Sculpture Journal

The maniera moderna of Andrea Sansovino’s cardinal tombs at Santa Maria del Popolo

Sculpture Journal (2019), 28, (1), 75–102.


A re-examination of the commission for two wall tombs by Pope Julius II between 1505 and 1509 at Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome serves as a catalyst to re-evaluate the Tuscan sculptor Andrea Sansovino, who was hired to produce the memorials. Although the Popolo tombs, dedicated to Cardinals Ascanio Sforza and Girolamo Basso della Rovere, were part of Sansovino’s long career, scholars have remained split in their categorization of the artist: some claiming him as just another imitator of the Florentine manner while others praise his creative interpretation of architectonic monuments. The relative neglect of Sansovino in the literature appears to be a case of circumstance, for he was not the only well-known sculptor commissioned by the pope in 1505 to produce a large tomb. Michelangelo was summoned to Rome a few months earlier to plan Julius’s own memorial for the new St Peter’s basilica. Sansovino’s reinvention of the monumental wall tomb, however, marked a distinct shift in the culture of memorialization of ecclesiastics in sixteenth-century Italy. The polarizing opinions of Sansovino suggest a larger discourse at play and raise the question of the meaning of maniera moderna. I reconsider the motives behind Julius’s commission of the cardinals’ tombs and how his political agenda inspired Sansovino’s design. Not only did Sansovino’s contemporaries praise the Popolo tombs as exemplars by a modern master, they were also significant for Michelangelo during the early stages of his own tomb production. In order to assess how Sansovino’s new ideation on ecclesiastical commemoration directly impacted Michelangelo’s design process, I examine the extant drawings of Julius’s tomb and Michelangelo’s biographers’ account of the project. Only by exploring the interrelationship between Julius, Sansovino and Michelangelo around 1505 can the exceptional achievement of the Popolo tombs be revealed.

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Author details

Langer, Lara