ANDREA DEL SARTO
(b. 1486, Firenze, d. 1530, Firenze)
Disputation on the Trinity1517
Oil on wood, 232 x 193 cm
Galleria Palatina (Palazzo Pitti), Florence
In the same period as the Madonna of the Harpies, according to the evidence of Vasari confirmed by stylistic links, Andrea painted another great panel, for the altar of a chapel in the Augustinian church of San Gallo. At the time of the siege of Florence in 1529 it was taken to safety inside the walls, to San Jacopo tra' Fossi, as were the two earlier paintings (Noli me tangere and the Annunciation).
The altarpiece features Sts Augustine, Sebastian, Lawrence, Peter Martyr, Francis and Mary Magdalen placed before an indistinct backdrop of sky and clouds resplendent with a compact image of the Trinity.
The subject of the picture is not rare in central Italian painting during this period of spiritual and religious debate. We need only mention the emblematic solutions provided by Raphael for analogous themes with the Disputation on the Sacrament in the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican, or the Ecstasy of St Cecilia, painted in 1514 for the church of San Giovanni in Monte at Bologna. Moreover, it was particularly congenial to the Augustinian clients of the monastery of San Gallo, who wished to present a theme dear to St Augustine, who is in fact depicted while leading a lively debate among other saints, in the presence of a stupendous Magdalene with the features of Lucrezia kneeling beside St Sebastian.
We get the best possible idea of the admiration aroused by the picture from the enthusiastic words of Bocchi: "In this church there are three wonderful pictures by Andrea del Sarto: but the one on the right, with saints disputing about the Trinity, is of all pictures in all places the most wonderful. In this picture we see what a lively colouring, a drawing of rare quality, a unique mastery, can do. Who ever saw clothing so lifelike, or the reliefs of surfaces so marked, the features of persons so vivid, and liveliness so conforming with the truth?. . . It does not seem as if these figures were made of paint, but of flesh; not clothed by artifice, but by nature. But if for a moment we put aside the colours, and the artifice, we enter into the spirit of that which is true beyond any doubt; and it seems that the persons are thinking, and adopting bodily attitudes, and talking, and are anything other than painted."
The only additions one can make to this admiring judgment from the past arise from the recuperation of the exceptional colours of the Disputation, obtained by a restoration that has only just been completed. Apart from certain irreversible alterations, such as the oxidization of the verdigris spread by the painter on the mantle of St Sebastian in order to emphasize the effect of shadow in the folds, and apart from missing parts and abrasions caused by previous cleanings, the removal - or the careful and extremely prudent reduction - of the layers of dirt and coloured varnishes deposited over the surface in the course of centuries has enabled us to rediscover warm, intense and most refined harmonies of colour set against the deep blue-green space of a stormy sky. The "palette" now revealed to us appears very similar indeed to that of the Madonna of the Harpies, and confirms the theory that these two masterpieces date from the same time.