Baccio della Porta was born in Sofignano, near Prato, in 1473, but soon moved with his family to Florence, near Porta San Pier Gattolini, from which his name ‘Baccio della Porta’ derives. He trained in the workshop of Cosimo Rosselli in Florence, in the very same years in which he was also there Piero di Cosimo.
Very close to Savonarola’s rigid moral vision and preaching against the corruption of the church, the painter executed his first works precisely in response to the demands for reform imposed by the Dominican friar. The Annunciation for the Cathedral of Volterra, dating from the 1890s, is the first altarpiece that is traditionally placed at the beginning of Baccio della Porta’s production. The Portrait of i, housed in the Museo Nazionale di San Marco, where the preacher was to become prior, was painted shortly afterwards.
In 1499 he began the fresco of the Last Judgement for the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, but did not finish it because the following year, disorientated and upset by Savonarola’s excommunication and his consequent death sentence, he entered the Dominican order, taking the name Fra’ Bartolomeo, as he is known from then on.
A severe and solemn monumentality and chromatic richness
He resumed painting from 1504 onwards, in the Convent of San Marco, where he took care of painting entirely devoted to the sacred sphere, inspired by Beato Angelico’s manner, which he could see every day in the frescoes painted by the friar in the 1440s. On the other hand, it is impossible not to recognise in his language the clear influence of the young Raphael, who arrived in Florence in 1504, a year in which he could already convey to his friend Fra’ Bartolomeo the spiritual and essential elegance of human movements.
The lyrical delicacy of Beato Angelico’s perspectives is thus transformed in Baccio della Porta’s works into images with a decidedly more monumental flavour. After a stay in Venice in 1508, he returned to Florence, bringing with him, after studying the contemporary works of Giorgione, Carpaccio and Bellini, the baggage of a brighter and richer palette, as can be seen in the Pitti Altarpiece of 1512, with the Mystic Marriage of St Catherine for St Mark’s, now in the Louvre.
Solemn architecture and a rigorous and essential language are accompanied by a chromatic brilliance that is well revealed in the vigorous plasticity of the characters, who often emerge from the chiaroscuro, as can also be seen in the work executed in Rome in 1513, the altarpiece with Saints Peter and Paul.
After his stay in Rome, as Vasari writes, Fra’ Bartolomeo, forced to compare himself with the antique and with the works of the by then mature Raphael and Michelangelo, ‘stunned in a way that greatly diminished the virtue and excellence that he seemed to have’. Returning to Florence, he executed a number of works that did not bring any novelty to his previous language, such as the Madonna and Child and the perfectly orchestrated and monumental Madonna della Misericordia for the Church of San Romano in Lucca. He died in 1517, according to Vasari, from an indigestion of figs.