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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Fra Bartolemeo

Fra Bartolomeo Self-portrait 
Yesterday I wrote of the plight of writers in dealing with personages having the same or similar last names. There's also a flipside to that, dealing with subjects who have gone by more than one name. For example, there's the Italian Renaissance painter Bartolomeo di Pagholo, who also went by the name Baccio della Porta, and is best known as Fra Bartolomeo. The man was born in a small town near Florence in 1472, coming of age around the beginning of the high Renaissance, and having the great good fortune to study with some of the best painters of the previous generation. He lived and working amid the likes of Leonardo, Botticelli, Perugino, Raphael (who taught him perspective) and Michelangelo (who refused to teach anyone anything). Young Baccio studied with one of the best of his time, Cosimo Rosselli. By the time he was twenty Baccio della Porta was collaborating with fellow student, Mariotto Albertinelli, a protégé of Florence's ruling Medici family. They shared a studio.

Girolamo Savonarla, 1498,
Fra Bartolomeo
The 1490s were a lively time in Florence for artists, writers, and those dealing with the vanities of the humanities. In that context, it's difficult to overstate the impact of another man young Baccio knew well, Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola was not an artist--far from it, in fact. One might even call him an anti-artist who believed that the only virtue art possessed was in illustrating the Bible for the illiterate masses. Savonarola was what we might call today a "fire and brimstone" preacher. For better or worse (one might argue), the young Baccio della Porta was attracted to the fiery evangelist's social teachings and preachings, which was a precarious pursuit for a young artist attempting to establish himself in the effete social realm of Renaissance Florence at that time. Savonarola started a religious revolution. The Medici family was expelled from Florence, a republic took their place for a time, and the so-called "bonfires of the vanities" reigned, in which millions of dollars worth of great art, books, and other valuable "vanities" were literally burned in the streets. However, by 1498, it was Savonarola, himself (along with two followers) who was burning in the streets after a run in with Pope Alexander VI (the infamous Rodrigo Borgia).

Vision of St. Bernard, 1504-07, Fra Bartolomeo
Fortunately, our impressionable young artist was too insignificant to rate his own bonfire, but that did not mean his association with the late, great, Savonarola didn't have a profound effect on the rest of his life. It was at this point Baccio della Porta swore off painting, laying aside his brushes to become Fra Bartolomeo, joining Savonarola's followers, the Piagnoni, and later becoming a Dominican friar. From 1500 to 1504 the young friar devoted himself exclusively to things of God. Then having been made the head of the monastery workshop, at the behest of his superior, he began work on The Vision of St. Bernard. It was during this time Raphael taught him perspective while the good father taught the younger Raphael the use of color and how to paint drapery.

Pieta, 1516, Fra Bartolomeo
Friar or not, Bartolomeo's fame spread. He was called to Rome, leaving behind two unfinished paintings for Raphael to finish. By 1508 he was in Venice working on three paintings for the Dominicans of San Pietro Martire, who apparently expected freebies from one of their own. Unpaid, Fra Bartolemeo, instead took his paintings with him when he moved on to the small town of Lucca. For the remainder of his life, ever the devoted servant of the church, Fra Bartolemeo painted wherever he was called and whatever he was called upon to do, completing as many as a dozen major works, before his death in 1517.

St. Mark Evangelist, ca. 1516, Fra Bartolomeo, copy by Anton Domenico Gabbiani.
(The original of his work by Fra Bartolomeo, considered his best work, is associated
with the Pitti Palace in Florence, but may, in fact, be lost as no images of it other than copies seem to be available.)

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