A Visit to the Frick Collection: Andrea Sarto: The Renaissance Workshop in Action
Toward the end of the final edits of Ardent before submission, we had a chance to go to NYC. I was very interested in an exhibition at the Frick. One of the joys on the journey of researching a story is the random bits that come your way—we couldn’t have planned for that weekend, as we were lent a timeshare for a specific time. We always just miss the ones we’re interested in, but our weekend landed on the tail end of the Frick Collection’s Renaissance era’s artist’s workshop.
“From about 1515 until his death, Andrea del Sarto (1486–1530) ran the most successful and productive workshop in Florence, not only leaving his native city richly decorated with his art but also greatly influencing the art produced in the remainder of the century. By 1700, however, Andrea’s reputation had declined, not to be revived until the publication of monographs by Sydney Freedberg and John Shearman in 1963 and 1965, respectively. Although his oeuvre represents the essence of Florentine High Renaissance creativity and the magisterial beauty of his drawings is well known to scholars and collectors, he is less known to the general public. This was the first major monographic exhibition on this artist ever to be presented in the United States (and the first in nearly thirty years shown anywhere).
This is relevant for me in that Ardent takes place in Medici Florence, a little earlier than del Sarto. Parents paid the workshops to take their sons on as apprentices to learn the trade of making art and had for generations. The Medici funded many artists and craftsman, and this, too, went on for generations.
In my research, I’d read the descriptions of technique for everything from making the color red, charcoal, and creating a fresco. In the early stages of the manuscript, I had some help expressing what I’d read. The exhibition had many drawings and a few paintings and much more about process. It was incredibly gratifying to actually see much of what I had read about in action.
Apprentices did much of the prep work for artists, learning their craft as the years went by, as both Morello and Benedetto did. Sometimes they were loaned out to other artists with big projects. There is a Benedetto, no last name, on the labor rolls of Leonardo da Vinci’s workshop, on loan from another.
Now my mom was a painter, and probably that helped me set the stage for Benedetto’s workshop. But nearly every tool and color and surface they used, the renaissance artists made by hand, or taught their apprentices how they wanted it done. There were few handbooks. Cennino Cennini (born 1372) was a painter who wrote while imprisoned for debt The Craftsmans’s Handbook, a practical book containing his techniques for painting to sculpture to gilding and making glue. Leonardo da Vinci also wrote a book on technique, much in the same format as Cennini, though more detailed and organized. Leonardo on Painting, edited by Martin Kemp.
BTW, there’s also an online art forum with a thread devoted to reproducing Renaissance techniques. Some of their old threads made Cennini a little clearer.
Workshops guarded their secrets of technique carefully, which is how Benedetto ended up getting in trouble. And like Popes of the time, artists were not genius angels producing art to the airs of a mandolin—they fought in the streets, attempted murder, were jailed for having sex with other men, and usually died in debt.
Leonardo and Michelangelo hated each other and often argued on the street. This is a long article but worth it if you’re interested in process, art, and history. (https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2002/oct/22/artsfeatures.highereducation)
Donatello hunted an apprentice in order to murder him and ended up going to Rome with Brunelleschi (Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King) where they measured the classical ruins there in order to join the competition in Florence to build the Duomo.
Of note, before there was Raphael, Michelangelo, and da Vinci, del Sarto was considered an artist of their stature.
I think that’s what attracts me to this era, the personalities and the drama. Even the descriptions of the process of making a fresco caught my attention. I included an amended version as a scene between Leo and Benedetto to illustrate the tension between the two men and what they needed to accomplish together.
Benedetto climbed off his ladder, stepped to the edge of the scaffold, and looked down at the master. “You’re late!”
The brush dropped from his fingers; end over end it flew and scattered white feathers of paint as it fell. The younger apprentices laughed, perhaps thinking he had thrown it in a fit of temper. Leo laughed with them, his face turned upwards. Perhaps Leo’s lateness was due to some marital responsibility. One could only hope that Leo was finally settling down to married life after two children, a tussle with blackmail, and the continued success of the workshop. This latest commission was a firm step up for payment and prestige, and the esteemed personage who would pay it had not been happy at Leo’s absence this morning.
“Messer Corbolini wanted to talk to you!” Benedetto scolded. “I told you this just yesterday.”
Leo picked up the paintbrush from the floor and placed it on a table. One of the youngsters scurried forward to wipe up the mess. “Rodolpho was sick and Dovizia out of her mind with it.” He removed his doublet and accepted the apron from the apprentice, tying it around his waist as he walked across the palazzo’s polished marble floor of rose veined with cream. He bent and pulled at the canvas stretched out beneath the scaffold. “The apothecary mixed them both a tonic and now they sleep. Her mother is there with them now.”
Leo stopped talking to climb the scaffold, and the structure shivered as he ascended. Now that Leo had finally arrived, Benedetto abandoned the putti he had been painting on the ceiling for the much more demanding work of the fresco.
“Paganello, the plaster!” Benedetto called out. “We can start now. Let’s go, boys!”
Paganello, once a chubby apprentice, had grown into a muscular journeyman, thick about the neck and shoulders, with a wide ruddy face and untamable black hair tied back with a strip of leather. He and his helpers attached a bucket of plaster to a rope and pulled on its other end to bring it up to Benedetto. The apprentices clambered up behind Leo and prepared the workspace with trowels and dishes of color mixed with lime.
Benedetto turned to Leo. “Are you ready for this, Master?”
Leo’s handsome face held hazel, red-rimmed eyes, and his dark brown hair thrust about his head, uncombed. He stifled a yawn before he answered Benedetto. “I’ve had worse days. I’ll make it up to you.”
“If you stay late to make up the work, we all stay late,” Benedetto complained as he set out the brushes on the board for their work. “How is that making it up to me?”
“I was thinking of taking you for a dinner at The Snail some day soon.” Leo smiled. “Like the old days?”
Benedetto turned his back and grabbed the heavy bucket of wet plaster when it hit the edge of the scaffold. “And if it’s to be like the old days, you’ll only forget and leave me there waiting and worrying.”
“Ah, I did that once, and you never forgave me.” Leo’s good spirits were unbreakable this morning, a teasing smile in his voice. That only made Benedetto suspicious of the tale he had told.
“Three times, Leo. And this morning. I repeat myself, but to again remind you we need more commissions like this one.”
The fresco would decorate the large banquet hall of the palazzo. Once the apprentices applied wet plaster to the wall over Leo’s drawings, Leo and Benedetto would have to work quickly before the plaster dried and altered the colors.
Today they would paint the first of a cluster of dancing nymphs with swooping veils and chains of flowers, and the woodland behind them. They were midway through the fresco. So far, everything had worked out as Benedetto had calculated, from the drawings that Leo and the client had agreed upon, to the colors and their cost, to the fresco’s execution.
“Let’s go.” Leo selected a paintbrush and considered the array of worked-up pigments the boys had prepared. “I can’t decide if you’re different or not.”
Two apprentices began to trowel on the plaster where Leo pointed. Once done, Leo quickly retraced the lines of his original drawing in the wet plaster with the narrow end of his paintbrush.
Benedetto waited for Leo’s nod before he gestured to the waiting boy and his dish of paint to come forward. “I’m no different than I was. Why would I be?”
Leo only grunted, and Benedetto smiled to himself. It was not only in his imaginings that, since he had returned from Torrenta, Leo was just a little jealous.
“When you came back from Torrenta, letters from the rustic painter followed you.”
Benedetto’s face grew hot. “Enough. Not here.”
“The letters make you happy and sad. I want you to be happy.”
Then you should never have sent me from your bed.
“I want you to finish this commission, Master. Now, paint,” Benedetto said.
Author: Heloise West
Publisher: Manifold Press
Release Date: February 1st 2017
Genre: Historical MM Romantic Suspense
In the village of Torrenta, master painter Morello has created a color that mimics the most expensive pigment of all, the crimson red. Master Zeno, from strife-ridden Medici Florence, tells him the color gives him a competitive advantage – but Morello must be careful. Fraud is ever-present in the dye and pigment markets.
As they work together in Torrenta, Morello falls hard for Zeno’s assistant, Benedetto Tagliaferro, a young man of uncommon beauty and intelligence. Benedetto is still fixed on his old lover, the master painter Leo Guisculo, and cannot return Morello’s affections.
But when Leo dies in a terrible accident, it’s to Morello that Zeno and Benedetto turn for help. And Morello soon finds that in Florence, every surface hides layers of intrigue.
Find Ardent on Goodreads
The village of Torrenta, Tuscany, June 1475
The sun thrust warm fingers into the ancient Tuscan earth. The gray-green leaves of the olive trees shimmered, and the woods beyond beckoned Morello to abandon the painters’ workshop for their cool refuge.
In the growing heat the apprentices inside settled into an afternoon nap, curled on benches in dark corners behind him. The harsh fumes of linseed oil and varnish had irritated Morello all morning, and he was unable to sleep in the miasma. Perhaps before their visitors from Florence arrived, he might escape the heat. A long tramp in the woods pulled at his bones.
He reached for the walking stick behind the door, but a horse’s whinny stopped him, and a man’s voice called out. When no one stirred within to answer, he cursed the sleepers and stomped back through the shop, thwarted. In the lane in front of the workshop, two men removed packs from their horses.
“Good day, Master Zeno!” From the doorway, Morello called to the older of the two. “You made good time!”
At the sound of Morello’s voice, the apprentices roused themselves from sleep and peered around him.
The gray-haired master raised his hand and smiled. “Good day, Master Morello.”
Master Zeno’s companion, a tall young man with flowing golden hair, took the older man’s pack for him and shouldered the straps of both.
“Take their horses to the stable and fetch Master Franco,” Morello ordered the apprentices, and they hurried to obey.
Master Zeno’s journeyman brushed dust from the sleeve of his sweat-stained linen shirt, slapped more dust from his long thighs, and ran a forearm across his brow. His smile was uncertain as his glance met Morello’s.
Donato stood at the window yawning and scratching his stomach. He shaded his eyes for a better look into the misty glare of the afternoon. “Who’s the beauty with the master?”
Donato’s fellow journeyman Primo jumped to his feet and crowded against Morello in the doorway. “Can it be? He’s brought Tagliaferro?”
Donato groaned. “The man you’ve been mooning about since you last went to Florence, Primo? You’ve only just finally shut up about him.”
Morello ignored them. His irritation over his interrupted walk had vanished. Primo’s garlic- and onion-laden breath on his neck registered only remotely. He gazed out at the man from Florence, who, in Morello’s memory, had once been a long-legged boy with a head of yellow fluff too big for his skinny body. Morello stepped out into the sunlight that appeared to pour itself over the grown man, and stretched out his hand in greeting. Maintaining frank eye contact, Benedetto Tagliaferro adjusted the packs and took his hand.
When flesh met flesh, Morello stumbled – at least, his heart did. As if the wind from the beating wings of the love-inspiring putti he had painted just that morning pushed them toward each other.
“Do you remember me?” Benedetto asked with the shadow of that boy’s grin.
About the Author
Heloise West, when not hunched over the keyboard plotting love and mayhem, dreams about moving to a villa in Tuscany. She loves history, mysteries, and romance of all flavors. She travels and gardens with her partner of thirteen years, and their home overflows with books, cats, art, and red wine.