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Fra Bartolomeo

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Fra Bartolommeo

Florence 1472-1517

Studies of the Heads of Two Dominican Friars

 

 

Red chalk.

132 x 169 mm. (5 ⅛ x 6 ½ in.)

 

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Bartolommeo della Porta, known as Baccio, was born a few miles from Florence; his  mother died soon after his birth but his father, who was a mule driver, remarried and a few years later was able to buy a house at the entrance gate to Florence known as La Porta a S. Piero Gattolino. At the age of eleven or twelve Bartolommeo was apprenticed to Cosimo Rosselli and about six years later he joined forces with Mariotto Albertinelli and set up his own workshop at the family house which, according to Vasari, is how he came to be known as Baccio della Porta1. In the early years of the 1490s, as Bartolommeo was establishing his career, Florence was in political turmoil; Lorenzo il Magnifico died in 1492, Savonarola, as Prior of the Convent of San Marco was fomenting dissent and religious radicalism. By 1494, the Medici had been exiled and the following year, a parliamentary assembly titled the Gran Consiglio  was established. Barlotommeo known to be pious, God-fearing and appreciative of Savonarola’s sermons, joined in the ritual purifications encouraged by Savonarola and burnt ‘all the drawings of nudes that he had made by way of studies’2 When the faction known as the Arrabiati (the angry ones) stormed the Convent of San Marco in order to arrest Savonarola, Bartolommeo was amongst the five hundred or so who attempted a defence of the building. Bartolommeo emerged from this violent episode and the subsequent burning of Savonarola determined to take Holy Orders and in 1500 was accepted as a novice at the Dominican convent in Prato. Vasari records that Bartolommeo forsook his paintbrush at this time, causing much sorrow and displeasure to his friends and admirers who felt the loss both of his company and his Art.

In the same year as he took his solemn vows, 1504, having moved to the convent of San Marco, Fra Bartolommeo seems to have relinquished his moratorium on painting. Most probably this was at the behest of his Prior, Sante Pagnini, who wished to reanimate the artistic life of the Convent which had been so profoundly active during the time of Fra Angelico (1436-1445). Sante Pagnini appears to have acted as his mentor and even manager, suggesting iconography and drawing up contracts. During this period, Florence had re-invented itself as a centre for artistic innovation with both Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo at work in the Palazzo della Signoria3. Apart from a fascination with Leonardo’s use of sfumato, Fra Bartolommo’s interests were more in sympathy with the work of the young Raphael, Perugino’s pupil, who also arrived in Florence at around this time. Chris Fischer, in his monographic exhibition, traced the progress to be seen in Fra Bartolommeo’s drawings, from finely worked linear studies in pen and ink – focusing on the graceful arrangement of figures and their drapery - to larger, freer works in soft black chalk, through which the artist examined volume, light and movement.4 In, or around 1508, following a visit to Venice, Fra Bartolommeo resumed his old partnership with Albertinelli which allowed for increased production and coincided with the departure from the city of Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo. The Convent of San Marco had by then established sufficiently good relations with the Republican government, led by Piero Soderini, for Fra Bartolommeo to be awarded the commission for the altarpiece destined for the Sala del Gran Consiglio5

Fra Bartolommeo’s particular combination of uncourtliness and orderly devotion suited the anti-aristocratic aims of the Republic and encouraged commissions from the increasingly cultured mercantile class who formed the basis of Florentine prosperity.  Over the next few years the city became split between the supporters of Soderini who had allied with the French and the loomingly present Medici, who swept back into power in September of 1512.Though occupied with a major commission for the cathedral at Besançon, the altarpiece known as the Carondelet Madonna, Fra Bartolommeo was suddenly out of favour following the re-installation of the Medici Dukes. An alternative circle of painters had become popular, gathered around Andrea del Sarto who worked at the convent of SS. Annunziata and included the artists Pontormo and Rosso. Fra Bartolommeo’s partnership with Albertinelli had also dissolved for a second time, perhaps due to the slump in commissions. But with a degree of determination and political acumen, he appears to have begun to look beyond Florence for further commissions. These included the grand and populous altarpiece for the church of San Romano in Lucca, the Madonna della Misericordia. He travelled to Rome and had some success in restoring good relations with the establishment through the pro-Florentine leanings of the Pope and his entourage, but seems to have returned to Florence due to ill-health. Working for another three years, Fra Bartolommeo’s energies clearly re-kindled; the drawings of this period are animated, naturalistic and full of movement. He continued to concentrate on altarpieces and devotional paintings but his unexpected death curtailed work on his only known pagan work, a Feast of Venus commissioned by the Duke of Ferrara.6 Most famous for the qualities in his work of restraint, classical order and gentle piety, Fra Bartolommeo is considered as an archetypal High Renaissance artist working in a highly religious idiom. As is usual, however, with such limiting art-historical terms, this description obscures the manner in which Fra Bartolommeo looked out beyond his convent walls studying the world around him and developing his art accordingly.

This finely worked drawing of two extremely lifelike heads belongs to a small but distinct group of surviving red chalk portrait studies of Fra Bartolommeo’s Dominican brothers. Recently rediscovered in England and till now unpublished, it relates specifically to the studies connected with the five fresco lunettes depicting Dominican saints, which the Frate painted over the doors of the visitor’s sleeping quarters, known as the Foresetiera, on the ground floor of the convent of San Marco7. The design of Fra Bartolommeo’s lunettes must have been inspired by Fra Angelico’s frescoes painted 70 years earlier in the lunettes above the doorways of the convent cloister.8Although Fra Bartolommeo’s frescoes are described as idealised portraits9, the head on the right of the present sheet is instantly recognisable as the model for St. Vincent  Ferrer who has the same penetrating gaze, high cheekbones and slightly downturned mouth (Fig. 1). This face appears again, though given a more youthful appearance, in a depiction of St.Thomas Aquinas, now in the Museo di San Marco dell’Angelico, with his attribute, the flaming sun, at his breast (Fig. 2). The portrait on the left of this sheet, shows an older man wearing a close fitting cap. He has an air of great dignity and may have been the Prior of the convent. The cap appears to be unusual in depictions of Dominicans who are more commonly shown bare-headed and tonsured or cowled. A comparison has however been pointed out with a portrait by Giovanni Bellini in the National Gallery, London, showing Fra Teodoro of Urbino as St. Dominic (signed, inscribed and dated 1515).  The cap may therefore be an indication of eminence or particular learning within the order.10 The facial type of the left hand head is notably similar to that of another friar, one of two head studies amongst others of hands and of a figure of the Virgin, on a sheet in the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam (Fig. 3).11 The arched eyebrow, lined and veined forehead, heavy jowls and baggy eyes, large ear lobes and wide, determined mouth are common features between these heads. On the verso of the Rotterdam sheet is a portrait of a hooded frate, holding a finger to his lips, a study for the lunette of St. Dominic (See figs. 4 and 5). The combination on one sheet of this latter connected head study with a study of a Madonna and Child preparatory for the Carondelet Madonna helps date this whole group of portrait drawings and the lunettes also, toaround 1510.

Chris Fischer noted in the Rotterdam exhibition catalogue that the earlier red chalk studies were uniformly drawn over stylus or metalpoint outlines12. This process is not visible in the present work, nor was it in the double-sided sheet of studies of heads, preparatory for the Madonna della Misericordia altarpiece which re-emerged at auction in 2008 and was previously known only from photographs.13 This absence of underdrawing may indicate Fra Bartolommeo’s increasing confidence with the medium of red chalk; indeed this relatively small study is particularly remarkable for its great sureness of touch and strong presence. A copy after the head study on the right is in the Uffizi, pasted onto an album page along with a second copy after a head study now in the Louvre14. The Louvre drawing is identified by Chris Fischer as preparatory for the head of St. Bernard in the Carondelet Madonna (dated circa 1510).

Describing another sheet which must be of the same period as the present drawing, the Two Studies of a head, three hands and a Christ carrying the Cross, in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille15 , the heads preparatory for a painting of St Vincent Ferrer, Chris Fischer notes that Fra Bartolommeo used red chalk in the period, around 1510, specifically for its qualities of warmth, to study faces, skin and muscles. He records that Fra Bartolommeo is said to have made the celebrated preacher Tommaso Cajani a model for the St Vincent and notes that these expressive studies, so carefully worked and strongly individualized, must surely be actual portraits. The same can most clearly be said for the present sheet in which both head studies have an extraordinarily strong presence and verisimilitude, the direct gaze of the one and the reverie of the other bringing us with such immediacy into the harsh spiritual world of early sixteenth century Florence.

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