The Incarnation with Six Saints. 1515. Musee du Louvre, Paris.
Vasari's Lives of the Artists
NEAR THE TERRITORY OF PRATO, which is ten miles distant from Florence, in a village called Savignano, was born Bartolommeo, known, according to the Tuscan custom, by the name of Baccio. He, having shown in his childhood not merely inclination, but also aptitude, for drawing, was placed, through the good services of Benedetto da Maiano, with Cosimo Rosselli, and lodged in the house of some relatives of his own, who lived at the Porta a S. Piero Gattolini; where he stayed for many years, so that he was never called or known by any other name than that of Baccio della Porta.
After taking his leave of Cosimo Rosselli, he began to study with great devotion the works of Leonardo da Vinci; and in a short time he made such proficience and such progress in coloring, that he acquired the name and reputation of being one of the best young men of his art, both in coloring and in drawing. He had a companion in Mariotto Albertinelli, who in a short time acquired his manner passing well; and together with him he executed many pictures of Our Lady, which are scattered throughout Florence. To speak of all these would take too long, and I will mention only some excellently painted by Baccio. There is one, containing a Madonna, in the house of Filippo di Averardo Salviati, which is most beautiful, and which he holds very dear and in great price. Another was bought not long since, at a sale of old furniture, by Pier Maria delle Pozze, a person greatly devoted to pictures, who, having recognized its beauty, will not let it go for any sum of money; in which work is a Madonna executed with extraordinary diligence. Piero del Pugliese had a little Madonna of marble, in very low relief, a very rare work by the hand of Donatello, for which, in order to do it honour, he caused a wooden tabernacle to be made, with two little doors to enclose it. This he gave to Baccio della Porta, who painted, on the inner side of the doors, two little scenes, of which one was the Nativity of Christ, and the other His Circumcision ; which Baccio executed with little figures after the manner of miniatures, in such a way that it would not be possible to do better work in oils; and then he painted Our Lady receiving the Annunciation from the Angel, in chiaroscuro, and likewise in oils, on the outer side of the same little doors, so as to be seen when they are closed. This work is now in the study of Duke Cosimo, wherein he keeps all his little antique figures of bronze, medals, and other rare pictures in miniature; and it is treasured by his most illustrious Excellency as a rare thing, as indeed it is.
Baccio was beloved in Florence for his virtues, for he was assiduous in his work, quiet and good by nature, and a truly God-fearing man; he had a great liking for a life of peace, and he shunned vicious company, delighted much in hearing sermons, and always sought the society of learned and serious persons. And in truth, it is seldom that nature creates a man of good parts and a gentle craftsman, without also providing him, after some time, with peace and favour, as she did for Baccio, who, as will be told below, obtained all that he desired. The report having spread abroad that he was no less good than able, his fame so increased that he was commissioned by Gerozzo di Monna Venna Dini to paint the chapel wherein the bones of the dead are kept, in the cemetery of the Hospital of S. Maria Nuova. There he began a Judgment in fresco, which he executed with such diligence and beauty of manner in the part which he finished, that he acquired extraordinary fame thereby, in addition to what he had already, and became greatly celebrated, on account of his having represented with excellent conceptions the Glory of Paradise, and Christ with the twelve Apostles judging the twelve Tribes, wherein the figures are soft in coloring and most beautifully draped. Moreover, in those figures that are being dragged to Hell, in the part that was designed but left unfinished, one sees the despair, grief, and shame of everlasting death, even as one perceives contentment and gladness in those that are being saved; although this work remained unfinished, since Baccio was inclined to give his attention more to religion than to painting.
For there was living in S. Marco, at this time, Fra Girolamo Savonarola of Ferrara, of the Order of Preaching Friars, a very famous theologian; and Baccio, going continually to hear his preaching, on account of the devotion that he felt for him, contracted a very strait intimacy with him, and passed almost all his time in the convent, having also become the friend of the other friars. Now it happened that Fra Girolamo, continuing his preaching, and crying out every day from the pulpit that lascivious pictures, music, and amorous books often lead the mind to evil, became convinced that it was not right to keep in houses where there were young girls painted figures of naked men and women. And at the next Carnival when it was the custom in the city to make little huts of faggots and other kinds of wood on the public squares, and on the Tuesday evening, according to ancient use, to burn these, with amorous dances, in which men and women, joining hands, danced round these fires, singing certain airs the people were so inflamed by Fra Girolamo, and he wrought upon them so strongly with his words, that on that day they brought to the place a vast quantity of nude figures, both in painting and in sculpture, many by the hand of excellent masters, and likewise books, lutes, and volumes of songs, which was a most grievous loss, particularly for painting. Thither Baccio carried all the drawings of nudes that he had made by way of studies, and he was followed by Lorenzo di Credi and by many others, who had the name of Piagnoni.
And it was not long before Baccio, on account of the affection that he bore to Fra Girolamo, made a very beautiful portrait of him in a picture, which was then taken to Ferrara; but not long ago it came back to Florence, and it is now in the house of Filippo di Alamanno Salviati, who, since it is by the hand of Baccio, holds it very dear. It happened, after this, that one day the opponents of Fra Girolamo rose against him, in order to take him and deliver him over to the hands of justice, on account of the disturbances that he had caused in the city; and his friends, seeing this, also banded themselves together, to the number of more than five hundred, and shut themselves up in S. Marco, and Baccio with them, on account of the great affection that he had for their party. It is true that, being a person of little courage, nay, even timorous and mean-spirited, and hearing an attack being made a little time after this on the convent, and men being wounded and killed, he began to have serious doubts about himself. For which reason he made a vow that if he were to escape from that turmoil, he would straightway assume the habit of that Order; which vow he carried out afterwards most faithfully, for when the uproar had ceased, and Fra Girolamo had been taken and condemned to death, as the writers of history relate with more detail, Baccio betook himself to Prato and became a monk in S. Domenico, in that city, on July 26, in the year 1500, as is found written in the chronicles of that same convent in which he assumed the habit; to the great displeasure of all his friends, who were grieved beyond measure at having lost him, and particularly because they heard that he had taken it into his head to forsake his painting.
Whereupon Mariotto Albertinelli, his friend and companion, at the entreaties of Gerozzo Dini, took over the materials of Fra Bartolommeo which was the name given by the Prior to Baccio, on investing him with the habit and brought to completion the work of the Ossa in S. Maria Nuova; where he portrayed from life the Director of the Hospital at that time, and some friars skilled in surgery, with Gerozzo, the patron of the work, and his wife, full length figures on their knees, upon the walls on either side; and in a nude figure that is seated, he portrayed Giuliano Bugiardini, his pupil, as a young man, with long locks according to the custom of that time, in which each separate hair might be counted, so carefully are they painted. He made there, likewise, his own portrait, in the head, with long locks, of a figure that is issuing from one of the tombs; and in that work, in the region of the blessed, there is also the portrait of Fra Giovanni da Fiesole, the painter, whose Life we have written. This painting was executed wholly in fresco, both by Fra Bartolommeo and by Mariotto, so that it has remained, and still remains, marvellously fresh, and is held in esteem by craftsmen, since it is scarcely possible to do better in that kind of work.
When Fra Bartolommeo had been many months in Prato, he was sent by his superiors to take up his abode in S. Marco at Florence, and on account of his virtues he was received very warmly by the friars of that convent. In those days Bernardo del Bianco had caused to be erected, in the Badia of Florence, a chapel of greystone, full of carving, and very rich and beautiful, from the design of Benedetto da Rovezzano: which chapel was and still is much esteemed on account of some ornamental work of great variety, wherein Benedetto Buglioni placed, in some niches, angels and other figures made of glazed terracotta, in the round, to adorn it the more, with friezes containing cherubs and the devices of Bianco. And Bernardo, wishing to set up in the chapel a panel picture that should be worthy of that adornment, and conceiving the idea that Fra Bartolommeo would be the right man for the work, sought in every possible way, through the intervention of his friends, to persuade him. Fra Bartolommeo was living in his convent, giving his attention to nothing save the divine offices and the duties of his Rule, although often besought by the Prior and by his dearest friends that he should work again at his painting; and for more than four years he had refused to touch a brush. But on this occasion, being pressed by Bernardo del Bianco, at length he began the panel picture of S. Bernard, in which the Saint is writing, and gazing with such deep contemplation at the Madonna, with the Child in her arms, being borne by many angels and children, all colored with great delicacy, that there is clearly perceived in him a certain celestial quality, I know not what, which seems, to him who studies it with attention, to shine out over that work, into which Baccio put much diligence and love; not to mention an arch executed in fresco, which is above it. He also made some pictures for Cardinal Giovanni de' Medici; and for Agnolo Doni he painted a picture of Our Lady, which stands on the altar of a chapel in his house a work of extraordinary beauty.
At this time the painter Raffaelo da Urbino came to Florence to study his art, and taught the best principles of perspective to Fra Bartolommeo; and desiring to acquire the friar's manner of coloring, and being pleased with his handling of colors and his method of harmonizing them, Raffaello was always in his company. Fra Bartolommeo painted about the same time, in S. Marco at Florence, a panel with an infinite number of figures, which is now in the possession of the King of France, having been presented to him after being exposed to view for many months in S. Marco. Afterwards, he painted another in that convent, containing an endless number of figures, in place of the one that was sent into France; in which picture are some children who are flying in the air and holding open a canopy, executed with such good drawing and art, and with such strong relief, that they appear to stand out from the panel, while the coloring of the flesh reveals that beauty and excellence which every able craftsman seeks to give to his pictures; and this work is still considered at the present day to be most excellent.
In it are many figures surrounding a Madonna, all most admirable, and executed with grace, feeling, boldness, spirit, and vivacity; and colored, moreover, in so striking a manner, that they seem to be in relief, since he wished to show that he was able not only to draw, but also to give his figures force and make them stand out by means of the darkness of the shadows, as may be seen in some children who are round a canopy, upholding it, who, as they fly through the air, almost project from the panel. Besides this, there is an Infant Christ who is marrying S. Catherine the Nun, than which it would not be possible to paint anything more lifelike with the dark colouring that he used. There is a circle of saints on one side diminishing in perspective, round the depth of a great recess, who are distributed with such fine design that they seem to be real; and the same may be seen on the other side. And in truth, in this manner of coloring, he imitated to a great extent the works of Leonardo; particularly in the darks, for which he used printer's smoke-black and the black of burnt ivory.
This panel has now become much darker than it was when he painted it, on account of those blacks, which have kept growing heavier and darker. In the foreground, among the principal figures, he made a S. George in armor, who has a standard in his hand, a bold, spirited, and vivacious figure, in a beautiful attitude. There is also a S. Bartholomew, standing, a figure that deserves the highest praise; with two children who are playing, one on a lute, and the other on a lyre, one of whom he made with a leg drawn up and his instrument resting upon it, and with the hands touching the strings in the act of running over them, an ear intent on the harmony, the head upraised, and the mouth slightly open, in such a way that whoever beholds him cannot persuade himself that he should not also hear the voice. No less lifelike is the other, who, leaning on one side, and bending over with one ear to the lyre, appears to be listening to learn how far it is in accord with the sound of the lute and the voice, while, with his eyes fixed on the ground, and his ear turned intently towards his companion, who is playing and singing, he seeks to follow in harmony with the air. These conceptions and expressions are truly ingenious; the children, who are seated, and clothed in veiling, are marvellous and executed with great industry by the practised hand of Fra Bartolommeo; and the whole work is brought out into strong relief by a fine gradation of dark shadows.
A little time afterwards he painted another panel, to stand opposite to the former, and containing a Madonna surrounded by some saints, which is held to be a good work. He won extraordinary praise for having introduced a method of blending the colouring of his figures in such a way as to add a marvellous degree of harmony to art, making them appear to be in relief and alive, and executing them with supreme perfection of manner.
Hearing much of the noble works made in Rome by Michelagnolo, and likewise those of the gracious Raffaello, and being roused by the fame, which was continually reaching him, of the marvels wrought by those two divine craftsmen, with leave from his Prior he betook himself to Rome. There he was entertained by Fra Mariano Fetti, Friar of the Piombo, for whom he painted two pictures of S. Peter and S. Paul at his Convent of S. Silvestro a Monte Cavallo. But since he did not succeed in working as well in the air of Rome as he had done in that of Florence, while the vast number of works that he saw, what with the ancient and the modern, bewildered him so that much of the ability and excellence that he believed himself to possess, fell away from him, he determined to depart, leaving to Raffaello the charge of finishing one of those pictures, that of S. Peter, which he had not completed; which picture was retouched all over by the hand of the marvellous Raffaello, and given to Fra Mariano.
Thus, then, Fra Bartolommeo returned to Florence. There he had been accused many times of not knowing how to paint nudes; for which reason he resolved to put himself to the test, and to show by means of his labor that he was as well fitted as any other master for the highest achievements of his art. Whereupon, to prove this, he painted a picture of S. Sebastian, naked, very lifelike in the coloring of the flesh, sweet in countenance, and likewise executed with corresponding beauty of person, whereby he won infinite praise from the craftsmen. It is said that, while this figure was exposed to view in the church, the friars found, through the confessional, women who had sinned at the sight of it, on account of the charm and melting beauty of the lifelike reality imparted to it by the genius of Fra Bartolommeo; for which reason they removed it from the church and placed it in the chapterhouse, where it did not remain long before it was bought by Giovan Battista della Palla and sent to the King of France.
Fra Bartolommeo had fallen into a rage against the joiners who made the ornamental frames for his panels and pictures, for it was their custom, as it still is at the present day, always to cover an eighth part of the figures with the projecting inner edges of the frames. He determined, therefore, to invent some means of doing without frames for panels; and for this S. Sebastian he caused the panel to be made in the form of a half-circle, wherein he drew a niche in perspective, which has the appearance of being carved in relief in the panel. Thus, painting a frame all round, he made an ornament for the figure in the middle; and he did the same for our S. Vincent, and for the S. Mark that will be described after the S. Vincent. For the arch of a door leading into the sacristy, he painted in oils, on wood, a figure of S. Vincent, a brother of that Order, representing him in the act of preaching on the Judgment, so that there may be perceived in his gestures, and particularly in his head, that vehemence and fury which are generally seen in the faces of preachers, when they are doing their utmost, with threats of the vengeance of God, to lead men hardened in sin into the perfect life; in such a manner that this figure appears, to one who studies it with attention, to be not painted but real and alive, with such strong relief is it executed; and it is a pity that it is all cracking and spoiling, on account of its having been painted with fresh coats of color on fresh size, as I said of the works of Pietro Perugino in the Convent of the Ingesuati.
The fancy took him, in order to show that he was able to make large figures for he had been told that his manner was that of a miniaturist to paint on panel, for the wall in which is the door of the choir, a figure of S. Mark the Evangelist, five braccia in height, and executed with very good draughtsmanship and supreme excellence.
After this, Salvadore Billi, a Florentine merchant, on his return from Naples, having heard the fame of Fra Bartolommeo, and having seen his works, caused him to paint a panel picture of Christ the Saviour, in allusion to his own name, with the four Evangelists round Him; wherein, at the foot, are also two little boys upholding the globe of the world, whose flesh, fresh and tender, is excellently painted, as is the whole work, in which there are likewise two prophets that are much extolled. This panel stands in the Nunziata at Florence, below the great organ, according to the wish of Salvadore; it is a very beautiful work, finished by Fra Bartolommeo with much lovingness and great perfection; and it is surrounded by an ornament of marble, all carved by the hand of Pietro Rosselli.
Afterwards, having need of a change of air, the Prior at that time, who was his friend, sent him away to a monastery of his Order, wherein, while he stayed there, he combined the labor of his hands with the contemplation of death, with profit* [* The word "utilmente" is substituted here for the "ultimamente " of the text, which makes no sense.] both for his soul and for the convent. For S. Martino in Lucca he painted a panel wherein, at the feet of a Madonna, there is a little angel playing on a lute, together with S. Stephen and S. John; in which picture, executed with excellent draughtsmanship and coloring, he proved his ability. For S. Romano, likewise, he painted a panel on canvas of the Madonna della Misericordia, who is placed on a pedestal of stone, with some angels holding her mantle; and together with her he depicted a throng of people on some steps, some standing, others seated, and others kneeling, but all gazing at a figure of Christ on high, who is sending down lightnings and thunderbolts upon the people. Clearly did Fra Bartolommeo prove in this work how well he was able to manage the gradation of shadows and darks in painting, giving extraordinary relief to his figures, and showing a rare and excellent mastery over the difficulties of his art in coloring, drawing, and invention; and the work is as perfect as any that he ever made. For the same church he painted another panel, also on canvas, containing a Christ and S. Catherine the Martyr, together with a S. Catherine of Siena, rapt in ecstasy from the earth, a figure as good as any that could possibly be painted in that manner.
Returning to Florence, he gave some attention to the study of music ; and, delighting much therein, he would sometimes sing to pass the time. At Prato, opposite to the prison, he painted a panel picture of the Assumption. He executed some pictures of Our Lady for the house of the Medici, and also other paintings for various people, such as a picture of Our Lady which Lodovico di Lodovico Capponi has in his apartment, and likewise another of the Virgin holding the Child in her arms, with two heads of saints, that is in the possession of the very Excellent Messer Lelio Torelli, Chief Secretary to the most Illustrious Duke Cosimo, who holds it very dear both on account of the genius of Fra Bartolommeo, and because he delights in, loves, and favours not only the men of our art, but every fine intellect. In the house of Piero del Pugliese, which now belongs to Matteo Botti, a citizen and merchant of Florence, in an antechamber at the head of a staircase, he painted a S. George in armour, on horseback, who is slaying the Dragon with his lance a very spirited figure. This he executed in chiaroscuro, in oils, a method that he much delighted to use for all his works, sketching them in the manner of a cartoon, with ink or with bitumen, before colouring them; as may still be seen from many beginnings of pictures and panels, which he left unfinished on account of his death, and as may also be perceived from many drawings by his hand, executed in chiaroscuro, of which the greater part are now in the Monastery of S. Caterina da Siena on the Piazza di S. Marco, in the possession of a nun who paints, and of whom record will be made in the proper place; while many made in the same way adorn our book of drawings, honoring his memory, and some are in the hands of Messer Francesco del Garbo, a most excellent physician.
Fra Bartolommeo always liked to have living objects before him when he was working; and in order to be able to draw draperies, armor, and other suchlike things, he caused a life-size figure of wood to be made, which moved at the joints; and this he clothed with real draperies, from which he painted most beautiful things, being able to keep them in position as long as he pleased, until he had brought his work to perfection. This figure, worm-eaten and ruined as it is, is in our possession, treasured in memory of him.
At Arezzo, for the Abbey of the Black Friars, he made a head of Christ in dark tints a very beautiful work. He painted, also, the panel of the Company of the Contemplanti, which was preserved in the house of the Magnificent Messer Ottaviano de' Medici, and has now been placed in a chapel of that house, with many ornaments, by his son Messer Alessandro, who holds it very dear in memory of Fra Bartolommeo, and also because he takes vast pleasure in painting. In the chapel of the Noviciate of S. Marco there is a panel picture of the Purification, very lovely, which he executed with good draughtsmanship and high finish. At S. Maria Maddalena, a seat of the Friars of his Order, without Florence, while staying there for his own pleasure, he made a Christ and a Magda- lene; and he also painted certain things in fresco in that convent. In like manner, he wrought in fresco an arch over the strangers' apartment in S. Marco, in which he painted Christ with Cleophas and Luke, and made a portrait of Fra Niccolo della Magna, who was then a young man, and who afterwards became Archbishop of Capua, and finally a Cardinal. He began a panel for S. Gallo, afterwards finished by Giuliano Bugiardini, which is now on the high altar of S. Jacopo fra Fossi, on the Canto degli Alberti; and likewise a picture of the Rape of Dinah, now in the possession of Messer Cristofano Rinieri, and afterwards coloured by the same Giuliano, in which are buildings and conceptions that are much extolled.
From Piero Soderini he received the commission for the panel of the Council Chamber, which he began in such a manner, drawing it in chiaroscuro, that it seemed destined to do him very great credit; and, unfinished as it is, it now has a place of honor in the Chapel of the Magnificent Ottaviano de' Medici, in S. Lorenzo. In it are all the Patron Saints of the city of Florence, and those saints on whose days that city has gained her victories; and there is also the portrait of Fra Bartolommeo himself, made by him with a mirror. He had begun this picture, and had drawn the whole design, when it happened that, from working continually under a window, with the light from it beating on his back, he became completely paralyzed on that side of his body, and quite unable to move. Thereupon he was advised such being the orders of his physicians to go to the baths of San Filippo; where he stayed a long time, but became very little better thereby. Now Fra Bartolommeo was a great lover of fruit, which pleased his palate mightily, although it was ruinous to his health. Wherefore one morning, having eaten many figs, there came upon him, in addition to his other infirmity, a very violent fever, which cut short the course of his life in four days, at the age of forty-eight; when, still wholly conscious, he rendered up his soul to Heaven.
His death grieved his friends, and particularly the friars, who gave him honorable sepulture in their burial-place in S. Marco, on October 8, in the year 1517. He had a dispensation from attending any of the offices in the choir with the other friars, and the gains from his works went to the convent, enough money being left in his hands to pay for colors and other materials necessary for his painting.
He left disciples in , Benedetto Cianfanini, Gabriele Rustici, and Fra Paolo Pistoiese, the latter inheriting all his possessions. This Fra Paolo painted many panels and pictures from his master's drawings, after his death; of which three are in S. Domenico at Pistoia, and one at S. Maria del Sasso in the Casentino.
Fra Bartolommeo gave such grace to his figures with his coloring, and made them so novel and so modern in manner, that for these reasons he deserves to be numbered by us among the benefactors of art.