Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 18, 2021
Steven J. Cody Andrea del Sarto: Splendor and Renewal in the Renaissance Altarpiece Brill's Studies in Intellectual History 314/47. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2020. 312 pp.; 74 color ills. Cloth $155.00 (9789004430150)

The luminous color, palpable atmosphere, and graceful Madonnas of Andrea del Sarto’s paintings have entranced viewers for centuries. In Steven J. Cody’s aptly titled Andrea del Sarto: Splendor and Renewal in the Renaissance Altarpiece, a series of case studies offers an explanation for this aesthetic attraction and the deep spirituality of the artist’s paintings. Six chapters, each devoted to a single altarpiece, analyze Andrea’s pictures from various angles: the commissioning of the projects; the impact of religious doctrine on the iconography and style of the altarpieces; and the art theory underpinning his practice.

A comprehensive introduction sets forth the author’s “aim to recover a sense of Andrea del Sarto’s singularity,” which, Cody believes, the New Art History has abandoned in its emphasis on the relationships of artists and social power (24). A detailed fortuna critica (evaluation of his career over time) begins with Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (1550/68), in which the biographer famously called Andrea a painter “without errors” but chastised him for timidity and lack of ambition. Though subsequent assessments from Vincenzo Borghini (1584) and Francesco Bocchi (1591) were more favorable, Andrea’s reputation languished until the publication of dueling monographs by Sydney Freedberg and John Shearman in the mid-1960s. Freedberg’s formalist study defined Andrea as a “classic” artist whose rise and decline paralleled the shift from the High Renaissance to Mannerism, whereas Shearman’s analysis relied on cultural and personal circumstances to cast him as a link between the Renaissance and the maniera. In the 1980s scholars revisited Andrea’s oeuvre during the celebratory five-hundredth anniversary of his birth. The restorations of major paintings and studies of the cultural climate in which Andrea worked, such as Antonio Natali’s essay on his “visual poetics,” offered new observations that ameliorated the legacy of Vasari’s negative Lives (20).

Cody’s emphasis on the intertwined themes of spiritual renewal and artistic reform in the altarpieces Andrea painted over the course of his career presents a new way of looking at the artist’s works. The paintings completed for three family chapels in the Augustinian Church of San Gallo at Florence from 1510 to 1517 (chapters 1, 2, and 4) suggest an intersection between Saint Augustine’s theology and Leonardo da Vinci’s observations on chiaroscuro and reflected color. Cody infers that monastic advisers would have explained to Andrea the saint’s theory of extramission, in which an optical ray connects the object contemplated with the soul, thereby setting up a dynamic of affection and yearning for God, as shown in the touching and not touching in the painting Noli me tangere (1510). Augustine emphasizes light as a metaphor for love; the illumination of divine love during meditation conflates worldly and spiritual desire (98–99). Most important, Cody contends that the saint’s conception of vision dovetails with Leonardo’s optical theories, in which the observed object is imprinted on the imagination. The color and light in Andrea’s paintings convey the mysteries of religion, at first tentatively—through the restricted palette and the Leonardesque sfumato of Christ’s face in Noli me tangere—then more assuredly in the Annunciation (1512), where the meaning of the Incarnation finds expression through the firm modeling of the figures and the reflective color inspired by Leonardo. Vasari’s comment on the sweetness (dolcezza) of the color and light in the Annunciation reminds Cody of Augustine’s notion of wisdom as a “sweet act” (98).

Cody describes Andrea’s painting as faithful to Florentine traditions dating back to Masaccio and Fra Angelico in the early fifteenth century. Still, the increased monumentality of the figures in the third altarpiece for San Gallo indicates that Andrea did not ignore the innovative Roman works of Raphael and Michelangelo. Painted for a chapel dedicated to Saint Augustine, the Disputation on the Trinity (1517) portrays the revelation of God to humanity, as discussed in the theologian’s De Trinitate, according to Cody. Not only the authoritative gesture of Augustine as he speaks to his companions (the name saints of the chapel’s donors) but also Andrea’s painterly equivalent, the “ravishing allure of his color,” situates Andrea within a time-honored rhetorical method, in which orators aimed to “delight, instruct, and move” their audience (176).

One wonders about the depth of Andrea’s knowledge of church doctrine, given his level of education. Arguably, simplified versions of Augustine’s writings—either learned in conversations with spiritual advisers, as Cody posits, or heard in the sermons and readings at church services—might have created a sufficient basis for the novel treatment of colore in his paintings. Cody is on firmer ground with Andrea’s understanding of Leonardo’s theories on painting, for even if Andrea did not read the master’s notebooks, the circulation of Leonardo’s ideas and the display of his cartoon for the Madonna with Saint Anne (1501) influenced contemporary artists in Florence, from Raphael to Fra Bartolommeo and Mariotto Albertinelli.

In chapters 3 and 5, Cody discusses the interplay of the spiritual and the social in altarpieces created for nuns. Considered one of Andrea’s greatest altarpieces, the Madonna of the Harpies was commissioned by the Poor Clares for the high altar of San Francesco de’ Macci in Florence. The 1515 contract states that Andrea must execute the painting in his own hand within a year and specifies the dimensions, pigments, price, and iconography, which paired John the Evangelist and Saint Bonaventure. Although the latter was ultimately replaced by Francis of Assisi, Cody cites Bonaventure’s The Soul’s Journey into God (whereby “the experience of beauty” is a vestige of the divine that leads to wisdom and then to God) as well as Saint John’s phrase “God is light” as inspirations for the splendore, “intensely luminous color,” and lustro, “a ray of bright light,” in Andrea’s painting (115, 147). The range of hues evokes a spectrum, the rainbow that signaled the covenant between God and humanity after the great deluge and that, in this instance, alludes to the Incarnation (106). The “visionary naturalism” of the Madonna of the Harpies creates a feeling of immediacy that extends the illusion into the observer’s physical space, as in Masaccio’s Trinity (ca. 1426–27), and contrasts with the celestial sphere of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (1513) to which it is often compared (141).

This tangible presence would have inspired “a sense of purpose and communal identity to the nuns gathered in front of it” (126). As the research into Renaissance nuns over the past twenty-five years demonstrates, the Poor Clares were cloistered and would have worshipped in their separate choir, not in the public church. By highlighting Mary’s virginity (an inscription on the pedestal refers to her Assumption), the altarpiece would likely remind the congregation of the nuns’ vow of chastity. This was especially appropriate because the convent provided asylum to the malmaritate: widows, women separated from their husbands or whose husbands could not support them, and single mothers. As stated in the contract, Andrea donated ten florins of his fee to the convent “for the love of God.” It may well be that the painter, whose wife, Lucrezia del Fede, was the model for the Blessed Virgin in the altarpiece and a widow when he married her, was sympathetic to the convent’s purpose.

Lucrezia appears repeatedly as the Blessed Virgin in her husband’s paintings. She is the grieving Madonna in the Pietà for the high altar of San Pietro a Luco in the Mugello, where Andrea and his family took refuge with the Camaldolite nuns during the plague of 1523–24 (chapter 5). Cody suggests Andrea’s stepdaughter is the model for Saint Catherine of Alexandria and his sister-in-law for Mary Magdalene. Do these “portraits” conform to a custom of portraying known persons to stimulate contemplation of religious mysteries or are they simply models conveniently at hand? Cody favors a memorial function that expresses the family’s gratitude for the nuns’ hospitality and the hope to be remembered in their prayers. Andrea’s nonnarrative approach compares to the maniera devota (devout style) in Florentine Pietàs by Fra Bartolommeo at San Gallo and by Pietro Perugino for the Poor Clares of Santa Chiara Novella. While some religious pictures of this period could present a conflict between devotional and artistic aims, Cody sees “no disparity between the aesthetic and ethical values” in the Pietà (235). Indeed, the chalice and host set in front of the Redeemer’s pristine body underscore his “real presence” in the sacrament, a doctrine questioned by northern reformers (180).

The Gambassi Altarpiece (1527–28) was also executed during a virulent outbreak of the plague (chapter 6). Citing the linkage of sight and illness in Renaissance medical theory, Cody proposes that the nude infant Jesus and the partly clad saints Sebastian, Onuphrius, and John the Baptist (like Christ in the Pietà) denote physical and spiritual health. Commissioned by his friend, the glassmaker Becuccio da Gambassi, for the Benedictine nuns of Santi Lorenzo e Onofrio, the Madonna and Child with Saints represents “a spiritual transaction to secure heavenly favor and protection” for the donor and his wife, whose portraits were in the predella (240–41). Cody takes issue with scholars like Freedberg, who deemed the painting “uninspired” or as exemplifying the crisis of the emerging maniera. He defends Andrea’s reuse of figures from the Disputation on the Trinity as conventional practice, admires the visionary atmosphere, and praises the respect for classical decorum.

Cody’s attentiveness to the formal qualities of the altarpieces and Andrea del Sarto’s role as a sensitive visualizer of religious mysteries, whether based directly or indirectly on Augustine, is the strength of the book. This thoroughly researched and erudite study is a valuable contribution to Renaissance scholarship.

Jeryldene M. Wood
Associate Professor Emerita of Art History, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign