Italian Paintings – Fra Bartolommeo

In the little Tuscan village of Savignano, about ten miles from Florence, in the year 1467, was born Bartolommeo del Fattorino, according to the Tuscan custom called Baccio. He lived many years near the gate of San Piero in Florence, and for this reason was called Baccio della Porta. When he was thirty years old he became a Dominican monk and was called Fra Bartolommeo or Il Frate. At the age of nine he began to study art with Cosimo Rosselli. He was influenced in great degree by Leonardo da Vinci. He drew in the gardens of San Marco; he studied the frescoes of Masaccio in the church of the Carmine; he went to the Palazzo Vecchio and studied the famous cartoons of Michelangelo and Leonardo. Going about the city, his eye was being unconsciously trained, his perceptive faculties educated by the constant presence of a universally recognized standard of art.

The little house in the midst of the garden by the gate of San Piero was well suited to Baccio’s tastes. He was never attracted by the gay life of Florence, so when not actively engaged his quiet home had the greatest charm for him. He was fond of the company of learned and sober men ; fond of listening to preaching. His mind seemed naturally to have had a religious bent.

Baccio painted some Madonnas of such refined, tender, exquisite beauty, they attracted the attention of the Dominican monks who sent for him and gave him a commission to paint a “Last Judgment” in their church of San Marco. While doing this work he was lodged in the convent. Here he came under the influence of the prior of the convent, Fra Girolamo Savonarola, and became devotedly attached to him.

On Palm Sunday, April 8, 1498, Savonarola preached a short sermon in the church of San Marco, in which he offered himself a sacrifice to God, and was prepared to suffer death. The end had come. From Vespers until midnight the hooting, howling mob surged round the church and convent. The great bell of the con-vent tolled and tolled, but it brought no relief from without. The mob at last burst the doors and fought their way to the great hall of the Greek Library, where they found Savonarola with his monks around him and the Blessed Sacrament before him, going on with the service as calmly as if all was peace within and without. Just here Baccio came to the turning point in his career. The gentle painter did not know how timid he was until that day, and while the brave novices and monks were fighting with wooden crucifix or whatever came in their way, Baccio, demoralized through fear, hid himself, and vowed if his life were spared he would dedicate himself to a religious life. He escaped unharmed and shortly after the death of Savonarola he took the vows and became the Dominican Friar, Fra Bartolommeo, leaving his unfinished work for his friend, Mariotto Albertenelli, to complete.

He was one of the best of the Florentine school. Solidity and sincerity distinguished his work in every detail. This we would expect from our knowledge of his character, for consciously or unconsciously the artist paints himself. Symonds says: “It may truly be said of Fra Bartolommeo that every picture he painted was an anthem of praise sung to the pealing organ, and lifting the soul and sense at once like a divine strain of harmony.”

His death caused the deepest grief to his friends and to the monks of his order, by whom he was tenderly loved. They buried him in San Marco on the 8th day of October, 1517.

( Originally Published 1912 )

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