An age of political excitement is usually a stimulant to literature; and we shall study later two writers of the first rank—Machiavelli and Guicciardini—who belonged to this period. But a state always verging on bankruptcy, and engaged in almost permanent revolution, does not favor art—and least of all architecture. Some rich men, skilled in floating on a flood, still gave hostages to fortune by building palaces; so Giovanni Francesco and Aristotele da Sangallo, working on plans by Raphael, raised a palatial mansion for the Pandolfini family. In 1520–4 Michelangelo designed for Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici a Nuova Sagrestia, or New Sacristy, for the church of San Lorenzo—a simple quadrangle and modest dome, known to all the world as the home of Michelangelo’s finest sculptures, the tombs of the Medici.
Among the Titan’s rivals was the sculptor Pietro Torrigiano, who worked with him in Lorenzo’s garden of statuary, and broke his nose to win an argument. Lorenzo was so incensed by this violence that Torrigiano took refuge in Rome. He became a soldier in Caesar Borgia’s service, fought bravely in several battles, found his way to England, and designed there one of the masterpieces of English art, the tomb of Henry VII in Westminster Abbey (1519). Wandering restlessly to Spain, he carved a handsome Madonna and Child for the duke of Arcos. But the duke underpaid him; the sculptor smashed the statue to bits; the vengeful aristocrat denounced him to the Inquisition as a heretic; Torrigiano was sentenced to severe punishment, but cheated his foes by starving himself to death.
Florence had never had so many great artists at one time as in 1492; but many of them fled from her turbulence, and lent their renown to other scenes. Leonardo went to Milan, Michelangelo to Bologna, Andrea Sansovino to Lisbon. Sansovino took his cognomen from Monte San Savino, and made it so famous that the world forgot his real name, Andrea di Domenico Contucci. Born the son of a poor laborer, he developed a passion for drawing and for modeling in clay; a kindly Florentine sent him to the studio of Antonio del Pollaiuolo. Maturing rapidly, he built for the church of Santo Spirito a Chapel of the Sacrament, with statues and reliefs “so vigorous and excellent,” said Vasari, “that they are without a flaw”; and before it he placed a bronze grille that halts the breath with its beauty. King John II of Portugal begged Lorenzo to send the young artist to him; Andrea went, and labored nine years there in sculpture and architecture. Lonesome for Italy, he returned to Florence (1500), but soon passed to Genoa and finally to Rome. In Santa Maria del Popolo he built two marble tombs—for Cardinals Sforza and Basso della Rovere—which won high acclaim in a city then (1505–7) buzzing with geniuses. Leo X sent him to Loreto, and there (1523–8) Andrea adorned the church of Santa Maria with a series of reliefs from the life of the Virgin, so beautiful that the angel in the Annunciation seemed to Vasari “not marble but celestial.” Soon afterward Andrea retired to a farm near his native Monte San Savino, lived energetically as a peasant, and died in 1529, aged sixty-eight.
Meanwhile the della Robbia family had faithfully and skillfully carried on the work of Luca in glazed clay. Andrea della Robbia exceeded in longevity even the eighty-five years of his uncle, and had time to train three sons in the art—Giovanni, Luca, and Girolamo. Andrea’s terra cottas have a brilliance of tone and a tenderness of sentiment that snare the eye and still the feet of the museum traveler. A room in the Bargello is rich with him, and the Hospital of the Innocents is distinguished by his decorative lunette of the Annunciation. Giovanni della Robbia rivaled his father Andrea’s excellence, as one may see in the Bargello and the Louvre. The della Robbias almost confined themselves to religious subjects through three generations; they were among the most fervent supporters of Savonarola; and two of Andrea’s sons joined the Brethren of San Marco to seek salvation with the friar.
The painters felt Savonarola’s influence most deeply. Lorenzo di Credi learned his art from Verrocchio, imitated the style of his fellow student Leonardo, and took the tenderness of his religious pictures from the piety nurtured in him by Savonarola’s eloquence and fate. He spent half his life painting Madonnas; we find them almost everywhere—in Rome, Florence, Turin, Avignon, Cleveland; the faces poor, the robes magnificent; perhaps the best is the Annunciation in the Uffizi. At the age of seventy-two, feeling it time to take on the savor of sanctity, Lorenzo went to live with the monks of Santa Maria Nuova; and there, six years later, he died.
Piero di Cosimo took his cognomen from his teacher Cosimo Rosselli, for “he who instructs ability and promotes well-being is as truly a father as the one who begets.”35 Cosimo came to the conclusion that his pupil surpassed him; summoned by Sixtus IV to decorate the Sistine Chapel, he took Piero with him; and Piero painted there The Destruction of Pharaoh’s Troops in the Red Sea, with a gloomy landscape of water, rocks, and cloudy sky. He has left us two magnificent portraits, both in the Hague: of Giuliano da Sangallo and Francesco da Sangallo. Piero was all artist, caring little for society or friendship, loving nature and solitude, absorbed in the pictures and scenes that he painted. He died unconfessed and alone, having transmitted his art to two pupils who followed his example by surpassing their master: Fra Bartolommeo and Andrea del Sarto.
Baccio della Porta took his last name from the gate of San Piero where he lived; when he became a friar he received the name Fra Bartolommeo—Brother Bartholomew. Having studied with Cosimo Rosselli and Piero di Cosimo, he opened a studio with Mariotto Albertinelli, painted many pictures in collaboration with him, and remained bound to him in a fine friendship till parted by death. He was a modest youth, eager for instruction and receptive to every influence. For a time he sought to catch the subtle shading of Leonardo; when Raphael came to Florence Baccio studied perspective with him, and better blending of colors; later he visited Raphael in Rome and painted with him a noble Head of St. Peter. Finally he fell in love with the majestic style of Michelangelo; but he lacked the terrible intensity of that angry giant; and when Bartolommeo attempted the monumental he lost in the enlargement of his simple ideas the charm of his qualities—the rich depth and soft shading of his colors, the stately symmetry of his composition, the piety and sentiment of his themes.
He was deeply stirred by the sermons of Savonarola. He brought to the burning of the vanities all his paintings of the nude. When the enemies of the friar attacked the convent of San Marco (1498) he joined in its defense; in the course of the melee he vowed to become a monk if he survived; he kept his pledge, and in 1500 he entered the Dominican monastery at Prato. For five years he refused to paint, giving himself up to religious exercises. Transferred to San Marco, he consented to add his masterpieces in blue, red, and black to the rosy frescoes of Fra Angelico. There, in the refectory, he painted a Madonna and Child and a Last Judgment; in the cloisters a St. Sebastian; and in Savonarola’s cell a powerful portrait of the friar in the guise of St. Peter Martyr. The St. Sebastian was the only nude that he painted after becoming a monk. Originally it was placed in the church of San Marco, but it was so handsome that some women confessed to having been stirred to wicked thoughts by it, and the prior sold it to a Florentine who sent it to the king of France. Fra Bartolommeo continued to paint until 1517, when disease so paralyzed his hands that he could no longer hold the brush. He died in that year, at the age of forty-five.
His only rival for supremacy among the Italian painters of this period was another disciple of Piero di Cosimo. Andrea Domenico d’Agnolo di Francesco Vannuci is known to us as Andrea del Sarto because his father was a tailor. Like most Renaissance artists he developed quickly, beginning his apprenticeship at seven. Piero marveled at the lad’s skill in design, and noted with warm approval how Andrea, when a holyday closed the studio, spent his time drawing the figures in the famous cartoons made by Leonardo and Michelangelo for the Hall of the Five Hundred in the Palazzo Vecchio. When Piero became in old age too eccentric a master, Andrea and his fellow student Franciabigio set up their own bottega, and for some time worked together. Andrea seems to have begun his independent career by painting, in the court of the Annunziata Church (1509), five scenes from the life of San Filippo Benizzi, a Florentine noble who had founded the order of the Servites for the special worship of Mary. These frescoes, though sorely injured by time and exposure, are so remarkable for draughtsmanship, composition, vividness of narrative, and the soft merging of warm and harmonious colors, that this atrium is now one of the goals of art pilgrims in Florence. For one of the female figures Andrea used as model the woman who in the course of these paintings became his wife—Lucrezia del Fede, a sensuously beautiful shrew whose dark face and raven hair haunted the artist to all but his dying days.
In 1515 Andrea and Franciabigio undertook a series of frescoes in the cloisters of the Scalzo fraternity. They chose as subject the life of St. John the Baptist; but it was surely Andrea’s hand that in several figures displayed one of his specialties, picturing the female breast in all the perfection of its texture and form. In 1518 he accepted the invitation of Francis I to come to France; there he painted the figure of Charity that hangs in the Louvre. But his wife, left behind in Florence, begged him to come back; the king granted permission on Andrea’s pledge to return, and entrusted him with a considerable sum to buy works of art for him in Italy. Andrea, in Florence, spent the royal funds in building himself a house, and never went back to France. Facing bankruptcy nevertheless, he resumed his painting, and produced for the cloisters of the Annunziata a masterpiece which, said Vasari, “in design, grace, excellence of coloring, vivacity, and relief, proved him far superior to all his predecessors”—who included Leonardo and Raphael.36 ThisMadonna del Sacco— absurdly so called because Mary and Joseph are shown leaning against a sack—is now damaged and faded, and no longer conveys the full splendor of its color; but its perfect composition, soft tones, and quiet presentation of a family—with Joseph, suddenly literate, reading a book—make it one of the great pictures of the Renaissance.
In the refectory of the Salvi monastery Andrea challenged Leonardo with a Last Supper (1526), choosing the same moment and theme—“One of you shall betray me.” Bolder than Leonardo, Andrea finished the face of his Christ; even he, however, fell far short of the spiritual depth and understanding gentleness that we associate with Jesus. But the Apostles are strikingly individualized, the action is vivid, the colors are rich and soft and full; and the picture as seen from the entrance of the refectory conveys almost irresistibly the illusion of a living scene.
The Virgin Mother remained the favorite subject of Andrea, as of most artists of Renaissance Italy. He painted her again and again in studies of the Holy Family, as in the Borghese Gallery in Rome, or the Metropolitan Museum in New York. He pictured her, in one of the treasures of the Uffizi Gallery, as Madonna delle Arpie, Madonna of the Harpies;* this is the fairest of the Lucrezia Virgins, and the Child is the finest in Italian art. Across the Arno, in the Pitti Gallery, the Assumption of the Virgin shows Apostles and holy women looking up in amazement and adoration as cherubim raise the praying Madonna—again Lucrezia—to heaven. So, in Andrea’s colorful illumination, the moving epos of the Virgin is complete.
There is seldom any sublimity in Andrea del Sarto, no majesty of Michelangelo, nor the unfathomable nuances of Leonardo, nor the finished perfection of Raphael, nor yet the range or power of the great Venetians. Yet he alone of the Florentines rivals the Venetians in color and Correggio in grace; and his mastery of tones—in their depth and modulation and transparency—might well be preferred to the lavishment of color in Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese. We miss variety in Andrea; his paintings move within too small a circle of subject and sentiment; his hundred Madonnas are always the same young Italian mother, modest and lovely and at last cloyingly sweet. But no one has surpassed him in composition, few in anatomy, modeling, and design. “There is a little fellow in Florence,” said Michelangelo to Raphael, “who will bring sweat to your brow if ever he is engaged in great works.”37
Andrea himself never lived to reach full maturity. The victorious Germans, capturing Florence in 1530, infected it with plague, and Andrea was one of its victims. His wife, who had aroused in him all the heartaches of jealousy that beauty brings to marriage, shunned his room in those last fevered days; and the artist who had given her an almost deathless life died with no one by his side, at the age of forty-four. About 1570 Iacopo da Empoli went to the court of the Annunziata to copy del Sarto’s Nativity. An old lady who had come to Mass stopped beside him and pointed to a figure in the foreground of the painting. “It is I,” she said. Lucrezia had outlived herself by forty years.
The few artists whom we have here commemorated must be viewed not as a record but as representatives of the plastic and graphic genius of this period. There were other sculptors and painters of the time, who still lead a ghostly existence in the museums—Benedetto da Rovezzano, Franciabigio, Ridolfo Ghirlandaio, and hundreds more. There were half-secluded artists, monastic and secular, who still practised the intimate art of illuminating manuscripts, like Fra Eustachio and Antonio di Girolamo; there were calligraphers whose handwriting might excuse Federigo of Urbino for regretting the invention of print; there were mosaicists who despised painting as the perishable pride of a day; wood carvers like Baccio d’Agnolo, whose carved chairs, tables, chests, and beds were the glory of Florentine homes; and nameless other workers in the minor arts. Florence was so rich in art that she could bear the depredations of invaders, pontiffs, and millionaires from Charles VIII to our own times, and still retain so much of delicate workmanship that no man has ever compassed all the treasures deposited in that one city by the two centuries of the Renaissance. Or by one century; for just as the great age of Florence in art had begun with Cosimo’s return from exile in 1434, so it ended with Andrea del Sarto’s death in 1530. Civil strife, Savonarola’s puritan regime, siege and defeat and plague, had destroyed the joyful spirit of Lorenzo’s day, had broken the frail lyre of art.
But the great chords had been struck, and their music echoed throughout the peninsula. Orders came to Florentine artists from other Italian cities, even from France, Spain, Hungary, Germany, and Turkey. To Florence flocked a thousand artists to learn her lore and form their styles—Piero della Francesca, Perugino, Raphael…. From Florence a hundred artists took the gospel of art to half a hundred Italian cities and to foreign lands. In those half-hundred cities the spirit and taste of the age, the generosity of wealth, the heritage of technique worked together with the Florentine stimulus. Presently all Italy, from the Alps to Calabria, was painting, carving, building, composing, singing, in a creative frenzy that seemed to know, in the fever of its haste, that soon the wealth would vanish in war, and the pride of Italy would be humbled under an alien tyranny, and the prison doors of dogma would close again upon the marvelous exuberant mind of Renaissance man.