by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |

An Artist Who Squandered his Talents

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME, Italy 28 December 1996
Galleria Borghese, Rome
The Cumaean Sibyl by Domenichino, 1616-17



Caravaggio and Domenichino were near contemporaries, though the latter long outlived the former - unsurprisingly given Caravaggio's over-heated, self-destructive lifestyle. Both won fame in the first years of the 17th century in Rome - yet they now seem scarcely to have inhabited the same artistic universe.

Emblematically, perhaps, Caravaggio was notorious for painting directly on to the canvas without any preliminaries but a few bold strokes or scorings, while Domenichino's multiple preparatory drawings now seem more spontaneous and vital than any of his completed oils or frescoes. And an unprecedentedly extensive exhibition of Domenichino's oeuvre (accompanied by a nearly 600-page catalogue), at the Palazzo Venezia until Jan. 14, offers many instructive clues as to why, in the long view, Caravaggio succeeded and Domenichino failed.

Born in Bologna in 1581, Domenichino entered the Carracci Academy, the private art school that trained most of the leading local painters of that era, and provided a reliable road to preferment and lucrative commissions in Rome. The Carracci house-style was such that there is still confusion as to which teachers and pupils did what - nonetheless, looking at the absorbing drawings in the show, the bulk of them from the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, and some of the early portraits - not to mention the frescoes in the Sant'Andrea della Valle and San Luigi dei Francesi churches, just a few minutes' walk from Palazzo Venezia - it is impossible to doubt that Domenichino was endowed with considerable individual talent. And yet, as the exhibition reveals, he could also paint very badly indeed.

A startling demonstration of this are the three versions on display of the 'Cumaean Sybil', one of Domenichino's most famous images. The first, from the Borghese Gallery (dated 1616-17), is a superbly-executed painting. The two later versions, done in the 1620s, are palid, convictionless imitations. Caravaggio, too, particularly in view of the demands of his prodigal existence, was perfectly capable of copying his own work - but attacked each variation anew rather than producing an etiolated self-parody. Similarly, while Caravaggio saw in every ecclesiastical commission an opportunity to delve into the human aspects of the Christian story, Domenichino seems to have been such a dogged purveyor of the minutiae of current counter-reformation dogma, that many of his scenes have since almost entirely lost their impact.

The overwhelming impression of the exhibition is that Domenichino himself was so much the pliant conformist and, apparently, so susceptible to fashionable, quasi-scientific but in the end entirely fanciful, contemporary theories on art (which did nothing to improve the quality of his actual works) that he ultimately squandered his natural gifts.

Cleaving to his own principles through thick and thin, Caravaggio, meanwhile, often had his works rejected by the religious institutions that commissioned them on account of their excessive realism and 'indecorum'. But they were eagerly snapped up by discerning private buyers, including senior figures in the Church: The reason why a painting like Caravaggio's 'Death of the Virgin' at the Louvre or his 'Portrait of the Knight of Malta' in Florence can still stop us in our tracks, but even Domenchino's most carefully-constructed compositions seem so remote - and why, though Poussin admired Domenichino, it was in Caravaggio that Rubens and Rembrandt found inspiration.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023