Working in Grisaille
10/08/97 - 4/13/21
Chiostro Dello Scalzo, Florence
On a sunny day the Chiostro dello Scalzo is a space full of light and shadow. The cloister where Florentine artists Andrea del Sarto and Franciabigio painted a rare instance of renaissance grisailles fresco is now covered by a modern glazed roof. Light penetrates the space from that glassed opening, allowing the geometry intrinsic to the triangular and rectilinear modern addition to create shadow patterns on both the cloister’s walls and floor.
The Chiostro dello Scalzo was completed in monochrome grays. A fact that differentiates this particular cycle of frescoes from all of del Sarto’s other frescoes and oil paintings. The overall visual effect the monochrome grays project has a firm affiliation with drawing. That was my first thought when I saw the frescoes at the end of the 20th century. I had been studying art and Italian at the George Washington University in Washington D.C.and would often go to the National Gallery to view paintings. In 1997 during my first semester at the college, I saw a drawing there by Andrea del Sarto simply titled Head of a Woman (1515). I found it striking and subsequently returned to the museum several times to see it. The image of the drawing stuck with me, and when I went to Florence two years later in the fall of 1999,I began to seek out everything del Sarto had painted in the city. This led me to the aforementioned Chiostro dello Scalzo, the frescoes he painted at the Chiostrino dei Voti at the cloister of Santissima Annunziata, a last supper that I managed to track down outside the city center, a painting at theAcademia, and several works at both the Uffizi and Palazzo Pitti.
There is a vague memory I have of the time, where I was even trying to force myself to like all his work in color. I had been so attracted to the drawing, surely, therefore; his paintings would be even better I had thought. And yet all those quadri and affreschi full of mannerist color and cangiante were quite off putting to me. I was convinced that none of them had the power of that single drawing I had seen inWashington. When I experienced the Chiostro dello Scalzo, however, the relationship to the artist’s drawing was evident. I had been seeking art from del Sarto that felt like his drawing and had finally found it inside this intimate cloister. In that quiet, light-filled and airy space were walls full of them. I had the overwhelming sensation that what I was looking at were most definitely a group of wall drawings. After all, I thought, they were similar in feeling to Head of a Woman. The obvious differences were that they were spread out over several walls, larger and more compositionally finished than a study of a face.
More than ten years after completing my studies, I visited an exhibition titled Manet. Return to Venice (2013) at thePalazzo Ducale. Here I saw several drawings Manet did while living in Italy.There was one in particular that deeply affected me: Homme debut drapé (1857circa) after Andrea del Sarto.The drawing was a copy of a man on the left in the fresco Journey of the Three Kings (1511). located in the Chiostrino dei Voti. Indeed, when I visit this fresco in Florence, I picture Manet standing in front of it making his drawing. The fact that I can stand where Manet stood and look at the same fresco both delights and overwhelms me. Was it Manet’s copy of a single man in Andrea del Sarto’s Journey of the Three Kings that helped change the course of art history? It’s this question I ask myself as I stand there looking at that frescoed depiction of a man. Here again it is a drawing in connection with del Sarto that captures my interest - that brings me back again and again to the Chiostrino dei Voti. To look at one artwork inorder to imagine another. Time passing in space by thinking about art by two artists is how I regard this process.
Time is also such a fundamental theme in the Chiostro dello Scalzo. The ‘pittoresenza errori’ began the fresco cycle of the life of John the Baptist and another cycle of the four cardinal virtues in 1509 and worked on six of the eight large fresco panels (the other two were completed by Franciabigio) on and off until 1526. He was born in 1486 and died in 1530. These six panels, thus, offer the viewer a journey in time through the early, middle and late work of the great master. In other words, one can visit an unofficial retrospective inFlorence of Andrea del Sarto’s disegni whenever the cloister is open, which tends to be only on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday mornings till early afternoon. The cloister itself is a huge part of the experience. He re frescoes are combined with architecture in a harmonious way that is total. The space is a sanctuary from the outside world. In it one sees the way time and the elements have slowly worn away the image clarity of the fresco cycle.Cracks abound and ochre underpainting comes through giving the grays a warm feel.
The cloister design allows plenty of light and subtle shadow to fill the space with a calming atmosphere. Light at times can make this very solid space appear non-material.But the materials real people put together to build the structure are of this world and recognizable. Let me put it this way, the structure is felt even though it is constructed and like the paintings by del Sarto himself; the structure appears as though it were effortlessly made. The smoothness of the fresco matte finish shaped by time is something to behold. I like to pick out sections of the fresco and look closely at their surfaces. I’m fundamentally attracted to the whole and the detail - the entirety of the space and its atmosphere along with close viewing of the frescoed walls. It is indeed the surface of the walls, the finish of the columns and the texture of the pavementin conjunction with the feeling provided by the architectural space that makesme want to return again and again.
Text © Andrew Smaldone, 2020
All photos by Andrew Smaldone at Chiostro dello Scalzo