The artist known to posterity as Fra Bartolommeo was born and baptized in Florence on 28 March 1472. His father, a muleteer and carter, moved the family to a house outside the Porta San Pier Gattolini just a few years later, and the young boy soon became known as 'Baccio' (an informal and affectionate Tuscan diminutive for Bartolommeo) 'della Porta'. He went by this name until 1500 when he entered the convent of San Domenico di Prato and took the vows of the Dominican Order, after which he was called 'Fra Bartolommeo' in reference to his status as a member of the Dominican brotherhood.
Baccio probably began his apprenticeship in the workshop of the Florentine artist Cosimo Rosselli soon after 1482, when Rosselli returned to Florence after working in Rome on the Sistine Chapel; by 1485, Baccio was a well-established member of the workshop. He developed a close friendship with the painter Mariotto Albertinelli, and after leaving Rosselli's studio around 1491 established a joint workshop with Albertinelli, probably around 1493. In the years that followed, the two drifted apart for a time - while Albertinelli entered the service of the Medici, Baccio became an ardent follower of Savonarola, the fiery Dominican preacher who gained prominence for his blistering sermons condemning the moral decay of the Church. In 1494, as support for Savonarola grew, the Medici fled Florence and Albertinelli, recognizing the force of the political tide, renewed his old friendship with Baccio, collaborating extensively with him thereafter.
In 1497, Savonarola orchestrated the now-infamous Bonfires of the Vanities, the largest of which took place on 7 February. Baccio, along with other well-known artists, participated in this public event - going so far as to throw his own works onto the fire. Given his intense religious fervor, Baccio must have experienced emotional turmoil when the tide subsequently turned against Savonarola in 1498, and the controversial preacher was excommunicated, tortured, and finally burned at the stake (fig. 1). This event may have been the catalyst for Baccio's decision to become a formal member of the Dominican Order, whose vows he took in 1500. So strong was his commitment to Savonarola's teachings that he even gave up painting at this time, not to resume until 1504, and thereafter only selectively.
Brought to light in 1992 by Chris Fischer, the present tondo-shaped picture represents an important addition to the artist's oeuvre. Noting its exceptionally fine state of preservation, Fischer dates the panel to the mid-1490s, comparing the morphology of the figures, the handling of the drapery, the "highly luminous quality" of the paint, the "strong glistering impasto", and the atmospheric landscape to early works by Baccio. He notes in particular the similarities to the Annunciation in the Volterra cathedral, the artist's earliest dated work, and also compares the rocks in the present picture to those in three early drawings - two in the Louvre (inv. R.F. 5565 and inv. R.F. 5567) and another that sold at Sotheby's in London on 20 November 1957. Fischer further observes that the waterfall in the present painting reappears in Baccio's Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, another picture datable to the 1490s (C. Fischer, op. cit., p. 12). Autograph works from Fra Bartolommeo's early period are rare. According to Vasari, images of the Madonna and Child made up the bulk of Baccio's livelihood at this time, so our picture constitutes an important piece of evidence from a period in the artist's life about which we know comparatively little.
In this context, the iconography of the tondo is especially interesting. The motif of the child climbing up to receive a kiss from his mother originates in a Byzantine Madonna-type called the Glykophilousa, of which there was an example in Santa Maria al Marocco, Tavernelle (now lost) which became the prototype for numerous works by artists in the circles of Jacopo della Quercia, Nanni di Bartolo, Lorenzo Ghiberti, and others (C. Fischer, op. cit., p. 12). Here, the imagery is conceived in especially tender terms - the child grasps his mother's veil eagerly, scrambling upwards to be caressed, his right arm curled against her breast and his little toes spread apart, emphasizing the energy of his activity. His mother, leaning towards the child and cradling his head in her hand, uses her gauzy veil to cover the back of his head and pull him closer. She supports his body protectively with her other hand, and her barely-separated lips emphasize the kiss she is about to bestow.
Such maternal tenderness is captured in the contemporary reliefs of Desiderio da Settignano and, especially, Donatello, whose influence on Baccio's work is apparent here (fig. 2). As Christa Gardner von Teuffel notes, "[t]he debt to Donatello is manifest, but here is given a Michelangelesque concentration" (loc. cit.). The shallow carved reliefs of Desiderio and Donatello often showed figures in profile, a motif adopted by Fra Bartolommeo as well as other High Renaissance artists like Michelangelo and Raphael in order to give steadiness and simplicity to the composition. This effect is underscored by the lack of iconographical details such as the goldfinch and the scroll, so often present in contemporary Tuscan depictions of the Madonna and Child. Furthermore, Savonarola preached that holy images "should be of the utmost simplicity" and should inspire devotion and meditation in their viewers (C. Fischer, op. cit., p. 18). The choice to render the figures in profile here thus not only steadies and simplifies the composition but also elevates the Madonna and Child to a sacred realm.
The decision to place a parapet behind the figural group instead of in front (as was the case in most devotional images of the period), serves to push the Madonna and Child to the front of the picture plane, so that they immediately confront the worshipper. At the same time, this arrangement sets the figures apart in an elevated realm of their own, isolated from the natural landscape behind, whose atmospheric detail and spatial qualities are so beautifully rendered. In such a position the figures occupy a sacred space that can be revered, but not accessed, by ordinary human beings. Savonarola had attacked contemporary artists for depicting the Madonna uncovered "come meretrice", and in this image the artist has added the ephemeral, gauzy veil to emphasize her purity and holiness (C. Fischer, op. cit., p. 19).
This message is further underscored by the circular form of the tondo itself. In its allusion to the halo, the traditional Christian symbol of holiness, the circle represents sanctity, power, and salvation. Such connotations have even deeper roots in the ancient world. The Greeks idealized the circle as the most perfect geometrical form, regarding it as a symbol of divinity and eternity. In ancient Rome, round portraits on shields and coins symbolized the apotheosis, or ascent to heaven, of the sitter. In Renaissance Italy, the circular format came to be associated with the cycle of birth, death, and resurrection at the center of the Christian faith. Painted tondi were mainly produced in Florence, where they emerged in the early 15th century and remained popular until around 1520, when the advent of Mannerism brought about a shift in artistic tastes. The format probably originated with deschi da parto, or birth trays, which were given as gifts to mothers after the birth of a child. Painted tondi were made in especially large numbers in the workshop of Sandro Botticelli (fig. 3), which surely in part reflects Botticelli's adherence to Savonarola's teachings. The holy connotations of the circumscribed Madonna and Child would have been especially important to an artist working in this context: as Roberta Olson has aptly noted, "[t]ondi, intended for the private or semi-public sphere and having a spiritual content that descends from the traditional icon, may have avoided Savonarola's charges about the lack of spirituality in art" (R. Olson, The Florentine Tondo, New York, 2000, p. 227).
Essential to the present tondo is its frame, which Dr. Monika Cämmerer has determined to be original to the picture (C. Fischer, op. cit., p. 19, n. 48). In and of itself, this is a remarkable survival, but it also sheds further light on the intended message of the work. The frame's unusually large width seems to have been calculated in proportion to the painting, helping to lock the image in space and focus the viewer's experience. Its design - which Franco Sabatelli has also related to that of the framing element of Donatello's bronze Chellini Madonna (now in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, inv. A.1-1976; F. Sabatelli, loc. cit.) - has parallels in contemporary architecture, such as the work of Benedetto da Maiano, who recommended Baccio to Cosimo Rosselli, and whose door of the Sala dell'Udienza, executed with his brother Giuliano between 1476 and 1480, epitomizes this simplified architectural ideal. The work of Il Cronaca, a favorite of Savonarola, could also have been an influence - indeed Il Cronaca surely met Baccio in 1497 when he too burned his own work at the preacher's destructive bonfires. As Fischer notes, together the "design of the painting and its frame seem to reflect the prevailing ideas of Fra Bartolommeo's spiritual model" (op. cit., p. 19). Von Teuffel has also observed that, in its original frame, the "artist's concept" is "complete," and "provides an instructive contrast to the fragmentation of so many [of his] altarpieces" (loc. cit.)
Later in the 1490s, Baccio came under the influence of Leonardo da Vinci, who had worked in Florence before his departure for Milan in 1482. The present tondo presages Baccio's later work, which came to incorporate a deep understanding of Leonardo's techniques for creating tonal unity and for modeling figures with exceptionally subtle gradations of light and shadow. This ability eventually made him the most important exponent of the Leonardesque idiom in Florence. After a later trip to Venice, Fra Bartolommeo (as he was then known) combined this sensibility with the bright and shimmering coloristic effects embraced by the artists from that city, and became a profound influence on Andrea del Sarto, Beccafumi, and Rosso Fiorentino, to name a few.
The early provenance of the tondo has yet to be established. Von Teuffel, calling the work "a compelling devotional image for a secular setting," has suggested that it might have been "executed for the open market" (loc. cit.). A 19th- or 20th- century lacquer seal recently identified on the back of the panel (fig. 4) included a crest that has been associated with the Florentine Vettori family, whose 15th-century members all played important roles in the Florentine political scene of the 1490s. It is not impossible that the tondo was commissioned for them (C. Fischer, op. cit., p. 12).
We are grateful to Chris Fischer for his assistance in preparing this entry (private communication, 12 November 2012).