Before this extraordinary album, assembled by the Florentine aristocrat Cavaliere Francesco Maria Niccolò Gabburri, appeared at auction in 1957 (see Provenance), only about a dozen landscape drawings by Fra Bartolommeo were known. As Chris Fisher noted in the catalogue of the first exhibition devoted to the artist’s drawings, held in Rotterdam in 1990, the appearance of these landscapes contributed to a general re-evaluation of Fra Bartolommeo as a draughtsman.2 Landscapes form such an integral part of his paintings, adding a poetic touch, to complement the grandeur of his compositions and the monumentality of his figures, and these drawings shed important light on this essential but little known aspect of his work. With the appearance of so many drawings, the balance of the artist’s oeuvre shifted, allowing it to be seen in a new, somehow more intimate, perspective, where the focus of the artist's attention becomes the observation of nature and of rural life in the surroundings of Florence, resulting, as in the Barnet drawing, in an idyllic and captivating representation of the landscape. It is also worth remembering that Fra Bartolommeo was the son of a muleteer, and would actually have known and observed these very locations from a young age. This familiarity could have nourished his sensibility and observational acumen, both clearly evident in these uniquely intimate views. The majority of the landscapes seem to be precise renderings of specific sites, drawn from life, and often depicting views of Dominican holdings in the vicinity of Florence, places where ‘the Frate’ spent time; here, the view is taken from the Valle del Mugnone beyond Fiesole, some four kilometers north-east of Florence, a location that Fra Bartolommeo passed on his way to the convent of Santa Maria Maddalena, where he was a frequent guest. These drawings constitute a harmonious group, dated by Chris Fisher between 1495 and 1508, before the artist's trip to Venice, and although initially they may well have been drawn largely for pleasure, three of these sheets can be related to his paintings. Indeed, it seems plausible that he would have preserved them for further inspiration, and made use of them occasionally for his painted works.3
The refined and elegant way in which these landscapes by Fra Bartolommeo are drawn, mostly, as here, in pen and ink, is remarkable. The spontaneity of the execution is also striking, capturing not only a living image, but also the eternity of a moment. As Chris Fisher put it: ‘the subject of these drawings is the humanized landscape, the description of an ambiance created by the collaboration of man and nature’.4 Drawing delicately from life, solely in pen and ink, Fra Bartolommeo first quickly sketched the foreground, leaving some blank spaces, and giving us a clear impression of where, at a distance, he is sitting while sketching, looking towards the hill of Fiesole. With enormous skill and impressive rapidity of lines, he describes first a group of rural buildings, and to the left a small haystack. Further back, to the right, a small and winding dirt road ascends towards the crest of the hill, flanked by trees and buildings. A strong realistic element is introduced by the two separate groups of tiny figures, walking up to the summit of the hill, subtly conveying to the viewer a feeling of participation. The tranquil, sloping hillside contributes poetically to a sensation of harmony and peace, while the rounded trees, quickly drawn, are interspersed here and there between the buildings. Although the artist has limited himself to linear media, employing no tonal washes, this landscape, like others, is essentially constructed with light; with the utmost economy of lines, this brilliant draughtsman has been totally successful in defining the different planes, and the recession within the scene. Even the sky is left entirely blank, avoiding any distraction from the strong and compact image of the hillside of Fiesole. This sensitive representation of nature and buildings, here combined with human life, is among the earliest pure landscape studies known, forming part of what is, as Chris Fisher noted, ‘the largest group of drawn landscape views by any Italian Renaissance artist, comparable, for their date, only to the drawings and watercolours of Albrecht Dürer.’5
The album of landscape drawings by Fra Bartolommeo from which this sheet originates was assembled by Francesco Maria Niccolò Gabburri (1676-1742),6 a distinguished collector-connoisseur and writer, who had also gathered some 500 other drawings by the artist into the two hugely important volumes, now in the collection of the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum, in Rotterdam. The 41 landscape drawings were mounted separately a few years later, and in a less luxurious volume than the previous two. Interestingly, even though Gabburri must have acquired the landscapes from the same source as the rest of his Fra Bartolommeo drawings, he thought that they were by Andrea del Sarto, so already by the first half the 18th Century, awareness of Fra Bartolommeo as a landscape draughtsman had been clearly lost. The title page of the album is signed and dated Rinaldo Botti 1730, and decorated with a classical ruin, inscribed ‘RACCOLTA DI PAESI E VEDUTE DAL VERO. ORIGINALI DI ANDREA DEL SARTO’. This page is today preserved at the Fondation Custodia, in Paris, together with the frontispiece to the album, also drawn by Rinaldo Botti (1658-1740), which bears Gabburri’s coat of arms.7 As Fisher pointed out, Gaburri might have been led to this conclusion because of the seventeenth-century inscription on one of the sheets, which reads: di mano dell Frate/Anzi di Andrea (by the hand of the Frate, or rather by Andrea).8 This uncertainty regarding the attribution of the landscape drawings suggests they were acquired by Gabburri unattributed, the knowledge of Fra Bartolommeo’s authorship somehow lost, despite the fact that they share the same provenance as the other group of 505 drawings by the ‘Frate’, and would have been part of the same purchase from the Convent of Santa Caterina da Siena, located only a few streets away from where Gabburri lived, in the Palazzo Giuntini, in Via Ghibbellina, Florence.
The negotiation with the nuns of Santa Caterina da Siena may have begun around 1722,9 but the purchase of the drawings by Fra Bartolommeo must have been concluded somewhat after that date; when Gabburri compiled a catalogue of his collection,10 no drawings by either the ‘Frate’ or Andrea del Sarto were mentioned, and only in a letter to Gabburri dated 29 December 1725 do we find them first mentioned, by the Venetian collector, print maker, and art dealer, Antonio Maria Zanetti (1679-1767), who congratulates the collector for the beautiful acquisition of the drawings by Fra Bartolommeo.11 Further confirmation is provided by the inclusion of a sheet by Fra Bartolommeo in the exhibition of sixteenth-century drawings from Gaburri’s collection, held by the ‘Accademici del Disegno’ in the cloister of the Santissima Annunziata, which opened on 18 October 1729, the feast of St. Luke.12 After Gabburri's death in 1742, all three albums were acquired from his heirs in around 1758-60, by the little-known British dealer William Kent, based in Florence and Rome, and brought to England. These were then sold in London in around 1760-61, and remained in England.13 In 1768, Robert Surtees, an amateur artist from County Durham, drew copies of some of the landscapes from the album, then in an unidentified English collection.14 Prior to the sale in 1957, the album with the landscape drawings belonged to an Irish collector, who had bought it around 1925.15
In contrast to the spontaneity and delight of Fra Bartolommeo’s landscape drawings, the bulk of the artist’s graphic oeuvre consists of figure studies, the majority preparatory for his painted works, illustrating his well-organized working method, and permitting us to follow the dynamics of his creative process towards the final composition. These generally display a rational and conventional mind, and his corpus of drawings contains no rapid sketches of poses or gestures, done from life. He used mostly manikins and sculptural models, which allowed him to achieve a strong three-dimensional effect, well suited to the monumentality of his frescoes and altarpieces.
A drawing such as the Barnet Collection landscape is not only one of very few depictions of real views preserved from the Italian Renaissance, but also brings us much closer to the inner thoughts and emotions of this highly reflective and spiritual artist. It captures the essence of a real place, while at the same time conveying its poetic essence in the contemplation of a harmonious congruence between human and nature. This is a fitting reflection of the intense spirituality of the Frate’s oeuvre, and his search for a perfection expressed with simplicity, achieved, as here, through the linearity and clarity of his pen-work. Such a credo is also in keeping with the teachings of Savonarola, so important an influence in Fra Bartolommeo’s spiritual life, who stressed simplicity as a crucial objective in Christian life.
This view of the hill of Fiesole is one of the more elaborate and complete landscapes from the group that was once assembled in Gabburri's album. Clearly, these drawings by Fra Bartolommeo were known and absorbed by his followers and contemporaries, and indeed, evidence of their influence can even be found in Raphael’s Disputa, where the landscape in the background of this famous and celebrated fresco can be related to a drawing by Fra Bartolommeo, the Farmhouse on a Slope of a Hill, now in the Cleveland Museum of Art,16 demonstrating how consciously Raphael drew inspiration from the Dominican artist, with whom he shared the same poetic and harmonious approach to the representation of nature.
1. Sold, New York, Christie’s, 24 January 2001, lot 7, and London, Christie’s, 7 July 2010, lot 308
2. C. Fisher, Fra Bartolommeo. Master Draughtsman of the High Renaissance, exhib. cat., Rotterdam, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, 1990-91, p. 375
3. For example The sweep of a river with fishermen and a town in the background, London, Courtauld Institute, inv. D. 1978. PG. 88; see, C. Fisher in exhib. cat., London, Courtauld Gallery and New York, The Frick Collection, Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery, 2012, pp. 68-70, no. 9, reproduced; for information on the other connected sheets, see Fisher, in exhib. cat., op. cit., 1990-91, p. 377
4. Fisher, op.cit., 1990-91, p. 375
5. C. Fisher, in Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery, exhib. cat., London, Courtauld Institute and New York, The Frick Collection, 2012, p. 68 under n. 9
6. For more information on Gabburri, see N. Turner, ‘The Gabburri/Rogers series of drawn self-portraits and portraits of artist’, Journal of the History of Collections, 1993, vol. 5, n. 2, p.
7. Paris, Fondation Custodia, inv. nos. 1986-T.8, 1986-T.9
8. C. Fisher, op.cit., 1990-91, p. 375; London, Sotheby’s, Catalogue of Drawings of Landscapes and Trees by Fra Bartolommeo, 20 November 1957, lot 25 (reproduced)
9. A.J. Elen, ‘Out of Oblivion. An Extraordinary Provenance’, in Fra Bartolommeo. The Divine Renaissance, exhib. cat., Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, 2016-17, p. 46
10. Two inventories listing sections of his collection of works on paper, one posthumous, are preserved in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Florence; see N. Turner, ‘The Gabburri/Rogers series of drawn self-portraits and portraits of artist’, Journal of the History of Collections, 1993, vol. 5, n. 2, p. 180, and note 10
11. Curiously, though, the title pages of the Rotterdam albums record the date of acquisition as 1727
12. C. Fisher, op.cit., 1990-91, p. 14
13. J. Ingamells, compiled from the Brinsley Ford Archive, A Dictionary of British and Irish Travellers in Italy. 1701-1800, New Haven and London 1997, pp. 571-2
14. See sale catalogue, London, Christie’s, 18 March 1980, lot 6
15. C. Fisher, op.cit., 1990-91, p. 15, and p.31 note 3316.
16. Cleveland, Cleveland Museum of Art, inv. n. 1957.498; see Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, exhib. cat., op. cit., 2016-17, p. 216, no. 6.10, reproduced and p. 121
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