First given to Fra Bartolommeo by Adolfo Venturi in 1925, and dated to the 1490s by Chris Fischer, this small, jewel-like panel is related to a similar treatment of the subject in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin (see fig. 1). Although similar in size and composition, there are a number of significant differences between the present work and the Berlin picture. Most notably, while the present work is executed directly on panel that has been prepared with gesso, the other is on canvas that has been laid down on panel. This, coupled with the superior condition of the present example, has led scholars to a consensus on its authenticity and importance within Fra Bartolommeo's oeuvre (see Fischer, L'Eta' di Savonarola, op. cit.). In fact, recent examination of the painting with infrared reflectography has revealed that it is likely to be the prime version (see fig. 3). There is quite distinct underdrawing throughout the panel, and some at significant variation from the final painting. The Saint's shoulders, for example, appear to have been much broader in the artist's first sketch, and the contour of the back further to the right. Most telling, however, is the original positioning of St. Jerome's right arm; the initial idea was to have the limb extended out holding a rock. In the final version, Fra Bartolommeo has changed the Saint's pose, where the hermit crosses his wrists in adoration of the cross, converting it into a much more contemplative and introspective image.
The image confronts the viewer with a peaceful and contemplative representation of Saint Jerome. Fra Bartolommeo has moved away from earlier iconographic renderings of the saint, which focused on his asceticism and self-mortification, towards a more introspective and devotional depiction. The saint is portrayed kneeling in veneration before a crucifix, which is mounted on a soaring, spindle-like tree in the foreground. His lion appears to the left of the tree, crouching on the bank of a small, rocky stream. Behind the Saint, steep, craggy rocks rise sharply to a hilltop, on which a small monastery and figures are just visible to the right. Beyond, on the opposite bank of the stream, dense, green trees form a lush landscape of forest, with distant, atmospheric mountaintops just perceptible in the distance. In contrast to the version in Berlin, the present Saint Jerome includes additional tall trees with lace-like foliage in the center foreground, a lush bush to the right, and delicate trees, flowering plants and shrubs which not only grow in the extreme lower left foreground, but which also negotiate the rocky terrain behind the Saint. These elements combine to form a more articulated and inviting landscape – one which seems to enclose and protect the Saint -- than that found in the Berlin version, where the barren landscape evokes feelings of isolation and despair.
In 1986, Fischer identified a pen and ink drawing in the Uffizi as a possible early study for the figure of Saint Jerome (Fischer, Disegni, op. cit., fig. 2). Shown in three-quarters profile from behind with his head turned over his shoulder, this figure has remarkably similar facial features to the Saint in the present composition. The drawing is also interesting for its exploration of the way light and shadow interact on surfaces and help to define forms in space. The artist beautifully translates this concept from the graphic drawing, with its bold areas of cross-hatching, to the finished painting, in which the Saint's face and the front of his simple white cassock are bathed in clear, bright light while the side of his arm, back and leg are cast into deep, gray shadow.
Fra Bartolommeo was a pivotal figure in the growth and development of the High Renaissance style in Italy. Writers and scholars as early as Vasari were quick to recognize his contributions, and more recent scholarship has elaborated upon his fountainhead position in Florence at the dawn of the 16th century. The son of a muleteer and carter, Fra Bartolommeo, or Baccio della Porta as he was known at the time, is first recorded as an apprentice in the studio of Cosimo Rosselli in 1485. At that time, Piero di Cosimo was the senior assistant in Rosselli's workshop, and it would seem – as Berenson was the first to propose – that it was Piero who acted as Baccio's primary teacher. In addition to introducing Fra Bartolommeo to the painterly techniques of the Netherlandish School, Piero encouraged his pupil to keep abreast of the innovations taking place in the workshops of artists like Botticelli, Perugino and Ghirlandaio, among others. It was also while in Rosselli's studio that Fra Bartolommeo met and befriended a fellow pupil, Mariotto Albertinelli. These two formed not only a close friendship, but also a working partnership that lasted until 1513, completing many joint commissions over the years and explaining why this work was first attributed to Albertinelli in the early 20th century (see Literature).
During the last years of the 1490s, Fra Bartolommeo developed an interest in the working methods of Leonardo da Vinci, who had been active in Florence before moving to Milan in 1482. Fra Bartolommeo was especially fascinated by the older artist's use of light and shadow to model forms – as evidenced by his preparatory sketch of Saint Jerome (see fig. 2– and became the preeminent Florentine practitioner of the leonardesque idiom. In fact, when he was commissioned in 1499 by Gerozzo Dini to paint a monumental fresco of the Last Judgement for a funerary chapel in Santa Maria Nuova (now in the Museo San Marco), he quoted elements from unfinished works that Leonardo had left in Florence, including the pose of his Saint Jerome (Rome, Pinacoteca Vaticana). Although alterations to Fra Bartolommeo's original composition by Albertinelli and other, later restorers make it impossible to tell how much of the Last Judgment is indebted to Leonardo, the fresco had a profound effect on the young Raphael, who studied its composition and preparatory studies at length. Although he fell under the influence of the fanatical Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonarola in 1496 and briefly forsook painting when he entered the Dominican Order in 1500, Fra Bartolommeo never stopped drawing and had returned to painting by 1504. He continued working up until his death in 1517, and in addition to Raphael, influenced the development of Andrea del Sarto, Titian, Correggio, Beccafumi, Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino.
Oil on panel, with an arched top
Baccio della Porta, called Fra Bartolommeo
London, Royal Academy of Arts, Italian Art and Britain: Winter Exhibition, 2 January - 6 March 1960, no. 322;
Kings Lynn, Norfolk, Fermoy Art Gallery, Renaissance Painting in Tuscany, 1300 - 1500, 21 July - 4 August 1973, no. 35 (lent anonymously).
17 3/4 by 11 in.; 45.1 by 27.9 cm.
J.A. Crowe and G.B. Cavalcaselle, A History of Painting in Italy, Umbria, Florence and Siena from the Second to the Sixteenth Century, T. Borenius, ed., vol. VI, London 1914, p. 113, no. 1 (as Albertinelli);
T. Borenius and R. Benson, Catalogue of Italian Pictures at 16 South Street, Park Lane, London and Buckhurst in Sussex, Collected by Robert and Evelyn Benson, London 1914, p. 67, no. 35 (as Albertinelli);
A. Venturi, Storia dell'arte italiana, vol. IX, Milan 1925, pp. 256-258, reproduced p. 171 (as Fra Bartolommeo)
B. Berenson, Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: A List of the Principal Artists and Their Works with an Index of Places, Oxford 1932, p. 48;
B. Berenson, Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: A List of the Principal Artists and Their Works with an Index of Places. Florentine School, London 1963, vol. I, p. 23;
G. Schade, K.P. Arnold, et al., Kunst der Reformationzeit, exhibition catalogue, Berlin, Staatliche Museen, Haupstadt der DDR, 26 August - 13 November 1983, Berlin 1983, p. 284, under no. D65;
C. Fischer, Disegni di Fra Bartolommeo e della sua scuola, exhibition catalogue, Florence, Gabinetto disegni e stampe degli Uffizi, 1986, Florence 1986, pp. 33-35, under no. 4;
C. Fischer, catalogue entry in L'Eta' di Savonarola: Fra Bartolomeo e la scuola di San Marco, exhibition catalogue, Florence, Palazzo Pitti and Museo di San Marco, 25 April - 28 July 1996, Venice 1996, pp. 77-79, under no. 14.
Charles Butler, London;
By whom sold to Robert Benson, London, by 1914;
Thence by inheritance to Walter Hungerford Pollen, Norton Hall, Gloucestershire, 1927;
Thence by descent in the family until sold;
Anonymous sale, London, Sotheby's, 7 December 1988, lot 80, unsold;
Acquired by the present owner from Sotheby's in 1989.