"As a colorist, Fra Bartolommeo was equal to the best of his contemporaries, and superior to any of his rivals in the school of Florence. Few painters in any age have combined harmony of tone so perfectly with brilliance and richness."
In material business, men as a rule work as partners and feel that it is more profitable to do so, but in the practice of art it is very rare that partnerships are formed; yet we have examples of such. In English literature we readily recall Beaumont and Fletcher and Charles and Mary Lamb.
In the history of Italian art the most notable instance of such a partnership is that of Bartolommeo and Albertinelli, who often painted together on the same canvas. Of these two men, however, the former is far greater and more interesting, and so it is to him that we naturally give most attention. The artist is the link connecting the early painting of Italy with the flowering time of its greatest masters, whom he nearly approached in his work.
He was able to command all the sweetness that Da Vinci painted into his inimitable pictures. In color be could instruct the divine Raphael, and in his daring of form he equaled Angelo in all but the latter's terribleness. Personally he was timid, shrinking, easily moved, and extremely spiritual in his mode of thought.
This Bartolommeo of the art histories is known throughout Italy as Il Frate, that is, The Brother, and also as Baccio del Porta, and not by the long name listed in our books. The first of these names was bestowed because he was a Dominican monk of San Marco, Florence; the latter on account of his small stature (Baccio being the diminutive of Bartolommeo) and because during his student days he resided near one of the gates of Florence.
Little is known of his youth except that he was horn in 1475 at Savignano, near Florence, and that his father was a mule driver and consequently had no settled place of abode. At the early age of nine he entered the studio of Rosselli and here met a youth of about his own age, Mariotto Albertinelli, who was also a pupil of Rosselli.
Between the boys there at once sprung up the deepest sort of friendship, which never ceased until death separated them. One seemed the complement to the other, and when they were apart it seemed like the sundering of an individual.
While Baccio appeared from early years a sanctified soul, one set apart for a religious life, Mariotto showed exactly the opposite—fickle, fond of the world and its pleasures, not devoted to anything—unless it was to his saintly friend —not even to the art of painting, which at one time in his life he gave up to become an innkeeper. In politics they were likewise opposed. Baccio was of the Piagnoni, that is, the followers of Savonarola, while his friend belonged to the opposite party.
Baccio looked upon Savonarola's face, listened to his burning words and was convinced that his was the right way, and thenceforward he was the Prophet's devoted adherent. When, at Savonarola's instance, children went through the streets of Florence gathering the ungodly trinkets that distract the soul from God, to make up that memorable pile of vanities to be publicly burned, Baccio cast in every drawing and painting of his which could in any way be interpreted as being "of the earth earthy."
Then when Savonarola could no longer dominate that fickle people and they dragged him forth from the sacred precincts of San Marco to suffer death, Baccio was one of the men nearest to the Prophet. In his terror he prayed God to spare him in that awful hour and he would henceforth devote himself exclusively to a holy life.
After the passing of that awful day, that bereft Florence of her strongest arm, Baccio, remembering his vow, entered the monastery of San Marco and became Il Frate, which the people love to call him even to this day. He renounced his beloved art, feeling that it belonged to the world which he had abandoned, and for four years he adhered to his purpose. At the end of that time a new prior of San Marco succeeded in showing him that through his painting was his most effective way of serving God, and so he again took up the brush which he knew so well how to use.
The years in which he had refrained from painting had not been idle years as far as his own development was concerned, for now he found that from out a fuller experience he was able to paint more soul satisfying pictures.
The partnership with Albertinelli, which had been entered upon shortly after the two artists had left Rosselli's studio, was necessarily interrupted by the events which immediately preceded Savonarola's death and by Baccio's religious life which followed that event. As soon, however, as Bartolommeo resumed his painting the partnership was renewed and the two went on painting together as if they had not been separated by politics, religion and mode of life.
In the interval of their separation Albertinelli had produced his one picture; that is, "The Salutation" or "Visitation," which is truly one of the most beautiful pictures in the world. It is simple enough—merely figures, Mary and Elizabeth, beneath a beautiful arch, with cloud-flecked sky beyond and a foreground of turf besprinkled with the flowers of Tuscany. After Gabriel announced to Mary that her child would be the Saviour of the world, she visited St. Elizabeth, who knew the glad tidings that the Angel had delivered.
Kindly concern and gratulation were never more deeply expressed than by the face and attitude of St. Elizabeth, while in Mary there is sweet humility without measure. Albertinelli did it alone, yet we may well question whether so worldly, so common-place a spirit as his could have accomplished so much had it not been for those years of intercourse with the sweetest, the most religious spirit among the painters of the age.
Bartolommeo's friends were not all of the same sort as Albertinelli. In 1504, Raphael, then a youth of twenty-one, visited the Frate in his cell and from that time on there was no break in their friendship. It is said that Raphael taught Bartolommeo some of the intricacies of perspective and that, in return, the monk-painter instructed Raphael in color.
Some years later Bartolommeo got permission from his superior in San Marco to visit Rome and see the great things there doing under the hands of Raphael and Michael Angelo. He began some works himself for the Pope, but on account of failing health, he was obliged to leave them unfinished and return to Florence. These figures, "St. Paul" and "St. Peter," were completed by Raphael.
On his return to Florence he painted two of his best pictures—"St. Mark," now in the Pitti palace, and a Madonna, in Lucca. The St. Mark is a grand figure, as he holds his book and his pen with a look of protest on his face and his noble body enveloped in the drapery which it was in Bartolommeo's power to execute so magnificently. The figure seems to set in a niche which the artist painted as a background so that the work should not be overpowered by its frame.
In the picture at Lucca we have a beautiful Madonna and Child. Holding a crown just above her head are two angels from whose hands float gauzy drapery. Just at her feet is an angel with a lute, one of the most beautiful to be found in Italian art. The picture in full and the angel are reproduced. A picture of the "Annunciation" by Bartolommeo, at Vienna, is said to be one of his best.
Toward the end of his life he visited his home town and was gladly received by the friends of his youth. When they urged him to tarry among them be told them in the most modest way that be must go, for the King of France had asked him to come to his court. His simple friends regarded him with awe and he returned to Florence, not to go on a journey to Paris, but rather to sit by Albertinelli's deathbed. He ministered to his friend in the things his body needed; he upheld that restless spirit by the faith that glowed in himself so abundantly and altogether he gave him confidence to die calmly, trustingly even, after a life of worldliness. Think you not that it was better thus to serve a fellow creature than to serve the King of France?
This was in 1515. For two years Bartolommeo went on gloriously in his work even though bereft of his friend.
Of these closing years "The Pieta," that is, the dead Christ cared for by saints, is the greatest picture, some say "the most lovely of all the Frate's works for charm of coloring and depth of expression."
He died in 1517 and was buried with great honor in San Marco. The monks felt that in his death they had sustained an irreparable loss.
In his methods he was painstaking in the extreme. It is said that he always drew the nude figure before he painted the draperies. He perfected composition; that is, the arrangement of the figures in a picture, and he invented the jointed "lay figures" so useful to artists in their studios.
Though a short life, his nifty certainly be counted among the victorious ones. In a wicked age he remained as pure as his ideal and he made it easier for those who came after him to practice the art of painting.