NO city in any period awakens a more lively interest, admiration, and affection in many of us than does Florence in the Renaissance. The period was ideally suited to advancement in the fields of art and philosophy. The Florentines, coming out of the twilight of the Middle Ages, when they had been active in establishing a sense of style and decor, and in developing the intricacies of their cloth trade, fell in love with the wonders of the ancient world. They found in Greece and Rome those ideas and princi ples that were apparently needed to unleash their native genius with extraordinary energy and flair; a great number of Florentines became amazingly creative.
This does not mean that the tenor of life in Florence ran smoothly; on the contrary, tyranny and corruption took a terrible toll. But in spite of this, out of the city emerged a splendid body of art.
The wealth and prosperity of Florence rested on its textile trade. Its merchants brought in undressed cloth from France, the Low Countries, and England. Artisans of the cloth guild then refined and dressed the cloth, dying it in glorious, rich colors - shades we see today in Florentine paintings, in the rich and brilliant robes of the saints and madonnas. These figures were of classic inspiration.
J. H. Plumb in his book "The Italian Renaissance" devotes a chapter to Florence, describing how it waxed and waned even in its era of greatness - as the Medici family, the Dominican friar Savonarola, and the popes wrestled for influence and power. The city was nearly always dominated by its bankers and by the demands of the cloth trade that supported it. Still, the extraordinary quality of its citizens - their grasp of the importance of the individual and their wealth of talent - astonishes us.
"...that tradition of individual destiny," Plumb writes, "or the worth of man, which the Florentines had cultivated so carefully in their heroic days, remained strong enough not only to sustain them in spite of the tribulations of their age, but also to buoy up a number of artists of lesser genius - Bronzino, Pontormo, del Sarto, and Fra Bartolommeo. ... Indeed, even in its last, sad days republican Florence still produced an astonishing array of genius, and no city of so small a compass has ever before,
or since, made a greater contribution to art and letters within the brief span of a hundred and fifty years."
One of the artists Plumb mentions, Fra Bartolommeo, became the premier painter of the city after the great lights who had worked there - Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael - left to serve patrons elsewhere. Because he flourished after them, he has long suffered a reputation of diminished importance. He has even seemed to be symbolic of the waning of that marvelous center, greatly gifted but on an altogether smaller scale.
Critic and art historian Bernard Berenson slighted him in our times, but the wheel of fashion turns. Fra Bartolommeo is coming back with something of a modest fanfare. His perfect draftsmanship, his classical compositions, and his colors, are being appreciated again.
Baccio della Porta (1472-1517), who later took the name of Fra Bartolommeo, was a Florentine born and bred, the son of a poor mule driver. His artistic talents manifested themselves early, and as a boy, Baccio was apprenticed to two local artists, Cosimo Rosselli and Piero di Cosimo.
He matured during turbulent times, and he was caught up in the political struggles of the city. General dissatisfaction with the ruling Medici was rife, and soon the monk Savonarola came to the fore, bewitching young Baccio with his arguments and fiery oratory.
Baccio was so moved that he burned all his studies from the nude, feeling that they somehow made him part of the corruption and sensuality of the city. Botticelli did this too; these renunciations were known as "bonfires of the vanities." Baccio then laid down his brush for four years, joined the Dominican order (of which Savonarola was a member), and left the city.
Later, when he came back and was living in the monastery of San Marco, he was persuaded to return to his painting. He was told that the order needed the inspiration of his work and the money it would bring in. By this time, Savonarola had been burned at the stake, but it was a few years before the Medicis came back into control and assumed their status as lavish patrons of art.
Meanwhile, Leonardo and Raphael were still painting in Florence, as was Michelangelo, who in this period created his marble David. But by 1509 all three had left the city. In 1508, Fra Bartolommeo had himself gone to Venice, briefly, where he was struck by the paintings of Bellini and Giorgione; his work afterward shows their influence. He also went to Rome, where he made his portrait of Michelangelo.
Aside from a few landscapes, most of Fra Bartolommeo's work consisted of religious paintings, for which he had many commissions. The sketches he made in preparation for these paintings were themselves masterpieces; he was a superb draftsman. Many of these, happily, have been beautifully preserved.
In his early drawings, Fra Bartolommeo used black chalk heightened with white, which was then a novel method, and later went on to do his flesh tones with red chalk. It is usually said that he was a master in the medium of chalk, achieving with it astonishing delicacy and lightness.
From Leonardo, Fra Bartolommeo learned the principles of three-dimensional studies, and from Raphael, he gained a sense of sweetness and poetic beauty, according to his biographers. His compositions tend to be monumental, balanced, calm, the figures almost sculptural - classical in concept.
The lovely study of the face of an angel shown on this page was done as a preliminary drawing for "The Vision of St. Bernard," a large canvas now in the Uffizi in Florence. The angel dates from 1504-06, an early work, though after Fra Bartolommeo's temporary renunciation of painting. Clearly his hand had lost none of its skill in those years away from art; this fact is demonstrated by the lines and warm texture of the figure's cheek, the lightly blown hair, the delicacy of the whole. The drawing is done with black chalk, heightened with yellow, on an ochre prepared paper. That such subtlety and luminous life could be expressed in chalk is truly marvelous.