One of ten studies depicting single trees which survived from the artist's studio and represent the earliest known evidence in the history of western art of an artist sketching outdoors. These studies are an integral part of the celebrated series of landscape drawings excecuted in pen and brown ink depicting views of Dominican holdings in the vicinity of Florence. The tree studies however often vary from the larger views in spirit and technique. While half of them are drawn like the landscapes in pen and brown ink, the present sheet along with another in the Gabburri album and a third formerly in the Oppenheimer Collection, Christie's, London, 10 July 1936, lot 24, are executed in Fra Bartolommeo's preferred medium: black chalk. Two other sheets from the Gabburri album are delicately worked up in brush and brown wash, Baron Paul Hatvany; Christie's London, 24 June 1980, lot 8; and Anon. sale, Sotheby's, London, 20 November 1957, lot 16. Chris Fischer dates the group to the years between 1495 and 1508, but Ellis considers that they could have been sketched by the artist throughout his career.
The story of how the corpus of Fra Bartolommeo's drawings suddenly expanded with the discovery in 1957 of an album of 41 of his landscape studies has often been told. The bulk of the artist's drawings consists mostly of figure studies, many at the Louvre and the Uffizi, but the larger part at the Boymans-van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam, which houses two albums of his drawings assembled in the early 18th Century by the Florentine connoisseur Nicolò Gabburri. Until 1957, only a dozen landscape drawings by the artist were known. The reappearance of so many drawings in the form of a third Gabburri album revealed the essential role both the Dominican Order and Gabburri had played in the preservation of Fra Bartolommeo's studio. The artist's estate, bequeathed to Fra Paolino da Pistoia and by him to Suor Plautina Nelli, remained under the protection of monastic administration and prevented the early dispersal of the studio. In around 1725 Gabburri acquired a large part of the group from the Convent of Santa Caterina in Florence, and had the drawings bound into albums. Such care allowed most of the artist's drawings to reach us in an unprecedented state of conservation and coherence. Our knowledge of Fra Bartolommeo's studio is further increased by two inventories made at the artist's death, one drawn up by Lorenzo di Credi, which reveal how many more landscapes there were in the estate. The indication in a previous inventory that most of these had been laid down on rolls of canvas explains why so few survived. Such a precarious method of conservation is also recorded in Jacopo Bassano's studio.
It is revealing that by the beginning of the 18th Century, awareness of Fra Bartolommeo as a landscape draughtsman had been all but lost, since Gabburri had attributed the landscape drawings to Andrea del Sarto rather than to his Florentine contemporary. This misconception has now been dispelled by the topographical research done by Chris Fischer, 'Fra Bartolommeo's Landscape Drawings', Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, 33, 1989, pp.301-42. However while he identified many Dominican buildings visited by the artist on his travels, such a topographical approach ignores the main purpose of these studies; it does not address the way nature itself was depicted. Yet the presence in the Gabburri albums of nine tree studies out of the 41 sheets, reveals the importance of the subject matter to the artist himself.
Trees rather than buildings are central to the structure of Fra Bartolommeo's landscapes. By focusing on trees, a new analysis of these compositions is possible. There are no mountains, only gentle hills and small rocky outcrops. In most compositions elongated trees reach to the sky and shrink the buildings into insignificance as they appear to be engulfed by the undergrowth. Either sketched lightly in swirling calligraphy, or carefully outlined, the trees punctuate the scene. As in the Tuscan woods at La Verna where Saint Francis experienced his vision, Fra Bartolommeo's trees are often seen growing in between rocks. Trees, for Fra Bartolommeo, are thus the essence of landscape.
The present sheet is one of the most developed and finished tree studies of the group. Fra Bartolommeo's interest lay in the subtle definition of the trunk and branches. Most of the studies, however, depict trees without foliage: these are executed in pen and brown ink. The present sheet drawn in black chalk depicts a tree in full bud just as its leaves begin to unfurl, but before the foliage obscures its structure. The artist resorts to a most poetical use of black chalk sweeping across the sheet to contrast with the sensitive precision he expressed in rendering the branches. This similar contrast between the almost scientific observation of the trunks and branches and stylized foliage can be found in contemporary tree studies by Albrecht Altdorfer. The two saplings at the lower left are particularly reminiscent of German art. At the same time, Dürer drew his views of Italy and executed refined watercolour studies of trees and grass. It is therefore not surprising that Fra Bartolommeo copied a section of the background of Dürer's engraving Hercules at the Crossroads in one of the drawings of the Gabburri album. It suggests in Fra Bartolommeo an independence of mind which places him not only artistically at the forefront of European art, but also reveals his awareness of the larger spiritual issues which were to lead to the Reformation. This shifting of the focus from the human figure to nature anticipates the spirit of the Counter-Reformation expressed a generation later by Federico Barocci in his sumptuous realism.
Fra Bartolommeo took his vows rather late in life, at the age of 28. Born the son of a muleteer, he was known in Florence as 'Baccio', a Tuscan diminutive of Bartolommeo. Because he lived outside one of the gates of Florence, he was dubbed 'Baccio della Porta'. Such plebeian origins led him to become a fervent supporter of Fra Girolamo Savonarola, one of the most controversial figures of his time. Savonarola, a Dominican preacher from Ferrara, had been summoned to Florence by Lorenzo de'Medici the Magnificient. Soon his enflamed sermons drew crowds and their fanatical content galvanized the Republican opposition against Medici rule. Although the Dominican Convent of San Marco had grown into one of the richest institutions of the city under Medici patronage, the monks elected Savonarola their Prior, turning him into a political figure. The death of Lorenzo offered Savonarola a chance to overthrow the Medici regime, and install a populist rule in the name of Republican ideals. His anti-aristocratic stand was also expressed through fanatical religious views that foreshadowed the Reformation. The intellectual turmoil of these events influenced an entire generation. The young Baccio, a staunch supporter of Savonarola, threw his drawings of nudes into the bonfire ordered by the regime on 27 February 1498, and was at the Prior's side on his arrest in 1498. Savonarola was burnt at the stake two years before Fra Bartolommeo took his vows. He remained true to his mentor and the only portrait of Savonarola is traditionally attributed to Fra Bartolommeo. Fra Bartolommeo's career was punctuated by crises. Although Fra Bartolommeo twice abandoned painting, he never stopped drawing. The deceptive religious serenity of his large altarpieces contrasts with the evidence of his tortured soul. The inheritance of the Dominican tradition handed down from Fra Angelico inspired in Fra Bartolommeo an interest in landscape. Fra Angelico's view of Castiglione Fiorentino in the Visitation of the Annunciation predella in the Museo Diocesaro at Cortona is the earliest example of an exact location appearing in the background of a religious composition. Although Florence under Marsilio Ficino was the city where neoplatonism was revived, it is important to realize that Domenican institutions were very much in line with traditional Aristotelian views. The present sheet's emphasis on nature can surely be regarded as a reaction against the arcanely intellectual discourses of the neoplatonists that were favored by the Medici court.