Thursday 14 March 2013

Fra Bartolommeo and Spiritual Unity at the end of the Quattrocento.

Fra Bartolommeo, Madonna, Child and Infant Baptist, 1497, oil and gold on wood, 58.4 x 43.8 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

 Leonardo da Vinci, Madonna with a Flower (Madonna Benois), c. 1478, Oil on canvas transferred from wood, 50 x 32 cm, The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.
One of the main problems Florentine painters faced at the end of the quattrocento was struggling out of the Leonardoesque straitjacket they found themselves in. And worse still was the fact that Leonardo’s influence had been transmitted through artists like Lorenzo di Credi who, in the words of Sydney Freedberg, practiced a “conditioned Leonardism.”[1] Some of this standardized Leonardism is visible in Fra Bartommeo’s  Madonna and Child (New York), which seems to be modelled after Credi’s translations of Leonardo’s Benois Madonna. To complicate matters further, the Met panel seems to betray knowledge of the realism used in the workshops of Ghirlandaio and Piero di Cosimo. For Freedberg, this realism was “tempered” by Baccio della Porta (Fra Bart’s real name) in order to create an art that was infused with “spiritual life”, a spiritual unity that could be aligned with the harmony of Leonardo’s designs. Freedberg also claimed that Baccio took what he needed from  Leonardo in order to adapt it to the style in which he had been educated, namely the mixture of classicism and realism in Florentine painters like Ghirlandaio and Botticelli examined last week.

Fra Bartolommeo Portrait of Girolamo Savonarola, c. 1498, Oil on wood, 47 x 31 cm, Museo di San Marco, Florence.

Sandro Botticelli, Lamentation over the Dead Christ with Saints, c. 1490, Tempera on panel, 140 x 207 cm, Alte Pinakothek, Munich.
 Baccio’s stylistic development gained momentum in the climate of Savonarola's Florence, although we must be careful lest we mistakenly honour the preacher with instigating a reform in quattrocento art. The word “reform” used to describe stylistic change really is only legitimate later in the 16th century when the Counter-Reformation is in full swing. Admittedly, Baccio knew Savonarola, whose portrait he painted, but the Dominican was manifestly opposed to quattrocento art which he saw as idolatrous with its bright colours and eye-catching devices, a criticism of St Augustine whose readings spurred Savonarola to the religious life. If we are looking for a painter whose art was influenced by the theological ideas of Savonarola, we need look no further than Botticelli. 

Fra Bartolommeo, God the Father with Sts Catherine of Siena and Mary Magdalen, 1509, Panel (transferred), 361 x 236 cm, Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Mansi, Lucca.
 Fra Bartolommeo was exposed to the colouristic side of renaissance art when he visited Venice (April-November 1508) and as Edgar Wind noted it is shocking for those seeking to see Fra Bart’s star rising under Savanorola, to see the impact of Venetian artists like Bellini on altarpieces like God the Father with Two Saints (Lucca). Wind demonstrated in detail how these altarpieces were linked with Savanorola’s protégé, Sante Pagnini at San Marco who had some connection with Michelangelo’s programme for the Sistine ceiling.[2] However, though Pagnini was aware of his mentor’s ideas, he favoured a softer theological line and even encouraged Fra Bart to pick up his brushes after his three year hiatus caused by becoming a monk in 1500.

[1] S. J. Freedberg, Painting in Italy 1500-1600, (Pelican History of Art New Haven and London, 1993), 84.
[2] Edgar Wind, “Sante Pagnini and Michelangelo” in The Religious Symbolism of Michelangelo: The Sistine Ceiling, (ed Elizabeth Sears), OUP,) 1-22, 15.

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