and realization of Abraham’s faith in God in their faces and bodies. Andrea never finished the painting, and thus it shows his working methods. He transferred the design to the panel from a chalk drawing, reinforcing the chalk with painted lines, which are best seen in the donkey at the far right of the painting. He then worked over the whole panel at once with thin, brushy veils of color, which let him alter the composition while he was painting. This is especially evident in the angel, Isaac’s body, and Abraham’s head.
Final works and death
Andrea’s final work at the Scalzo was the Nativity of the Baptist (1526). In the following year he completed his last important painting, a Last Supper (1527) at the old refectory of the Vallombrosan Abbey attached to the Church of San Michele in San Salvi. (The abbey is now the Museo del Cenacolo di Andrea del Sarto). In this depiction of the Last Supper, all the characters appear to be life-size portraits and the entire scene is painted with all the vitality of a theatrical show. As Giorgio Vasari describes it:
“… [Andrea] gave such infinite grace, grandeur, and majesty to all the figures that I do not know how to praise his Last Supper without saying too little, it being so fine that whoever sees it is stupefied. It is no wonder that, because of its excellence, during the devastations of the siege of Florence in the year 1529, it was allowed to be left standing, while the soldiers and wrecking squads, by command of those in charge, destroyed all the suburbs around the city, and the monasteries, hospitals and all other buildings. These men, let me say, having destroyed the church and the campanile of San Salvi, and started to tear down part of the convent, had reached the refectory containing the Last Supper when the man who led them, seeing and perhaps having heard speak of this marvelous painting, abandoned what they had embarked on and would not let any more of the place be destroyed, putting this off till they could not do otherwise.” (1568).
Andrea del Sarto died in Florence at age 44 at the end of September, 1530 during an outbreak of bubonic plague. At the end of his life, he was cared for by the Venerabile Arciconfraternita della Misericordia di Firenze (Venerable Archconfraternity of the Misericordia of Florence) or simply the Misericordia, which was a lay confraternity founded in the 13th century to help people who were dying from plague. He was buried with little fanfare by the Misericordia in the Servite Church of Santissima Annunziata where he had worked on his first public commission at the start of his career in 1509.
Andrea del Sarto was one of the most important painters of the High Renaissance. He possessed a comprehensive understanding of the great masters of his day. He learned the rules of balance and harmony from Raphael and the delicate skills of chiaroscuro and sfumato from Leonardo da Vinci. But to this he brought spontaneity to religious figures, especially in his earlier works that are not overtly idealized. His figures were posed in a more naturalistic way and this lent his paintings an added emotional, sometimes even playful, dimension.
Very possibly due to his upbringing as the son of a tailor, Andrea’s skill at rendering the color, texture and fall of clothes and drapery was unmatched by any of his contemporaries. His figures and interiors were infused with an intense range of hues that brought a lively animation to his religious vignettes and tableaus. His highly expressive use of color is unsurpassed in Florentine painting, and his willingness to bring this decorative element to his work anticipated the rise of Renaissance Mannerism.
Although he was not a recognized landscapist or portraitist, Andrea proved highly adept in both mediums. He sometimes set his religious parables against the spectacular backdrop of the Tuscan landscape which he captured to impressive effect. Regarding portraiture, he demonstrated his dexterity in this sphere through his rendering of crowd scenes that frequently featured fellow artists (Jacopo Sansovino and musician Francesco de Layolle for instance) and also self-portraits.
As Andrea matured as a painter, his work became more restrained and more idealized. This can be directly attributed to the “Roman influence” that saw him absorb some of the humanist precision of Michelangelo and Raphael’s skill at infusing his scenes of assembly with dynamism and movement. Yet Andrea del Sarto was above mere imitation and his works always managed to retain both their element of intimacy and their allegiance to Florentine civic pride. His highly expressive use of color is unsurpassed in Florentine painting. It is largely through his example that the tradition of Florentine art was transmitted through to the end of the Renaissance.
Adapted by James J. Boitano, PhD from:
- “Andrea del Sarto” Encyclopedia of World Biography website
- “Andrea del Sarto” NNDB, Tracking the Entire World website
- “Andrea del Sarto” Your Dictionary website
- Serraino, Tatyana “Andrea del Sarto: Florentine High Renaissance Painter and Draftsman” The Art Story webpage, May 30, 2021
- Shearman, John K.G. “Andrea del Sarto: Italian painter. Encyclopedia Britannica website, July 12, 2022
- Wikipedia website