by Roderick Conway Morris

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A Painter's Painter

By Roderick Conway Morris
SIENA 18 December 2009
National Gallery of the Marche, Urbino
'Assumption of the Virgin' by Federico Barocci, 1604-5



'Never was there music so well harmonized to the ear as his painting was to the eye,' wrote the 18th-century art historian Luigi Lanzi of Federico Barocci.

Born in Urbino in 1535, Barocci spent almost all his life there. Yet his works had a marked effect on a diverse range of painters: Annibale and Lodovico Carracci, Guido Reni and Guercino of Bologna; da Cortona and Cigoli of Tuscany; Crespi of Lombardy; Bernardo Strozzi of Genoa; Rubens and Van Dyck of Flanders; Rosalba Carriera of Venice; Watteau and Fragonard of France; not to mention the sculptor Bernini.

Works by all of these, and by significant if now generally lesser-known, artists, like the half-brothers Francesco Vanni and Ventura Salimbeni, who led a flourishing Barocci-inspired school of Sienese painting, accompany more than 30 paintings and drawings by the master himself, in 'Federico Barocci 1535-1612,' curated by Alessandra Giannotti and Claudio Pizzorusso.

Barocci is now recognized as not only anticipating the Baroque and Rococo, but being a formative force in their creation. The rediscovery of this exuberant, engaging but profoundly spiritual painter has been a long process, and this exhibition is well-timed to revive the interest he richly deserves as the 400th anniversary of his death approaches.

A primary reason why Barocci slipped into such unmerited obscurity is that almost all his works were monumental altarpieces that remain in churches and collections in the Marche, a comparatively little visited region in central Italy, and elsewhere off the main tourist itineraries. Hardly any of his canvases can be found outside Italy and none in the United States.

Federico Barocci was the product of the extraordinary statelet and court of Urbino, celebrated in Baldassare Castiglione's 'Book of the Courtier' of 1506. The warrior-humanist Federico di Montefeltro had transformed this hilltop town in a provincial backwater into one of the great courts in European history. Barocci's family were makers of clocks, astrolabes and other precision instruments and he received a thorough mathematical, literary and artistic education.

It was natural that the aspiring artist should follow in the footsteps of Raphael, a fellow native of Urbino, to Rome. He spent time there in the mid-1550s studying Raphael and other painters, classical sculptures and those of living sculptors, especially Michelangelo and Ammannati. He returned to Rome to fresco a papal lodge in the gardens of the Vatican between 1561 and 1563. But he was afflicted during his time there with what seems to have been a peptic or gastric ulcer, had to return home and suffered chronic ill health for the rest of his life. This did not, however, prevent him from having a brilliant career conducted wholly from Urbino, although, given the restricted number of hours he could paint each day, his delivery times became the despair of his princely and ecclesiastical patrons who nonetheless clamored for his work.

Thanks to Federico di Montefeltro and the successive dukes of the Della Rovere line (to which the dukedom passed by marriage in 1508), the collections of their palaces and local religious institutions were replete with masterpieces, including some by Giovanni Bellini and Titian, giving Barocci access to an amazing array of artworks of the highest quality close at hand. Whether he ever saw Correggio's frescoes in situ in Parma is unknown but, according to tradition, he was able to study pastels by this artist, who played a key part in forming his style.

In 1572, Duke Francesco Maria II della Rovere returned to Urbino from the Battle of Lepanto. Barocci did a resplendent portrait, on show here, of him in his armor, grand but strangely intimate at the same time. Francesco Maria became both the painter's principal patron and friend. Both men were of a rather shy and retiring disposition and clearly understood each other. The duke served as an intermediary between Barocci and his princely patrons elsewhere and, when the painter died, he declared that there was 'no longer any painter of value left.'

The exhibition opens with Barocci's towering 'Deposition' of 1567 to 1569 from Perugia's cathedral, an astonishingly dramatic, indeed theatrical work, containing all those elements - the sculptural quality and dynamic arrangement of the figures, the daring foreshortening, the bold use of color, the delicacy of observation, the intensity of emotion and the virtuoso brushwork - that captured the imagination of his contemporaries, high and low, and cast a spell over his fellow artists.

How direct an impact this painters' painter had on his colleagues is confirmed in the next room by a series of 'Lamentations of the Dead Christ' by Francesco Vanni (1590-91), Rubens (1601-02), Strozzi (1615-17) and Van Dyck (before 1630). A further procession of superb Barocci altarpieces follows, from Urbino, Senigaglia and Bologna, interspersed with works by other artists influenced by him, including Cigoli, Crespi, Lodovico Carracci and Domenico Fetti.

The theme of Barocci's influence on an ever expanding circle of painters between the late 16th and 18th centuries is continued in subsequent sections where different aspects of Barocci's own oeuvre are presented.

Around 2,000 Barocci drawings survive, 800 of which were still in his studio when he died. The selection here, including some lively portraits of young women, demonstrates how distinctive were these preparatory works and sketches, which gained wide circulation. Barocci's experiments with pastels to reproduce the infinite subtleties of skin tones were particularly suggestive, and we see from the pastels of other artists, from Rubens in the 16th century to Rosalba Carriera, Watteau and Fragonard in the 18th, how stimulating they could be to other painters. Some of the numerous fine prints made of Barocci's compositions, which further spread his name and influence, are also represented here.

Two further outstanding works on display are his 'Blessed Michelina Metelli' from the Vatican and an astonishing 'Assumption of the Virgin' found in his studio at the time of his death, and no less powerful for being left unfinished, which shows Barocci's unflagging determination to experiment and take risks in inventing new modes of composition and dramatic expression.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023