Magazine of art press and reviews from London
The brilliance and grace of Barocci’s exhibition at the National Gallery in London.
David Franchi – Sunday, 2nd June 2013.
“…has been a magnificent National Gallery exhibition”
The exhibition “Barocci: brilliance and grace” has been beautiful and clever, at the National Gallery in London. Federico Barocci was one of the greatest painter of his time but during the centuries his fame clouded for the general public. He was a fervent Catholic and adhered to the Counter – Reformation. To overcome his health problems, he created innovative techniques. He made a considerable amount of detailed preparatory works. The London exhibition at the National Gallery renewed attention on this priceless master, celebrating his death anniversary in 1612 after four hundred years. The show was organised bringing together preparatory works and juxtaposing them to the final paintings, displaying the whole, or a consistent part, of the generative process.
Highly revered and prominent, Federico Barocci was a Mannerist painter who foreshadowed the Baroque. His original name was ‘Federico Fiori’, and he was nicknamed ‘Barocci’, from the word ‘Baroccio’ which still in central and north Italian dialects indicates a two wheel cart.
Federico Barocci worked very slowly and made detailed preparatory works. He suffered for poisoning and it was uncomfortable for him to use the ladders, normally four metres high. Therefore, because of his illness, Barocci’s preparation for a painting was very detailed, with an elaborated technique in order to leave at the end the heavy work of painting the altarpieces.
Barocci worked scrupulously. He made a huge amount of studies of gestures and movements and figures, as well as sketches of lights and prospective and colours and nature, etc. Today, more than 2,000 sketches survived, more than any other artist of that time.
This massive archive gives a proper idea of how was the work of Barocci. It is a documentation of how his studio assistants posed, often naked, female as well as male. Barocci depicted their figures in his paintings, whole and in part, paying attention to even little elements as a finger or a toe; he tried them facing left and right and eventually satisfied put them in his final work. But he also at late stages could make arrangements changing the outline or experimenting new solutions.
It was the standard practice at that time that after these preparatory works, the following stage was the conversion of the final finished study into a full –scale cartoon, containing every detail to be then registered on canvas.
However, Barocci usually left no details to chance and, moreover, his preparatory works were made in full colour pastels and even oils on paper, rather than conventional black chalk or pen and ink. It is possible that he could have seen the work of Correggio, but the first examples we have of the use of pastels in preparatory works are the ones of Barocci. Also he was a pioneer on the use of oils on paper for preparatory works.
The National Gallery London exhibition has given a new life to this forgotten master of the Italian Renaissance, underlining the four hundredth anniversary of his death, on the 30th September 1612.
“Barocci: brilliance and grace” has been a magnificent National Gallery, London, exhibition. In the first room, “Early devotional works”, there were some initial pieces of Barocci. In his early life the artist travelled a lot. Here highlights are the “Madonna of the cat” (1575) and “Rest on the return from Egypt“(about 1570 – 73).
In the second room, “Altar pieces for Urbino and the Marches – Crucifixion and Entombment”, it was possible to see “Deposition” (1568 -9) that Barocci painted for the Cathedral of Perugia, which fully established his reputation. Here highlights where “Head study for Mary Magdalena”, “Head study for Saint John the Evangelist” and “Study for Christ on the Cross”.
In the room three, “Devotional paintings for the Duke of Urbino” were on display works made by the artist during the period when the Duke Francesco Maria II della Rovere of Urbino offered him his patronage and friendship. Here the highlights were the preparatory works, of such an incredible beauty, including “Study for the Christ Child”, “Head of the Virgin Mary”, “Nativity” (1597), “Studies for the Virgin’s Hands” and “Study for a cat”.
“Late works”, the fourth room, examines the spread of Barocci’s reputation within Italy as well as internationally. His composition and innovative techniques become known through prints and copies. However, despite his growing fame, he rarely left his hometown of Urbino. He was devoted to S. Francis of Assisi, to whom is dedicated “Stigmatisation of St Francis” (1594 – 5).
The fifth gallery, “Visitation”, is dedicated entirely to this incredible altarpiece dated 1583-86. The most significant of 45 surviving drawings were brought back together at the National Gallery London exhibition. The altarpiece was made for the church of Santa Maria in Vallicella (Rome) the most important of the Oratorians. Born with the Counter-Reformation, this religious order was founded by Saint Philip Neri (1515 – 1595), a charismatic personality who was also a promoter of the arts and who was able to involve many significant artists of its time in producing artworks for its order and churches. Barocci’s reputation was so high that S. Philip Neri has been described in sitting in front of the altarpiece in ‘a state of ecstasy’. The painting also had a number of imitators in Rome.
The last gallery, “Portraits, Landscape, Drawings and Chiaroscuro sketches” emphasises that Barocci was also known for his mastery in portraiture. He also made many nature studies and brilliantly depicted landscapes in the backgrounds of his body of work. In this room highlight is the chiaroscuro “Madonna del Rosario”, which from Barocci is the only painting, with “Madonna of the cat”, in a British public collection.
The influence of Barocci was deep, widely spread and lasted until the end of the 17th Century. However, his fame slowly weakened, due partially to his reduced production of only circa 80 paintings, most of them hosted in remote Italian churches still today.
Also, Barocci and his production were of a fervent Catholicism and, therefore, Protestant found him irksome. He, in fact, adhered to the Counter –Reformation.
Additionally, Urbino is also an important reason for Barocci’s disappearance. It is typical of the Italian society to have very significant masters living in small towns, or villages. However, this brings a lack of strength and difficulties in being involved in international debates and environments. Barocci is not different. His hometown, Urbino, is a real gem in the Italian country side, also hosting a university. But it was out of the scene of the great art centres such as Florence, Rome, Venice, Bologna, just to name a few. Urbino never had a school; despite also Raphael was born there.
After the death of Michelangelo (1564) and Titian (1576), Barocci became the greatest Italian painter of his day. He remained in Urbino and died there, but when young he travelled widely, needing to do so for his education as a painter.
In 1548, Barocci accompanied to Rome his uncle Bartolommeo Genga – a famous architect. When in Rome Barocci was poisoned, almost died and was permanently impaired. It is unclear what really happened. It seems, however, that Barocci was Michelangelo favourite – but it is difficult to believe. In any case, Barocci’s peers were jealous, they took him on a picnic and gave him poisoned (or poisonous) salad that made him ill for the rest of his life – for example, he was not even able to work more than two hours a day.
In 1565, Federico Barocci went back to his hometown Urbino in a sort of voluntary exile, but maintaining contacts with his numerous commissioners. Barocci was under the patronage of the ducal family Della Rovere, which brought him international commissions. The Duke Francesco Maria II della Rovere of Urbino offered him his patronage and friendship and hosted him at his court, providing Barocci had a proper studio and a separate room.
However, Barocci was also a fervent Catholic and a supporter of the Franciscans and this brought to him many more commissions. Despite Urbino was a decadent town and in the next future would be annexed to the Papal States, there was a great cultural and scientific life. Barocci could get good commission for his altarpieces by the more innovative Franciscans and Friars Capuchin orders to which he was keen.
Supported by The Joseph F. McCrindle Foundation the exhibition “Barocci: brilliance and grace” has been curated by Carol Plazzotta at the National Gallery, London. It was first shown in a different form in Saint Louis (USA) where it was curated by J. W. Mann and B. Bohn.
The exhibition “Barocci: brilliance and grace” was on show at the National Gallery, London, from the 27th February to the 19th May 2013.