Painters Of Florence – Fra Bartolommeo

THE same Dominican convent which once numbered Fra Angelico among its brothers, gave the world another painter who was reckoned among the fore-most masters of the sixteenth century. Fra Bartolommeo di San Marco never attained to the intense fervour and spirituality of Fra Giovanni, but he was a painter of great intellectual power and deep sincerity who gave utterance to his pure and reverent thoughts in the more perfect language of art in his age. He is especially interesting as the chief representative of Savonarola’s revival, who embraced the faith of the Friar and followed in his steps to the end, while at the same time he was one of the first artists to accept the ideas of the new century, to put in practice the principles of Leonardo and prepare the way for Raphael.

Baccio della Porta, as Fra Bartolommeo was called in his youth, was the son of a poor muleteer named Paolo Fattorino, who saved enough money to buy a plot of land and a house near the Porta di San Pier Gattolini, outside the walls of Florence. There his eldest child, a boy named Bartolommeo, was born in 1475, and became known as Baccio della Porta. At nine years old he was placed, by the sculptor Benedetto da Majano’s advice, in the bottega of Cosimo Rosselli, where he was employed to grind colours and sweep out the shop, and soon showed himself so capable and trustworthy that his master often sent him to receive payments. His sweet and gentle nature won the hearts of his companions, especially of another apprentice named Mariotto Albertinelli, who was about a year older, and who became his closest friend. “The two lads,” says Vasari, “became, as it were, one body and soul.” Yet from the first these young students were very different in their tastes. Baccio loved to study Masaccio’s frescoes in the dim chapel of the Carmine, while Mariotto preferred to copy antiques in the Medici gardens. When Savonarola’s preaching stirred all Florence to its depths, Baccio was daily to be found among the crowds in the Duomo who listened gladly to his words and wept over his pathetic appeals, while Mariotto joined the opposite faction of the Arrabbiati, and openly scoffed at the piagnoni. But the tie that bound the friends together was too strong to be lightly severed, and when, in 1492, the death of Baccio’s father and step-mother left a family of young brothers dependent upon his exertions, he and Mariotto opened a shop together and began to accept commissions on their own account.

It is difficult to point with certainty to any pictures which Baccio executed at this early period, but the Madonna adoring the Child, in the Visconti-Venostà Collection in Milan, the “Noli me Tangere” in the Louvre, and the Nativity and Circumcision in the Uffizi, were probably among the devotional pictures which he painted, according to Vasari, for private oratories and houses in these days of revived religious enthusiasm. The last-named panels were originally intended for the doors of a tabernacle containing a Virgin, by Donatello, which Filippino’s patron, Piero del Pugliese, held among his choicest treasures, and are remarkable for their exquisite finish and tender devotion. The portrait of Savonarola, which Baccio, ” moved by his ardent love for the Friar,” painted about this time, is said to be still preserved in a private collection at Prato, and bears the inscription, Hieronymi Ferrariensis missi a Deo, prophetoe effigies, which was discovered under a coat of paint, with which the words were concealed in the days of persecution. A copy of this interesting picture, which shows the Friar’s powerful head and striking features in all their rugged grandeur, may be seen in the cell formerly inhabited by Savonarola in San Marco. The young painter himself took an active part in the piagnone movement. Together with Lorenzo di Credi and many other artists, he laid his nude studies on the pyre erected on the Piazza at the Carnival of 1497, and saw the flames consume them. And he was among the gallant little band of defenders who rallied round their beloved leader on the fatal night when the furious mob stormed the convent and dragged the Frate to prison and death. The terrible events of these days, and the months of misery and despair that followed, were a crushing blow to the ardent young painter, who had looked on the Friar as the prophet sent from God to be the deliverer of Florence. For a time he struggled bravely to work at his art, and, at Gerozzo Dini’s request, began to paint the fresco of the Last Judgment on the walls of the Campo Santo attached to the hospital of S. Maria Nuova. To-day only faded and blackened fragments of this once noble work remain, but there is still a monumental grandeur about the composition, a dignity and elevation of type which are profoundly impressive. In this grand conception of the avenging Judge appearing with uplifted arm on the clouds of heaven, attended by all his Saints, we see how in those dark hours Savonarola’s follower clung to the eternal truths for which his master had lived and died. But the task was beyond his strength, and, when the upper part of the fresco was finished, Baccio :eft the rest to be finished by his friend Albertinelli, on the 26th of July, 1500, and took the vows of a novice in the Dominican convent at Prato.

During the next four years he gave up painting entirely, and only resumed his brush at the urgent entreaty of the Prior of San Marco, the wise and learned Santi-Pagnini. Henceforth Fra Bartolommeo, as he was now known, resolved to devote his art to the glory of God and the benefit of his community, remembering how Savonarola had encouraged all friars who had no vocation for preaching or theology to study painting and architecture. His first altar-piece was the Vision of St. Bernard, which he agreed to paint, on the 13th of November, 1504, for a chapel in the Badia, and, which now hangs, much injured and re-painted, in the Accademia. A prolonged dispute arose over the price of this picture between the Prior and Bernardo del Bianco, by whose order it was painted ; several arbiters were called in, and it was not till 1507 that the painter finally received the sum of 100 florins.

In 1504, the same year in which Fra Bartolommeo resumed the practice of his art, Raphael came to Florence and was deeply impressed by the Dominican artist’s fresco of the Last Judgment. He sought out Fra Bartolommeo and was constantly in his company, being anxious to learn the secret of his fine colour and his method of handling oils. Many of Raphael’s works at this period, especially the fresco in S. Severo at Perugia, and the Madonna of S. Antonio, now in America, bear witness to the attention with which he studied Fra Bartolommeo’s modelling and composition, and even in his drawings he adopted the charcoal which the friar employed habitually. On his part, Fra Bartolommeo felt the power of the great Urbinate’s spell, and the fresco of the Madonna clasping the Child in her arms which he painted on the wall of Savonarola’s cell in San Marco, closely resembles Raphael’s Casa Tempi Madonna, at Munich. The influence of Leonardo, who was engaged about this time on the fresco in the Council Hall, is even more evident in the masterly drawings by the friar’s hand which are to be found in the Uffizi and other galleries, and it was the close study of this artist’s works which produced the next development of Fra Bartolommeo’s style. To this period we may also ascribe the fresco of the Crucifixion in the Refectory of San Marco, and the lunette in which the friar repeats Fra Angelico’s well-known subject of Christ and his disciples at Emmaus, and introduces the portraits of his friend the Prior and of Fra Niccolo, afterwards Cardinal Schomberg.

In 1508, Raphael left Florence for Rome, and Fra Bartolommeo obtained leave to go to Venice, where, in company with the piagnone sculptor, Baccio da Monte-lupo, he visited the churches and palaces on the lagoons, and saw the Madonnas of Giovanni Bellini and the frescoes of Titian and Giorgione in the glory of their first freshness. At the prayer of the Dominicans of S. Pietro Martire at Murano, he agreed to paint an altar-piece for their church, and received twenty-five florins in advance, together with three more to buy colours, hoping to raise the rest of the money by the sale of some letters of St Katherine of Siena in their possession. Immediately after his return to Florence the painter set to work on this picture–the noble Vision of God the Father adored by St. Katherine of Siena and the Magdalen, now in the Lucca Gallery. But the friars of Murano were unable to raise the remainder of the 100 florins which they had promised the painter, and, at the end of three years, Fra Bartolommeo gave the work to his friend Prior Pagnini, who presented it to the church of San Romano in his native city of Lucca. In the same year, 15o9, the master painted another fine altar-piece of the Virgin enthroned between St. John the Baptist and a youthful St. Stephen, with the palm of victory in his hand and the stones of martyrdom on his head, which still adorns the Duomo of Lucca. Here the angels flying in the air and holding the crown over the Virgin’s head are very similar to those introduced by Raphael in his unfinished Madonna del Baldacchino, while the lovely cherub playing the lute on the steps of the throne was evidently suggested by the child angels in Gian Bellini s Venetian altar-pieces Both pictures are exceedingly rich in colour, and show the mastery of chiaroscuro which the painter had acquired from the study of Leonardo’s style. In his fresco of the Last Judgment, Fra Bartolommeo had already revealed himself as a master of great and original power. This imposing design forms, as it were, a link between the old world and the new, and takes us back, on the one hand, to the mediaeval conceptions of early Tuscan masters in the Campo Santo, while on the other it points onward to Raphael’s Disputa. Now, under the irresistible might of Leonardo’s influence, the Dominican artist advances a step further and becomes the representative of the modern style, with its abstract types, its scientific disposition of groups and masses of light and shade, its grand and monumental composition.

In 1509, the year in which these two masterpieces were completed, Fra Bartolommeo took his old friend and associate Mariotto Albertinelli into partnership with him once more. Now that Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael were all absent, the Dominican master had more orders than he knew how to execute, and found himself the most popular painter in Florence. A contract was drawn up between the Prior of San Marco and Albertinelli, by which the convent was to supply the necessary materials, and on the dissolution of the partnership, the works painted by both artists were to be sold, and the profits divided between them. The pictures which the two masters painted separately bear their respective signatures, while the works which they executed jointly, are inscribed with a monogram of the cross between two rings. For three years the two artists worked together in perfect harmony, and many were the fine paintings that issued from the convent-workshop. One of the most delightful of Fra Bartolommeo’s smaller pictures, the Holy Family, at Panshanger, belongs to this period, and was probably painted in 1509, soon after the Madonna at Lucca. The tender charm of Raphael’s art and the delicate tints of Leonardo’s colouring are blended together in this happy group of Mother and Children resting under palm and pomegranate trees in the sunny landscape, while St. Joseph, a venerable form with a grandly modelled head, leans on his staff behind them. After the dissolution of the partnership between Fra Bartolommeo and Albertinelli, this picture was bought by Filippi Salviati, a devoted follower of Savonarola and intimate friend of the painter, who already owned the artist’s portrait of the martyred Friar. The same delicate feeling and gentle grace appear in the altar-piece of the Virgin and Saints, in the Church of San Marco, a picture which was painted in 1509, and which, Bottari tells us, was actually taken for a work of Raphael by the artist Pietro da Cortona. The large altar-piece of the Marriage of St. Katherine in the Louvre, was also painted for San Marco, but was bought by the Signory in 151 I, and presented to the French ambassador, Jacques Hurault, Bishop of Autun. A second version of the subject, on a still grander scale, bearing the date 1512 and the words ” Orate pro Pictore,” was executed in the following year, to replace the former work, and is now in the Pitti. Another fine composition of the Virgin in Glory, adored by angels and saints, is still to be seen in the Cathedral of Besancon, and was painted for Ferry Carondelet, Chancellor of Flanders, and envoy of the Emperor Maximilian to the papal court. The donor, who was also Archdeacon of Besançon, appears kneeling in the foreground, and the picture is mentioned in the account-books of San Marco as having been sent to a ” M. Ferrino ” in Flanders.

In all of these works Fra Bartolommeo shows himself the true child of the Renaissance. His design is symmetrical and imposing, his figures are admirably modelled, while his thorough knowledge of chiaroscuro and anatomy are plainly seen. The Dominican master indeed devoted special attention to the structure of the human frame, and was one of the first Florentine artists who made use of jointed lay-figures. Unfortunately, in his anxiety to obtain strong relief, and to rival the roundness of Leonardo’s forms, he made use of bone-black and printer’s ink to deepen the shadows, a practice which proved disastrous in many instances, and ruined the lovely colour which is so marked a feature of his earlier works.

In January, 1512, the partnership between Fra Bartolommeo and Albertinelli was dissolved, and the sum of 450 florins, produced by the sale of their joint works during the last three years, was divided between Mariotto and the convent. Fourteen months before, on the 26th of November, 1510, Fra Bartolommeo had received a commission from Pietro Soderini, the Gonfaloniere of the Republic, to paint the altar-piece for the Hall of the Great Council in the Palazzo Pubblico. When the hall had first been erected in Savonarola’s days, this order had been given to Filippino, but afterwards abandoned in the troubled times which followed. Now the Medici had been once more expelled, and Fra Girolamo’s dream of a free city was again revived. Once more the old cries were heard in the streets, and Christ was once more proclaimed King in Florence. Fra Bartolommeo received the Gonfaloniere’s commission with joy, and set to work with enthusiasm on the great picture which was to commemorate this event. This noble cartoon, in brown monochrome, of the ” Virgin pleading for the liberties of Florence,” with St. Anne and the ten patron Saints of the Florentines at her side, is now in the Uffizi, and the original drawings, together with several studies of the different figures, are still preserved in the same collection. But before the work was finished, another revolution had taken place. The Medici returned again, and the short-lived dream of liberty was over. Eventually the cartoon was purchased by Ottaviano de’ Medici, a warm admirer of Fra Bartolommeo’s art, and placed in the church of S. Lorenzo.

In 1514, Fra Bartolommeo listened to his friend Raphael’s urgent entreaties, and paid a visit to Rome, where he was the guest of Fra Mariano Fetti, the keeper of the papal seals, at the Dominican convent of S. Silvestro on the Quirinal. But the climate affected his health, and at the end of two months he left Rome, seriously ill with malarial fever, and was sent by his Superior to the country hospital of the Dominicans at Pian di Mugnone. During the next two years, in. spite of failing health and frequent returns of fever, Fra Bartolommeo’s activity was greater than ever. The colossal St. Mark, of the Pitti, a figure evidently inspired by the sight of Michelangelo’s prophets in the Sistina, was painted in 1514, as well as a nude St. Sebastian, which hung for some time in San Marco. This figure, however, offended some of the more scrupulous friars, and was eventually sold to the French king’s agent, Giovanni Battista della Palla. In 1515, the artist completed the Annunciation, in the Louvre, and the Apostles Peter and Paul, in the Quirinal, which he presented to his host, Fra Mariano, and which, according to Vasari, were retouched by Raphael at the painter’s request. And in the same year, at the wish of the Dominican friars of the convent of San Romano at Lucca, he painted the great canvas of the Madonna della Misericordia, with the lovely groups of women and children among the crowd of worshippers taking shelter under the blue mantle of the Virgin-Mother. Unfortunately, the works of this last period, in spite of many beauties, all reveal the same fatal tendency to emulate the statuesque grandeur of Michelangelo’s style which Fra Bartolommeo shared with all his Florentine contemporaries. To this vain and futile endeavour the painter sacrificed his own exquisite sense of beauty and symmetry, and that instinctive grace and tender feeling which are the charm of his earlier works.

The prolonged strain of continual effort and uninterrupted labours had seriously affected the Friar’s health, and, in October, 1515, he once more sought rest and change of air at Pian di Mugnone, where he painted a fresco of the Annunciation in the convent church of S. Maddalena. On his way back to Florence, he stopped at his father’s native village of Suffignano, and while staying with his humble kinsfolk in this place, received a pressing invitation from King Francis I. to visit his court. He promised to consider the subject, but was detained in Florence for the present by work for his own convent. His presence was particularly required that winter, as Pope Leo X. came to Florence ; and when, at the prayer of the friars of San Marco, he issued a decree for the canonization of S. Antonino, Fra Bartolommeo commemorated the event by painting the little picture of the burial of the good Archbishop, which is now at Panshanger. The Pope was known to be a great admirer of Fra Bartolommeo’s work, and when, in 1512, he visited Florence, Prior Pagnini had presented him with one of the painter’s most charming works the dainty little Nativity in the Mond collection. A Madonna in Sir Francis Cook’s collection, and the lovely Holy Family, of the Corsini Palace, a gem of pure colour and miniature-like finish, which was painted for that well-known patron of art, Angelo Doni, both bear the date of 1516. Another wealthy merchant, Salvator Billi, employed the friar to paint the large Salvator Mundi, of the Pitti, and the figures of the prophets Job and Isaiah, in the Uffizi, for his chapel in the Annunziata. This altar-piece was bought early in the next century by Cardinal Carlo de’ Medici, after whose death, in 1663, it was removed to the Pitti and divided into separate portions. The Assumption, at Naples, was also painted in 1516, for a church at Prato, while the Presentation, in the Vienna Gallery, was painted for the Chapel of the Novices in San Marco, where it remained for more than two hundred years. Last of all, Fra Bartolommeo painted his great altar-piece of the Deposition, in the Pitti, for the Augustinian convent outside the Porta San Gallo. The shadow of the coming end may have helped to deepen the pathos and reverent feeling which give this noble picture so high a place among the works of a decadent age. On the 15th of June, 1517, Fra Bartolommeo sent a little Madonna to Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, together with a head of Christ for his wife, Lucrezia Borgia, excusing himself for his delay in gratifying the Duke’s wishes, owing to pressure of work. Then he went to spend the summer months at his favourite retreat, Pian di Mugnone, and enjoy a short interval of sorely-needed rest. But he soon took up his brush again and painted a fresco of Christ appearing to the Magdalen, in the convent church, and a portrait of Savonarola as S. Pietro Martire, in the Dominican habit, with the sword-cut in his head. This precious picture, in which the painter gave a last proof of the faithful affection with which he clung to the memory of his beloved teacher, was removed to San Marco after Fra Bartolommeo’s death, and fondly treasured by the brothers as a relic of their most illustrious artist. Early in the autumn he returned to Florence, but a fresh attack of fever carried him off in a few days. He died on the 6th of October, 1517, at the age of forty-two, and was buried with all honour in his own convent church.


Florence.—Accademia: 58. St. Vincent. 97. Vision of St. Bernard. 168, 171, 173. Frescoes—Heads of Madonnas and Saints.

Florence.—Accademia: 172. Portrait of Savonarola.

Pitti: 64. Deposition. 125. St. Mark. 159. Christ and the Evangelists. 208. Madonna and Child with Saints. 256. Holy Family. 377. Fresco—Ecce Homo.

” Uffizi : 1126. Isaiah. 1130. Job. 1161. Diptych of Nativity and Circumcision. 1265. Madonna and Child with Saints (unfinished).

” S. Marco, Refectory: Fresco—Crucifixion. Savonarola’s Cell: Madonna and Child. Christ at Emmaus. Church: Madonna and Child with Saints.

“S. Maria Nuova: Last Judgment (partly).

Lucca.—Duomo: Madonna and Child with Saints. ” Gallery, Sala II: 5. Madonna della Misericordia. 12. God the Father adored by Saints.

Milan.—Marchese Visconti- Venestà: Holy Family.

Pian di Mugnone.—S. Maddalena: Frescoes—Annunciation, Noii me Tangere.

Naples.—Sala Grande: 61. Assumption.

Rome.—Corsini Gallery: 579. Holy Family. ” Quirinal: SS. Peter and Paul.

Berlin.—Gallery; 249. Assumption (partly).

Besançon.—Cathedral: Madonna in Glory, and Saints.

London.—Mr. Mond: Holy Family, Nativity. Earl of Northbrook: Holy Family (partly).

Panshanger.—Holy Family, Burial of S. Antonino.

Paris.—Louvre: 1115. Noli me Tangere. 1153. Annunciation. 1154. Madonna and Child with Saints,

Richmond.—Sir Francis Cook: Holy Family.

Vienna.—Gallery: 41. Presentation.