Lot 105
  • 105

Baccio della Porta, called Fra Bartolommeo

80,000 - 120,000 USD
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  • Baccio della Porta, called Fra Bartolommeo
  • Head of a female Saint seen in profile
  • Oil on paper, laid down on panel


Paris, Marchese Del Fierro (according to a label on the verso of the panel with stamped inventory number 158)


Condition Report by Hamish Dewar: Structural Condition The support of paper laid onto panel appears to be secure and stable. There have clearly been losses in the past, particularly along the left vertical edge, but these now appear structurally sound. Paint surface The paint surface has an even varnish layer. Inspection under ultra-violet light clearly shows areas of retouching. A number of these cover losses along the left vertical and the upper and lower horizontal edges. There are also retouchings in the red draperies of the female Saint, small spots and lines on her face, which are most concentrated on the left side of her face by her hairline, and on the left side of her neck. There is a 3 cm thin diagonal retouched scratch running up towards the ear of the Saint and further retouchings around her ear. There is a fine line of inpainting strengthening the contour of her face and a fine line filling a vertical crack, approximately 7 cm in length, in the lower right corner. There are other scattered retouchings visible under ultra-violet light and there may be other retouchings beneath older, opaque varnish layers that are not identifiable under ultra-violet light. Summary The painting would therefore appear to be in essentially good and stable condition having been carefully restored and no further work is required. The retouchings mentioned above should be noted.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

The present fascinating drawing is the only known head study of this type, executed in oil on paper, by Fra Bartolommeo.  As the biographer Giorgio Vasari described, small paintings, produced for private devotion, formed the basis of the young artist’s living, and this must be one such work.1  Many more like this must once have existed, but the only other studies by the artist known to us that simply represent the head of a saint are executed in fresco on ‘embrice’ (terracotta tiles), works that were most probably executed for their own sake and not related to any specific commission.2  

Chris Fischer, having examined the present work twice in the original, has confirmed the attribution to Fra Bartolommeo, and has provided the following information.3  He compares the profile of the young woman to that of the Virgin in The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, a painting in Pienza (fig.1), and suggests a dating circa 1500 on stylistic grounds.  Fischer has noted that around this moment Fra Bartolommeo prefers to portray the Virgin in profile, with a sharp forward movement of the neck and bowed head – just as the figure appears in this moving oil study.  The same approach is also evident in a number of pen and ink drawings by the artist inspired by sculpted reliefs of the Madonna and Child by Donatello and Desiderio da Settignano.4 All the same, Fischer believes the young woman in the present work to be a Saint, possibly Mary Magdalene, rather than the Madonna.  In fact, by this time Fra Bartolommeo was already a devotee of Savonarola’s religious principles, which would preclude the representation of the Virgin without a veil, and there is no sign of a veil in the present work.  In a 1992 article, Fischer describes in some detail the Frate’s habit of looking, in his paintings and related drawings, to earlier Quattrocento schemes influenced by shallow-carved reliefs, with their typically elegant and attractive representations of the Madonna and Child, seen in profile.5  The extreme simplicity and purity of this mode of representation of the subject became fashionable again through the works of Fra Bartolommeo, in which, as in this image of a bare-headed female saint with her hair drawn up behind, the Frate exposes and explores the elegant line of her neck in the most sensual and refined way.

This rare oil on paper seems to have been laid down on a poplar panel just after its execution, suggesting it was surely viewed as a work of art in its own right.  The use of paper laid down on wood, rather than the more usual gesso preparation, must have provided the young artist more simply and quickly with a support on which he could apply his oils, or the sort of mixture of tempera and oil media that he used in the panel, Madonna and Child and six Saints, still in its original location in the Florentine church of San Marco, or in the Sacra Conversazione with the Mystic Marriage of St Catherine, now in the Louvre.6

Many drawings by Fra Bartolommeo survive, from quick sketches (primi pensieri’), to final studies that would be developed in full-scale cartoons; together they illustrate very well the artist’s working method, and also illuminate the master’s very academic and organized mind.  Head studies were something to which he devoted particular attention, producing full scale drawings, some which have survived, and auxiliary cartoons.  This head study executed in oil on paper is, however, unique within his surviving works, and bears witness to yet another practice used by the artist, recorded by Vasari as an important source of income during his early career, but otherwise undocumented through his works.  As such, it is a highly important addition to the corpus of known drawings and paintings by this leading master of the early Florentine Renaissance.

1. G. Vasari, Le vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori ed architettori, ed. G. Milanesi, Florence 1879, vol. IV, p. 176

2. L’Età di Savonarola, Fra Bartolomeo e la Scuola di San Marco, exhib. cat., Florence, Palazzo Pitti and Museo di San Marco, 1996, pp. 180-181, nos. 48-55, reproduced pp. 182-183

3. Email to the owner dated 13 November 2014, and previous correspondence dated 2002

4. C. Fischer, ‘Fra Bartolommeo and Donatello - a “New” Tondo’, Kunst des Cinquecento in der Toskana, Munich 1992, p. 15, reproduced figs 13-15

5. Ibid, pp. 9-20

6. L’Età di Savonarola.., exhib. cat., op. cit., Florence, 1996, pp. 220-223, no. 68, reproduced p. 219; C. Fischer, Fra Bartolommeo, Master Draughtsman of the High Renaissance, exh. cat., Rotterdam, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, 1990, reproduced p. 186