Andrea del Sarto and the Chiostro dello Scalzo II

Chiostro dello Scalzo Via Cavour 69      Open Doors

Chiostro dello Scalzo Via Cavour 69
photo doors: dvdbramhall

The Six Frescoes and the Two Virtues after Andrea del Sarto’s Return from France

Andrea del Sarto’s pupil, Giorgio Vasari, writes in his “Life of Andrea del Sarto” the following about what happened after Sarto’s stay in France from 1518-1519:

Andrea del Sarto 'Beheading of John' detail

Andrea del Sarto ‘Beheading of John’

[…] but when they saw Andrea back in Florence, they ensured that he resumed his work there: he continued and painted four scenes, side by side; in the first, one sees John captured before Herod; in the second, the supper and the dance of Herodias, with many well-arranged and appropriate figures; in the third, the beheading of John, where the half-naked figure of the executioner is excellently designed, as well as all the other figures; in the fourth, Herodias presents the head, and here we see some figures displaying their amazement, which is very thoughtfully depicted.” 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. 79

In 1521, Andrea del Sarto began the dance of Salome. Sarto wanted to create a clear unity with the four scenes on the left wall, something he hadn’t initially done on the short wall opposite the entrance. The center of the image is left open while the figures form a concave curved line. This approach aligns with the composition of the arrest, and this also applies to the two back-facing figures that beautifully match the back figure in the adjacent fresco where John is arrested.

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 back figure on the right in the Dance of Salome is based on the print “Joseph Interpreting Pharaoh’s Dream” by Lucas van Leyden (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.). The stage where the story takes place is shallow. The arrangement Sarto has created is rectangular and symmetrical, echoing the framing. In addition to straight lines, there are also diagonals that connect the figures in the foreground and background. The figures are hardly idealized; they seem more like portraits. Salome is an exception, as she is clearly depicted in a classical manner. Sarto chooses a tense moment: Salome is about to begin her dance. The atmosphere feels like the calm before the storm. Herod is tense, his hand gripping the table edge, and his gaze speaks volumes.

Andrea del Sarto, ‘The Dance of Salome

Andrea del Sarto, 'The Dance of Salome' Chiostro dello Scalzo
photo: Sailko

In the next fresco, the beheading of John, Sarto continues along the same path. Here too, there is a stage-like setting. The action takes place in the foreground, and just like in the Dance of Salome, there is a simple and symmetrical composition. The beheading takes place in front of Herod’s palace. Salome is depicted again in the foreground on the left side of the image. She holds a large platter in her hands on which the severed head of John is to be placed. Sarto does not depict the climax—the beheading—but what happens afterwards.

Andrea del Sarto ‘Beheading of John’

Andrea del Sarto 'Beheading of John' Chiostro dello Scalzo

In the dance, he chose the moment just before the climax. The officer of the guard on the right makes a gesture with his arm and his staff, indicating that the head should be placed on the platter and handed to Salome. The executioner, with his sword, turns his head away from the severed head while extending his arm to follow his officer’s command. His posture conveys a deep repulsion for what he is ordered to do. The officer’s gesture is not only a command but also seems to convey disapproval of Herod’s order. Salome’s gaze and partially open mouth reveal pride that her will is being executed. All the postures and gestures that tell the story are closely grouped together in the image, such as the staff in the officer’s hand, the executioner’s outstretched hand holding John’s head, and the platter in Salome’s hands. The most gruesome details are hidden from the viewer behind the executioner’s right leg and arm.

Chiostro dello Scalzo

Chiostro dello Scalzo courtyard
photo: Kathryn Blair Moore

The spectators in the background, above the entrance to Herod’s palace, can see everything. Sarto’s interest in sculpture, especially his relatively recent study of classical statues for that time, is evident in the drapery and the muscles of the executioner. In this fresco too, Sarto has used motifs from other artists’ works.

Andrea del Sarto “The feast of Herod’

Andrea del Sarto "The feast of Herod' Chiostro dello Scalzo

On the short wall of the entrance, we again see Salome with the platter holding John’s head during Herod’s feast, on the right side. Here too, the gestures, postures, and expressions indicate neither approval nor joy. The composition is inspired by a woodcut of the same subject by Dürer. During the restoration in 1960-1961, a pentimento was discovered in the servant completely left behind Salome, showing that the originally incised outline of her head was curved. This is similar to the figure completely to the left in the Tribute Money of Caesar in the Villa of Poggio a Caiano, which Sarto painted about three years earlier. The face of the man on the far right with a head covering is possibly a self-portrait of Andrea del Sarto. A preparatory drawing of the man behind the table with his outstretched arms has been preserved (Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles).

After this, in the same year 1523, Sarto painted the two virtues: Spes (Hope) and Fides (Faith), along with the Feast of Herod. These virtues were painted eight or nine years after Caritas (Charity) and Justitia (Justice). While the first two virtues were more of an imitation of sculpture, this is not the case with Hope and Faith. For instance, Faith is a portrait of Andrea del Sarto’s wife: Lucrezia del Fede. The face of Hope is Maria, the daughter of Lucrezia. Vasari describes Lucrezia and Sarto as follows:

Andrea del Sarto ‘Lucrezia’

“But he fell in love with a young woman [Lucrezia], whose husband [the hatmaker Carlo] died shortly thereafter, after which Andrea married her, and then for the rest of his life he had more on his mind than he liked, and many more worries than before; for apart from the efforts and concerns that such poor connections generally bring, he had quite a few more: now it was jealousy, and then this, and then that. […] ‘Andrea had a great number of pupils [including Vasari and Jacopo Pontormo], but not all learned the same under his guidance, for one stayed with him a long time, but another only a short time; this was not Andrea’s fault but that of his domineering wife, who, without respect for anyone, commanded them all and made their lives miserable.” Cited and translated from: Giorgio Vasari ‘De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 deel II 73, 93

photo: louis-garden
Andrea del Sarto 'Fides' Chiostro dello Scalzo
photo: Sailko

Fides in situ

Due to the lighting in the painted niches, both figures appear almost tangible. Fides is quite static, especially compared to Spes. The calm posture of Faith corresponds to the adjacent fresco: the Annunciation to Zechariah. In this fresco, two figures with their backs to the viewer are on the right side of the frame, connecting this scene with Faith.

Spes in situ

In the tondo below Faith, John the Evangelist is depicted. He holds a chalice with a snake in it. Andrea del Sarto was inspired by a work with the same subject by Donatello for a baptismal font in Siena for his depiction of Hope.

Andrea del Sarto 'Spes' Chiostro dello Scalzo
photo: Sailko

In the same year, 1523, Sarto painted the Annunciation to Zechariah. Although the inscription ADMD/XXI… on the steps near the altar can be read as 1522, 1523 is the year in which Andrea painted this story. Despite being painted thirteen years later than the Baptism of Christ, the fresco cycle about John still begins with the Annunciation. This scene also features a simple geometric and symmetrical composition, similar to the Beheading of John the Baptist or the Dance of Salome.

A year later, Andrea painted the Visitation. In the Gospel of Luke, the Annunciation, the Visitation, and the Birth, the last three scenes painted by Andrea, are described as follows:

Andrea del Sarto Preliminary study Zechariah

“Zechariah was a priest from the division of Abijah. He was married to Elizabeth, who was a descendant of the high priest Aaron. They were righteous in God’s eyes, but their marriage remained childless. When Zechariah was serving in the temple, the angel Gabriel appeared to him beside the incense altar with the message that he and his wife, in their old age, would have a son. The boy had a great future ahead of him: he would prepare the way for the Messiah in the spirit of Elijah. But Zechariah asked how he could be sure of this. The angel responded that Zechariah would be unable to speak until it came to pass. The people had been waiting outside, and when they saw that the priest could only communicate with gestures, they understood that he must have had a vision. He went home, and after some time, his wife Elizabeth did indeed become pregnant. When she was six months pregnant, her cousin Mary from Nazareth visited her. As soon as she heard Mary’s voice, the child leapt in her womb, which she considered a sign from God. In an instant, she understood that Mary also expected a child with a greater mission from God, and she exclaimed, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” Cited and translated from: Het heiligennet Continuation of the text below

Andrea del Sarto ‘The Birth of John the Baptist’ c. 1526

“But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Mary then burst into a song of praise: “My soul glorifies the Lord. For He has been mindful of the humble state of His servant…” The meeting of the two women is celebrated as the Feast of the Visitation of Mary on May 31. Mary stayed with her older cousin until the birth of Elizabeth’s child. When the time came, the child was circumcised a week later, as was customary, and they intended to name him after his father Zechariah. But his mother said, “No, he is to be called John.” The onlookers were astonished and said, “But there is no one among your relatives who has that name.” They turned to the still mute Zechariah. He motioned for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” Immediately, he could speak again and praised God, who had destined this child for such great things.” Cited and translated from: Het heiligennet

Andrea del Sarto ' Birth  John the Baptist detail: Zechariah

Almost a year after the Annunciation, Andrea painted the meeting of Elizabeth and Mary. The text on the plaque is a quote from Luke 1:43 (Vulgate) UNDE HOC MIHI/UT VENIAT MATER DOMINI AD ME, which means “But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” If you connect the various figures by drawing lines directly above their heads, a five-sided geometric shape emerges. Sarto first used such a composition in the Dance of Salome. He used a similar setup just before the Visitation in his so-called Luco Pietà. Additionally, there is symmetry in the meeting of Elizabeth and Mary. Despite this arrangement, the fresco does not appear contrived or static. This is particularly evident in the porter climbing the stairs and Zechariah extending his left hand with a walking stick. Both create diagonals alongside the straight lines of the pentagon, connecting the figures and making them interact with each other.

Andrea del Sarto (?) ‘The Visitation’

Copy after Andrea del Sarto 'The Visitation'

The effect of this thoughtful, almost abstract symmetrical composition appears very natural. It seems as if you, as a viewer, are a casual passerby witnessing this street scene. The figure on the left by the door is a quotation from his own work. Just before Andrea created the Visitation, he painted a St. Peter in his Luco Pietà (visible here at the Web Gallery of Art), which he reused here, but now as Joseph.

Andrea del Sarto Preliminary study of the porter     Verso

There is another preliminary study of the porter that is preserved in the Morgan Library in New York. The classical style of Sarto is nevertheless different from that of his contemporary Raphael. Both use clear geometric compositions, but the idealization of figures, as seen in Raphael, is absent in Sarto’s work. Zacharias and the porter are depicted much too realistically for that. They are figures that seem to have been plucked straight from a street in Florence.

A little less than two years later, in 1526, Andrea painted his last fresco in the forecourt, namely the birth of John. The plaque reads: ET POSTULANS PUGILLAREM, SCRIPSIT/DICES: IONANNES EST NOMEN EIUS He [Zacharias] asked for a writing tablet and wrote: ‘John is his name.’ Luke 1 verse 63. Vasari describes this scene as follows:

“In the forecourt of the Scalzo, only one scene remained to be added to complete the whole; hence Andrea, who – after seeing the figures that Michelangelo had begun in the sacristy of San Lorenzo, some of which were partially finished – had developed a grander style, started on this last scene; and here he gave a definitive proof of this improved style, where he depicted the birth of John the Baptist with magnificent figures, much better and more pronounced in relief than those he had previously placed there. Among other things, a woman carrying the newborn to Elizabeth’s bed is beautifully done – also a splendid figure, and Zacharias, who is writing something on a piece of paper placed on his knee, holding it with one hand while writing the name of his son with the other, so lively that he only lacks breath itself; equally magnificent is the old woman, sitting on a bench and joyfully laughing due to the childbirth of that other old woman, and her posture and facial expression are as natural as they would be in real life.” Cited and translated from: Giorgio Vasari ‘De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 deel II 87

Andrea del Sarto ‘The Birth of John the Baptist’     Preliminary study composition

Andrea del Sarto 'The Birth of John the Baptist' Chiostro dello Scalzo
Study British Museum, London

There is still a preliminary study of Zacharias, who is writing something on a piece of paper placed on his knee. Additionally, there is a drawing of the composition (British Museum). The setup is less strict than in the adjacent Visitation. The five figures form an arc that proceeds asymmetrically. The arc reaches its highest point at the woman in the center with the newborn John, then bends downwards through Elizabeth and Zacharias. The line ends with the bent posture of Zacharias. Due to the position of the arms and the pen on the paper, there is once again a curved line. The pose of Zacharias is repeated in the seated old woman on the left side of the picture plane. With different means than in the Visitation, Sarto creates a thoughtful composition through the curved lines, which not only appears very natural but is also easy to understandVasari notes in the life of Andrea del Sarto that the scenes served as study objects and exemplary models for numerous young people who are now excellent artists (Giorgio Vasari ‘De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 deel II 79). These were not only Italian artists such as Federico Zuccaro (Visitation, Louvre), but also painters like Peter Paul Rubens (Louvre) and Manet (Figure from John baptizes the people, Louvre) who studied the frescoes in the Scalzo.

Continuation Florence day 6: Andrea del Sarto ‘The Last Supper’