Andrea del Sarto and the Chiostro dello Scalzo I

The Chiostro dello Scalzo and the Grisaille Frescoes of Andrea del Sarto

The Forecourt of the Compagnia dello Scalzo

In 1376, the Christian lay movement in Florence, the so-called Compagnia dello Scalzo, was founded. The name scalzo was chosen because the person who carried the cross during the procession had to walk barefoot (scalzo). Other names for the brotherhood were Disciplinati di San Giovanni Battista and Disciplinati della Passione di Cristo.

Chiostro dello Scalzo Via Cavour 69      Open Doors

Chiostro dello Scalzo Facade
photo doors: dvdbramhall

Bones and Skulls

The fresco cycle that Sarto painted is about John (Giovanni) the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence. John is depicted in a relief above the entrance door to the atrium on Via Larga, now Via Cavour (click here for opening hours and days). In the courtyard, signs of Christ’s suffering can be seen, such as in the decorated frieze where a cross with the cloth of Saint Veronica underneath is painted. According to an old legend, Veronica had wiped Christ’s sweaty face during the crusade to Mount Golgotha. The imprint of Christ’s face then appeared on the cloth. On the bases of the columns, bones and skulls are sculpted in relief: symbols of the brotherhood. Skulls also appear in the frieze above each fresco, placed rather randomly.

Chiostro dello Scalzo Bones and skull
photos: Sailko

In 1487, the Compagnia dello Scalzo bought a piece of land adjoining their chapel. Vasari describes the brotherhood and the atrium as follows:

Andrea del Sarto ‘Self-portrait on tile’

“The members of the Florentine lay brotherhood called ‘dello Scalzo’ [of the bare foot] used to meet in a building at the end of Via Largo – beyond the house of the illustrious Ottaviano de’ Medici and opposite the vegetable garden of the San Marco monastery – and this building, dedicated to John the Baptist, had been recently erected by a large number of local craftsmen, who had also built a forecourt with columns of fairly modest size. Some of the brothers understood that Andrea was becoming one of the best painters, and since they were richer in spirit than they were in money, they decided that he would paint twelve scenes from the life of John the Baptist in twelve panels of this cloister in monochrome, that is, in terretta in fresco. Andrea began with the first scene, in which he depicted the baptism of Christ by John, done carefully and in such a fine style that he earned respect, honor, and fame, and people approached him with commissions, firmly believing that the promise of his exceptional beginning would be honorably fulfilled over time.” Cited and translated from: Giorgio Vasari, ‘De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 Deel II blz. 67-68

The current forecourt is no longer as it originally was. In 1722, the architect P.P. Giovanozzi renovated the atrium. The walls with the frescoes and the six columns remained standing. The original simple flat wooden roof is gone. The new roof was supported by arcades and received stone cross vaults. Due to the vaults and arcades, lunettes appeared above the frescoes, which in the same year of the renovation were painted by a certain Giovanni Panaiotti. Because of the arcades, four columns, replicas of the original ones, had to be placed on the short sides. The painted pilasters between the frescoes had a bench as a base. This bench, which ran along all four walls, has disappeared. All these changes unfortunately destroyed the strong horizontal character of the architecture that Sarto had aligned his frescoes with. In 1900, the partly open forecourt was enclosed with a glass roof.

Bust of Andrea del Sarto in situ 1724

Above the entrance door of the forecourt it says: LAUDATE DOMINUM IN ATRIO SANCTO EIUS, Praise the Lord in his holy atrium, and above the door that led to the chapel: INTROIBO IN DOMUM TUAM, or I will enter your house. The latter door has been bricked up later. In the niche, there is a bust of Andrea del Sarto from 1724, and above the door, a statue of John the Baptist.

Bust of Andrea del Sarto  Chiostro dello Scalzo
photos: Sailko

The frescoes: twelve narrative scenes about John the Baptist and four virtues

The fresco cycle consists of twelve stories from the life of John the Baptist and four virtues. This combination of stories about John and virtues was already used by Andrea Pisano in 1330 in Florence for the first door of the Baptistery (click here for the doors of Pisano). In the cloisters of monasteries in Tuscany, it was customary to paint in grisaille. Paolo Uccello also used monochrome colors in the Chiostro Verde of Santa Maria Novella (click here if you want to read more about Uccello and the Chiostro Verde). Besides tradition, money may also have played a role, as grisailles are cheaper.

Chiostro dello Scalzo

Chiostro dello Scalzo courtyard
photo: Sailko

The brotherhood might have found expensive colors inappropriate since penance was highly valued by them. The monochrome colors Sarto uses match well with the six columns. Because of the low benches along the four walls, the narrative frescoes do not start at the height of the seating. Sarto painted a spalliere with a plaque in the middle under each scene with a text from the Vulgate explaining the above-painted story. Only one spalliere has survived. In the tondos under the four virtues, figures were depicted. For instance, under the virtue Caritas, a meeting between Francis and Dominic was painted.

The cycle begins at the entrance on the right with the Annunciation and ends to the left of the entrance where Salome offers the head of John the Baptist. The reading direction is counterclockwise. The numbers indicate the sequence of the story (click here for the map) and the italicized letters indicate the order in which Andrea del Sarto painted the cycle. 1. Annunciation 2. Visitation 3. Birth of John 4. Blessing of John 5. Meeting in the desert 6. Baptism of Christ 7. Sermon 8. Baptism of the people 9. Arrest of John 10. Dance of Salome 11. Beheading 12. Feast of Herod L = Hope M = Faith B = Charity C = Justice. Click here for a map with the different scenes and virtues. First, the decorative framing was painted.

The painted pilasters are precisely aligned with the existing architecture of the courtyard. The width between the painted pilasters is determined by the space between the columns. On each long wall, there are two wide and two narrow frescoes. The monochrome color scheme in the frescoes nicely complements the columns of pietra serena. Thus, Sarto created a unity between his painting and the architecture. Very different from Donatello in the Old Sacristy. The architect of the Old Sacristy, Brunelleschi, did not argue with his old friend Donatello for nothing.

The baptism of Christ       In situ (painted pilasters)

Andrea del Sarto 'The baptism of Christ' Chiostro dello Scalzo
photo: HistorianMatt

Andrea del Sarto does not adhere to the sequence of the story in his painting. As Vasari already writes, he does not start with the Annunciation to the right of the entrance, but with the baptism of Christ. It is the only scene that does not fit the chronology of the Bible. Perhaps Sarto started here because, as you enter the atrium, you can see this fresco directly.

It is also notable that Sarto devoted two frescoes to evangelization and three frescoes to depicting Herod and Salome. It was customary to paint events in a single fresco. Because Andrea del Sarto wanted to maintain the classical unity of time, space, and action, he chose not to depict multiple episodes from the history of John in a single fresco. In the first fresco that Andrea painted in the Scalzo, he created unity by using a background with the image of a landscape where the baptism takes place. Later, Sarto created unity in the various frescoes through equal lighting, gestures, and a symmetrical arrangement. The important actions take place in the foreground and continue in the background or in the reverse order.

Sources mention that Sarto worked on the cycle from 1515 to 1526 In reality, he began the baptism of Christ around 1510 or 1511. Before his stay in France from 1518 to 1519, Andrea painted four scenes (Baptism of Christ, Sermon, Baptism of the People, Arrest of John, and the Dance of Salome) and the two virtues: Charity and Justice. During his stay in France, Franciabigio painted two stories on the right wall: the Blessing of John by Zacharias and the Meeting of John and Christ in the Desert (click here for a map of the frescoes; the numbers represent the order of the story, and the italicized letters represent the order in which they were painted; H and G were painted by Franciabigio). After his return from France, Sarto painted the last six scenes and the two virtues: Hope and Faith. Some members of the brotherhood paid for the painting work. For example, the coachman, Domenico di Giovanni, financed the virtue Charity. The tailor, Francesco di Biagio Attanagio, paid for the painted friezes and pilasters on the left wall. Andrea del Sarto likely paid for the virtue Faith out of his own pocket.

Since 1960, many documents and sources about the Scalzo have been found and published by Freedberg and Shearman; see: Freedberg, S.J., ‘Andrea del Sarto’, Cambridge, Massachusetts, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963 II, 265-280; Shearman, J., ‘Andrea del Sarto’, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1965 II, Documents 378-403.

The frescoes before Sarto’s departure for France

Andrea del Sarto 'The baptism of Christ' Chiostro dello Scalzo
photo:s HistorianMatt and Sansivino: Jastrow

Andrea del Sarto’The baptism of Christ by John the Baptist
Jacopo Sansovino ‘Baptism of Christ’ 1502 – 1505

As a relatively young artist, Andrea was 23 years old when he painted the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist. He used an old technique for that time to transfer the cartoons onto the wall. Only in this fresco did he use the spolvero (black powder) method (click here on Wikipedia for a detailed explanation). In all other frescoes, he used a stylus to scratch the outlines of the lines from the cartoon into the intonaco layer. The paint is applied in thin and modest strokes. In his later frescoes, his technique became much freer, and he painted with unusually broad brushstrokes. The young Sarto still appears unsure of himself. His style in the fresco of the baptism is not consistent. The two angels are convincingly depicted, but Christ appears truly three-dimensional, which cannot be said of John. The figure of Christ is based on a sculpture by Jacopo Sansovino. Andrea and Jacopo had a shared studio for a time starting in 1511. The John in the baptism of Christ comes from a relief that his friend Jacopo made in Volterra. Sarto signed his work on the rock, and this was still readable until the 19th century.

Andrea del Sarto ‘The virtue Charity
Jacopo Sansovino ‘The virtue Charity’

The adjacent fresco, the virtue of Charity, was painted two years later, but what a difference! When you compare John baptizing Christ with Charity, you see a remarkable development. While Charity resembles a three-dimensional sculptural group, John does not break through the flatness of the wall surface but rather affirms it. The fictive niche in perspective, along with the color that closely matches the pietra serena of the columns, reinforces the impression that we are dealing with sculpture here. The yellow and orangish color at the hem is a remnant of the original gold accents. For the mother and children, Sarto used a terracotta model, ‘Charity’ circa 1510, from around 1510 by Jacopo Sansovino.

Andrea del Sarto 'The virtue Charity' Chiostro dello Scalzo
Filippino Lippi 'Caritas'

Filippino Lippi ‘Caritas 1487 0 150

Another source of inspiration for Charity and the other virtues was the Strozzi Chapel in Santa Maria Novella. (This chapel can be seen at the Web Gallery of Art) Here, Filippino Lippi had also painted virtues in fictive niches in grisaille eleven years earlier. The frontal composition of Charity has many parallel diagonal forms in the positioning of legs and arms. When Sarto began the next two frescoes, Justice and the Sermon, in 1515, he used a compositional scheme that would recur in all his later frescoes. Always many verticals as if they were columns, while curved lines are sparingly applied. With this, Sarto not only created a clear unity in all the scenes but also beautifully aligned the frescoes with the existing architecture, particularly with the columns of the atrium. In the first painted fresco, the baptism of Christ, this is not yet the case. In this baptism, the pictorial world is one that is completely separate from the architecture in the courtyard.

The virtue: Lady Justice holds a sword in her right hand and scales in the other. She stands with her left foot on a block on which the following is written: DILIGITE IUSTITIAM/QUI MANDUCATIS TERRAM. A text from Wisdom 1:1 which reads in English: Love justice, you who judge the earth. Sarto was inspired by the doors of Donatello in the old sacristy of San Lorenzo, where apostles and saints were discussing with each other. In the tondo below Justice, two bishops are depicted conversing with each other.

Andrea del Sarto ‘The Preaching of John’

Andrea del Sarto 'The Preaching of John' Chiostro dello Scalzo

In the Preaching of John, the three vertical lines are aligned with the top and bottom edges. Thus, John forms a single line with the center of the attic precisely under the skull and the point where the two garlands come together. The two outermost figures on the right and left align with the (now vanished) two putti to the left and right of the plaque. The prototype of the composition is based on a fresco with the same subject in the Tornabuoni Chapel by the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio. Sarto applies classical principles in his composition, such as symmetry and a clear arrangement.

Albrecht Dürer ‘Ecce Homo’ 1512
Web Gallery of Art

The young painter who began hesitantly around 1510 with the Baptism of Christ has now matured as an artist. According to art historian Freedberg, who wrote a monograph on Andrea del Sarto, by 1515 he had developed a mature and classical style. Vasari, a pupil of Andrea del Sarto, noted in his first edition of the Lives in 1550 that he was influenced by the artist Dürer. However, this does not apply to the style of this German painter, but only to certain motifs that Sarto adopted. For example, the seated woman with her child (Dürer Life of the Virgin: 4. The Birth of the Virgin 1503) to the left of John, the figure at the far right of the image, and the face with a pointed hat were taken from prints by Dürer.

The standing third man from the left with his veiled head also comes from Dürer’s engraving, Christ before Pilate (from the series: The Passion of Christ). The woman directly behind the rock who looks up at John is a portrait of Andrea del Sarto’s wife, Lucrezia (Sarto ‘Portrait of Lucrezia’ in Prado, Madrid).

The frescoes have suffered a lot, especially at the bottom. The brown underdrawing now shows through the paint here and there.

John baptizes the people (long wall)     Map     Sermon of John (short wall)

Andrea del Sarto 'John baptizes the people'  Chiostro dello Scalzo
photos: Sailko and HistorianMatt

The next fresco that Sarto paints, eighteen months after the Sermon, is on the adjacent long wall. This creates the problem of making the Sermon and the Baptism of the People convincingly connect despite being perpendicular to each other in the corner. In the corner where the two scenes come together, Sarto paints a forest on a hill where Christ is depicted in the Baptism. The forest and the hill continue into the Baptism of the People. This way, the storyline is not interrupted by the corner in the atrium. In the corner, in each of the two adjacent frescoes, the Baptism and the Preaching (see map), there are figures with their backs to each other. Through these back figures, one fully clothed and veiled and the other almost naked in the baptism, the viewer is led to the central themes: preaching and baptizing, depicted in the middle of the frescoes.

John baptizes the people

Andrea del Sarto 'John baptizes the people' Chiostro dello Scalzo
photo: HistorianMatt

In the Baptism of the People, we see not only the influences of northern artists like Dürer and Lucas van Leyden, but also of sculpture, particularly the work of Michelangelo and Sansovino. The figure with a cap, directly behind the man sitting on a rock, comes from a print by Dürer. The forest on the right, high in the image plane, strongly resembles a work by Lucas van Leyden (The Baptism of Christ, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). The figures are often depicted from a diagonal perspective, with the many sharp and angular forms further enhancing the sense of depth.

Michelangelo ‘Study for Cascina’ c. 1504 – 1505

Some figures, particularly the child on the right and the man drying himself, are reminiscent of the work of Michelangelo and Sansovino. Andrea is capable of depicting his figures in all possible positions and from all angles, just like Michelangelo. Sarto does not use motifs from Michelangelo as he did with Dürer, but he is strongly influenced by his style. Michelangelo’s cartoon of Cascina (Nolkham Hall, Norfolk and Web Gallery of Art) clearly made an impression on Andrea. In John and the kneeling baptizand, Sarto achieves an unprecedented realism in the anatomy, the water, and the wet hair.

In the Arrest of John, painted four months after the Baptism of the People, the poses of the figures become even more complex. Besides the figura serpentinata, there are also body positions that balance each other, as seen in John and the two soldiers arresting him. The composition of the arrest is based on a cartoon by Raphael, painted one year earlier, depicting the blinding of Elymas. Sarto likely knew this image through a print by Veneziano (THE MET) that was made immediately after the painting.

Andrea del Sarto ‘The Arrest of John’
Andrea del Sarto ‘Study of cloak figure’ (left of center in the foreground)

Andrea del Sarto 'The Arrest of John' Chiostro dello Scalzo
photos: HistorianMatt and J. Paul Getty Museum

The people Sarto paints are less idealized than those of Raphael. For instance, the soldier holding John wears only one knee protector. It was these kinds of realistic details that so attracted Sarto to Northern art. Sarto also drew inspiration from Dürer’s work for this piece. The two soldiers and the figure with the strange hat next to Herod are based on woodcuts from Dürer’s Small PassionChrist before Annas‘.

Chiostro dello Scalzo courtyard
photo: Sailko

Franciabigio painted the decorations at the top of the long wall (to the right of the entrance), using Sarto’s cartoons. Franciabigio painted the meeting of John and Christ and the Blessing of Zacharias to his son John the Baptist (see the floor plan).

After this scene, painted in 1517, the members of the Scalzo Brotherhood decided, for understandable reasons, the following according to Vasari:
“After Andrea’s departure for France, the members of the Scalzo, assuming that he would never return, assigned all the remaining work in the courtyard to Franciabigio, who had already painted two scenes there […]” Cited and translated from: Giorgio Vasari ‘De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 deel II 79

Continuation Florence day 6: Andrea del Sarto and the Chiostro dello Scalzo II