This noble artist was born at Florence, of an ancient family, in the year 1477. Having at an early age displayed a remarkable predisposition for Art, he was placed by his mother with Andrea Contucci of Monte Sansovino (of whom we have briefly spoken in the Renaissance in Naples, Rome, Milan, and Venice), then working at Florence, who, says Vasari, "soon perceived that the young man promised to become very eminent". Their attachment speedily assumed such a character that, being regarded almost as father and son, Jacopo was no longer called "de Tatti", but "di Sansovino"; and as he was then named so is he called now, and ever will be.
Having distinguished himself by his abilities at Florence, and being considered a young man of great genius and excellent character, he was taken to Rome by Giuliano da San Gallo, architect to Pope Julius II. At Rome he attracted the notice of Bramante, and made a large copy in wax of the "Laocoon" (under Bramante's direction), in competition with other artists, among whom was Alonzo Berruguete, the celebrated Spanish architect. Sansovino's was adjudged to be the best, and a cast was taken of it in bronze, which finally coming into the possession of the Cardinal de Lorraine, was taken by him into France in the year 1534. San Gallo falling ill was obliged to leave Rome, and Bramante, therefore, found a dwelling for Jacopo in the same house with Pietro Perugino, who was then painting a ceiling for Pope Julius in the Torre Borgia, and who was so pleased with Jacopo's ability that he caused him to prepare many models in wax for his use.
He also became acquainted with Luca Signorelli, Bramantino di Milano, Pinturicchio, Cesare Cesariano, famous for his Commentaries on Vitruvius; and was finally presented to and employed by the Pope (Julius). He was in a fair way of advancement, when a serious illness caused him to return to his native city. Here he recovered, and successfully competed with Bandinelli and others for a large marble figure. He was in continual employment at this time, and among other works he executed for Giovanni Bartolini the beautiful "Bacchus", now in the Gallery degli Uffizii at Florence.
In the year 1514, great preparations being made at Florence for the entry of Leo X, Jacopo was employed in making various designs for triumphal arches and statues, with which the Pontiff was so much pleased, that Jacopo Salviati took his friend Sansovino to kiss the feet of the Pope, by whom he was received very kindly. His Holiness immediately gave him an order to make a design for the facade of San Lorenzo at Florence, which would seem to have given so much satisfaction, that Michael Angelo, who was to compete with him for the control of its construction, would appear to have outwitted Sansovino, and effectually prevented his success; for, says Vasari, "Michael Angelo was determined to keep all for himself".
Not disheartened, however, he continued in Rome, and was employed both in sculpture and architecture, and gained the great honour of being the successful competitor for the Church of St. John of the Florentines, against Raffaelle, Antonio da Sangallo, and Balthazar Peruzzi. Whilst superintending the commencement of the works he fell, and was so severely hurt that he left the city. Various causes led to the suspension of the works until the pontificate of Clement, when Jacopo returned and recommenced it. From that period he was engaged in every work of importance at Rome, until, on the 6th of May, 1527, that city was taken and sacked by the French.
Jacopo sought refuge in Venice, intending to visit France, where the King had offered him employment. The Doge, Andrea Gritti, however, persuaded him to remain, and to undertake the restoration of the cupolas of St. Mark's. This work he performed so satisfactorily, that he was appointed Proto Maestro to the Republic, assigned a house, and provided with a stipend. The duties of this office he performed with such sagacity and diligence, that by various improvements and alterations of the city he materially added to the income of the State.
Amongst his finest works here, and, indeed, among the finest examples of Italian Art anywhere, are to be noted, the Libreria Vecchia, the Zecca or Mint, the Palaces Cornaro and Moro, the Loggia round the Campanile of St. Mark, the Church of San Georgio dei Greci, the Statues of the Giant's Staircase, the monument of Francesco Veniero, and the bronze gates of the Sacristy.
His character as depicted by Vasari (edit. Bobn, vol. v. p. 426) is eminently agreeable, sagacious, amiable, courageous, and active. He appears to have been generally honoured, and had a large school of pupils, amongst whom may be mentioned Tribolo and Solosmeo Danese, Cattaneo Girolamo of Ferrara, Jacopo Colonna of Venice, Luco Lancia of Naples, Bartolomeo Ammanati, Jacopo de Medici of Brescia, and Alessandro Vittoria of Trent. He died on the 2nd of November, 1570, aged ninety-three; and (as Vasari tells us) "notwithstanding that the years of his life had come to an end in the pure course of nature, yet all Venice lamented his loss". It is mainly to the happy influence exerted by Sansovino that the School of Venice is indebted for its celebrity in ornamental bronze-work.