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Andrea del Sarto (Florence 1486-Florence 1530)

The head of St Sebastian c.1517-18

Black chalk | 28.6 x 22.5 cm (sheet of paper) | RCIN 903405

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  • A drawing representing a head of a man, in profile to the right. Interpreted as a study for the head of St Sebastian in the altarpiece of the Dispute on the Trinity, Palazzo Pitti, Florence. Catalogued by Kurz as a 'non Bolognese' in the Reni vols.

    Andrea del Sarto’s altarpiece of the Dispute on the Trinity, painted for the church of San Gallo outside Florence (and now in the Pitti Palace), depicts St Augustine in conversation with three other saints, and Sts Sebastian and Mary Magdalene kneeling in the foreground. This rapid study for St Sebastian examines the effect of turning his head away from the viewer.

    This drawing is a study by Andrea del Sarto for the head of St Sebastian, who kneels clutching the arrows of his attempted martyrdom in the left foreground of the Dispute on the Trinity. The altarpiece was executed probably around 1517-18 for the Augustinian church of San Gallo outside Florence and is now in the Pitti. The drawing is unusually sketchy for a large head by Sarto, but the incisive, sweeping strokes of chalk are exactly his.

    Two other drawings for the St Sebastian are known, both in red chalk. In the Uffizi is a study of a nude boy, thigh-length and wearing a turban, and in a private collection is a hesitant drawing of the upper half of the saint, with his drapery gathered over his right arm as in the painting. Neither of these studies shows the profile turned into the pictorial space as far as in the painting, and the purpose of the present drawing may have been to examine - however roughly - the effect of turning the saint’s head further, such that his locks of hair largely obscure his face.

    Sarto reprised the pose of St Sebastian in the apostle in the left foreground of the Panciatichi Assumption of c.1522-3 (also in the Pitti), who kneels in the same attitude but turns his head to look out at the viewer; the apostle there had initially been conceived looking forwards, like St Sebastian (as shown by a study for the figure whose connection with the Assumption rather than with the Dispute is demonstrated by other studies on the verso of this sheet). Sarto also used the same pose for St Nicholas of Bari in the Passerini Assumption of c.1526 and - returning more closely to the semi-nude St Sebastian - for the Baptist in the Gambassi Madonna and Child with Saints (both paintings again in the Pitti) of a couple of years later.

    On the verso of the sheet are several sketches of architectural mouldings, perhaps for the lost original frame for the painting, and an indeterminate drapery study.

    This drawing had been mounted for George III among the sheets by followers of Guido Reni. Un Dissegno con Testa di Mano d’Andrea del Sarto was listed in the 1696 inventory of Silvestro Bonfiglioli, among drawings by Bolognese artists including Guido Reni, Guercino and Ludovico Carracci. This may have been the present sheet, subsequently losing its attribution and being subsumed among the Bolognese drawings that passed to Sagredo and then to Joseph Smith.

    Catalogue entry adapted from The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection: Renaissance and Baroque, London, 2007

    Possibly Silvestro Bonfiglioli (d. 1696); from whose heirs bought by Zaccaria Sagredo, 1728; from whom bought by Consul Joseph Smith, 1751/2; from whom bought by George III, 1762. Recorded in Inventory A, p. 80, Guido &c. Tom. 4, among '13 heads by Various Scholars of Guido'.

  • Medium and techniques

    Black chalk


    28.6 x 22.5 cm (sheet of paper)