Baccio della Porta, called Fra Bartolommeo
- Baccio della Porta, called Fra Bartolommeo
- Head of a female Saint seen in profile
- Oil on paper, laid down on panel
- 400 by 271 mm; 15¾ by 10 5/8 in
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