"He brought fresco to its highest perfection in the qualities of execution and sweetness of color, and his work in oils is surprising in its ease and certainty of touch."
|—W. J. Stillman|
When an artist just misses the highest rank, it is almost as much of a mystery to students as when he reaches that exalted height. Of just such rank as painter was Andrea del Sarto, known to his age as Andrea the Faultless. He was called del Sarto because his father was a tailor and un Sarto means a tailor in Italian. He belonged to the last group of great Italian painters, as he was not born until 1488, five years later than Raphael.
When a mere child he was apprenticed to a goldsmith, but he showed himself a poor engraver while at the same time he drew with wonderful skill.
He was determined to become a painter and very early formed that style of exquisite softness and beauty which enables us to rank him so high among the painters of Italy.
Andrea painted both in fresco and in oils. The finest of his frescoes are to be found in the Annunziata and in the Scalzo, the building where the Barefooted Friars held their meetings.
His most beautiful oil painting is what is known as the "Madonna of St. Francis." It now hangs in the Tribune which is the "Gem Room" of the Uffizi. The figure of the Madonna unites in itself the holy beauty which Raphael gave to his figures with the power which Bartolommeo showed in adjusting and painting draperies. It is certainly one of the most beautiful Madonnas in Italian art. All the details are attractive even to the wrought pedestal on which the Virgin stands. The minor figures, the two Cupids and St. John and St. Francis, are very beautiful, too.
In the Cathedral of Pisa is an exquisite wood panel of St. Agnes and her lamb, painted by Andrea. It is one of the sweetest and most refined of the artist's works. It represents the beautiful young saint gazing to heaven, holding the palm of martyrdom in one hand while the other rests gently upon the lamb which is her symbol. Beyond, through an open window, stretches a landscape with a city in the foreground.
St. Agnes is a favorite saint both in the Church and in art. The legend runs that she was a Roman maiden who suffered death because she was a Christian. Her followers used to assemble each day at her tomb and one day she appeared to them, accompanied by the lamb that has ever since been her emblem, and told them of her great happiness in glory.
Of his frescoes "Repose in Egypt," is perhaps the finest. It is sometimes called the "Madonna of the Sack" because St. Joseph leans against a sack or bag of grain. This picture fills the semi-circular space, or lunette, above one of the doors in the Annunziata, and though it is somewhat injured it is still beautiful, showing Andrea's skill in form and in the management of color.
In studying the lives and works of artists we always seek out the influences that have helped them to higher things. It is sad to relate, but fact, nevertheless, that the most potent influence in Andrea's life was an evil one and that emanating from no less a person than his wife who, of all others, should have been his inspiration.
She was beautiful, but she was also wicked and selfish. She had once been a baker's wife, and on the death of her husband Andrea, who had noted her beauty, made haste to marry her.
In his after years, when she clogged his every noble inspiration with the cursed weight of her own evil plans, he must have repented at leisure. She caused him to desert his aged parents to whom he had always been a devoted son. She coined his very genius into money to spend on herself in the most extravagant ways. When it did not come fast enough to suit her, she forced him to use the money entrusted to him by the King of France and then, when he was striken with a contagious disease, she fled from his side and he died uncared for and was buried without even a prayer.
That a man of strong character would not have yielded to this wicked influence may be true, but it does not therefore lessen the sin of this beautiful woman, nor the pathos of the overpowered artist. We feel that she might have lifted her adoring husband on to the plane of those other three, Raphael, Angelo and Da Vinci, whose peer he hoped to be, at least in the New Jerusalem where they four should paint its holy walls. So Browning imagines the disappointed painter wishing at the end of life. In the same poem Andrea is represented as thus addressing his false Lucrezia:
"But had you, oh, with the same perfect brow,
And perfect eyes, and more than perfect mouth,
And the low voice my soul hears as a bird
The fowler's pipe, and follows to the snare—
Had you, with these the same, but brought a mind!"
Francis I., King of France, who was a liberal patron of the arts, having seen some of Andrea's Florentine works, invited him to Paris. He accepted the call and executed several pictures. In the midst of this congenial work his wife sent for him to return to Italy. On Andrea's refusal, she insisted, and the painter obeyed, promising to return to France with his wife. Francis admired and trusted Andrea and so he gave him a large sum of money to be expended in Italy in works of art to be brought back to Paris.
When Andrea reached home his wife refused to return with him to the French capital and further influenced the artist to use the money he had in trust to buy them a fine home. The painter, used to yielding, and not altogether averse to it, listened to her unprincipled proposals and, broken in spirit and in honor, he settled down in Florence, where he died in 1530 or 1531.
As we look on the fragments of his beautiful art, beautiful in spite of a life frustrated by an evil genius, we cannot but feel with deep pity the words Browning puts into Andrea's mouth in addressing his false wife:
"Had you given me soul,
We might have risen to Raphael, I and you!"