By Richard P. Townsend
None other than a saint, Philip Neri himself—founder of the Oratorian order and so-called “Apostle of Rome”— used to sit “rapt in the sweetest ecstasy” in front of Federico Barocci’s altarpiece The Visitation in his order’s mother church, the Chiesa Nuova in Rome. Centuries later, a young art history student wept in front of the very same altarpiece on his first encounter with the artist and his altarpiece when it was included in the legendary exhibition Age of Caravaggio at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1985. I have been but one of many who have experienced the intense aesthetic and spiritual gravitational pull exerted by the artist’s works. For that reason alone, but also for the rarity of his paintings (there is but one in the U.S. today) and the high esteem in which they are held are reasons enough for his first major monographic treatment in the United States. Barocci deserves to be better known. This brilliant exhibition—focusing on his working method—accomplishes this, presenting Barocci’s grace and beauty suffused with a deep, genuine spirituality to the American and British public for the first time in such a comprehensive manner. Federico Barocci: Renaissance Master originated at the Saint Louis Art Museum where it closed on the 20th January 2013. It travelled to London, where it is now can be seen at the National Gallery until the 19th May as Barocci: Brilliance and Grace. Surely one of the finest exhibitions on any subject in recent memory for both its beauty and scholarly rigor, it is the product of a decade of thoughtful research by St. Louis curator Judith W. Mann, who has been ably partnered in the endeavor by drawings expert Prof. Babette Bohn and London curator Carol Plazzotta.
Barocci was born around 1533 in Urbino, in the region of the Marches in the central area of Italy along the Adriatic coast. That he is not a household name is due both to the fact that he spent most of his career in a relatively isolated political backwater, eschewing the major artistic centers (visiting and working in Rome only twice briefly)—most of his commissions were for small cities and towns in that area—but also to a serious, lifelong illness (stemming possibly from a poisoning incident). Either as a consequence of this or his painstaking working method—or both—Barocci produced relatively few paintings but made scores and scores of preparatory works for each commission, resulting in a huge body of drawings which numbers around 1,500 sheets! Ultimately, the artist tends to fall between the cracks, art historically speaking, as he comes both chronologically and temperamentally between the Late Renaissance and the Baroque, his career spanning from the 1550s to the year of his death, 1612. Elements of the Renaissance and Mannerism especially inform his earlier work, while proto-Baroque—or better yet—Counter-Reformation artistic values eventually come to the fore. (I refer in the latter to the reform of the Roman Catholic Church in the face of rising Protestantism by the mid-16th century, espousing among other things simplicity, devout religious practice, discipline, and emphasis on the sacraments.)
Yet Barocci is quite simply one of the greatest artists Italy has ever produced. His grasp of sentiment, alongside his command of color, composition and rendering made him a hugely important figure in the following two centuries. By the 20th, however, his sentiment was confused with sentimentality and his complexity with confusion—alongside other late 16th– and 17th-century artists—and consequently, Barocci was ripe for reappraisal. We now—thanks to recent publications and especially to this exhibition—have the opportunity to reassess his production and impact. As Mann points out, this exhibition explicitly focuses on examining his working practice and the relationship of his voluminous output of drawings to critical paintings, something never before attempted on this scale.
In a way this exhibition is akin to those miracles depicted in Barocci’s scrupulously pious pictures. The negotiations for the loans from mostly European collections were highly complex and took many years, not to mention the extraordinary research that went into the project. One can understand this by trying to follow the exhibition publication’s catalogue entries against the following checklist of what is and is not included and what is shown and where. For example, St. Louis featured more drawings than are presently on view in London, and sadly, despite the success the organizers had in securing many, many critical loans from the Uffizi in Florence and the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche in Urbino, for example, the evident lack of cooperation from the Soprintendenza of Rome resulted in the loss of two major altarpieces and one of Barocci’s greatest easel paintings to the American venue (all three pictures are at the National Gallery, London). There were other cases where size and fragility prevented works from travelling, or owners were reluctant to lend. I mention these logistical vicissitudes to emphasize that an endeavor of this sort—especially given the rarity and preciousness of Barocci’s works—make this an extraordinary effort and that the curators and their museums are to be congratulated for their herculean efforts. As curator Judy Mann explained, given these challenges, the decision to focus on Barocci’s working methods and artistic production, rather than merely a straightforward monographic painting show, was a practical one. As a result, in the end we have been given something even more thoughtful and substantive.
Federico Barocci opens with a haunting oil-on-paper self-portrait of the artist from late in life paired on the opposite end of time’s arc with his earliest drawing for his first known commission of around 1556, an altarpiece featuring St. Cecilia, patron saint of music. The self-portrait is haunting for his extraordinary eyes, sharp yet somehow sad, apart from any psychological implications (his extreme sensitivity or poor health). The drawing—while frankly not terribly interesting in and of itself—is an important benchmark for two reasons. It sets the tone for the exhibition’s investigation into the role different types of drawings played in Barocci’s practice, in this case the highly finished compositional drawing. It also reveals one of the twin poles of major artistic influence on Barocci, Raphael. The other is Titian. On one hand Barocci amplifies Raphael’s grace and elegance of line while on the other, capitalizes upon Titian’s Venetian sensibility of atmosphere and color. Raphael was also a native of Urbino, whose house was just up the street from where Barocci would eventually live. Titian’s paintings were much collected by the ducal family of the Marche, such as the famed Venus of Urbino (now in the Uffizi) as well as other major paintings in nearby Ancona and Pesaro.
Early in the exhibition in St. Louis, two major pictures from the late 1560s and early ‘70s—the Deposition and the Rest on the Return from Egypt—both commissions destined for neighboring Perugia—are examined. Sadly, only the latter is reunited with its preparatory drawings. The disappointing absence of the Perugia Deposition is offset by the eleven stunning preparatory drawings for it, crowned by the cartoncino per il chiaroscuro—the finished drawing or modello in which Barocci worked out the light and shadow defining the composition. (Cartoncino—the term Barocci’s early biographer Giovanni Bellori used—here means literally the “small cartoon,” “cartoon” understood as the final, to-scale drawing by which the design is transferred to the canvas for painting. Unfortunately, none of the drawings for the Deposition are shown in London.) Early on the organizers demonstrated the full process with which the artist prepared important painting commissions, from numerous small pen-and-ink sketches of compositional ideas to highly worked up details such as near-scale heads drawn in chalk (and later, painted in oil on paper), to the cartoncini. The altarpiece itself is still in situ above the altar for which it was commissioned in 1568 and installed in 1569. It shows the dead Christ being taken down from the cross, surrounded by His mother and friends, alongside the 15th-century saint Bernardino of Siena—to whom the chapel is dedicated—looking on in adoration from the far right.
Over fifty drawings survive which document the preparation of this painting, eleven superb examples of which were included here. There are numerous early pen-and-ink compositional sketches to work out ideas, then many black and white chalk figure and limb studies drawn on blue paper, and then the summation of Barocci’s concept, the spectacular cartoncino per il chiaroscuro for the Deposition (Uffizi, Florence). This large-scale drawing shows the entire composition carefully drawn out on ochre-brown paper in chalk and pen and ink, so that the final touch, the white heightening in gouache (an opaque watercolor) stands out with lapidary precision. Finally, comes the cartone or cartoon itself, which given its role to transfer the full-scale design to the painting support by means of tracing over the lines with a sharp instrument, often doesn’t survive or only partially survives. Here, two cartoon fragments served to demonstrate this final stage, one for the beautiful head of a woman (Albertina, Vienna) and the other of the head of the swooning Virgin (Art Institute of Chicago), both incised for transfer. It was revelatory to chart the progression of the artist as he created this masterpiece from simple sketch to worked-up studies, from small presentation drawing to full-scale cartoon fragment.
Soon after the Deposition was delivered, Barocci’s Perugia patron Simonetto Anastagi commissioned the lyric, lusciously colored Rest on the Return from Egypt (1570-73: Vatican Museums). Seven drawings (only three are shown in London) imparted a good sense of the obsessive, comprehensive working method, particularly as Barocci—in search of the perfect compositional solution—often flipped the pose of a figure or sometimes the entire composition. Early on here we understand that like other Renaissance painters—but particularly in Barocci’s case—he used male models for his female figures, adding, subtracting or covering up as needed. That said, the striking black, red and white chalk drawing of a female nude on blue paper for the Madonna (Uffizi) is perhaps the artist’s most naturalistic rendition of a woman anywhere. Finally, a beautiful rendered, life-like study for the head of the donkey in the background affirms Barocci’s sensitivity with all forms of life, although the curators note that the artist didn’t overly rely on drawing animals from nature. Nevertheless, this sheet attests to Barocci’s convincing powers of depiction.
The Rest on the Return from Egypt itself exists in several versions and employs a solid, pyramidal composition. While that is derived from the High Renaissance—especially Raphael’s own many paintings of the Madonna and Child—here it is infused with an extraordinary chromatic palette which anticipates the 18th century’s love of the lighter color range. The painting depicts a rather esoteric subject. It is not the Holy Family resting during their escape from King Herod’s massacre of the infants—a familiar subject—but Mary, Joseph and Jesus returning home from their sojourn in Egypt four years later (note here the child is not an infant but a toddler).
For this and every painting and its associated drawings, Mann and Bohn expound in exhaustive catalogue entries on iconography, other extant versions, the relationship of the preparatory drawings to the painting, position the work in the artist’s career, and summarize the outstanding scholarship, all while offering new observations. Mann also contributes a comprehensive précis of Barocci’s career as an introductory catalogue essay. Bohn’s magisterial overview of his draftsmanship in her essay “Drawing as Artistic Invention: Federico Barocci and the Art of Design,” while dense is clear and concise. In short, it maps out the many types of drawings and their uses in the artist’s highly complex graphic output; it is hugely valuable.
Surely the apex of the exhibition in St. Louis was the gallery containing one of Barocci’s most beloved works, The Entombment of Christ, painted for the Chiesa della Croce in Senigallia, where it normally can still be found since it was installed over the high altar in 1582. The altarpiece dominated the room surrounded by its preparatory works, affording direct comparisons. The Entombment shows Christ’s body carried to the tomb by his faithful followers John, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. Behind, His mother grieves; in the foreground Mary Magdalen kneels facing the body. In a daring artistic conceit Barocci turns her almost completely away from us; the logic is that she acts as agent for the viewer. We enter the picture through her as she clasps her hands prayerfully as one would awaiting the sacrament of communion. Just as the three men in effect present Christ’s body to her, below out of the frame the priest would offer Christ’s body—the Eucharist—to the faithful. The jar of spices with which Mary has just prepared His body for burial; the crown of thorns just lifted from His brow; and the nails with the tongs with which they were pulled out form a morbid still life in the lower left-hand of the canvas. The ducal palace of Urbino may be seen in the upper right-hand of the composition, grounding the action in the present day experience of Barocci’s contemporaries. Thus the artist makes as actual as possible Christ’s sacrifice, a proper Counter-Reformation message.
The full complement of types of preparatory work exists for the Entombment. On view here are drawings, pastels, oil sketches, cartoncini and a reduced cartoon. Especially striking are the numerous black and white chalk with red and pink pastel studies on blue paper of drawings of legs, arms, torsos and hands (a superb group from the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin). The installation crescendoed from these limb studies to the heads in pastel and oils grouped immediately around the altarpiece. Finally there were the amazing cartoncino per il chiaroscuro from the Getty Museum and the much damaged but still impressive reduced cartoon—approximately half the size of the actual painting—from Amsterdam. Thus one could analyze all the types of preparation that Barocci employed for this one altarpiece, and even test whether the final category of preparation that biographer Bellori reported—the cartoncino per i colori (small cartoon for colors) that comes after the cartoncino per il chiaroscuro (of which numerous examples were in the exhibition)—truly exists. Present only in St. Louis were two reduced copies of the altarpiece. One from a private collection was deemed by the organizers to be by Barocci, the other from the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche a workshop copy. However, to my eye the former does not appear to be by Barocci as well. Its hardness of execution, with the odd splotches of pinky flesh tone on top of—not blended with—the bluish undertone is unsettling. Bohn, in her essay, essentially demolishs the arguments for the color cartoon catagory; this fares no better as a preparatory work. It is a copy after the finished work—autograph or not.
With the Entombment we arrive at the moment when Barocci—who had already employed near to full-scale pastel drawings to prepare the heads of major figures in his compositions—began to do the same with heads painted in oil on paper. At St. Louis, the oil studies for the heads of St. John (from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and a private collection, respectively) hung just a few feet away from the saint in the altarpiece, facilitating a direct comparison and demonstrating that the Washington sketch is the same size as the finished head in the altarpiece. On the right-hand were two studies for Nicodemus—a pastel study in the collection of the National Gallery of Art and a poetic study in oil from the Metropolitan Museum—which provide a helpful sense of the artist working from a generalized concept in pastel to a more refined one in oil. Farther to the right was the large, beautifully painted oil sketch of the head and shoulders of the Magdalen (Musée Bonnat-Helleu, Bayonne).
What role, if any, did this type of oil sketch play, both in the formation of Barocci’s compositions and more largely, in that of 17th- and 18th-century taste? We know from Barocci’s early patron Simonetto Anastagi’s account book that he purchased four heads in pastel from the artist in 1593 and from later in the 17th century that the 1673 collection inventory of Giovanni Lavalas, a collector in Urbino, states he owned five heads in oil by the artist. Even if Barocci himself didn’t regard these as independent works of art—although I suspect he did (see below)—they were certainly collected as such in his day and thereafter.
There are two sets of repetitive oil heads in the exhibition. One, the afore-mentioned pair depicting St. John the Evangelist and the other set, two heads of the St. Joseph in the 1583-86 Visitation in the Chiesa Nuova. Both pairs exhibit the same qualities, one version being more sketchy—similar to a pastel study—and the other, an almost exact mate but having a completely different feel, painted more firmly with deeper saturated colors. Bohn correctly observes that the Washington St. John the Evangelist and private collection St. Joseph are preparatory works made first before their respective mates, and further, these mates could have ultimately been intended for collectors, but still served a preparatory purpose. Mann and Bohn argue that the fact that some of these oils repeat pastel heads does not necessarily eliminate them from the preparatory process—they very well may have been yet further tweaks on the design. That clearly is the case with the pastel and oil studies of Nicodemus above. In the case of the repeated oil studies, I believe the visual evidence suggests that while one type is indeed the “study” preparatory for the figure’s head, that the second versions, in this case the private collection St. John and Hester Diamond’s St. Joseph are likely separated from their mates by time and intention and were copies of the preparatory oil studies. They were intended to be independent works of art for sale, created in response to a burgeoning demand for small works from Barocci’s hand.
By the 18th century, this taste stimulated by Barocci’s heads in oil and pastel was flourishing. Collectors in Rome like the papal Corsini family gathered series of pastel heads by Benedetto Luti (1666-1724), where visitors to Palazzo Corsini today can still see them (similar to an example, Head of St. John the Evangelist, 1712, which I acquired for the Philbrook Museum of Art, untouched in its original frame and glazing). This trend could also be found in Venice with the works of Rosalba Carriera and as far as St. Petersburg, where Russian czar Peter the Great had the Italian artist Pietro Rotari decorate one of his antechambers outside the throne room at Peterhof with an entire wall of bust-length heads in different modes. The Tiepolo too created these types of works—sketch-like finished paintings—which are exuberant and fluid. The example of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s bozzetti is similar, in which his preparatory or informal studies in terracotta for sculpture became collectible by the 1660s, stimulated largely by the taste for which the artist himself was largely responsible, as Tomaso Montanari has argued.
Efforts such as Barocci’s and Bernini’s paved the way for the modern taste for the oil study or sketch and the informal sculpture—the spontaneous, the authentic, the small and exquisite—exhibiting the veritable touch of the artist. This is not to be pedantic, but rather to reveal Barocci as a critical player in the development of a significant aspect of the art market in the modern era. Here is an artist who capitalizes on a type of preparatory work he himself developed which then takes on yet another function becoming something saleable. In this, it should be noted, Barocci follows Michelangelo, who raised the status of drawings to the level of independent works of art with his own highly finished presentation drawings (such as Il Sogno). This in turn created a market and led to the rise of the collecting of drawings in their own right in the 17th century.
The Visitation—the altarpiece that sent St. Philip Neri into ecstasy and influenced Peter Paul Rubens—was completed and installed in the Oratorian church Santa Maria in Vallicella, called the Chiesa Nuova—in 1586. One of Barocci’s most important paintings, it was represented in St. Louis only by preparatory works, while in London these are joined by the altarpiece itself. A highlight of the London installation is the ravishing head in oil of St. Elizabeth (Metropolitan Museum) seen in conjunction with the two renditions of St. Joseph discussed above.
The same cartoon used for the Visitation’s woman holding a chicken on the right—a charming quotidian detail—was used a little earlier for the profile of the Archangel Gabriel in the 1584 Annunciation painted for Barocci’s patron Duke Francesco II della Rovere. Despite the painting’s much damaged condition, the section devoted to the Annunciation is particularly rewarding as it charts the course of the preparation of the altarpiece to the painting itself, to finally the print the artist made and published of it thereafter. The drawings that prepared the altarpiece include the intriguing kneeling garzone study for the Virgin (that is, based on a studio assistant posing nude), which given his genitalia most decidedly confirms Barocci’s use of male models for female figures. Three of the greatest drawings in the exhibition are found here: a unique pastel compositional study from the Uffizi; the Windsor Castle pastel Head of the Virgin; and the study for the gesturing right hand of the Virgin from Berlin. This last quivers with life, Barocci in his typical manner drawing and redrawing the hand’s contours. Two of these sketches on the sheet are fully worked up, seeming to be actual flesh. Then towards the bottom of the drawing there is the charming study of the left hand whose finger holds its place in a prayer book. These repetitive studies of limbs and figures vibrate with intensity, attesting not only to his constant attempt to grasp true form but also to capture inner life.
Finally, the Annunciation was memorialized in an exquisite print, for which there is here its compositional sketch made to transfer the design (Budapest) and then three impressions of the print. The first two are of the first and second state (or stage) of the image’s development. The third is the final version, but rather than printed on white paper as are the earlier two examples, it is printed on green taffeta fabric to dazzling coloristic and textured effect (Chatsworth House, Derbyshire). As Bohn observes, doubtless intended for an important patron such as the Duke of Urbino himself, this and the many other impressions which survive attest to and aided the image’s popularity throughout the centuries.
St. Francis—in his Christ-like role—is one of the most significant figures of the Counter-Reformation. He was also exceedingly important to both Barocci personally and professionally—having painted many commissions for numerous Franciscan foundations—as well as to his major patrons, the dukes of Urbino. After all, the saint’s hometown and center of his veneration—Assisi— was not far south of Urbino itself (76 miles) in neighboring Umbria. Barocci’s Stigmatization of St. Francis (1594-95; Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino) was painted for the Capuchin church in Urbino and commissioned by Duke Francesco Maria II della Rovere.
While the two artists might at first seem worlds apart, it is remarkable to realize that both Barocci and Caravaggio painted nocturnal landscapes at the very same moment (for which otherwise neither are generally known); both concerning St. Francis. Caravaggio’s The Ecstasy of St. Francis (c. 1595-96; Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford) shows the moment of the saint’s spiritual transport that night on Mount LaVerna, before Francis is stigmatized or imprinted with Christ’s wounds of crucifixion and is thus confirmed as the alter Christus, as seen in Barocci’s depiction. The lovely twilight gleam in the sky and the shepherds amazed by the heavenly glory in the background of both paintings demonstrate a similarity of concept. The currency—and indeed the interchangeability—of this devotional imagery beginning in the late 16th century and reaching its zenith in the 17th century, is being developed by these two masters of Counter-Reformation art. They in turn inspired other artists who produced many variations on this general theme.
This tradition saw both public devotional paintings such as Barocci’s altarpiece here or another, extraordinarily beautiful private devotional picture of St. Francis in half-length with the stigmata and looking adoringly on at the crucifix (displayed only in St. Louis). This painting from the Metropolitan Museum of Art is dated to around 1605, a late work painted nevertheless with supreme confidence of handling as well as deeply touching spiritual sentiment. This type of image proliferated in the 17th century, such as in Strozzi’s St. Francis in Ecstasy (c. 1635-37) I acquired for the Philbrook Museum, which was the subject of an exhibition and publication. While certainly different in style, the two paintings share certain accoutrements, gestures and a rapt spirituality which aptly sums up the religious fervor of the times.
There are displays devoted to Barocci’s landscape drawings, his major secular painting Aeneas Fleeing Troy and his portraits. These last display a softness of execution in oil painting—not caused by worn condition—but due to the sensibility with which Barocci worked. Conservator Claire Barry contributes an apt catalogue essay on how Barocci achieved effects in paint as he would in a pastel drawing.
The exhibition in St. Louis concluded with the majestic, monumental Last Supper painted for the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament in the Cathedral of Urbino from 1590-99. Normally still to be seen there, in the exhibition it was accompanied by six preparatory studies. It was disappointing that neither the cartoncino nor the cartoon, both of which still exist and are in the Uffizi, were included in the show, doubtless due to cartoons’ general fragility. The fact remains however that—other than the two small cartoon fragments for the Deposition that were included—it would have been optimal to have a major example of this drawing type in an exhibition devoted to the artist’s working method. Sadly, none of the Last Supper’s fascinating drawings—including the superb pastel Head of Christ from Harvard—are on view in London.
The Last Supper is a riot—a beautifully organized riot—of incidental detail which subtly supports the message of the sacrament of the Eucharist and the doctrine of Transubstantiation (that of the literal transformation of bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood). A beatific Christ looks heavenward as he acts out the first communion surrounded by the Apostles, while the foreground is filled with servants at their duties, presided over by the commanding right angle of the kneeling dark-haired young man on the left. Interestingly, Judas is the exceptionally beautifully drawn figure on the right, opposite from Jesus, holding a glass goblet filled by a boy from a glass carafe—all together a tour-de-force of observation and rendering. We know this is Judas as he is the only one to drink while Christ utters the words that his betrayer is partaking at that very moment. At first I thought Judas might be the apostle in brilliant yellow opposite who draws a knife from a scabbard. Sinister an action as it may seem, he is Bartholomew and the knife alludes to his martyrdom, as he was flayed alive.
The Last Supper is a fitting conclusion to this benchmark exhibition, for this work from the last decade or so of Barocci’s life exudes his hallmark sincerity of faith while displaying a naturalism—a concern for the quotidian—that the Carracci and Caravaggio were taking to greater extremes at the very same moment. In his tempered idealism Federico Barocci offers a last gasp of the Renaissance and in his sweeping sentiment an opening salvo of the Baroque.