Paintings that aren't what they seem: Pietà with Saints by Fra' Bartolomeo

Paintings that aren't what they seem: Pietà with Saints by Fra' Bartolomeo

Do you think this first picture (to the right) that you see is simply badly cropped?

Here is why you need a tour guide like me to help you unveil all the secrets of the Palatine Gallery paintings!

Let's talk about the Pietà with Saints (Saint Peter and Saint Paul) by Fra' Bartolomeo (1511-'12, oil on panel, 158 x 199 cm) in Florence at the Palatine Gallery, in the Jupiter Room.

In the second picture (above), one can see how the panel used to appear until 1988; a darkened background, with neither Saints nor Calvary behind the main group in the foreground (Jesus Christ, Saint John the Evangelist, the Magdalene, Virgin Mary). But Giorgio Vasari described it as we can see it nowadays (first picture)..!

Originally an altarpiece for the Augustinian church of San Gallo, it was removed when San Gallo was demolished in 1529 by the Florentine Republic, in anticipation of the troops of Charles V, ad their terrible attack on the city. This meant that they found neither shelter nor supplies waiting for them. The painting was recovered in the church of San Jacopo tra i Fossi, where it was damaged by a flood in 1557.

Giorgio Vasari saw it, and so did Cardinal Carlo of the Medici family, who retrieved it and added it to his personal collection.

An inventory dating back to Carlo's death, in 1666, describes the painting as follows: "un quadro in asse, entrovi la Pietà con la Madonna San Giovanni e Santa Maria Maddalena, in tutto quattro figure al naturale dicesi di mano di Fra' Bartolomeo del Piombo con adornamento d'albero intagliato e tutto dorato", i. e. without Saint Peter, Saint Paul and the Calvary in the background. This means that it was during Carlo's time that the loss of the painting’s top section occurred, making him the one to have the background repainted in dark brown, causing art historians a great deal of trouble when it came to dating it..! Some art historians dated this back to Fra'Bartolomeo's final stylistic phase, occasionally confused with the unusual, almost Caravaggio-style composition (they could only "see" the group of four in the foreground).

With the latest restoration (1986-1988), which removed the dark paint, we recovered the superb landscape in the background, Saint Peter and Saint Paul...but not their heads (we still do not know how the loss of their heads came about)..!

Paintings that aren't what they seem: Pietà with Saints by Fra' Bartolomeo