In the Proemio to his Four Books on Architecture, with reference to Venice, and to Sansovino’s library in particular, Palladio asserted:
One is beginning to see buildings of merit [in Venice], since Giacomo Sansovino, sculptor and architect of great renown, began for the first time to make known the bella maniera [beautiful style], as one can see, (leaving aside many other fine works of his) in the new building of the Procuratia, which is the richest and most ornate that has probably ever been erected from antiquity to our own day.
Born and educated in Tuscany, Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570), both an architect and a sculptor, succeeded in competing with the great Michelangelo. He won important commissions in Florence and Rome where, in the church of S. Marcello, he carved the tomb of Cardinal Sant’Angelo, one of his masterpieces. After working in Rome, mainly as an architect, he left the city in 1527 after the Sack of Rome and took refuge in Venice where his talents were soon appreciated. He rapidly received many important civic and ecclesiastical commissions: the façade of S. Francesco della Vigna, the Scuola della Misericordia and Palazzo Corner at S. Maurizio are all from this period. When the new plans for the area surrounding Piazza San Marco were proposed, Sansovino was commissioned to design the complex buildings that were to enclose the great area. Here his genius is truly revealed. The complex, inspired by the classical world of ancient Rome, provided impetus for other architects, especially Palladio, who admired Sansovino’s Library and acknowledge it in his own façade design for S. Giorgio Maggiore.
Since his first appearance in Venice in flight from the Sack of Rome in 1527, Sansovino dominated the architectural scene in the city. At the time of his arrival he had little architectural experience. His chief reputation lay in his talent as a sculptor: “He is a great man after Michelangelo”, remarked Lorenzo Lotto in a letter reporting his flight. In Rome he had begun two churches, S. Marcello al Corso and S. Giovanni dei Fiorentini, both of which suffered technical problems and were eventually assigned to his more technically experienced contemporary, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger. His most successful Roman building was the palace for the Florentine banker Giovanni Gaddi, and it was Gaddi who accompanied him in his flight and initially offered him hospitality in Venice.
Despite his uncertain credentials in technical matters, Sansovino was immediately engaged to restore the domes of S. Marco, which were thought to be on the point of collapse. Vasari records the virtuosity of this restoration in graphic detail: indeed, the records of the Procuratia de Supra confirm that, within two days of Lotto’s first report of Sansovino’s arrival, the exceptional sum of five hundred ducats was provided for the repair. A year later, the procurators were still incurring “maximum expenses”. Vasari tells us that Sansovino was recommended for this task by none other than Doge Andrea Gritti himself, “who was a great friend of genius”. It is in the context of Gritti’s personal agenda for the renewal of Venetian culture that Sansovino made his architectural contribution.
On the death of Bartolomeo Bon, proto to the Procuratia de Supra, Gritti recommended Sansovino as his successor. This was the section of the Procuratia de Supra that was responsible for the upkeep of the church of S. Marco as well as most of the other buildings in the Piazza, apart from the Palazzo Ducale. On his appointment in 1529, Sansovino was given a house in the newly reconstructed Procuratie Vecchie near the Torre dell’Orologio, overlooking the Piazzetta, with its distant vista of S. Giorgio Maggiore between the two great columns.
The new proto was preoccupied with the state of the buildings around the Piazzetta, because his job required him to keep these properties in good repair. Opposite Palazzo Ducale stood a row of five hostelries of ill repute, known as Peregrin, Rizza, Cavaletto, Luna and Lion, while at the end of the row, facing the Bacino, stood the Beccaria, or meat market. These buildings were Veneto-Byzantine structures dating from the early 13th century, with a row of lean-to bakery stalls in front that obscured their ground-floor arcades. The are clearly visible in the view of the Piazzetta attributed to Lazzaro Bastiani, now in Museo Correr. The south side of the Piazza, where the procurators themselves lived, was of similar age and equally decrepit. The Ospendale Orseolo occupied the east end of this range of buildings, which enveloped the Campanile on two sides. The rest of the Campanile was surrounded by money changer’s stalls.
The decision to rebuild the north side of Piazza S. Marco after the fire of 1512 had been taken despite the deep crisis induced by the wars of the League of Cambrai (1509-16) which had seen Venice pitted against the major European powers and in danger of losing her terraferma possessions. Through this bold resolution, the procurators had already demonstrated their awareness that renewal could be justified as a capital investment because of the reductions of maintenance costs and the increased revenues from the rent of shops and apartments. What was lacking, though, in this new wing, where Sansovino’s own house lay, was any statement of artistic renewal.
By 1530, however, the Republic had fully recovered, economically and politically, from the traumatic Cambrai wars. Moreover, the cultural context has been transformed by the romanizing policies of the early years of Gritti’s dogate. But it was the intellectual revolution made possible by the rise of Venice as a major European centre of printing and publishing that most effectively transformed the place of architecture in the culture.
The Zecca was begun by Sansovino in 1536. On the façade, a row of nine shops selling cheese and salami were incorporated into the building, with the silver smelter behind and the gold smelter above. The courtyard at the rear was surrounded by workshops and storerooms. The cheese shops are dignified by the use of simple rustication in the manner of the ancients. The function of the mint itself – merely industrial, yet vital to the economic viability of the state – is enhanced by the choice of a rusticated Doric order. The finesse of Sansovino’s sculptural imagination is evident in the superb quality of the stone carving. Around the shops, every alternate stone projects slightly, to give subtle gradations of light and shade. On the piano nobile, correct and precisely cut Doric details are juxtaposed with rough-hewn stones as white and shaggy as fleece, and the effect of tension is enhanced by the heavy lintels clutched threateningly over the windows. The third order, in rusticated Ionic, was added in 1538, within Sansovino’s lifetime, though probably not to his design, as his employers, the Procuratori de Supra, were engaged in a bitter dispute with the Zecca at this time.
For the site in the Piazzetta that faced the Palazzo Ducale, Sansovino designed a two-storey elevation, intended to extend all around the main Piazza as far as the church of S. Geminiano at the west end. This was the building now known as the Library which was praised so fervently by Palladio. Construction was begun at the end nearest the Campanile in 1537, the year after the start of work on the Zecca. The hostelries were demolished and relocated one by one over the next twenty years, although Sansovino – despite enormous efforts in the last decade of his life – never managed to find an alternative site for the Beccaria. The range was finally completed after his death by Scamozzi in 1588-91.
It was only after the start of work on this Piazzetta wing that it was decided to house the Biblioteca Marciana, a celebrated collection of Greek and Latin texts, in the part of the building nearest the Campanile. This underlies the role of the new buildings as scenery for the open space outside, rather than simply as a design appropriate to the use of the interior.
The design of the Library must have impressed the architecturally informed audience by its abundant references to the buildings of Rome, both ancient and modern. The rich Doric order, for example, is based on that of the Basilica Aemilia, illustrated by Giuliano da Sangallo in his Vatican sketchbook. This ruin also inspired the ingenious corner solution, by which Sansovino succeeded in placing an exact half metope at the end of the Doric frieze, as prescribed by Vitruvius. Sansovino also followed the Vitruvian recommendation that libraries, like bedrooms, should face the east, to receive good morning light. The reading room falls in the seven bays of the piano nobile nearest the Campanile, its rich coffered ceiling embellished with tondi painted by the best Venetian painters of the day. The significance of the Library entrance in the very centre of the 21-bay wing is enhanced by the fact that it lies exactly opposite the medallion of Justice on the Palazzo Ducale.
Finally one reaches the Logegetta, begun by Sansovino at the foot of the Campanile in 1538 as a meeting place for the procurators, to replace the old loggia that had suffered damage by lightning over the centuries. Just as the Zecca had combined Rustic and Doric, and the Library Doric and Ionic, the Loggetta combines the Ionic and the Corinthian into a single order, as the end point in this overlapping series. The Composite was an order especially suitable for the expression of triumph, and this meaning is also explicit in the Loggetta’s design, based on three overlapping triumphal arches. The richness of the materials also underlines the role of this building as the summit of the hierarchy. Not only were the procurators themselves framed by triumphal arches as they sat in discussion inside, but the Loggetta also served as the ceremonial backdrop for ducal processions emerging from the Porta della Carta.
By separating the Library and the Campanile, Sansovino ensured that the Palazzo Ducale would be visible from any point in the Piazza.
In his painting Procession in Piazza San Marco, dated 1496, Gentile Bellini manipulated the true arrangement of the buildings in Piazza S. Marco by moving the whole south side of the Piazza sideways to reveal the Palazzo Ducale which would otherwise have been hidden behind the Campanile.
The Venetian nobility viewed their own palaces as extensions of the imagery of the buildings in the Piazza – as the visual manifestations of their corporate identity and power. Soon after his arrival in Venice, in about 1527-28, Sansovino seems to have planned a huge palace at S. Samuele for the procurator Vettor Grimani, for which a large drawing of the ground plan survives in the Museo Correr. Sansovino’s second major project for a Venetian patrician family, to rebuild the great palace of the Corner family at S. Maurizio, destroyed by fire in 1532, was delayed by legal difficulties until the mid 1540s and the design was surely revised at that time.
The first of Sansovino’s Venetian palaces to be executed was the palace of Giovanni Dolfin, the Venetian merchant and ship owner. The preparation for the design fell in the very same years as the start of Sansovino’s three new buildings in the Piazzetta: the Zecca, the Library and the Loggetta.
In his first book of his Quatro Libri, speaking of ornament, Palladio commented that “nothing enhances the building more than columns, provided that they are conveniently placed and well proportioned in relation to the whole”. That was the challenge which Sansovino was to solve triumphantly in Venice: how to apply the classical orders to a palace façade in a way that reconciled the dictates of convenience and proportion. The traditional Venetian palace façade, with its fenestration concentrated in the centre, is not easily adapted to the rigors of the classical system, which requires bays of equal width. In the Palazzo Dolfin, Sansovino provided the clearest possible exposition of the correct superimposition of the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian orders, to impress an audience that would be already familiar with the rudiments of classicism.
Sansovino resolved the need for uneven illumination by placing two arched windows in each bay of the central portion of the upper storeys, over a single arch in the arcade below, a solution already found in Palazzo Ducale and the Procuratie Vecchie. Unfortunately, the interior of the Palazo Dolfin was completely rebuilt by Selva at the end of the 18th century, preserving only the façade.
The Palazzo Corner at S. Maurizio was finally begun after the legal difficulties in dividing Zorzi Corner’s estate among his heirs were resolved in 1545. The exuberant sculptural richness of the S. Maurizio palace is far removed from the distilled classical essence of the Palazzo Dolfin; indeed, it is more reminiscent of the lavish three-dimensionality of Sansovino’s work in the Piazzetta. This affinity was intentional. The Corner family, one of the nobility’s case vecchie, had achieved almost regal status by the marriage of Caterina Corner to the king of Cyprus. When she was widowed in 1473 and persuaded by her brother Zorzi to abdicate, the family received huge estates in Cyprus in compensation and their enormous wealth was legendary.
The network of scuoli grande across the city provided a focus for the ceremonial life of the great citizen confraternities as well as the headquarters for their charitable duties. The Misericordia had already decided to replace its huge Gothic scuola in 1498, but the Cambrai wars subsequently prevented the start of work. In 1531, Jacopo Sansovino, the newly appointed proto of the Procuratia de Supra, was called in to advise on the prewar model by Alessandro Leopardi. Sansovino must have been critical of the old design, for in the same year, an additional four models were commissioned, including one by Sansovino himself. In a ballot held later in the same year, it was Sansovino’s model that was chosen, and work began on site in 1532. The bold ambitions of the scuola were already evident in the choice of the refugee Florentine, whose only works so far in the city had been the restoration of the domes of S. Marco, the erection of a few vegetable stalls and the continuation of Bon’s still unfinished Procuratie Vecchie.
It is impossible to understand the history of the Misericordia without reference to the parallel activity at the rival cantiere of the Scuola Grande di S. Rocco. Scarpagnino had taken over at S. Rocco in 1527 after the previous proto, Bartolomeo Bon, had left in 1524 because of a dispute over the form of the staircase. The Misericordia was forced to revise Sansovino’s initial design of 1531 in response to an objection from the site’s landlords, the Moro family, to its projecting columns. Sansovino’s revised model, with engaged rather than free-standing columns, was approved in 1535, whereupon S. Rocco immediately seized the opportunity to emphasize the Misericordia’s discomfort by adding two orders of projecting Corinthian columns to its own façade. S. Rocco seized similar advantage when Misericordia failed in 1544 to agree on the form of its staircase, a crucial element in the ceremonial scenery of any scuola grande. In 1545, in direct challenge to the vacillations at the Misericordia, S. Rocco ostentatiously demolished its newly built double-ramped staircase designed by the elusive Tuscan known as “Il Celestro” and expeditiously erected the present imperial-style staircase block to Scarpagnino’s design. Whereas the Misericordia never managed to resolve its state of perpetual financial crisis, the wealth of the Scuola Grande di S. Rocco increased dramatically during the century, thanks to donations from Venetians anxious to protect themselves from the plague. By 1581, not only was S. Rocco’s building completed, but it was also decorated throughout by Tintoretto, whereas the Misericordia, lacking its roof and staircase, was still unusable. The Misericordia was finally inaugurated in 1589, but its stone facing was never applied, and its massive brick carcass came to excite admiration for qualities of terribilità that had never been intended.
Sansovino was responsible for five complete churches in Venice, in addition to the façade of S. Geminiano in Piazza San Marco. Of these six churches, three – S. Spirito in Isola, the church of the Incurabili and S. Geminiano – were demolished during the Napoleonic period. No record survives of the drawings of “sixty plans of temples and churches of his invention, so wonderful that from antiquity until now on cannot see any that are better conceived or more beautiful than these,” which according to Vasari were left to Francesco Sansovino at this father’s death, and the son intended to have them engraved for publication.
Despite Vasari’s praise, Sansovino’s religious works are his least celebrated, in contrast to those of other Renaissance masters such as Brunelleschi, Alberti and Bramante. Yet, throughout his career he cared for the upkeep of S. Marco and his sculptural works, tapestries and intarsia designs transformed the appearance of the presbytery.
His first ecclesiastical commission in the city, for the rebuilding of the church of S. Francesco della Vigna, was a contradictory one. On the one hand, this was a project with direct ducal involvement, for Doge Andrea Gritti, whose family palace lay just in front of the church, promoted the scheme and bought the right to use the chancel as his family burial chapel, while the side chapels were purchased by the richest and most powerful noble families in the city. On the other hand, this monastery belonged to the austere Observant Franciscans, who wanted a design appropriate to their ascetic ideals.
Sansovino’s design is closely modelled on that of the sister church in Florence, S. Salvatore al Monte, begun for the Observant Franciscans by Cronaca in 1499. From Cronaca’s church he borrowed the fluted Doric capitals and plain frieze, the arched side chapels and aisleless plan, and the two-storey pilastered nave with clerestory windows.
Palladio was to learn much from S. Francesco della Vigna, especially with regard to the arrangement and lighting of the presbytery and its retrochoir, the latter secluded behind the high altar to allow the congregation an unimpeded view of the nave.
Though conceived in the 1540s, S. Martino at the Arsenal was begun in 1553. The previous church of S. Martino had been planned longitudinally. Sansovino changed the axis, placing the entrance on the north side, but retaining as many foundation walls as possible from the older structure. This was a much poorer parish and no wealthy donor was at hand to pay for an Istrian stone façade. Indeed funds were so short that building proceeded very slowly, and a mere half of the church was complete by Sansovino’s death. The reminder was only finished in 1633.
In addition to his architectural projects, from the middle of the 1530s, Sansovino also embarked on a variety of sculptural projects for his employers. In Venice, Sansovino returned to a Quattrocentesque style of sculpture that drew upon his own roots in Florentine art in the late 15th century and blended in with what he judged to be the prevailing artistic climate in Venice.
Fortunately most of his sculptures still remain in situ so that the best way to appreciate his work and that of his school is by walking around the city. Probably his earliest work seen by the Venetian public was the Arsenal Madonna, which occupies the same niche in which it was first placed in 1534.
Sansovino also began to acquire important private commissions from the Venetian State and nobility. This forced him to rationalize his working procedure: the slow procedure of autograph works was generally abandoned in favour of a system in which he designed models that would be subsequently turned over to others for execution. Bronze proved crucial for many of these Venetian projects and became increasingly the sculptor’s chosen mode for sculptural expression. It was also a medium with a long tradition in Venetian sculpture but one in which Sansovino had little experience. The great advantage of bronze lay in in the ease with which an artist’s model could be transformed into a durable work of art, a facility just right for the demands imposed on Sansovino by his growing architectural commitments.
Sansovino’s bronze reliefs are among the most beautiful and original of the 16th century, a tribute to his narrative skill and to the superior capabilities of Venetian bronze casters. Bronze was the most prized and the most expensive medium for sculpture and its use in S. Marco had recently been established by the chapel of Cardinal Zen, which set a new standard for bronze sculpture in Venice. When Sansovino was asked to redesign the furnishings of the choir of S. Marco, the inclusion of relief panels in the two pergola, or tribunes, must have seemed a natural component in upgrading the appearance of the sanctum sanctorum of the church. The eight panels, six narrative reliefs and two separate figures of St Mark and his lion celebrated the miracles of the patron saint of Venice.
The painterly style of Sansovino’s reliefs for S. Marco reached its apogee with the sacristy door. Conceived around 1545, this is one of only a few bronze doors executed in the 16th century. The door is difficult to interpret in the ill-lit conditions of S. Marco, but it repays careful looking. It is the great masterpiece of Venetian bronze relief casting, and the dramatic scenes of the Entombment (lower portion of the door) and Resurrection (upper portion of the door) show how gifted a narrative artist Sansovino could be.
Of all of Sansovino’s contributions to the Venetian cityscape, the Loggetta is the most celebrated. Like the sculpture adorning the façade of the Palazzo Ducale opposite, the Loggetta’s decoration invoked the virtues of the Venetian Republic, especially the bronzes: Minerva or Pallas representing martial vigilance, Apollo, political harmony, Mercury, persuasive eloquence, and Peace, that divine gift conferred on the Venetians by their Evangelist, St. Mark.
One could not find a greater contrast between the Loggetta bronzes and the other great works of Sansovino’s last years as a practicing sculptor than the “giants” for the staircase of the Palazzo Ducale (by Antonio Rizzo) and the tomb for Doge Francesco Venier in the church of S. Salvatore.
The staircase received its name following Sansovino’s arrangement of the statues of Neptune and Mars in 1556. The coronation ceremony of the doge was held here against a splendid theatrical backdrop.
The classical simplicity of this funerary monument distinguishes it from the grandiloquence of other funerary monuments in Venetian churches. But still pompous! Though largely executed by Sansovino’s assistants, the tomb succeeds through its controlled opulence and the high quality of its sculptural details.
Sansovino dominated Venetian sculpture around the middle of the 16th century much as his close friend Titian did painting. He was able to do so through an extensive network of followers and collaborators who perpetuated his style long after his death in 1570. The superb Scala d’Oro in the Palazzo Ducale, reserved for magistrates and other illustrious persons, gave access to the private ducal apartments and to the magistrates’ meeting rooms on the piano nobile. The stairway was executed in the second half of the 16th century following a Sansovinesque design and was brought to completion by Scarpagnino. The barrel-vaulted ceiling was richly decorated with white and gilded stucco reliefs by Alessandro Vittoria.