We have interrupted a young man reading; he turns to look over his shoulder at us. The unguarded look creates the impression that we are seeing him as he really is. His identity is uncertain, although he may be the stationer Lorenzo di Matteo Peri, whose family commissioned Andrea del Sarto’s Dispute on the Trinity (Galleria Palatina, Florence) for their altar in the church of S. Jacopo tra Fossi in Florence.
Daylight falls as if from a high narrow window to our left, casting a soft clear light, brilliant on the pleats of his fine white shirt. It reflects up to define the curve of his jaw, the cleft in his chin, the line of his nose and the twist of his neck. His eyes smoulder, creating the sense that this is only a momentary glance before he turns away again.
The spiral fluidity of the pose is derived from Leonardo’s work, as are the smoky, atmospheric effects. The restriction of colour and dramatic lighting add to the portrait’s intensity.
Only a small number of portraits by Andrea del Sarto survive. This is one of his masterpieces. It was painted at a time when he was the leading painter in Florence, Raphael, Leonardo and Michelangelo all having left the city.
A young man sits in a chair reading a book with his back to us. We have interrupted him and he turns to look over his shoulder at us. The turning pose and unguarded look create the sense that we are seeing him as he really is. This gives the portrait a feeling of immediacy and produces a convincing impression of the sitter’s psychology. He is shown reading, which suggests that he has an interest in books, and his costume is that of a Florentine craftsman.
His elbow rests on the arm of the chair and partly projects into our space, creating a strong diagonal running from the top right to bottom left of the composition. The voluminous blue sleeve has a very convincing sense of sculptural form and is the pivotal point around which the turning pose rotates. Sarto probably made detailed studies from life for it.
Three red chalk drawings of different poses in the Uffizi, Florence, may have been made in preparation for this portrait. The drawings reveal that Sarto drastically revised his ideas before he finally came up with this pose. The man’s projecting elbow seems to have been a constant idea; the decision to position him looking back over his shoulder only arrived at later.
Daylight falls on the young man as if from a high narrow window to our left. Light is very important in this portrait as it is the means by which form is defined and atmosphere created. Light defines the shape of the man’s skull under the dark hat and adds bulk to his sleeve. It is a soft clear light, brilliant on the pleats of his fine white shirt, which reflects the light up to define the curve of his jaw, the cleft in his chin, the shapely line of his nose and the twist of his neck. His eyes smoulder in their dark sockets and we have the sense that this is only a momentary glance before he turns away from us again to resume his reading.
We are not certain of the man’s identity. The painting was first documented as belonging to the Puccini family – in 1821 and 1832 it was recorded at their palace in Pistoia. Giovan Battista Puccini was one of Andrea del Sarto’s patrons, but he would have been in his mid-fifties by 1517 when this picture was painted, so it is unlikely that the portrait is of him.
The hands and the book are less finished than the rest of the portrait and hard to decipher, which has led some people to believe he is actually a sculptor holding a block of cut stone. It has also been suggested that the sitter is Paolo da Terrarossa, another patron of Andrea del Sarto, whose family was involved in the production of bricks. However, the object held by the sitter is definitely not a brick, and the Uffizi drawings clearly demonstrate that the young man was intended from the start to be holding a book. When the portrait was bought by the National Gallery in 1862, the director believed it to be a self portrait, although there is no evidence to support this identification either. It is more likely that the sitter is the stationer Lorenzo di Matteo Peri (1490 – about 1527), whose family commissioned Andrea del Sarto’s Dispute on the Trinity (Galleria Palatina, Florence) in 1517–18 for their altar in the church of S. Jacopo tra Fossi in Florence. The sitter of the National Gallery portrait closely resembles Saint Peter Martyr in the altarpiece and it is likely that the individual from the Peri family who commissioned the altarpiece was portrayed twice by Andrea del Sarto during the same period.
The spiral fluidity of the pose in the portrait is derived from Leonardo’s work, as is the sfumato – the smoky, atmospheric effect. The limited palette of colours is very subtle, relying on pale greys, blue-lilac, black, white and brown. The restriction of colour and dramatic lighting adds the the intensity of the portrait.
Although Sarto was trained in Florence and worked there, the way he has used oil paint here is more akin to Venetian painters – he has modelled form in melting colour and light rather than in tones of black and white. His interest in effects of colour and atmosphere, as well as the informal pose and the natural expression of emotion, set him apart from Florentine painters of his time. The pose may have been inspired by Venetian examples – Titian’s Portrait of Gerolamo Barbarigo of about 1510 shows the sitter glancing over his shoulder, with a similar projecting voluminous blue sleeve against a plain grey background. Where Titian has marked his initials ‘TV’ in the stone parapet, Andrea (whose real name was Andrea d‘Agnolo) has marked his intertwined ’AA‘ on the background.
The pared-back composition, limited colour palette, sense of an interrupted moment and of psychological intensity seen here were to be developed further in portraits by the next generation of painters, such as Moroni’s Portrait of the sculptor Alessandro Vittoria of 1552–3 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) and his Tailor of 1565–70. Although Andrea del Sarto was celebrated during his lifetime as a ’faultless painter', his fame was eclipsed after his death by that of Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael. He was particularly influential in training younger Florentine painters, including Jacopo Pontormo, Rosso Fiorentino and Francesco Salviati.
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