• Brian Keeler

Drawn to Drawings-

Updated: Dec 23, 2020

The Manner of Mannerism- An Homage to the Drawings of Andrea Del Sarto - an essay by Brian Keeler



Andrea Del Sarto, I have often said, is my favorite Renaissance artist. For those familiar with the superb beauty expressed in so many works of that period in Italy and elsewhere, it may seem like a nearly impossible claim. Who can choose? After all, the selection really represents an embarrassment of riches. Furthermore, Del Sarto is not exactly an artist on the tips of everyone’s tongues when they think of great Italian artists. But as I have been visiting Italy over the course of three decades and making a study of the works in books and in our museums it is not surprising that this Florentine of the quattrocento comes to the fore.


" il pittore senza errori"


The painter without flaws or without errors is the literal translation of this Italian phrase that was used to describe Andrea in his own lifetime. This gives us an idea of the stature and respect that he held during the 1500's and in the next century. Here is a quote by Julian Brooks, the chief curator of the exhibit at the Frick Museum in 2015.


"There is an almost elegiac note in John Sherman's 1965 writings about the artist, ponderng the relative lack of interest in him at that time. He notes how at the end of the 16th century Andrea reigned supreme, ranked by Francesco Bocchi above Raphael and Michelangelo; in the seventeenth century Agucchi placed him alongside Leonardo at the end of the Florentine school; but in the next century Andrea Del Sarto's reputation gradually diminished, in comparison to that of Raphel and Titian."



A head study in red chalk by Anrea Del Sarto- probably done from life as preparation for a fresco. This portrait portrays a model posing as Julius Cesar.


For Starters, he was a student of Piero De Cosimo, who was a student in Verrochio’s workshop along with Leonardo. So Andrea trained in one of the most renowned of the "bodegas" (workshops) with an impeccable pedigree. But, aside from his own work, his legacy, through his luminary pupils is not to be scoffed at either. Starting with the most famous (and the first art biographer) Georgio Vasari and the entire mannerist group of painters, including Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino, who all learned their craft with Andrea.


There is a painting in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, where I was first captivated by the beautiful soft paint quality of one of his altarpieces. This large oil is known as “The Madonna of the Harpies” so called for the two winged imps depicted on the pediment. This work truly deserves the moniker of “Sprezzatura” which means naturalness and ease of appearance along with facility of touch and delivery. The somewhat sketchy or brushy look to the paint application in the heads lets us know that he was immersed in doing life drawing on daily basis, as Vasari attests. This brushy appearance however is combined with such consummate compositional organization. The two combine for a blend of near opposites, planning and immediacy of expression. His name, Del Sarto, means son of the Tailor, and we can see his interest in drapery and the depiction of beautiful arrangements of fabric in his work too. The artists of the era made extensive studies of drapery by coating the cloth on a model with a soupy plaster, then allowing to dry, and fixing the folds in place for prolonged study.


There was a show in 2016 at the Frick Museum in NYC that I attended, which was featuring his drawings along with several paintings. This exhibit and the accompanying catalog, that I have been rereading as of late, brought out the process and development of so many of his famous works. The Show was called; “Adrea Del Sarto- The Renaissance Workshop in Action.” The catalog is big, beautiful and so thoroughly descriptive in the essays. These major shows are really a treat for us viewers for their scholarly revelations and study. Some viewers in museums often pass over drawings as inconsequential. But these authors, curators and historians offer us ample reasons to pause, contemplate and wonder at the beauty of these studies.


A head study in red chalk by Andrea portraying the repentant prostitute, Mary Magdalene.

To some, drawings can be a show of the final product or an end result- sort of presentation drawings. On the other end of the spectrum, some drawings represent the unvarnished record of study, research and personal observation. Take the red chalk drawing of the young woman on the cover of the book (shown above) for instance, or the profile of a man representing Julius Cesar (also shown here) and we will view the transformation of sketch into paint. We can view the struggle along with directness, if not spontaneity of the studies. We are indeed inclined to view these drawings as somehow more beautiful and authentic at times than the final works.

When we think about how small, (often only 5 x 8 inches or so) delicate and precious these drawings are it is truly a wonder that they have come down to us in such good shape after 500 years. They often express a vision of tenderness and show a truly human uniqueness. We can also compare the art and drawings of just a few decades earlier when there was no individuality portrayed and drawings were not study or research but just templates to reproduce.


Here is a passage from the Frick catalog that imparts some of the magic of these drawings ( shown above):


“Arguably one of the most sensitive drawings made in the Renaissance has long been recognized as a life study of the figure of Mary Magdalene, who kneels to the right of Christ with hands clasped. It reminds us of how Andrea used such drawings from life to inject verisimilitude into his paintings; as Vasari noted, “The figures are so lifelike, they seem to truly have the spirit and breath.” In this study Andrea captures his model deep in thought, attempting to convey the psychological state of the penitent reformed prostitute, Mary Magdalene. “


The finished oil paintings are shown, which these sketches were done for as preparations, so we can observe the conceptualization and working out of ideas. It is believed that there may have been as many as 150 drawings done for any given major painting. Before our day, when photographic reference is taken for granted, along with the abundance of images available to us instantly online, we easily forget about the real work necessary back in the day.


Reworking a painting until the very end is brought out thoroughly in this book too. Some may think of a painting as progressing without consideration after the drawing is completed on a canvas- perhaps sort of akin to just filling in the lines. I like to think of this progression with a term that I apply to process, which is; "drawing while painting, and painting while drawing." The idea is to not separte the two and keep the creativity and invention at work throughout the work. When the prepatory drawing was “pounced” or “incised” on to the white panel in the Renaissance, we would assume that this was the end of the conceptual and design stage. Not so, the research shows that with oil paint, there could be major revisions and alterations. The high tech photos can now reveal a wealth of info underneath the layers of paint. The appreciation of going the extra mile, through wiping out entire passages to attain the goal, is gained here.



This painting was long thought to be self portrait and it certainly has that feel of looking over the shoulder into a mirror. It is now referred to as a portrait of sculptor and is in the NGA in DC>

There is more than a fair amount known about Del Sarto’s short 44 years of activity in Florence and Rome mostly due to his student, Vasari’s biography. Del Sarto's biography is the longest be far in Vasari’s book. We learn about his apparently ill-tempered if not irascible wife, who does not betray this however, in so many of the paintings in which she modeled for the Virgin and other figures. Vasari says she swatted him when he was a student in Andrea’s studio along with offering a general disrespect.


To add to the intrigue and Vasari’s portrayal of her as troublesome meddler and black widow we have a famous poem of Robert Browning’s to add to the portrayal. Apparently, Lucrezia openly had a lover as well- seems like quite and accomplishment for the times. And Andrea was, as hard as it is to believe, was commissioned to paint a portrait for a friend of the lovers. Julian Barnes, however laments this vitriol that Vasari heaped on to Lucrezia, believing it untrue- nevertheless, it prevails, even informing Robert Browning's poem. Here is an excerpt of this poem to offer a glimpse:


“But do not let us quarrel any more,

No, my Lucrezia; bear with me for once:

Sit down and all shall happen as you wish.

You turn your face, but does it bring your heart?

I'll work then for your friend's friend, never fear,

Treat his own subject after his own way,

Fix his own time, accept too his own price,

And shut the money into this small hand

When next it takes mine. Will it? tenderly?

Oh, I'll content him,—but to-morrow, Love!

I often am much wearier than you think,

This evening more than usual, and it seems

As if—forgive now—should you let me sit

Here by the window with your hand in mine

And look a half-hour forth on Fiesole,

Both of one mind, as married people use,

Quietly, quietly the evening through,

I might get up to-morrow to my work

Cheerful and fresh as ever. Let us try.

To-morrow, how you shall be glad for this!

Your soft hand is a woman of itself,

And mine the man's bared breast she curls inside.

Don't count the time lost, neither; you must serve

For each of the five pictures we require:

It saves a model. So! keep looking so—

My serpentining beauty, rounds on rounds!"


There are some wonderful versions of this poem being read while the portrait of Lucrezia and other paintings are shown.


A wonderful surprise as of late is discovering a new major trove of Del Sarto’s frescos in Florence that I have never seen. I came upon this group on line recently, and it kindled my desire to return to Florence whenever the pandemic gives up. This series of monochrome or grisaille fresco cycle is at Chiostro Dello Scalzo, which is only a stones throw away form Andrea Castagno’s famous sinopia museum and near the even more famous San Marco museum, both of which I have visited several times. This group is amazing, set in an arcaded, outdoor cloister garden with that beautiful and soothing grey Tuscan stone known as Pietra Serena. These paintings have miraculously lasted almost 500 years in their covered, but outdoor setting. They are a testament to the permanence of the fresco medium.


What I like about these paintings of Biblical scenes is that they represent the best of painting and drawing at once. With their limited palette we can see the working process without stopping at the surface. They are fresh and consummate interpretations of the human figure.



One of the grisaille frescos of Biblical scenes, from the life of Saint John the Baptist in the Chiostro Dello Scalzo in Flornence.


In 2014, I had the good fortune of being in Florence along with my workshop students when the Stozzi Museum was featuring a special show of the Mannerist school of painters, which is comprised mostly of Del Sarto’s Students. The Strozzi is one of my favorite place to see art. Although a major museum it is generally not as thronged as the Uffizi. But the exquisite presentation of the work is to be appreciated for the spacing and even the large descriptive plaques which one can read from a distance, lets you know that the exhibit is a work of art in itself.


A word about the term mannerism is apt here. It was initially referring to the fact that there was supposedly a reference to antiquity and the perfection and rules of the high renaissance. The usage was “In the manner of” which was implying in the manner of the ancients. It was actually just the opposite. The school, with Del Sarto’s students and later came to be known for distortion, exaggeration and purposeful flaunting of rules. After all, the high renaissance had taken the rules to the apogee of perfection, so what was left, but to fly in the face of convention.



Workshop participants in Brian Keeler's Italy tour of 2014 in front of the Strozzi Musuem in Florence.

During the Pandemic, it has provided ample time to enjoy the study of renaissance masters if not reflect wistfully upon times in Florence when we were drawing the model and landscape during the week and then availing ourselves of crème-de la- creme of the Renaissance. Our hotel, Due Fontane, was on the Piazza in front of Piazza Santissima Annunziata, which is where the Church is that includes a wonderful self portrait by Andrea. So, in homage to Andrea and the wonderful serendipity and curatorial efforts that have brought us these works, I’ll close on a note of appreciation for our fortunate circumstances.


Andrea's self portrait, a fresco painting in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.



A sketch by Brian Keeler done at the Frick Museum in front of a painting by Andrea Del Sarto.

A wonderful lecture with slides is available at this link. It is presented by Julian Barnes at the Frick museum.

https://www.frick.org/interact/julian_brooks_andrea_del_sarto_tailors_son_making_masterpieces











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