Andrea del Sarto exhibition in New York

Florence artist goes international

Anne Holler
October 1, 2015

A star of the Florentine art world will light up the New York museum scene this fall. 


In his day, Andrea d’Agnolo—generally known as Andrea del Sarto for his tailor father (1486–1530)—was the most influential artist in Florence. He painted ‘without error’ (in the words of Vasari), his workshop was the most prosperous in Florence, and François I, the King of France, was able to (briefly) lure him away from his beloved hometown and into his glittering world at Fontainebleau. Except for this Gallic adventure, Andrea spent almost his entire life in Florence, keeping the Medici and other potentate patrons content with paintings and his notoriously high-maintenance wife, Lucrezia, just plain content. (Robert Browning begins his dramatic monologue Andrea del Sarto with the artist pleading with his wife: ‘But do not let us quarrel any more …’).


Andrea was a master draftsman, rendering his subjects for the most part with the popular Florentine medium of red chalk. He drew with supreme confidence. He produced clear, sharp profiles, and he drew and drew until he found just the right pose and mood for his subjects.


Take his Study for the Head of Julius Caesar (ca.1520) currently featured at The Frick Collection’s exhibition ‘Andrea del Sarto: The Renaissance Workshop in Action’. Andrea created this small preparatory drawing in planning his fresco The Triumph of Caesar, for the main hall of the Medici villa at Poggio a Caiano. The young emperor’s aquiline (albeit broken) nose, considered a mark of high status in ancient Rome, is a dramatic feature of the drawing, and his intensity of gaze—looking into the distance or perhaps the future—is emphasized by the white of his left eye and the merest chalk stroke of his pupil. 


Andrea’s St. John the Baptist (c.1523) once held pride of place in the Florentine home of merchant banker Giovan Maria Benintendi. To display an image of the patron saint of Florence in one’s palazzo showed one’s orgoglio—pride—in being a Florentine. The same idea went for David. Or even a rendition that resembled Michelangelo’s David. His stunning life-sized painting seems to meld the two beloved Florentine figures. Denise Allen writes in The Frick’s exhibition catalogue, ‘the idealized torso … and shock of curls that cast shadows on the forehead like undercut marble—would have resonated with the picture’s intended audience’.


Longtime resident of Florence Bernard Berenson was the first art connoisseur to link the only known preparatory drawing of Andrea del Sarto’s to St. John the Baptist. The Study for the Head of St. John the Baptist (c. 1523) has been loaned by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and the opportunity to see the two works together is a treat. Allen, noting the worn condition of the drawing and that the size of the head in the study exactly matches that of the painting, deduces that it was Andrea’s working model. 


Down the street, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is offering a companion show, ‘Andrea del Sarto’s Borgherini Holy Family’. Here we get a glimpse of the artist’s process in composing a painting.  


Prior to a major 1986 exhibit of Andrea del Sarto’s work in Florence, art restorers began studying the underdrawings of his paintings by using infrared reflectography. The fact that artists used preparatory drawings (‘cartoons’) as guides was well known. But with imaging, art historians can see the artist at work, rearranging a figure’s pose or even adding new figures. 


The Met show reveals a ‘secret’ that perhaps Andrea would have preferred to take with him to the grave: two of his most famous paintings were most likely composed using the same cartoon. The Holy Family with the Young St. John the Baptist (c. 1528) was commissioned by the prominent Borgherini family, whose palazzo in Florence’s borgo S.S. Apostoli boasts a private entrance to the church of Santi Apostoli. In the last year or so of his life, Vasari tells us, Andrea found himself in dire straits. He needed a commission, and his old patron the King of France came to mind. It appears that the artist pulled out the cartoon he used for the Borgherini Holy Family and reworked a new painting, Charity. The king never got the painting, but with good art historian detective work and infrared imaging, we get the picture. 




Florence is home to some of Andrea del Sarto’s magnificent frescoes. Along with the frescoes at S.S. Annunziata, see his magnificent grisaille frescoes at the Chiostro dello Scalzo and his cenacolo (Last Supper) at the former convent of San Salvi, where facsimiles of some of his preparatory drawings are on display.


Andrea del Sarto: The Renaissance Workshop in Action

The Frick Collection

October 7, 2015–January 10, 2016


Andrea del Sarto’s Borgherini Holy Family

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 14, 2015–January 10, 2016

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