There is little doubt that this rediscovered Nativity by Fra Bartolommeo can be identified as the 'quadretto dentrovi un Presepio ovvero Natività' (small picture of The Stall or really the Nativity) sold for 'XXX Fiorini larghi d'oro' from the Monastery of San Marco, where the artist lived, to a certain Domenico Perini (Ridolfi, loc. cit.). Perini had already bought the Noli me Tangere now in the Louvre a year before, on 30 April 1506 (fig. 5; Ridolfi, loc. cit.; see also C. Fisher, catalogue of the exhibition, Fra Bartolommeo et son atelier. Dessins et peintures des collections françaises, Musée du Louvre, Paris, 17 November 1994-13 February 1995, p. 86, no. 50). The list made by Fra Bartolomeo Cavalcanti from 1516 of the pictures painted by Fra Bartolommeo at the monastery gives more specific information about the size of both pictures (nos. 2 and 3 of this largely chronological list) and their destination: 'Item dipinse un quadro di circa d'un braccio, nel quale era santa Maria Magdalena cum Yhesu nell'orto, fu venduto a Domenicho Perini duc [ati] XLIIII' (Marchese, loc. cit.). Of The Nativity, which is next on the list, he writes: 'Item dipinse un quadretto circa d'un mezo braccio, nel quale era una Natività a Domenicho Perini per in Francia: ébbene duc.[ati] XXX' (ibid.). The reader is thus informed that the former measured approximately one 'braccio' in height, and the latter approximately half a 'braccio', corresponding to roughly 60 cm. and 30 cm. These measurements correspond extremely closely to the Louvre Noli me Tangere (57 cm.) and to the present Nativity (34 cm.).
Athough both pictures are extraordinarily close in style, two other Nativities from the same period could, on stylistic grounds, also be considered as candidates: one is in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (inv. no. 29[1955.6]), and the other in the J.B. Speed Art Museum, Kentucky (inv. no. 76.31). However, their sizes do not come close to that specified (circa 30 cm.) by Fra Cavalcanti: the Thyssen-Bornemisza Nativity is 62 cm. high, and that in Kentucky measures only 15.2 cm.; although the latter picture is cut on all sides it is hard to imagine that it could have been reduced to half its size. A third small Nativity, the attribution of which is doubted by both Chris Fischer (letter, 15 May 2001) and Everett Fahy, is in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Caen (inv. no. 73.5.1). Before the present picture reappeared, Everett Fahy suggested in the catalogue of the exhibition, L'età di Savonarola, Fra' Bartolomeo e la Scuola di San Marco (Palazzo Pitti and the Museo di San Marco, Florence, 25 April-28 July 1996, pp. 85-6, under no. 17), that the Caen Nativity could be an enlarged copy of that bought by Perini. However, measuring 56 cm., it would have to be enlarged by nearly half the size of the original. With the rediscovery of the present picture this seems unlikely, especially as the Caen composition appears to be a full composition.
The slightly obscure words used by Fra Cavalcante when writing about the Nativity, that it was sold to 'Domenico Perini per in Francia' (Marchese, loc. cit.) are confirmed by the so-called Anonimo Magliabechiano who wrote in around 1540 that Fra Bartolommeo 'dipinse dua tavole molto belle che furon mandata in Francia' ('painted two very beautiful panels that were sent to France'; quoted in J. Cox-Rearick, Chefs d'Oeuvre de la Renaissance, les Collections de François 1er, Paris, 1995, p. 168, under no. V-2). In her catalogue Janet Cox-Rearick (op. cit., pp. 168-9, nos. V-2 and 3), and later Chris Fisher (loc. cit., 1995) and Everett Fahy (loc. cit.), suggested that it is very likely that not only the Noli me Tangere but also the Nativity were sent to France by Domenico Perini for the collection of King Louis XII. That it entered the collection of the King at Fontainebleau is not certain, as it does not appear on the first inventory of 1625.
That the Nativity is 'molto bello', as it was described by the Anonimo Magliabechiano, and that it must have been painted for an important client, is illustrated not only by its richness of colour (for example the lapis lazuli of the Virgin's cloak) but also by the number of preliminary drawings (figs. 2-5) and related drawings that exist for it. Chris Fisher (letter) noted two studies in black chalk with white heightening from the album compiled by Nicoló Gabburi, now in the Museum Boijmans-Van Beuningen, Rotterdam (inv. nos. I563 M. 96v. and 74v.). One is a study for the lower three-quarters of the picture (fig. 2). Although the composition is largely established in this drawing, Fra Bartolommeo made some changes in the final painting. Most significantly, in the drawing the Virgin is turned further towards the viewer, and Saint Joseph's hands are, like hers, folded as for prayer, as a result both figures are nearly mirror images. The composition of the painting is more balanced: turned towards the viewer, Saint Joseph's hands are opened in a gesture of amazement, whereas the Virgin is shown in profile with folded hands. Similarly, a subtler arrangement has been found for the middle ground: by moving the wooden column of the stall behind Saint Joseph, the right hand side - depicting two angels behind the Virgin - seems less heavy. The other study in Rotterdam is preparatory for the angel close to the edge of the composition, the gentle movement of whose drapery is rendered with such subtlety (fig. 1).
That Fra Bartolommeo must already have known which of his landscape drawings he proposed to use for the Nativity is clear from the rapid lines with which he indicated its layout in the composition drawing in Rotterdam. It corresponds with one of the artist's finest pen and ink landscape drawings (fig. 4), from the Gaburri Album in the Metropolitan Museum (inv. no. 57.165; see J. Bean, 15th and 16th Century Italian Drawings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1982, p. 38, no. 25). The Metropolitan drawing is minutely followed in the picture, where each building, slope, group of bushes and even the haystack in front of the farm on the left is repeated. This connection is of particular interest, for of the 55 or so pen and ink landscape drawings by Fra Bartolommeo, the Metropolitan drawing is only the fourth that he is known to have used for a painting (the other three are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Courtauld Institute and the Cleveland Museum of Art).
The landscape drawings from the Gaburri album are among the earliest pure landscape studies in European art, giving the impression of having been created from nature itself. Chris Fischer demonstrated in the catalogue of the exhibition Fra Bartolommeo, Master draughtsman of the High Renaissance (Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans-Van Beuningen, 1990, pp. 375-7) that some of the farms, convents and villages recorded by the Frate's pen still survive in the sloping hills of Chianti. Although Fra Bartolommeo probably drew the Metropolitan drawing in his workshop, Fischer convincingly argues that a drawing in the Louvre (fig. 3), on which it is based, was possibly rapidly sketched en plein air (op. cit., 1994-5, p. 54, no. 28). Later, in his workshop, the artist eliminated the palm tree, itself a caprice, and drew slender trees which (as in the painting) flank the view into the distance. He transformed the Tuscan colombaia into a northern tower deriving from the architecture in Dürer's engraving of Hercules at the Crossroads, the architecture of which he copied on another sheet (Louvre, inv. no. RF5565; see ibid., p. 52, no. 27v.).
Four other drawings relate, although not exclusively, to the composition of the figures in this Nativity. A sketch in the Louvre (inv. no. RF5554r.; ibid., p. 68, no. 37r.) shows on the right the Virgin dressed in a heavy cloak, kneeling, in profile, her eyes cast down and hands folded, adoring the Child in the centre, whose outstretched arms reach for Her. Only Saint Joseph, sitting with his left elbow on his knee, his head resting in his hand, differs from the picture and is not found in any other Nativity by the artist. In a second drawing, in which a kneeling angel presents the Child to the Virgin (Uffizi, inv. no. 480E), the position of Mary and her profile are very similar to the picture. Furthermore, the drawing also shows two Angels standing in similar positions to those behind the Virgin in the picture, although one blows a trumpet (idem, Disegni di Fra Bartolommeo e della sua scuola, Florence, 1986, pp. 69-70, no. 29). The angels behind the Virgin are repeated in a third drawing of the Nativity, in the Louvre (idem, op. cit., 1994-5, p. 75, no. 41). Fischer relates this drawing and a fourth in the Uffizi (inv. no. 1203Ev.) with a small study of the Child to the composition study in Rotterdam (fig. 2) and dates them both contemporaneously with the then-lost 1507 Nativity (op. cit., 1986, pp. 56-8, no. 19).
The picture must have been painted between 1504 - when, after an interval of approximately four years, Fra Bartolommeo resumed painting - and its payment in 1507. The softness of the Virgin's features, her profile accentuated against her dark cloak, and of those of the angels is typical of the artist's style of the period. As both Everett Fahy and Chris Fischer pointed out, the rhythmic play of the heavy folds in the drapery contrasting with the light drapery of the Angels, the sophisticated balance of the colours and the atmospheric perspective of the landscape recall the large altarpiece of The Vision of Saint Bernard, which Fra Bartolommeo painted between 1504-7. On this small scale the miniature-like perfection of the detail of the early morning landscape with its gradation from dark green to blue in the horizon, and the vaporous, refined quality of the figures are strikingly close to the Louvre Noli Me Tangere (fig. 5) with which it was probably sent to France.
Of the known Nativities by Fra Bartolommeo from this period, it is closest to the larger one in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, in which a very similar group of three angels in the sky crowns the composition, and a dilapidated stall is depicted on the right instead of the two approaching angels. Different also are the positions of Saint John and the Virgin who are seated on a ruined wall: where he is depicted in profile, she faces the viewer, her hand resting on the Infant Saint John's shoulder. The Nativity in the J.B. Speed Art Museum also dates from circa 1504-8: in this tiny panel Saint Joseph kneels in a similar position as in the present work, but his hands are folded. Mary's body is turned slightly towards the viewer, but her profile and drapery are strikingly similar.
In both the Nativity in Kentucky and the probable copy in Caen, the group of Angels in the sky is substituted with a horizontal beam in the stall's roof. The first picture shows the Holy Family, while in the Caen variant the Madonna and Saint Joseph are inverted and the approaching Angels are replaced by one kneeling and two standing shepherds. The landscapes of the Thyssen-Bornemisza and Speed Museum Nativities differ from the present picture in that they are more inspired by Flemish painting, with a fantastic city with spires and cupolas on a lake in the background. In the rediscovered Nativity, the town, even though it is a reference to Bethlehem, the horseman in the middle ground and to the right (referring to the Magi), and the ox which has wondered towards the Shepherds on the extreme left, are set in the sloping hills of the Chianti.
We are very grateful to Chris Fischer and Everett Fahy for confirming the attribution and for their assistance with the cataloguing of the present lot.