Portrait of a Woman with a Volume of Petrarch by Andrea del Sarto

Portrait of a Woman with a Volume of Perarch
by Andrea del Sarto (c.1528)

My blog today centres around three women, an artist and a poet.  The artist in question, and the painter of today’s featured painting, is the Italian artist, Andrea del Sarto.

Andrea del Sarto was born in Florence in 1486 and was one of four children.  His real name was Andrea d’Agnolo di Francesco but the epithet “del Sarto” means “of the tailor” and that was the profession of his father, Agnolo.  At the age of eight, his parents took him out of his normal school where he had been learning to read and write and arranged for him to become an apprentice to a local goldsmith but he didn’t like the work although he did spend time at this early age drawing from his master’s models.  A local Florentine painter and woodcarver, Gian Barile, noticed his drawings and took him under his wing and gave him his first artistic lessons.  Andrea was now doing something he enjoyed and in a very short time had become quite a talented artist for someone his age.  At the age of twelve, Barile realising Andrea would, with the correct training, become a great artist had words with the great Florentine artist of the time Piero di Cosimo and persuaded him to take Andrea on as an apprentice.  Soon Piero di Cosimo realised that despite his age Andrea del Sarto was a greater draughtsman and painter than most of the other aspiring artists in Florence.

Andrea del Sarto remained with Piero di Cosimo for four years.  In 1505 he became great friends with another young Italian painter, Franciabigio, who was four years his senior and apprenticed to the Italian painter, Mariotto Albertinelli.  A year later in 1506, Andrea wanted to move on from his apprenticeship with Piero di Cosimo and because Franciabigio  apprenticeship had ended with Albertinelli, Andrea del Sarto persuaded him to embark on a shared venture with him and open up a joint workshop in Piazza del Grano.  It was here that they worked and lived and where they worked jointly on painting commissions.  One of their collaborations was for frescos for the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata di Firenze, (Basilica of the Most Holy Annunciation). The work they produced was highly regarded by the Church’s patrons, The Brotherhood of the Servites Order, who referred to Andrea del Sarto, as Andrea senza errori, or Andrea the perfect. From 1509 to 1514, he went on to complete many more frescos for the church.  One of the unfortunate aspects of these commissions was that due to the connivance of patrons, Andrea del Sarto and Franciabigio were from being working partners pitted against each other on some of the later commissions.  This eventually led to the breakup of the partnership of the two artists.

These works enhanced Andre del Sarto’s reputation and soon he became one of the leading Florentine painters.  Aged twenty-three, Andre del Sarto was regarded as the best fresco painter of central Italy, barely rivalled by Rafaello Sanzio di Urbino (Raphael), who was four years older.  It should also be remembered that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes were at this time, only in a preliminary stage.

During the time of the friendship between del Sarto and Franciabigio and before they split up, they would often go out socialising and it was on one of these occasions that Andre came across Lucrezia del Fede, who, at the time, was the wife of the hatter, Carlo Recanati.  It was love at first sight.    When her husband died at the end of 1512, Andrea married Lucrezia.  Andrea was besotted by this beautiful woman and would paint her portraits on many occasions and often portraits he did of other women had the hint of Lucrezia in them.  This liaison between man and wife was to have an effect on the course of his life.

In 1516 two of his paintings were sent to the court of the French king, Francois I.  He was very impressed with del Sarto’s work and in 1518 invited the artist to visit him in Paris.  In June that year, Andrea del Sarto, without his beloved wife, went to the French capital, along with his apprentice, Andrea Sguazzella.  He worked at the court and received sizeable remunerations for his time.  At last he was earning a good wage for his work and so everything was perfect.  Actually no, it was not,  as there was one major problem – his wife, whom he had abandoned in Florence.  She became more and more discontented and demanded her husband’s return.  Reluctantly Andrea approached the king and asked if he could return to Florence on a brief visit to see his wife.  King Francois reluctantly agreed on condition that Andreas’ visit home was only for a short period.  Maybe to ensure Andrea del Sarto’s return, he gave the artist some money in order to buy and bring back some Italian works of art.

Andrea took the money but instead of purchasing paintings and probably to placate his wife, used it to buy himself a house in Florence.  His love for his wife and Florence, his birthplace, had too much of a hold on him and he decided not to keep to his part of the bargain he had with the French king.  This act of betrayal meant that he could never return to France and in some ways tarnished his reputation.  For the next ten years he remained in Florence and continued with his art.  In October 1529 the city of Florence came under siege from a large Imperial and Spanish army which had surrounded the city.  The siege lasted for ten months before it was captured and Alessandro de’ Medici was proclaimed the new ruler of the captured city.

Andrea del Sarto had remained in the city during the siege but the following year he died at age 43 during a pandemic of Bubonic Plague which it is thought could have been brought to the city by the invading armies. He was buried in the church of the Servites.  The great biographer of Italian artists, Giorgio Vasari, claimed Andrea received no attention at all from his wife during his terminal illness but one should remember how contagious the Plague was and maybe she was simply scared in case she too contracted the often-fatal disease.   Vasari did not have a kind word for Lucrezia.  According to him, she was faithless, jealous, overbearing and vixenish with her husband’s apprentices. Lucrezia del Fede survived her husband by 40 years.

My featured oil on wood painting today by Andrea del Sarto is entitled Portrait of a Woman with a Volume of Petrarch and was completed by him around 1528 and is now housed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.   The woman in the painting is thought to be Maria del Berrettaio, who was born in 1513, and was Andrea del Sarto’s stepdaughter, the daughter from his wife, Lucrezia’s first marriage.  This early sixteenth century portrait is an interesting mix of the High Renaissance and the idealization of Mannerism.   Portraiture was very popular with the middle classes going back a hundred years from the time of this painting.  In those early days,  portraits of women would normally show the sitter in profile.  In those earlier portraits the sitter would look straight ahead with no eye contact with the viewer which in the majority of cases would be a person of the opposite sex.  The averting of the sitter’s eyes from us, the viewer,  enabled the female sitter to retain her modesty.  However by the end of the fifteenth century things began to change and artists would show women in three-quarter or even full face and by doing so would be able to capture the full beauty of the woman and highlight her facial qualities.   To retain a modicum of modesty however, the female sitter would often avert her eyes or look downwards.

Andrea del Sarto’s portrait is different.  What can we make of his sitter from this portrait?    The fact that the artist has chosen a very dark and plain background accentuates the facial expression of the young woman.  She is seated in a semi-circular chair.  Her clothes are somewhat plain and lack the opulence we see in other female portraits who wish to convey their wealth of that of their family.  Her blouse with its high neck has a chaste feeling to it.  Her blue over garment is heavy and full enough to hide the contours of her body.  The only fashionable aspect to her clothing is the popular slashed sleeves of her dress.  Her hair is long, simply fashioned and kept in place with a simple clasp.  The girl looks directly out at us.  She smiles weakly.   It is a demure and shy smile.   This is not an idealized portrait of a woman.  Andrea del Sarto has not shown any inclination to “beautify” his sitter.  She has an olive skin and not the fair skin of an idealized beauty of the time.  Her face is plump and does not have the delicate bone structure of contemporary beauties.  In those days beauty in a woman was fair skin, long neck, and bright oval shaped eyes.  Our sitter has none of these attributes.

At the beginning of this blog I said the painting today was all about an artist, a poet and three women.  I have given you the artist, Andrea del Sarto, talked about his wife Lucrezia and now we have identified his sitter, Maria del Berrettaio but where do the poet and the third woman come into the story?  The answer lies in the portrait itself and the title of the painting.  Our sitter has hold of a book which she has presumably been reading and she is pointing her Mannerist-styled fingers towards a point in the text.  The book she is holding is the Petrarchino and at the time was a popular work of the fourteenth century Italian scholar and poet Francesco Petrarca, who was known in English simply as Petrarch.  Petrarch is often referred to as the “Father of Humanism”.

The Petrarchino was part of a book of sonnets, entitled Il Canzoniere, whose central theme was Petrarch’s love for a woman he met when he was in his early twenties.  Her name was Laura de Noves, the wife of Count Hugues de Sade, an ancestor of the Marquis de Sade.   She was six years younger than Petrarch having been born in Avignon in 1310.  The story goes that Petrarch first saw her on Good Friday 1327 at Easter mass in the church of Sainte-Claire d’Avignon.  In current terminology we may look upon Pertrarch as a stalker as for the next three years whilst living in Avignon he haunted Laura in church and on her walks.   He eventually moved away from Avignon but returns ten years later and it was then that he began to write numerous sonnets in her praise.

The sitter in today’s featured painting points to a page of the book of sonnets which has been recognised as sonnets number 153 and 154.  So what is she coyly pointing to on this page ?  What are the words of the two sonnets?  All will be revealed in this English translation…………


Sonnet 153

Go, warm sighs, to her frozen   heart,
shatter the ice that chokes her pity,
and if mortal prayers rise to heaven,
let death or mercy end my sorrow.

Go, sweet thoughts, and speak to her
of what her lovely gaze does not include:
so if her harshness or my stars still hurt me,
I shall be free of hope and free of error.

Through you it can be said, perhaps not fully,
how troubled and gloomy is my state,
as hers is both peaceful and serene.

Go safely now that Love goes with you:
and you may lead fortune smiling here,
if I can read the weather by my sun.

Sonnet 154

The stars, the sky, the   elements employed
all their art, and all their deepest care,

 to set in place this living light, where Nature
is mirrored, and a Sun without compare.

The work, so noble, graceful and rare
is such that mortal gaze cannot grasp it:
such is the measure of beauty in her eyes
that Love rains down in grace and sweetness.

The air struck by those sweet rays
is inflamed with virtue, and becomes
such as to conquer all our speech and thought.

There no unworthy desire can be felt,
but honour and virtue: now where
was ill will ever so quenched by noble beauty?

So there you have it – a story about a poet, an artist and three women.