Preaching in Paint


While any attempt to return the oft-shunned Renaissance painter Fra Bartolommeo to the public eye should be lauded, Albert Elen, Chris Fischer, Bram de Klerck, and Michael Kwakkelstein deserve special mention for Fra Bartolommeo: The Divine Renaissance. Written as the catalogue to accompany the eponymous exhibition held in the Rotterdam Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen from October 2016 to January 2017, the book not only highlights the technical skill and careful craftsmanship of the artist, it explores the religious nature and significance of his art, something all too often sidelined in major exhibitions.

Art history has not been kind to this painter, as the opening essay reminds us. Particularly during the nineteenth century, the authors suggest, “his rhetoric and mysticism seemed empty to an irreligious and materialistic public.” Dismissed by many critics, his first and only other monographic exhibition took place in 1996.

Fra Bartolommeo was born Baccio della Porta in Florence in 1473, two years before his more famous contemporary Michelangelo. Raised in the Florence of Botticelli and Ghirlandaio (Leonardo da Vinci was twenty-one and already a master, but not yet well-known), Baccio was apprenticed to Cosimo Rosselli, one of the original painters of the Sistine chapel in Rome, shortly after his return from completing that prestigious commission.

Baccio’s fledgling painting career began during one of the most turbulent times in Florence. The death of Lorenzo the Magnificent, the city’s de facto ruler, the French invasion under his unworthy successor, and the rise of the fiery Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonarola, were not ideal conditions for artistic patronage.

In 1500, two years after Savonarola’s trial and execution for heresy, Baccio joined the Dominican order, taking the name Bartolommeo. Perhaps remembering the success of another Dominican artist from the same convent of San Marco, Fra Angelico, the new friar was encouraged to hone his preaching skills…in paint.

The Rotterdam museum, in possession of 140 of the artist’s drawings, displayed the preparatory sketches next to eleven paintings by Fra Bartolommeo. The catalogue lovingly traces the artistic process from the hastily traced concept, to the thoughtful drawing, to the finished product for each work of art. Fra Bartolommeo emerges from these pages as a careful craftsman, a quality often overlooked in modern art. His drawings served as teaching documents for many later artists, eventually guiding the work of Sr. Plautilla Nelli, the first female painter of Florence (one of the many fascinating and useful pieces of information in the book).

The technical processes and the workshop practices described in the text are intriguing, especially Fra Bartolommeo’s collaboration with another forgotten yet gifted Florentine painter Mariano Albertelli, and their on-and-off collaboration offers interesting insight into partnerships and competitors.

His friendship with Raphael, ten years his junior, reveals a man unafraid of rivalry with the youthful genius. His artistic transformation after a voyage to Venice shows an openness to innovation.

Most engrossing, however, is the ubiquitous presence of Savonarola, much admired by Fra Bartolommeo, and Michelangelo as well for that matter. The catalogue dedicates an entire essay to this influential Dominican who preached repentance to a privileged populace in fifteenth-century Florence.

It is, all in all, a sympathetic portrayal, although the authors convey a tone of excessive reproach toward Savonarola’s Bonfire of the Vanities, during which people brought objects representing disordered passions to be destroyed as an exercise in detachment. In this chapter, however, author Bram de Klerck emphasizes the role images played, particularly in Dominican spirituality, and deftly illustrates how faith and politics were often interwoven in Renaissance art (The Incarnation and The Madonna della Misericordia).

Fra Bartolommeo died at age forty-four on October 31, 1517, the first day of the Protestant Reformation. He was never able to polish his artistic talents in the arena of violent theological controversy, but the Fra Bartolommeo who appears in this text illustrates the significance of the Sacraments (Salvator Mundi), mystic vision (Padre Eterno), and intercession (The Carondelet Madonna) as compellingly as any painter of the Catholic restoration.

The book takes viewers by the hand to lead them through the daunting world of preparatory drawings and allows the novice to succumb to the fascination of watching the artist’s creative faculties at work. The immediacy of some of the sketches—a smiling elderly woman or a friar rapt in prayer—appear almost as candid snapshots with the feathery pencil strokes. While neither a gripping narrative nor an easy handbook, Fra Bartolommeo: The Divine Renaissance engagingly introduces the world of art history and encourages Christians to be proud of one of their illustrious brothers.

Elizabeth Lev is an art historian who teaches, studies and writes in Rome with a special focus on Renaissance and Baroque art. Her most recent book is How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art.