Fra Bartolommeo (also correctly spelt ‘Fra Bartolomeo’), whose father was a mule driver, was nicknamed Baccio (short for Bartolommeo) della Porta. He was apprenticed as a thirteen-year-old to the workmanlike painter Cosimo Roselli in whose studio he met Mariotto Albertinelli with whom he struck up a lifelong friendship and latterly a commercial partnership. Baccio was, however, less interested in the conventional dry style of Rosselli and seems to have quickly responded instead to the innovations of Piero di Cosimo and Lorenzo di Credi, both of whom were influenced by the developments of North painting and its use of oil as a binder to achieve greater luminosity and refinement of detail. Fra Bartolommeo’s early work, such as the Madonna and Child with the Young St. John the Baptist, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, have a brilliance of color and chiaroscuro modeling which also betray a knowledge of Leonardo, and in particular the Benois Madonna now in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg.
In 1499, Fra Bartolommeo was commissioned to paint a monumental fresco of the Last Judgment which shows a movement towards a greater classicism, formality and idealization. The next year he took his vows as a monk and shortly thereafter gave up painting in deference to the ascetic fanaticism of Savonarola, whose posthumous portrait he painted. However, in 1504 Fra Bartolommeo was persuaded to return to painting and embarked on a series of monumental altarpieces characterized by transcendental, floating apparitions of the Divine, surrounded by fluttering angels. In 1508 Fra Bartolomeo moved to Venice (as a monk he felt obliged to go entirely on foot) making some beautiful and economically penned landscape drawings on the journey. He was influenced by the late works of Botticelli, a fellow follower of the teaching of Savonarola, and also by his exposure to Venetian art which he experienced following a commission from the Dominican convent of San Piero Martire on Murano. His stay in Venice led to a deepening intensity of color. The Vision of St. Bernard (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi) and God the Father with Saints Mary and Catherine of Siena (Lucca, Villa Guinigi) are two notable altarpieces from this period.
By 1509 Fra Bartolommeo formed a partnership with Albertinelli, the Bottega di San Marco. Works from the Bottega were signed by a cross and double circle. It was a more equal partnership than Fra Bartolommeo’s greater posthumous fame would suggest and Albertinelli produced the original drawings for altarpieces such as that for Ferry Carondelet now in the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart. The monumental altarpieces produced during this period by Fra Bartolommeo and Albertinelli such as the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine of Siena (Paris, Musee du Louvre) and the Pietà (Florence, Palazzo Pitti) show in their architectonic settings the influence of Bellini, whose altarpieces Fra Bartolommeo would have studied in Venice and in their use of flying putti supporting draperies and gracefully arranged, classical figural groups we also see the inevitable presence of Raphael. During this period Fra Bartolommeo painted few small scale works, but one of these is the exquisite Holy Family with the Infant St. John (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles).
In 1513 Fra Bartolommeo went to Rome for the elevation of the Medici Pope, Leo X. There he saw the work of Michelangelo, whose gigantic nudes exerted a profound effect on Fra Bartolommeo’s late work. He returned to Florence, ill, later that year and dissolved his partnership with Albertinelli. While convalescing at the hospital of S. Maria Maddalena he completed several frescoes. He continued to paint, often on a large scale until his death in 1517. Upon his death the artist Lorenzo di Credi compiled an inventory of his effects. They included a large cache of drawings made throughout his lifetime. Fra Bartolommeo’s drawings, both of landscapes and figure studies for his altarpieces are among the greatest achievements of the Florentine high renaissance.