Exhibition: Fra Bartolommeo at Boijmans

Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam had a series of impressive winter exhibitions these past few years. This time, the museum chose someone now nearly totally forgotten. Thursday, the exhibition on Fra Bartolommeo opened.

Fra Bartolommeo knew Raphael, Michelangelo and many other important Renaissance painters. These contemporaries influenced his drawings, paintings, frescoes. In turn, he influenced painters like Ridolfo Ghirlandao and Fra Paolo Pistolese.

Fra Bartolommeo - self-portrait

Fra Bartolommeo – self-portrait

Fra Bartolommeo lived from about 1473 till 1517 and spent most of his life in or near Florence. Born Bartolommeo Domenico del Fattorino, people called him Baccio della Porta. His nickname refers to the Roman gate which still exists in Florence, near where Baccio’s relatives lived.

When Baccio’s talents were noticed, he was apprenticed to Cosimo Rosselli. Florence was ruled by members of the powerful House of Medici. Their lavish court and patronage or the arts, attracted many of the best Renaissance artists.

This golden age was not to last. Criticism of church and powerful, corrupt, grasping families increased. The greatest critic was Fra Girolamo Savonarola. Baccio fell under the spell and influence of this monk. In the end, Florentine citizens rebelled and the Medici family fled.

One of the things Savonarola preached against was worldly art. As the introductory film at the beginning of this exhibition illustrates, Baccio was one of many who destroyed “sinful” and “corrupt” art under Savonarola’s influence. Yet he also continued to receive important – religious – commissions.

Savonarola was on a collision course not only with the Medici family. He openly criticised the then Pope in Rome. This Pope happened to be a Borgia. As everybody now knows, being critical of a Borgia could be decidedly unhealthy.

Unsurprisingly, Savonarola ended up dangling from the gallows as part of a Florentine bonfire. Vasari – recitals from whose description of Fra Bartolommeo’s life and works can be heard throughout this exhibition in English, Italian, and Dutch – tells Baccio managed to escape a similar fate.

Two years after promising God to become a monk, provided he would survive the Florentine purges, Baccio entered a monastery in Prato. Like Savonarola, he became a Dominican monk taking the name Fra Bartolommeo. He also gave up drawing and painting.

Fortunately not for long. The shrewd head of Florence’s San Marco monastery persuaded Fra Bartolommeo to manage its workshop, where religious art was produced. Fra Bartolommeo moved back to Florence, picking up crayons and brushes again. Later he even travelled to Venice and Rome, where he studied and was influenced by works by Titian, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and his great friend Raphael.

Not all of Fra Bartolommeo’s paintings can be seen at this exhibition. Several, like the one now owned by the Louvre, are simply too fragile or too damaged. Of course, frescoes can not be moved at all. A few of such works have been projected on walls.

Under or near these and eleven exhibited paintings, can be seen many drawings Fra Bartolommeo made in preparation of the later frescoes and paintings. For the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum owns the largest collections of Fra Bartolommeo’s drawings in the world. This ensures that exhibition visitors can follow the creative process taking place. Per selected detail of the final work of art, there are usually at least three drawings showing changes, choices, solutions Fra Bartolommeo made.

Fra Bartolommeo - drawing of a woman

Fra Bartolommeo – drawing of a woman

After Fra Bartolommeo’s death, most of his drawings ended up in the hands of his successor. Then into the hands of Suor Plautilla Nelli living in the nunnery of Santa Catharina di Siena. Nearly two centuries later, Niccolò Gabburri bought Fra Bartolommeo’s studies from this nunnery. He had Fra Bartolomeo’s remaining drawings bound into two large volumes.

In turn, these ended up as part of the art collection of the Dutch King William II. On his death, his collection was sold to try to pay a few of his debts. The two large volumes ended up owned by rich Dutch collectors. In 1940, van Beuningen a wealthy businessman bought them and donated them to the museum.

About 140 of the drawings are now shown in this exhibition, together with the two volumes and eleven paintings. Some of the paintings are several meters high, while others are quite small. In some of the studies and final works, one clearly recognises the influence of Raphael, da Vinci, and even Dürer.

Fra Bartolommeo's famous portrait of Fra Savonarola

Fra Bartolommeo’s famous portrait of Fra Savonarola

At the start of this exhibition, a drawing which seems to be a self-portrait is shown. Right next to it hangs the famous portrait Fra Bartolommeo painted of Fra Savonarola. Together with a few drawings like a study of the head of St Catherine and of an old woman, these impressed me most.

But of course, you are more interested in hearing if this exhibition is worth a trip to Rotterdam. Is it worth to pay the extra 2.50 charge on top of the museum’s ordinary ticket price? To be honest: no.

Fra Bartolommeo may have been considered among the greatest artists by contemporaries. In his “Lives of the Artists”, Vasari may highly praise his works. Yet, Fra Bartolommeo is no Titian, no da Vinci, no Raphael, no Michelangelo.

Then there are the many drawings. Fortunately, on some walls these are linked to one or two details in a painting. But to see three, four, or more studies of one detail or figure – wall after wall … It may cause raptures in experts on religious Renaissance art, but not in ordinary exhibition visitors. During my visit, two people who had been to Lucca were also already familiar with many of the paintings.

Worse: at several of the tables with earphones to listen to Italian, English, or Dutch recitals of excerpts from Vasari’s biography of Fra Bartolommeo … the languages were mixed up. Expecting an English recital, I got an Italian one. The Italian visitor got the Dutch one. At at least one of these white tables, the tapes were not working at all, during my visit.

So: if on a visit to Rotterdam and being unfamiliar with this museum, go and have a look at this exhibition as well as the museum’s permanent collection. If you are a History of Art student, or expert on or lover of Renaissance Art, this exhibition is worth a visit too. Otherwise: think twice and visit only if you intend to combine this and at least one other of the museum’s exhibitions.

Fra Bartolommeo”, the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam.
This exhibition can be visited till the 15th of January. The museum has an excellent museum shop, espresso bar, restaurant and is located in Rotterdam’s museum park.

The exhibition catalogue is available in the museum shop in English or Dutch and the paperback version costs 35 Euros.

“Life of the artists” by Vasari, volumes I and II are available in English as Penguin Classics. His chapter on Fra Bartolommeo can be found in volume II, part 3.

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