The Italian artist Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570) executed sculpture and architecture in Venice whose quality and extent create much of the effect of the city today.
Trained in Florence and active in Rome and Florence in the crucial early decades of the 16th century, Jacopo Sansovino became the man of destiny for Venetian architecture and trained so many young sculptors that Giorgio Vasari credited him with virtually running an academy. In his 40 years of service as principal architect to the city of Venice, Sansovino profited by his early Florentine training in his skillful use of sculpture to enrich and animate buildings distinguished by a breadth, grandeur, and structural harmony surely based on his close study and understanding of ancient and current Roman architecture.
Jacopo Tatti was born in Florence, the son of Antonio Tatti. In 1502 Jacopo entered the workshop of the sculptor and architect Andrea Sansovino and adopted his master's name. Jacopo followed Andrea to Rome in 1505; he may have assisted his teacher in the Rosso and Sforza tombs in S. Maria del Popolo, but he also worked independently restoring antiques and making one of the first copies of the newly excavated Laocoon.
Sansovino's earliest major commissions came shortly after he returned to Florence in 1511: the large statue St. James for the Cathedral of Florence and the nearly lifesize statue Bacchus. Both works reveal his technical facility; the ease in handling drapery invests the spare figure of St. James with a needed surface enrichment, and the graceful, swinging movement and dextrous carving makes the Bacchus instantly attractive.
After collaborating on the decorations for Pope Leo X's triumphal entry into Florence, Sansovino was disappointed in hopes for a share in the project to complete the facade of the Medici church of S. Lorenzo. He returned to Rome in 1518 and executed such varied works as the idealized Madonna in S. Agostino, the more taut and complex St. James in S. Maria del Monserrato, and the elaborate tomb of Cardinal St. Angelo in S. Marcello. He was also consulted on the preliminary designs for the Florentine church in Rome, S. Giovanni dei Fiorentini.
The violent disaster of the sack of Rome in 1527 proved ultimately a blessing for Sansovino, who, fleeing Rome for France, found in Venice a city that stimulated his full development as an artist and provided a totally congenial atmosphere. His first work there was the utilitarian but crucial problem of strengthening the dangerously weakened fabric of S. Marco. This led to his appointment as protomagister to S. Marco in 1529 and his decision to stay in Venice. While he soon became a leading figure in Venice, the friend of such men as Titian, Tintoretto, and Pietro Aretino and the easy associate of noble patrons, Sansovino never felt himself above a concern for the countless practical details that together affected the appearance of his adopted city.
Appointed principal architect of Venice in 1529, Sansovino also continued to execute sculpture, creating works ranging from the fluent precision and richness of his bronze sculpture for S. Marco (tribune reliefs, 1530s; statues of the Evangelists, 1553; doors, 1563) to the harsh colossal figures Mars and Neptune on the Scala dei Giganti of the Ducal Palaco (1550s). A more chilly and disciplined classicism characterizes his marble reliefs for the church of S. Antonio in Padua (1562).
Sansovino's most formidable assignments as an architect were centered in and near the Piazza di S. Marco. The Library, designed to provide handsomely for the collection left to the city of Venice by Cardinal Bessarion, the Mint, and the Loggetta involved different functions, but all demanded a careful adjustment to the preexisting buildings. The memorable impression of all these buildings in their relation to each other and to the one large open space in Venice, the Piazza di S. Marco demonstrates Sansovino's brilliance and originality as an architect. The Mint (1537-1554) is deliberately compact in its use of the severe Doric order and heavy rustication to emphasize its function as a secure treasury. The Library (1536-1554; completed by Vincenzo Scamozzi in 1588), with its long, horizontal facade kept low to harmonize with the Ducal Palace on the opposite side of the Piazzetta, is far richer in its architectural and sculptural detail and strong contrasts of light and shadow. The small Loggetta received the greatest amount of sculptural adornment in the form of a triumphal arch to act as a firm base for the soaring bell tower.
In addition to his major public buildings, Sansovino also regulated the markets, improved the city, and executed countless designs for churches, private dwellings, and mainland villas. While some of his designs were never executed or were completed by other architects, Sansovino's presence and the ideas expressed in his drawings and buildings exerted a strong and lasting influence on contemporary and later Venetian architects. His grand Corner Palace (begun 1537), for example, was decisive in its transformation of the lighter arcades and ornamental patterns of the persistent Venetian Gothic into the measured balance of the larger, simpler forms of Donato Bramante and current Roman architecture, adapted to Venetian requirements.
Sansovino died in Venice; one son was a distinguished writer. The quality of Sansovino's life is touchingly conveyed by Vasari, who wrote that he was "very dear both to the great and to the small and to his friends" and that "his death was a grief to all Venice."
Further Reading on Jacopo Sansovino
The fullest and most important study of Sansovino remains that by Giorgio Vasari in Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, edited by Gaston du C. de Vere, vol. 9 (1915; abr. ed. 1959). There is no modern biography in English, but John Pope-Hennessy, Italian High Renaissance and Baroque Sculpture, vol. 2 (1963), includes a discerning presentation of Sansovino's work as a sculptor. For a discussion of his architecture see Peter Murray, The Architecture of the Italian Renaissance (1963), and T. A. West, A History of Architecture in Italy (1968).
Additional Biography Sources
Howard, Deborah, Jacopo Sansovino: architecture and patronage in Renaissance Venice, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975.