Inscribed by Gabburri on verso of original sheet in pen and brown ink, at top, "Originale da Suor Plautilla scolara di Fra Bartolomeo / che fu erede [...] disegni". (The inscription is on the back of the original sheet and hidden by the laid-down backing sheet but it visible in transmitted light.)
A beautiful young woman alights on one foot, the fabric of her garments billowing behind her, as a seated, elderly monk concentrates on his writing. Identifying the subject proved a challenge for scholars such as Bernard Berenson, who considered the briefly sketched scene an early idea for the artist’s Virgin Appearing to St. Bernard,1 given that the two protagonists face each other over the monk’s writing, as in Filippino Lippi’s celebrated depiction of the subject (1480; Badia, Florence). Chris Fischer, however, associated this vignette with Fra Bartolommeo’s explorations of the Temptation of St. Anthony Abbot, a subject that lacked a tradition of pictorial convention in Florentine art. The absence of predominant models might explain why the artist produced a number of exploratory sketches devoted to the hermit saint’s tribulations, even if they do not seem to have resulted in a painted version of the subject.
In this early phase of his career, the artist often sketched several figures or scenes in different orientations on a sheet; at upper right, we find remnants of a second sketch that was likely executed when the sheet was turned ninety degrees clockwise. In the primary sketch, Fra Bartolommeo first delineated the figure of the seated monk. With the addition of the Peruginesque woman in fluttering robes, the monk’s gestures were modified to depict him inscribing an open book. This refinement muddied the area surrounding his hands.2 The artist continued to explore in several sketches this juxtaposition of an introspective, cloaked monk and an animated female figure. Such sheets underscore his early use of ink on paper as a means of investigating novel approaches to biblical subjects and probing the relationships between figures in a scene. The liquid white highlights applied over the pen work lend volume to the lively surface pattern of the draperies.
Fra Bartolommeo was still a layman when he executed this sheet. During the 1490s he was active in the circle around the Dominican friar and reformer Savonarola (1452–1498). By 1495, the artist had left the workshop of Cosimo Rosselli, where he was also mentored by Piero di Cosimo, and set up shop with his friend Mariotto Albertinelli.3 By the end of the decade, he had attracted significant patronage. In the wake of Savonarola’s death in 1498 and during his own novitiate at the Florentine convent of San Marco (1500–1501), the artist continued to draw, although he ceased producing paintings for a few years. Fra Bartolommeo’s drawings exploring the Temptation of St. Anthony have been convincingly dated to the late 1490s, when Savonarola’s influence peaked and the artist contemplated joining the Dominican order.
An apt subject for a devout artist, St. Anthony Abbot (ca. 251–356) is considered the father of monasticism. He divested himself of possessions in 270–71 and retreated to the wilderness of the Egyptian desert. The saint’s life was written posthumously, in 360, by Athanasius of Alexandria, but the tale reached a wider audience in Jacobus da Voragine’s retelling in the widely popular Golden Legend (ca. 1260), which later saw a surge in circulation with the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. While living as a hermit, Anthony drew upon his faith to withstand the Devil’s many trials: he struggled with frightening visions of women and beasts and was physically tormented and beaten. He also confronted the more mundane challenges of boredom and laziness.
The exploratory nature of the friar’s sketches explains the nonlinear progression of elements appearing on a number of related sheets. While a sheet in the Uffizi depicts a kneeling saint with nude women, subsequent designs contain a monk fleeing from furies (Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin) and rebuffing a siren (Kupferstich-Kabinett, Dresden).4 Fischer posited that the juxtaposition on the Berlin sheet of the kneeling monk overlapping a sketch of the monk fleeing furies may have inspired the artist’s idea to have the temptress approach the monk from behind, a solution evident in a compositional drawing now in the Royal Collection at Windsor.5 A double-sided sheet sold in Paris in 1891, with figures copied from extant and lost drawings by Fra Bartolommeo, contains a similar figure of a seated monk with a halo writing as a female figure approaches.6 She gestures toward him with one hand while the other holds a swath of drapery around her body, leaving exposed her breasts and torso as well as her demonic chicken’s feet. Representing temptation with a sumptuously dressed young woman may be less literal than a nude, but it is more consistent with Savonarola’s principles. According to Vasari, while still a layman, around 1497–98, Fra Bartolommeo contributed his studies of nudes to one of the preacher’s bonfires in the Piazza San Marco.
At the time he produced the Morgan study, Fra Bartolommeo had not yet resolved the relationship between the temptress and the ascetic. The woman appearing before the studious saint has more in common with an annunciation or vision scene than a temptation and is perhaps more suggestive of the scene from the Golden Legend in which an angel visits the hermit saint.7
- Virgin Appearing to St. Bernard, 1504–7, Gal- lerie degli Uffizi, Florence.
- Amid the chaos of penstrokes, the figure’s right hand is held up palm outward, as in a gesture of surprise or warding off; the left hand may have been holding a sheet of paper or raised to the monk’s cheek in a pose of contemplation.
- An attribution to Albertinelli was proposed by Beltrame Quattrocchi in 1979, but has not been embraced by subsequent scholars, who uniformly give the sheet to Fra Bartolommeo.
- Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi, Florence, inv. 1244 e; Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin, KdZ 5190; Kupferstich-Kabinett, Dresden, inv. c96. See also the verso of a sheet in the Kunsthalle, Hamburg, inv. 21371.
- Royal Collection, Windsor, inv. 12784.
- Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 18 May 1891, lot 3, present location unknown. See Fischer 1990, 328, fig. 12.
- Following the example of Piero di Cosimo in his Visitation, National Gallery of Art, Washington, inv. 1939.1.361.
Rhoda Eitel-Porter and and John Marciari, Italian Renaissance Drawings at the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, 2019, no. 21.
Selected references: Fairfax Murray 1905-12, 1:28; Berenson 1938, no. 459D; Berenson 1961, no. 459D; Stockholm 1970, no. 32; Beltrame Quattrocchi 1979, under no. 36; Florence 1986a, under no. 5; Fischer 1990, 326, 328; Rotterdam and elsewhere 1990-92, under no. 19.
Collection J. Pierpont Morgan : Drawings by the Old Masters Formed by C. Fairfax Murray. London : Privately printed, 1905-1912, I, 28.
Drawing on verso (actually a backing sheet) by a later hand depicting a Kneeling Youth, Turning to Look Back over His Shoulder, with a Child Peering over a Barricade.
Nelli, Plautilla, suor, 1523-1588, former owner.
Gabburri, Francesco Maria Niccolò, 1676-1742, former owner.
Murray, Charles Fairfax, 1849-1919, former owner.
Morgan, J. Pierpont (John Pierpont), 1837-1913, former owner.