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Andrea del Sarto - Biography and Legacy

Florentine High Renaissance painter and draftsman

Born: July 16, 1486 - Florence, Italy
Died: September 29, 1530 - Florence, Italy
Movements and Styles:
High Renaissance

Biography of Andrea del Sarto


Although some sources suggest his family name was Lanfranchi, Andrea d'Agnolo di Francesco di Luca was the son of a Florentine tailor (sarto in Italian), hence Andrea del Sarto, "the tailor's son". Little else is known about del Sarto's early childhood except for the fact that he was (and remained) short in stature and his friends called him Andreino.

Early Training and Work

In 1494, aged just eight, del Sarto was apprenticed to a Florentine goldsmith. The experience helped foster his love for drawing and draftsmanship. Soon thereafter he was taken on by the little-known painter and woodcarver Andrea di Salvi Barile, under whom he studied until he reached the age of twelve. According to Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, de Sarto then became the apprentice, first of the painter Piero di Cosimo, and subsequently Raffaellino del Garbo (Carli), a highly accomplished late 15th-century painter.

It was however under the tutelage of di Cosimo, who commented favourably on his student's aptitude for color and his studious mentality, that del Sarto truly came into his own. Like other Florentine artists of the time, di Cosimo was also a metal point draftsman, and he likely taught del Sarto to draw using this method. However, there are no known del Sarto drawings in this medium. He preferred to use red and black chalk for his preliminary drawings given that it allowed for greater tonal variation than the more precise lines of metal point.

The art historian Nigel Ip (himself drawing on an essay by Marzia Faietti) describes how del Sarto's red-chalk drawings were unique "as examples of a synthesis between two opposing theoretical approaches to art-making: Florentine disegno (meaning both design and drawing) and Venetian colore (colour)". He notes that this was "a common debate in the sixteenth century among intellectuals" with many, including Vasari, siding with the view that "the linear precision of disegno was more important than the rendering of insubstantial planes of colore [and] would go on to have a deeper association with divine creation" (as expounded by Vasari in his praise for masters such as Michelangelo).

<i>Study of a Woman</i> (c. 1517-25). Del Sarto rejected precise metal point drawing in favour of red chalk which allowed for a far greater tonal range.

Despite its capacity to render tones in life studies, red chalk drawing came at the expense of fine picture detail. But the art critic Linda Wolk-Simon argues that del Sarto "fully exploited its possibilities". She adds that the "naturalism that is a hallmark of his style must underlie the privileging of red chalk, a medium ideally suited to describing warm, breathing flesh [and that with] their astonishing tonal and colouristic range, his red chalk drawings also hint at the sublime and subtle gifts as a colourist that dazzle in his paintings".

Del Sarto began producing independent work around 1506 and this phase was marked by the artist's youthful spontaneity that gave rise to a naturalistic treatment of his figures. Still aged just 20, he and his friend, Franciabigio (Francesco di Cristofano), opened a studio and shop at a lodging in Piazza del Grano. Two years later, on December 11, 1508, del Sarto matriculated into the painters' guild of Florence. In 1509, he began his long collaboration with the church and convent of Santissima Annunziata (also in Florence). The Servite Order employed him, together with Franciabigio and Andrea Feltrini, to execute a set of five frescoes for the entrance to the cloister. These scenes, depicting the life of St. Filippo Benizzi, would be his first important public commission and confirmed del Sarto as a young painter to be reckoned with.

Mature Period

In 1511, del Sarto moved to a workshop near the church of Santissima Annunziata. He remained there for about six or seven years during which time he apprenticed Rosso Fiorentino and Jacopo Pontormo. He also worked with the sculptor Jacopo Sansovino who is cited as the key influence on del Sarto's maturing, more muscular and sculptural, painting style. Ip writes "The diversity of styles produced by each of these individuals leads one to suggest that [del Sarto's] workshop did not operate in the same manner as other workshops, where pupils were taught to paint under a single style dictated by the master". He adds (through Julian Brooks) that, "there is little to no detailed evidence regarding the structure of [his] workshop nor any insight into its delegation of labour" but that a total of some 180 studio drawings by del Sarto offer "a glimpse of his creative vision, command of draughtsmanship, and interest in sculpture". Del Sarto's workshop became famous to the point that it usurped Fra' Bartolommeo's studio as the leading Florentine workshop.

<i>The Annunciation</i> (1512-13): a transitional work by del Sarto which was completed while the sculptor Pontormo was still his apprentice.

During the period 1511-18 del Sarto executed important frescoes for churches in Florence including the Chiostro dello Scalzo and the monastery of S. Gallo. The Annunciation, for instance, was painted for the convent of San Gallo (and moved before it could be destroyed in the siege of Florence on 1529). According to the "Art in Tuscany" website, the atmosphere of the painting "is charged with ancient references quoted blithely in the theatrical background which forms a setting for the almost unrecognizable biblical story. It is usually interpreted as Susanna and the Elders - a Susanna who resembles a male nude; the Elders, three of them, lightly touched in with a few brushstrokes, are pointing to her up in an airy loggia worthy of Pontormo or Rosso. The two figures of the Madonna and the Angel in the foreground, accompanied by two angels, full of gentle human beauty, are vibrant with poetic intensity". It was this fresco, the website continues, that gave the first indications of del Sarto's "general movement towards a more restrained, sculptural style".

<i>Portrait of Lucrezia di Baccio del Fede</i> (1513-14), (soon-to-be) wife of the painter, and one of del Sarto's small number of portraits.

Del Sarto married Lucrezia del Fede of Recanati in 1518. The widow of a hatter named Carlo di Domenico, she brought to the marriage a property and a sizable dowry. According to K. G. Shearman, Professor of Fine Arts at Harvard University, del Sarto "was content to work, when it suited him, for nominal fees, for no remuneration at all, or for only part of a fee offered to him, probably because he was in comfortable circumstances". Most biographical accounts repeat the claim that he would be happy to paint "for a carpenter or a king". Before and following their marriage, del Sarto often used Lucrezia as a model and she appears in many of his paintings, even posing as a Madonna in signature works including The Nativity of the Virgin (1514) and Madonna of the Harpies (1517). Despite doubling as the Madonna, both Vasari, and later, the English playwright and poet Robert Browning (probably drawing on Vasari's earlier accounts), characterised her as an aggressive and jealous woman without religious faith.

<i>Disputation on the Trinity</i> (1517). The figure of Mary of Magdalene was modelled on del Sarto's wife, Lucrezia del Fede.

In 1517 del Sarto painted one of his most famous panels for the altar of a chapel in the Augustinian church of San Gallo, Disputation on the Trinity. The altarpiece features St. Augustine, St. Sebastian, St. Lawrence, Peter Martyr, Francis and Mary Magdalen. Del Sarto sets his figures against a somewhat fearsome sky from which emerges the symbol of the Trinity, and which is here being debated by the saints as Magdalene, modelled on Lucrezia (del Sarto's wife), looks on.

In June 1518 del Sarto (who had sent two works to his Court two years earlier) received a personal invitation from the king of France, François I to join his Court. Del Sarto accepted the invitation and left for Fontainebleau with his student Andrea Squarzzella. One can only arrive at the conclusion that del Sarto did not take to life as a court artist given that he stayed less than a year and failed to accept any major commissions. It is thought, however, that two surviving works, The Charity and Portrait of a French Lady, were produced during his short stay in France. According to Vasari's account, Lucrezia, who had remained in Florence, wrote to her husband demanding that he come home. The French King agreed, but on the proviso that del Sarto return to France in the near future.

The rumor spread that François I had supplied del Sarto with funds to purchase artworks to display at his Court. According to Vasari, del Sarto, under the influence of his unscrupulous wife, used the money to purchase a substantial property on Via della Crocetta in Florence and thus destroyed his reputation in the eyes of the French court and any chance of ever being invited back to France. This story, though widespread, is now considered to be fictional (not to mention malicious). However, as Shearman confirms, in 1520 Sarto did begin "to build himself a house in Florence, which was later inhabited and modified by several other painters" adding that it was "a substantial property without being a palace". Following his return from France, del Sarto also received a highly prestigious commission from the Medici family (who had become all powerful since their return to Florence in 1512). He was requested by Pope Leo X to contribute adornments to the salone (lounge area) at the Villa di Poggio a Caiano on the outskirts of Florence, though, in the event, the project was halted following the Pope's death in December 1521.

In 1523, del Sarto accepted an unusual commission from Ottaviano de' Medici. Ottaviano was the owner of Raphael's group portrait featuring Pope Leo X, a masterpiece coveted by Federico II Gonzaga (the Duke of Mantua). Since Ottaviano did not want to lose Raphael's original, he commissioned del Sarto to execute an exact duplicate which he then gave to the Duke in place of the original. Del Sarto's copy was reportedly so exact that it fooled even Giulio Romano, the artist who was responsible for helping render Raphael's original.

In 1524, del Sarto and his family moved briefly to Luco in Mugello to escape an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in Florence. Later that year del Sarto visited Rome where Michelangelo first introduced him to Vasari. Vasari was impressed enough by del Sarto he became one of his pupils. However, Vasari would later show great ambivalence towards his erstwhile tutor, who, in his view, possessed all the prerequisites of a great artist, but lacked the extra drive and ambition that elevated the works of the "true" Renaissance greats: Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo.

Having said that, Ip records that del Sarto occupied two of the largest entries of Vasari's biography The Lives of the Artists: the first, in 1550, covering 40 pages; the second, in 1568, covering 55 pages. Yet Vasari was critical of del Sarto's "apparent unwillingness to undertake the challenge of assimilating the antique and contemporary works in Rome during his brief stay" (though Ip tells us that Dominique Cordellier's analysis of del Sarto's numerous sheet copies of Michelangelo and Baccio Bandinelli "tells a rather different story"). Vasari did, however, rank del Sarto as amongst the greatest Florentine artists of his era. But while his work possessed "the same naturalistic approach and sense of calm witnessed in the works of previous Florentine artists like Giotto, Masaccio, and Domenico Ghirlandaio", Vasari argued that it was del Sarto's (assumed) lack of "Roman experience" that robbed him of the "'resolute boldness' and abundant invention [of] the bella maniera (beautiful style)".

Troubled by the contradictions in Vasari's account - he described del Sarto's Last Supper (1527) for instance as "one of the most beautiful paintings in the world" - Ip (this time through Wellen) suggests that Vasari's opinion of del Sarto was colored by certain prejudices that fluctuated in his two entries due to the shifting intellectual climates and his distain for the "Florentine communal life".

This criticism surfaces in Vasari's "negative perceptions of members of the compagnie di piacere ["pleasure of his company" club], which included [...] del Sarto and his circle of artist friends. Members of such clubs put on spectacles and lavish dinners, time-wasting activities which Vasari saw as impeding the progression of the arts and the advancement of the artist's social status". But, more pointedly, Vasari's criticism of del Sarto's character was rooted in his pupil, Jacone, who "spoke in slang, visited artists' workshops to criticise their work, and 'always had his mind set more on giving himself a good time and every possible amusement, living in a round of suppers and feasting with his friends'". In Vasari's view, Jacone had "become so lazy and terribly-mannered that his abilities had dropped" and that "such a person would have negatively impacted [del Sarto's] lifestyle and [his own] development as an artist". Ip concludes that Vasari's description of Jacone "echoes qualities associated with [his master, del Sarto] and such a tale comes with a moral to lead a more honourable life in order to gain wealth and fame" (which in Vasari's view was the goal of all great artists).

Contradicting somewhat Vasari's assessment of abilities, in 1926 del Sarto finally completed, after some 15 years in the making, his celebrated monochrome fresco cycle for the cloister at the Scalzo in Florence. Now widely considered one of the defining masterpieces of the High Renaissance, it raised the bar for standards of excellence in monumental fresco painting.

Late Period

<i>Madonna del Sacco (Madonna with the Sack)</i> (1525). This late-career fresco painting depicts the Rest, taken during the Virgin Mary's flight into Egypt with Joseph and the Christ child. The trio are framed on either side by a pilaster and by the graceful outline of the architectural lunette.

In his late career, del Sarto was content to work for small fees; or for no remuneration at all as was the case with Madonna del Sacco (1525). By this point in his career, del Sarto's style had fully matured and his works exhibit a highly expressive use of colour which was exceptional in Florentine painting. Now revered as one of his most important pieces, Madonna del Sacco 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). Although it exhibits the influence of Michelangelo, and in particular his painted figures in the vault of the Sistine Chapel, the painting is its own celebration of del Sarto's unique style: notably the painting's elegant balance and figures that possess at once an air of grandeur and repose. As the curator of drawings at the J. Paul Getty museum Julian Brooks has stated, del Sarto had with this fresco managed to convey "a wonderful balance of dignity and informality".

The Medici were once more expelled from Florence in 1527 and del Sarto worked for the republican government of Florence. One of his late pieces, Sacrifice of Isaac (one of three versions del Sarto executed), was in fact offered as a political gift to Francis I. The increasing idealization and intense coloring, as in devotional paintings such as the Quattro Santi (1528) and St. Agnes (1528), stand as prime examples of the move away from the High Renaissance style (which was thought to have reached its point excellence and could not be improved upon) towards the more decorative Mannerist style that proved inspirational to the next generation of European artists.

The battle painting, <i>The 1530 Siege of Florence</i> (1558), a Mannerist fresco by one of del Sarto's most famous students, Giorgio Vasari.

After the ten month siege of Florence (1529-30), which saw the Republic overthrown by imperial papal troupes, and Alessandro de' Medici installed as ruler of the city, the Florentine economy was in crisis. This crisis was compounded by a second plague, which, even though the city was somewhat protected by the Apennines to the north and east where the mountain passes could be closed, was thought to have claimed the artist's life. Sources differ on the exact date of his death, but documents confirm that he was buried in Basilica della Santissima Annunziata on Sept. 29, 1530, aged just 44. It was reportedly a quiet and unceremonious burial. Del Sarto was survived by his wife, Lucrezia, by some 40 years.

The Legacy of Andrea del Sarto

Although Vasari described him as an artist "senza errori" ("without errors"), del Sarto's star was eclipsed by his contemporaries Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci. For years he remained under-appreciated as the seminal Florentine artist, and his works were understudied. Only relatively recently has he come to be celebrated as one of the most important Italian artists of the early sixteenth century. Today he is recognized as an exceptional draftsman, colorist, altarpiece painter, and fresco decorator. He is known particularly for his unrivalled ability to produce effects of colour and atmosphere, and for his strikingly natural and expressive rendition of emotion. His works of careful composition, animation, and vibrancy, made a vital contribution to the development of Mannerism and many prominent Florentine artists were influenced by his style including Jacopo Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino (two of his best students), and Francesco Salviati and Jacopino del Conte.

Del Sarto's legend was extended into the worlds of literature and stage, too, firstly by Alfred de Musset who created the play Andrea del Sarto in 1848 and which premiered in Paris. Musset used his "artistic licence" to create the character of Cordiani, the fictional lover of del Sarto's wife Lucrezia, who inspires a turbulent and melodramatic love triangle between the protagonists. The play was quickly followed in 1855 by Robert Browning's lengthy poem, "Andrea del Sarto Called the 'Faultless Painter'", which Browning presented in style of a first person monologue by an artist whose only known quotation is also one of the most famous in the history of the Renaissance: "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?". Moving into the twentieth century, Musset's play inspired the opera Andrea del Sarto, created by the French composer Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur in 1968. But Shearman offered perhaps the most effortless and concise summary of del Sarto when he wrote, "From first to last, Sarto's integrity as a craftsman, his sheer professionalism, is impressively consistent; and it is characteristic of him that he refused to have his works engraved".

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Content compiled and written by Tatyana Serraino

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd

"Andrea del Sarto Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Tatyana Serraino
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd
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First published on 30 May 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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