It is impossible to consider these fine, compact exhibitions devoted to Andrea del Sarto without recalling the eponymous poem by Robert Browning with which the Florentine painter has been lastingly stuck, given its compulsively quotable lines—"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what's a heaven for?" That snippet managed to wedge itself firmly into the public consciousness, even if the rest of the poem—which depicts an ambitionless, henpecked del Sarto who has failed to exploit his own remarkable genius—hasn’t had the same reach.
But examining del Sarto’s preparatory sketches, on display in the basement of the Frick Collection (the show having originated at the Getty in Los Angeles) it’s not so much Browning’s ‘Andrea del Sarto’ that comes to mind as the similar monologue he composed and put into the mouth of another painter of the Renaissance, Filippo Lippi. Browning’s Lippi, a child of poverty, describes how growing up in the Florentine gutter made him an adept reader of faces, familiar with the "look of things":
But, mind you, when a boy starves in the streets
Eight years together, as my fortune was,
Watching folk's faces to know who will fling
The bit of half-stripped grape-bunch he desires,
And who will curse or kick him for his pains,— …
He learns the look of things, and none the less
For admonition from the hunger-pinch.
Del Sarto, as his name implies, was a tailor’s son, and so lacked the incentive of starvation—but he certainly possessed the talent for faces, for casting models in striking roles, and for startlingly natural and emotional depictions. Among the drawings individually worth the price of admission at the Frick is a sketch of a young girl destined to play Mary Magdalene in a Pietà that hangs in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence. She’s a bit pudgy in the face, certainly more cute than beautiful, eyes downcast, hair disheveled (a decision that the curators point out would have been risqué for 16th century viewers). She’s as real as any image ever put to paper, and the decision to use this vulnerable child to portray a prostitute saved by Christ is electric.
You will find this same dramatic sense for the look of things in del Sarto’s ‘Study for the Head of Julius Caesar,’ an arrogant, evaluating, young, cruel, and utterly convincing profile. Neither the painting that made use of the study of Mary Magdalene nor the final work that included Caesar (actually a fresco on the wall of a Medici villa) are in New York, but that’s no matter—both Mary and Caesar get a little lost in the noise and incipient mannerism of their ultimate destinations, and these drawings provide an opportunity to consider the intensely natural observations that seem to have come first.
The magnificence of those destinations—‘The Tribute to Caesar,’ in particular, is described by the curators as del Sarto’s answer to Raphael, and what an answer it is—raises the question of why del Sarto caught such a bum rap from Browning and from Browning’s source, Giorgio Vasari, himself once a student of del Sarto’s. Vasari’s chapter on his erstwhile master is far from condemnatory. Indeed, Vasari writes of the painting containing our Mary Magdalene that the figures are "so lifelike, that they appear truly to have spirit and breath."
But Vasari is nonetheless persuaded, and works to persuade his own readers at some length, that del Sarto never bothered to reach nearly as far as he was capable of grasping. The words "spiritless," "guileless," and "timid" make appearances in his treatment, and del Sarto’s wife Lucrezia (scholars believe that she is depicted in two of the drawings at the Frick) takes the role of the villain, derailing the career of her husband, early on a student of Piero di Cosimo and favorite of the king of France, for her own unspecified, selfish ends. Vasari, who would have known Lucrezia from his apprentice days, goes as far as to take some relish in describing how she abandoned her husband as he died of the plague at the age of 44, afraid of contracting the disease herself.
One of the more interesting essays in the Frick’s catalogue is a gentle, scholarly attack on Vasari mounted by Sanne Wellen, who aims to demonstrate that Vasari’s criticism of his teacher is driven by ulterior motives—most importantly an effort to emphasize the quality of Vasari’s own full-blown mannerism at the expense of del Sarto’s earlier, comparatively simpler vision. Wellen also identifies a political angle: in her view Vasari, the consummate court painter and friend of aristocracy, wants to link del Sarto’s limited work ethic and bourgeois lack of ambition to the moral atmosphere of the short-lived Florentine Republic.
The violent seesawing between Medici rule and self-governance certainly played a role in del Sarto’s career, as they did for any Florentine alive at the time Machiavelli was writing. Such is the focus of a small del Sarto exhibition at the Met that runs concurrently with the Frick’s own more elaborate display. The Met's show puts most of its focus on two structurally identical paintings, one a depiction of Charity (likely intended for the king of France), and the other showing St. John the Baptist handing the world to the young Christ (painted for a backer of the Republic)—the not-so-subtle implication being that the only king is Christ.
All of this is part of a project to revive the reputation of del Sarto, and one gets the sense that the curators and contributors to the Frick’s catalogue feel a slight sense of grievance and frustration at Vasari for the 500-year blow he dealt to his teacher’s reputation, which Browning only amplified. But it’s not necessary to take a side in this dispute to appreciate these exhibitions: few arguments could be more delightful.