Sunday, 10 February 2013

 Fra Angelico, Madonna of Mercy with Kneeling Friars, c. 1424, Tempera and gold on parchment, 475 x 350 mm, Museo di San Marco, Florence.
Many famous painters’ early careers are the subject of speculation, given the lack of documentation and meagre commissions; Fra Angelico is no exception. It is believed that Angelico, or to give him his real name, Guido di Pietro, was thought to have born in 1387, and to have entered the confraternity of San Domenico in 1407; however, archival research undertaken on the 500th anniversary of the painter’s death has forced a re-think about Guido’s earliest activity. It is now believed that Fra Angelico was not active until the second decade of the fifteenth-century and did not become a friar until 1420.[1] There is scant information about Angelico’s early training, although names like Gherardo Starnina and Lorenzo Monaco have been suggested as possible tutors. According to Vasari, Angelico , “ certain periods of his life, and particularly at the beginning of his career, worked as a miniature painter.” This led Van Marle to state that Angelico “..would have had his first lessons with some miniaturist monk, who followed the late Gothic style, such as , for instance, Lorenzo Monaco”. Later research has built a stronger case for placing Fra Angelico in the vicinity of Monaco. In October 1417, Fra Angelico registered as a member of the confraternity of San Niccol√≤ di Bari, who met in the basement of Santa Maria del Carmine. The record of his enrolment puts down that he was a “painter,” or an independent artisan past apprenticeship. Also, the record places him in San Michele Visdomini, the neighbourhood that contained Monaco’s monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli.[2] Concrete evidence exists for an early connection to Monaco via the network of religious patrons in Florence. Also showing the influence of Monaco, particularly in the Virgin and angels, is the San Domenico Altarpiece, which the friars commissioned for their services. As a contrast, an altarpiece commissioned by the administration of San Pier Martire altarpiece, switches stylistic allegiances in favour of Masaccio: an abandonment of Lorenzo’s “subtle tonal variations for more saturated and enamel-like hues.” Whether this triptych signifies artistic liberation at the death of Lorenzo Monaco in either 1423 or 1424 remains in the realms of conjecture.[3]

 Fra Angelico, St Peter Martyr Altarpiece, 1427-28, Tempera and gold on panel, 137 x 168 cm, Museo di San Marco, Florence.

Fra Angelico, San Domenico Altarpiece, 1423-24, Tempera and gold on panel, 212 x 237 cm, San Domenico, Fiesole.

[1] See Carl Brandon Strehlke, “Appendix: A Biographical Note on Early Angelico” in exh. cat., Illustration in Florentine Painting, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Lawrence Kanter, 1994, 41-2.
[2] Strehlke, “Fra Angelico Studies” in Illustration in Florentine Painting, 25-41, 25.
[3] Ibid, 30.

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