Even the average person with little or no background in art may have heard the names Leonardo da Vinci, Michaelangelo, or Raphael. Not only because they are the most famous and noteworthy painters, sculptors, draughtsmen, designers, and inventors of the high renaissance, but also because of the countless stories and movies, fact and fiction which included these men and at least mentioned their importance, relevance, and influences on today’7s world. Many children have grown up already knowing these names, and perhaps that they were artists however simplistic that may be, after the explosion of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the late eighties.
Perhaps there is one high renaissance artist who does not always recieve due credit, but who was influencial just the same.
One such artist was Baccio della Porta, a Florentine renaissance painter. Baccio della Porta was born in Florence, Italy in 1472. As historians know, most artists went into apprenticeship at about the age of eleven or twelve at this time in Florence. Taking this into account, it is assumed that Baccio did become an apprentice of Cosimo Rosselli at that age since he was well known in his workshop by 1485.1
Baccio della Porta’s master or teacher, Cosimo Rosselli, had probably just returned from his work in Rome in the Sistine Chapel. It is also known that the average length of time for an artist’s apprenticeship was about six to eight years, putting Baccio on his own around 1490. 2
According to many modern art historians, Vasari is the most reliable source of information on the life and works of Fra Bartolommeo after he entered the Dominican Order and became a brother.3 Baccio della Porta and a pier of his, as well as a fellow student of the arts, Mariotto Albertinelli became intimate friends during their apprenticeships. Following their apprenticeship the two decided to work proffesionally together at the home of Baccio della Porta. They made this decision to work together in 1491, but their “partnership” and friendship apparently ended when they went their own ways in styles and choices of schools to follow and associate with4.
Baccio della Porta joined the followers of Savonarolas, Mariotto associated with the Medici followers, specifically working for the patron Alfonsina Orsini who was the wife of Piero de ‘ Medici. After Savonarolas was burned during the violent riots of the arrabiati.
Chris Fischer writes that there must have been countless works executed between Mariotti Albertinelli and Baccio della Porta during this period of upheaval when Savonarolas was murdered because he was thought to be a heretic.5 However, because of this violent period, few of these works can be acredited to one painter or another. The obvious and evident recognizable influences by master artists were reflected in many works, which helped to narrow some works down to the style of the Cosimo Rosselli school.
As Baccio della Porta began to develop his own style which was naturally to give purpose,
meaning, and religious order, he then made a permanent and important step in his life.6
Baccio della Porta was deeply moved after witnessing the preaching of Savonarola and decided to join the Dominican Brotherhood around 1500.7Once Baccio della Porta had withdrawn into the convent he retired from painting for some time. This difficult decision must have built character, something which is a definite plus in the life of an aspiring artist. After joining the convent Baccio’s name changed to Fra Bartolommeo as he is known today. His style showed a truth and need to preach of religion and righteousness. Although Fra Bartolommeo’s purpose reflected in his works was noble and honest, he was not exactly a revolutionary with much to say. His figure-style, composition, symbolism, rhythm, mastering of chiaroscuro, his beautiful handling of flowing draperies, and his simplicity all reflect his goal of ridding the world
Before discussing Bartolommeo’s works and style in depth, one must first give a general sense of his styles and why he adopted them and evolved the way he did. For the most part this general introduction to Bartolommeo’s style has been provided in the previous pages.
Fra Bartolommeo always had a sense for the grandiose and largescale figures and settings.
To the untrained eye or even at first glance of a work by Bartolommeo, one might be inclined to see virtuosic curvilinearities and dark theatricality, almost foreshadowing the Baroque and Giovanni Bernini. However dark and shadowy and emotional, Bartolommeo’s works were quite restrained and simplistic, ignoring vain detail which was an important aspect of the lavish and ornate Baroque style, reassuring Fra
Bartolommeo’s role as a High Renaissance painter. Heinrich Wolfflin describes Bartolommeo’s figures as “unshakably firm” and “grasp…with an iron grip” on page 141 of Classic Art. Bartolommeo hardly cared for detail, and noticably in the majority of his large chalk drawings, which studied the human figure he barely paid attention to the individualism of the face. Instead he concentrated on creating a sincerity that would shine through to the viewer, abolishing all attention to frivolous detail. His chalk drawings are perfect examples of this because of their single largescale figure, with a composition concentrating solely on the emotion being evoked and expressed.
Perhaps a more noteworthy or recognizable painting to illustrate this evoking of emotion would be Fra Bartolommeo’s The Last Judgement from 1499, as pictured in Figure 1. This shared work by Fra Bartolommeo was completed for the Santa Maria Nuova, but later was moved to the Uffizi where it remains still today. Critques of this fresco point out a lack of cohesion which causes possible boredom or disinterest for the reader.9An old-fashioned style of portraying a crowd of people at the bottom of the painting also contributes to this overall unsuccessful attempt by Bartolommeo. The painting is still howevere regarded as an inspirational work, both for the viewer as well as Raphael. Raphael utilized Fra Bartolommeo’s Last Judgement as one reference to create his Disputa, although comparing the two works shows Raphael’s natural talent and skill for composing.
Fra Bartolommeo’s handling of people seems to come together successfully in the Marriage of St. Catherine shown in figure 2, which was painted in 1512. Fra Bartolommeo chooses the neutral tones and heavy architecture to enclose the scene.10 Contrasting shapes of light and dark figures and cramped juxtaposing open spaces creates a dynamic, yet almost orderly composition. Bartolommeo’s inclusion of a small flight of steps serves as a forerunner to Raphael’s School of Athens and altar pieces in the future which contain many figures in a small space. Bartolommeo’s subtle evoking of emotion is evident in the gestures of the Madonna and baby Jesus as well as the contraposto of the figure in the lower right hand corner.
Also in 1512 Fra Bartolommeo painted an impressive Madonna and Child(refer to figure 3) which is in the Besancon Cathedral. Bartolommeo created a new kind of spiritualism and idealism by straying away at least for the time being his usual dark backgrounds and opening a door behind the beautifully floating Madonna, creating depth and perspective. Another important aspect within this work is the lighting technique utilized, which lights brightly the portions of the figures’ bodies which need to be seen the most, contrasting against a relatively dark surrounding. Perhaps the most impressive handling of a single figure in this painting is the St. Sebastian on the right which flows gracefully in his body language, somewhat resembling St. Bernard in a previous work in the vision of St. Bernard from 1506.
While visiting Rome in 1517, it is believed that Bartolommeo must have seen Raphael’s Sistine Madonna , illustrated in figure 4, and was inspired in part by it to paint one of his most highly regarded works entitled The Risen Christ with the four Evangelists.11
The simplistic restraint of the Christ figure is complimented by the flowing drapery and its smooth chiaroscuro.Both Raphael’s Sistine Madonna(figure 5) and Bartolommeo’s Ressurected Christshare the aspects of centralized figures floating on clouds and a noble and naturalistic casting of clothing upon the forms of the important figures.
Figure 6, Fra Bartolommeo’s Pieta which rests in Pitti Florence, Italy. Idealism is a prevailing factor in this work because of the existing fact that Christ does not resemble a truly dead corpse, for his head lies almost as if sleeping and no serious wounds can be seen. Emotion is expressed through the passionate embrace by Mary Magdalen at Christ”s feet and the gentle motherly touch by the Mary.12 yet another example of idealism in this work is the fact that Jesus is supposed to be about 33 years old, while his mother appears to be no older than 25.
In Lucca Academy in Florence, Bartolommeo’s Madonna of Mercy can be seen, a painting from 1515. This is yet another example of the Fra’s perfected technique of including a mass of figures in one scene without crowding the composition, partially by utilizing a path for the figures. The eye of the viewer is allowed to move about the work via the small stairs, first leading up towards the Madonna. The subtle hierarchic scale of the Madonna and the floating angels and Christ figures only amplify the glory, nobility, and importance of the scene.
During 1509 Fra Bartolommeo completed (figure 8) God the Father and two Saints, a work inspired by the same emotion as in the St. Bernard and thus the two are often compared. The drapery is perhaps more flowing and spiritually symbolic in this work than in the St. Bernard. The composition retains Bartolommeo’s strong order and compostion style, with the holy and important figure centered and floating above the rest of the figures, adding a theatrical appearance
to the audience viewing this altar piece. God the Father and two Saints holds numerous contrasts to Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, although both contain kneeling and floating figures. The landscapes are also treated differently in that Bartolommeo creates calm depth and atmosphere with his flat distant landscape. 13
This work is probably a fine example of Fra Bartolommeo’s mature style of the figure, composition, and his rhythmic, largescale compositions which were and are meant to motivate the audience, normally of a Roman Catholic background, to abandon vanity and meaningless detail and to focus on life as a whole. Maybe Bartolommeo wanted people to live their lives this way, thus providing a simple yet noble moral explaining his view that life should be lived not feared. That trivial incidents and circumstances do not affect the outcome in the end. As Heinrich Wolfflin wrote in similar words, Fra Bartolommeo may not have had much to say as a High Renaissance painter, but what he did say he said with conviction.14
Borgo, Ludovico, The Works of Mariotto Albertinelli, (1976), 585p..
Fischer, Chris, Fra Bartolommeo:master draughtsman of the high renaissance: a selection from the Rotterdamn albums and landscape drawings from various collections, (1990), 410 p..
Studies in the history of art, v. 6, (1974), 214 p..
Wolffin, Heinrich, Classic Art: an introduction to the Italian Renaisance, (1994), 294 p..