The Italian painter Andrea del Sarto (1486-1530) was one of the most important painters of the High Renaissance. His highly expressive use of color is unsurpassed in Florentine painting.
With Michelangelo and Raphael working in Rome, Andrea del Sarto became the leading painter in Florence following the death of Fra Bartolommeo in 1517, and through his pupils, II Rosso and Pontormo, he was a vital formative influence on the development of mannerism.
Andrea was born in Florence on July 16, 1486. He was the son of Agnolo di Francesco, a tailor (Italian, sarto), hence the name Andrea del Sarto. According to Vasari, who was a pupil of Andrea, he was trained with a goldsmith from the age of 7. An earlier source identifies Andrea's master, quite convincingly, as Rafaellino del Garbo, a highly competent and successful painter of the late 15th century. About the age of 20 Andrea set up an independent shop with Franciabigio, although he did not matriculate in the painters' guild until Dec. 11, 1508.
In 1509 Andrea received his first important public commission for five frescoes in the entrance cloister of the Church of SS. Annunziata, Florence, depicting scenes from the life of St. Filippo Benizzi. Two further frescoes, the Journey of the Magi and the Nativity of the Virgin, added in 1511 and 1514, illustrate the very rapid development of his style. Of the panel paintings, the beautiful Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine (ca. 1512; Dresden) 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 Fra Bartolommeo, Michelangelo, and Raphael. His figures are not idealized but warmly human and even humorous. He showed a notably early interest in Northern woodcuts by such artists as Albrecht Dürer, Martin Schongauer, and Lucas van Leyden; and his interest in sculpture was not confined to the antique but extended to the use of actual models by his friend Jacopo Sansovino, with whom he shared a workshop from 1511 to 1517.
Between 1511 and 1526 Andrea painted the famous monochrome fresco cycle in the cloister of the Scalzo, Florence, which is one of the masterpieces of High Renaissance art. The elaborate, painted architectural setting and the sculptural clarity of the narrative established new standards in monumental fresco painting.
Outstanding among the panel paintings of this period are the Madonna of the Harpies (1517; Florence) and the Wallace Madonna (1517-1518; London). In these mature works the outward gaze of the saints and the compelling vibrancy of the color demand the devotional involvement of the spectator.
It was probably in 1517 that Andrea married Lucrezia del Fede, a widow, whose portrait he had included in the Nativity of the Virgin. Despite Vasari's condemnation, which was so readily accepted and elaborated in the 19th century, there seems to be no real evidence that Andrea suffered either moral or financial ruin as a result of this marriage.
Summoned by the French king, Francis I, he traveled to France in 1518, but his stay at Fontainebleau was very short for he was back in Florence by the autumn of 1519. The Charity (Paris) and the Portrait of a French Lady (Cleveland) are the only surviving paintings that he executed in France.
Andrea may have visited Rome in 1519-1520 in connection with the important commission from Pope Leo X for the decoration of the Medici villa at Poggio a Caiano, near Florence, since Andrea's fresco Tribute to Caesar (dated 1521) at the villa strongly suggests a direct experience of Raphael's work in Rome.
Comparatively little is known of the later part of Andrea's life, although his presence is frequently documented in Florence and his paintings offer no real evidence of any extensive travels. In 1520 he purchased a site on the Via della Crocetta and built a house. In 1524 Andrea took his family to the Mugello to avoid the plague. There he painted the Pietà (Florence), which, though more restrained in its color and emotion than the earlier Pietà (ca. 1520; Vienna), forms the point of departure for the deliberately appealing beauty of the late works. The increasing idealization and the sometimes arbitrary but acutely expressive color of paintings such as the Quattro Santi (1528; Florence) and St. Agnes (1527-1528; Pisa Cathedral) provided a rich source of inspiration for the young generation of mannerist painters. Yet the powerful devotional feeling in these works is evident from the exaggerated praise that Andrea received from writers of the Counter Reformation.
He died of the plague on Sept. 29, 1530, and was buried by the religious confraternity of the Scalzo in the Church of SS. Annunziata.
Andrea seems to have been a kindly, unassuming man with high professional standards and a profound understanding of humanity. He was genuinely pious, sometimes working for a nominal fee or, as in the case of the Madonna del Sacco (SS. Annunziata, 1525), waiving his fee altogether. Vasari interprets this as timidity and weakness, but it is more likely that Andrea, who was patronized by the Pope and the King of France, was sufficiently prosperous to afford such generosity. His popularity in the 16th century is demonstrated by the survival of an exceptional number of copies of his works.
Commonly referred to as Andreino, he was short of stature, as noticeable in the self-portrait in the Journey of the Magi (SS. Annunziata). The most reliable record of his features is the self-portrait painted on a tile (1527-1528; Florence).
A complete reappraisal of Andrea del Sarto's role in the High Renaissance and the development of mannerism has been necessitated by two recent monographs that provide a thorough critical study of his life and works: Sydney J. Freedberg, Andrea del Sarto (2 vols., 1963), and John Shearman, Andrea del Sarto (2 vols., 1965), with a brilliant analysis of Andrea's use of color. An extensive discussion of the artistic developments in the early 16th century may be found in Sydney J. Freedberg, Painting of the High Renaissance in Rome and Florence (2 vols., 1961).