Robert Browning’s poem “Andrea del Sarto” has a popular line: “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,/ Or what’s a heaven for?” A sixteenth-century Florentine painter of incredible talent, Del Sarto caught the eye of the Renaissance master Michelangelo. He was limited, however, by what his student and biographer Giorgio Vasari described as “a certain timidity of spirit” that kept him from rivaling the likes of Da Vinci, Titian, and Raphael.

While Browning’s depiction of Del Sarto is that of a man longing to be more ambitious, Vasari saw his mentor in a different light. Del Sarto’s folly consisted in the “poor spirit in the actions of his life,” not in any deficiency of ambition. Regardless of Del Sarto’s talent, like so many political pundits and celebrities today, he lacked magnanimity, or the kind of greatness and...


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