Progression of Art
Procession of the Magi / The Journey of the Magi
This fresco depicts the biblical account of the three Magi arriving at King Herod's palace. The lower foreground, and right side of the painting, are dominated by an animated crowd of foreign merchants carrying exotic goods and animals (including a giraffe visible in the right background). On the left, del Sarto has rendered the edge of Herod's palace with careful foreshortening. One of the unusual things about this fresco is the beautiful Tuscan countryside that forms the painting's backdrop.
This crowd of merchants also features portraits of Sarto's contemporaries, demonstrating thus his skill as a portraitist. On the right, one can observe a portrait of the sculptor Jacopo Sansovino (with whom he worked between 1511-17) standing beside the musician Francesco de Layolle. The painting also includes a self-portrait (visible to the left of Sansovino). A prominent rock in the painting's lower foreground bears the artist's signature which is composed of two interlocking "As".
This fresco is located in the Court of the Servi in the pilgrimage church of Santissima Annunziata in Florence, and forms part of Sarto's first important public commission of 1509. Like his other early works, this painting is infused with a palpable energy and dynamism. The figures are not refined, polished, or idealised, as they would become in his later art; their poses are relaxed and appear quite natural. As the son of a Florentine tailor, Sarto also enjoyed rendering the texture and fall of drapery. Indeed, in this painting each figure is adorned in a different coloured garment which brings an added element of animation the scene.
Fresco - Santissima Annunziata, Florence
Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine of Alexandria
This devotional work is in a style known as Sacra Conversazione (Holy Conversation); a genre of painting that was very popular during the Italian Renaissance. The genre typically depicts the Virgin Mary and the Christ child who is here flanked by two saints, Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Saint Margaret of Antioch (together with her attribute, the sinister dragon she is known for conquering), and the figure of St. John the Baptist as a child in the middle-near foreground (with his attribute of a lamb). The conversion ceremony is being overseen by the Virgin Mary, who enacts a blessing with her right hand, and by Saint Margaret, who watches attentively.
This painting is an early work that displays a number of painterly influences borrowed from del Sarto's contemporaries. To begin with, this panel painting reveals del Sarto's thorough understanding of Leonardo da Vinci's use of chiaroscuro and sfumato while the balance, symmetry, and harmony of the composition carries echoes of Raphael. At the same time, the work exhibits the artist's personal style that was uniquely animated in his early years. The figures are beautiful but not overtly idealized; they exhibit, rather, naturalistic poses that bring an added emotional element to the scene. There is also a sense of playfulness that disrupts the composition's sense of order, and suggests a refreshing degree of confidence in the young artist. Furthermore, the painting is composed of vivid colours; del Sarto's expressive use of intense, saturated hues were unsurpassed in Florentine painting.
Oil on panel - Gemäldegalerie in Dresden
Baptism of the People
This grisaille (grey monochrome) fresco depicts St. John the Baptist in the act of baptising a crowd. It is one of a series of frescoes depicting the life and times of St. John the Baptist in the Chiostro dello Scalzo cloister. Begun around 1511, the work was not completed until 1526, and almost all of the work was completed in del Sarto's own hand. The cycle is considered a masterpiece of Renaissance Art, while K. G. Shearman, Professor of Fine Arts at Harvard University, argued that the frescos read "like an artistic autobiography covering the greater part of his career". Del Sarto's crisp expression of the narrative, his delicate rendering of water and fabrics, as well as his sculptural rendering of the figures, pushed the conventions of monumental fresco painting, and played an important role in the development of Mannerism. The refined forms of the figures also reflect del Sarto's interest in woodcuts by Northern artists such as Martin Schongauer, Albrecht Dürer, and Lucas van Leyden.
Positioned at the very centre of the composition, John the Baptist's right foot is perched on a rock as he pours water from a simple terracotta bowl onto the head of a kneeling figure. He cradles a cane crucifix to the left side of his body. The kneeling figure hugs his own torso as he undergoes his baptism; his feet and right knee are submerged in the river. On either side, figures observe the scene as they wait their turn to be baptised. Some of the figures perch on rocks that sit in the river. In the right background of the fresco, there is another crowd of onlookers standing on a low hill.
Del Sarto has approached this subject matter as a chance to render the human body in different poses and with varying degrees of clothing. For example, there is a figure on the far right wearing a fabric that only covers his upper body; his rear is visible to the viewer. Moreover, on the left, there is a figure that perches elegantly on a rock; the muscles in his legs, arms, and chest are very prominent. The range of different postures reveals the artist's masterful command of the human body and his ability to render its lines and shapes from all angles. Additionally, the scene is framed by an elaborately painted architectural setting which further confirms del Sarto's technical range.
Fresco - Chiostro dello Scalzo
Madonna of the Harpies
The Madonna of the Harpies is a densely symbolic altarpiece. The Virgin Mary stands in the center of the composition, cradling the Christ child with her right hand, and holding a book (symbolizing her wisdom) in her left. She is flanked by two saints while two agitated putti clutch at her calves. The outward gaze of St John the Evangelist and St Francis command the devotional attention of the viewer, while the painting, which carries a rich and expressive use of color, also displays del Sarto's command of fabrics and his ability to represent them as they envelop the forms and contours of the human figure. The title of the painting is based on Vasari's identification of the creatures depicted on the pedestal as harpies. However, a more recent iconographic interpretation, which considers the painting in light of eschatological symbolism (a branch of theology dealing specifically with the idea of judgment and punishment) has led art historians and scholars to view the creatures as the locusts described in St John the Evangelist's Apocalypse. Indeed, on the right of the painting we see the figure of St John himself, balancing an open book on his bent right leg, and likely in the act of writing his prophecies.
In the ninth chapter of his prophecies, St John the Evangelist describes the monstrous beings rising from the well of the abyss in a haze of smoke (seen here rising behind the Virgin). The Harpies possess women's heads and bellies resembling iron breastplates. They are responsible for bringing torment to all who did not bear God's seal - the tau - on their foreheads. This interpretation also accounts for the figure of St Francis in the place of San Bonaventura who was included in the original commissioning contract for the work. In his Legenda Maior (1263), the influential philosopher and theologian, Bonaventura, identifies St Francis as possessing the angel of the sixth seal prophesied by St John the Evangelist. In light of this interpretation, the pedestal the Virgin Mary stands on is read as the well of Hell that she is keeping closed. The complex symbolism of this painting is believed to have been suggested by Antonio di Ludovico Sassolini, the Minister of the Conventual Franciscans of Tuscany at the time.
The central Madonna figure was modelled on Andrea's wife, Lucrezia del Fede of Recanati. Del Sarto regularly used her as a model for his paintings; indeed, she appears in many of his art works and often as a Madonna. His habit of posing his wife explains why his religious figures often possess the immediacy of portraits. Like all of his paintings, however, the work is also an exquisitely-balanced composition. His style here carries the influence of Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo, whose works del Sarto 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.
Altarpiece in oils - Galleria degli Uffizi
Triumph of Caesar
This fresco depicts Julius Caesar adorned with a laurel-wreath and dressed in a red toga and a blue cloak. He sits (in a somewhat animated pose) on a marble throne under a classical arch and is receiving ambassadors. Caesar is surrounded by standing and kneeling elderly men who are gesturing towards the men bearing vases and exotic animals on the left of the painting. The ambassadors have brought animals with them that include the famous Medici giraffes (in the left background) that were presented to the family in 1487 by a Sultan of Egypt. The painting thus presents the viewer with a captivating mix of ancient Roman history and current affairs by glorifing the Medici family and their triumphant return to Florence and by associating the figure of Caesar with Lorenzo de' Medici himself.
The fresco is located in a trompe-l'oeil loggia framed by columns on one of the long walls of the central hall of the Villa Medicea di Poggio a Caiano. Del Sarto expertly adapted the fresco to suit its modern setting and surrounding, accounting for its angle, its viewing height and the abundance of natural light. The work is an historical allegory that espouses Florentine civic pride. The statues are allegories of Abundance and Justice, and Judith with the (severed) Head of Holofernes (near right) as a symbol of Florentine power. The painted decorations of the villa, meanwhile, were intended to celebrate the pope's father Lorenzo the Magnificent, as well as other family members living there. The iconographical programme was designed by the historian Poalo Giovio and its aim was to celebrate and promote the Medici family through a variety of scenes from Roman history.
In December of 1521, Pope Leo X died, and thus all decorative work in the Salone was immediately halted, leaving del Sarto's fresco incomplete. It was finished and extended between 1578-82 by Alessandro Allori who was commissioned by the Grand Duke Francesco de' Medici. Del Sarto's fresco is a fragment of the original commission that is now incorporated into a much later decorative scheme. Del Sarto's style within the finished fresco is noticeably more polished and ideal than in his earlier paintings, likely due to the influence of Michelangelo. Moreover, this work shows the influence of Raphael, which supports the belief that the artist visited Rome around 1519-20 and studied Raphael's work in detail. Indeed, like Raphael, this painting exhibits an organised composition that is simultaneously crowded with figures in movement and in action.
Fresco - Villa di Poggio a Caiano
The Last Supper
The San Salvi monastery was founded in 1048 by Saint Giangualberto in dedication to Saint Michael. In the subsequent centuries it was enlarged and decorated with important commissions including the famous Baptism of Christ (1475) by Verrocchio and his pupil at the time, Leonardo da Vinci. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the building received a large donation from the Abbot Ilario Panichi and the Great Refectory, which would adjoin the bathrooms and kitchen, was added. Abbot Panichi commissioned the young del Sarto to decorate the Cenacolo (upper room) of the refectory. With the assistance of the student portraitist Franciabigio, del Sarto painted the under-arch which features grotesque (grotto style) decorations and five medallions representing the patron saints of the Vallombrosani monks: Saint Giovanni Gualberto, Saint Salvi, Saint Bernard Uberti and Saint Benedict, with the fifth, center, medallion, represented the Triffons, a controversial spiritual symbol reintroduced by the Italian Dominical Friar and preacher, Girolamo Savonarola, where three faces (two in profile, share four eyes) symbolize the Trinity. It would be another fifteen years before del Sarto was recalled to work on the wall painting for The Last Supper which, it is rumoured, took him just 64 days to complete.
According to the building's (now a museum) website, del Sarto "expressed here his artistic maturity, deep devotional intensity and important search on changing color effects throughout the wall". It describes how "all the Apostles are depicted around Jesus, on the same side", while Judah is represented (as he is in the Leonardo masterpiece) "sitting on the right of Jesus [as] he receives from Jesus a piece of bread". The website adds that the "colors are always vivid and bright with unusual iridescent effects reminding [us] of shantung silk: purple, orange, turquoise and green such as for Judah's soft drapery. The skilful use of light and shade gives the fabrics the idea of movement and adds plasticity to each figure". One's eye cannot help but be drawn to the playful upper part of the fresco which features a foreshadowed balcony on which stand two "spying" servants (one holding a serving tray), set against a sunset.
Contradicting his otherwise tempered assessment of del Sarto's talents, Giorgio Vasari wrote in 1568 that this painting was del Sarto's "most spectacular masterpiece and one of the most beautiful paintings in the world [...] it certainly is, the most smooth, the most vivacious in colouring and drawing that he ever did, or rather that anyone could do. For apart from all the rest, he 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". Indeed, the fresco was so sublime it survived the 1529-30 siege of Florence when the invading army of Charles V was so spellbound by its modernity and beauty that the convent was spared from destruction. In 1534 the convent was turned into a nunnery and its strict system of enclosure meant that fresco remained hidden from public eyes until the nineteenth century.
Fresco - Convent of San Salvi, Florence