This refined study of a cluster of trees clinging to a rocky outcrop comes from an album of 41 landscape drawings by Fra Bartolommeo, broken up in 1957 (see provenance). Drawn in around 1500, these drawings form one of the most substantial and earliest groups of pure landscape drawings. They show townscapes, landscapes with convents, rocky outcrops, studies of trees and, interestingly, one copy after a landscape drawing by Albrecht Dürer (C. Fischer, ‘Fra Bartolommeo’s Landscape Drawings’, Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, 1989, XXXIII, no. 2, pp. 301-342). Over a thousand drawings by the artist have come down to us today, but until the rediscovery of the album only around twelve pure landscape drawings by the artist were known. The appearance of this group of drawings, therefore, contributed greatly to our understanding of Fra Bartolommeo's landscape art and the artist in general. They form ‘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.’ (see C. Fischer, in Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery, exhib. cat., London, The Courtauld Gallery, and New York, The Frick Collection, 2012, p. 68 under no. 9).
The provenance of the drawings can be traced back to Fra Bartolommeo’s time. The artist’s workshop must have handled his drawings with great care in his lifetime; after Fra Bartolommeo’s death Lorenzo di Credi made an inventory of no fewer than 830 drawings and 12 sketchbooks in the artist’s studio. The drawings were bequeathed to his fellow friar and favourite pupil Fra Paolino da Pistoia (1488-1547). He, in turn, gave them to the artist and nun Plautilla Nelli (1524-1588) who left them to her cloister, Santa Caterina in Florence. In about 1722, the Florentine diplomat, painter, biographer and collector Francesco Maria Niccolò Gabburri (1676-1742) started negotiations with the convent to buy the album and its content. He certainly had acquired the drawings by 29 December 1725 as the Venetian collector, printmaker and art dealer Antonio Maria Zanetti congratulated Gabburri on his acquisition in a letter from that date (see A.J. Elen, ‘Out of Oblivion. An Extraordinary Provenance’, in Fra Bartolommeo. The Divine Renaissance, exhib. cat., Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, 2016-2017, p. 46). Gabburri had the drawings mounted in window mounts with characteristic borderlines in brown ink and wash and bound in an album. It is interesting that Gabburri erroneously thought the drawings to be by Andrea del Sarto, even more so considering that he owned 505 figure and compositional drawings by Fra Bartolommeo which he must have bought from the same source. Gabburri also had those drawings bound in two albums which are now in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam (see Fischer, op. cit., 1990-1991, pp. 18-24).
After Gabburri’s death, the little known British dealer William Kent (often confused with the eponymous architect) who was based in Florence and Rome, bought the entire collection in 1758. This included the album with landscape drawings and the two now in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, and Kent took them to England where they were sold in around 1760-1761. The whereabouts of the drawings for the following 150 years or so remain unclear, but they appeared on the market again when they were bought by an Irish collector in around 1925 (see C. Fischer, op. cit., 1990-1991, p. 15, note 33). The dramatic appearance of the drawings in the 1957 sale was a revelation to art historians, collectors and museums; most of the drawings are now in public collections.
The drawings are datable to between 1495 and 1509, when Fra Bartolommeo predominantly used pen and ink, before his 1509 trip to Venice. In contrast to his figure drawings which were all studies for pictures, only three of the artist’s landscape drawings can be related to his paintings. As Chris Fischer has observed, the landscape drawings were ‘apparently made for pleasure and they furnish us a glimpse of Fra Bartolommeo’s artistic creativity, when he worked, not out of a sense of duty, but out of love’ (Fischer, op. cit., 1989, p. 334). These observations surely apply to the present sheet in which Fra Bartolommeo breathes life into a rock formation and the vegetation that it supports. The plants and trees are drawn with delicate outlines only, while the sculptural quality of the rocks is suggested in the subtle play between the white of the paper and the diagonally applied hatching. While this sheet is not directly related to any of the artist’s known paintings, it may be compared to the rocks seen in the background Saint Jerome in the Wilderness in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin (see S. Padovani et al., L'eta di Savonarola. Fra' Bartolomeo e la Scuola di San Marco, exhib. cat., Florence, Palazzo Pitti and Museo di San Marco, 1996, no. 14, ill.). A number of drawings by Fra Bartolommeo showing rocky outcrops with vegetation, some of which drawn in a similarly sensitive style, are in the Louvre, Paris (inv. RF 5564-RF 5567).
Only three drawings from the Gabburri album have come up at auction after the 1957 sale: two studies of trees were in the Hatvany sale, Christie’s, London, 24 June 1980, lots 8 and 9, reappearing at Christie’s, New York, 24 January 2001, lot 7 and Christie’s, London, 7 July 2010, lot 308 respectively. A View of Fiesole was sold at Sotheby’s, New York, 31 January 2018, lot 5.