• • France, Private Collection.
While Michelangelo was finishing his David, the Consuls of Arte della Lana and the Cathedral Workshop were already considering him for a series of twelve larger than life statues of apostles which would decorate the four pillars supporting Brunelleschi’s dome. The contract concluded in 1503 anticipated the already famous mercurial mood swings of the sculptor who had just abandoned a major commission from Cardinal Piccolomini. Michelangelo promised to deliver one sculpture per year and at the end of the contract was to receive a house built for him. Nonetheless, with the figure of Saint Matthew (Florence, Academy) only half carved out of the marble, the artist’s enthusiasm carried his genius towards other projects never to return to the Cathedral’s Apostles.
In 1511, taking advantage of Jacopo Sansovino’s return to Rome (Florence, 1486 - Venice, 1570), the Workshop revived the project. Born Jacopo Tatti, the sculptor was the student of Andrea Contucci called Sansovino whose nickname he also assumed. He had followed his master to Rome, but only established his talent by working mainly under the direction of Donato Bramante. The Florentine commission, of a single statue out of twelve, is thus the first documented work. Choosing to sculpt his patron saint, James the Major, Sansovino remained there until 1518 in a desire to do his best work. This delay led the workshop to turn to other sculptors: Andrea Ferrucci did the statue of Saint Andrew (1512-1514), Benedetto Rovezzano, that of Saint John (1513-1514), and Baccio Bandinelli, Saint Peter (1515-1517). The project came to a finish in the 1570’s, with four other figures by Giovanni Bandini et Vicenzo de’Rossiet, and the installation of the statues in niches of the tabernacle created by Bartolomeo Ammannati.
Jacopo Sansovino’s œuvre was placed against the north pillar on the nave side of the Cathedral. With Bandinelli’s Saint Peter occupying the pillar on the south side, Saint James the Major is thus the first of the apostles seen by the faithful as he welcomes them with his head turned towards the entrance and not towards the altar. Far removed from the torment displayed by Michelangelo’s Saint Matthew and from the weightiness of the Florentine Quattrocento, the apostle’s elongated serene solemn figure with its supple contrapposto is enveloped in fluid draperies. The saint’s resolutely Christlike face displays the influence of Raphael whom the sculptor had discovered in Rome. The only indications of his identity are the large closed book he holds and a pilgrim’s staff whose bronze extremities seem to have disappeared before the end of the 16th century.
Proclaimed the best sculpture of the entire cycle by the members of the Accademia del Disegno, Sansovino’s Saint James the Major became a model to reproduce and a must for any artistic visit to the city.
The artist who produced our drawing thus did so in order to be able to remember the apostle’s figure while leaving out the architectural setting. More of a painter than a sculptor, the artist, who seems to have been from Lorraine, was fascinated by the three-dimensionality of the saint’s pose, the chasing in the draperies, and the strong direct lighting from the dome which emphasized volumes. For our artist, nonetheless, Saint James is less a statue that a human figure. He didn’t hesitate to perfect his first sketch executed in situ in black chalk by going over the shaded portions with brown wash which, as was often the case with Northern European Masters, became color and, in this case, suggested the book’s leather binding, the chestnut hair, and the beaten earth floor.
Carlo CINELLI, Johannes MYSSOK, Francesco VOSSILLA, Il Ciclo degli Apostoli nel duomo di Firenze, Florence, 2002.
Bruce BOUCHER, The Sculpture of Jacopo Sansovino, New Haven, London, 1991, vol. I, p. 14 sq., vol. II, p. 318 sq.