The Baroque Matures in Italy

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The Baroque Matures in Italy

Pietro da Cortona.

Bernini, the great commanding figure of the seventeenth-century Baroque in Rome, was accomplished in almost all of the media available to a professional in his time. During his long life he came to dominate the development of public architecture and sculpture in the city, and although he may have painted as many as 150 paintings for his private pleasure, his influence was most definitive in the fountains, sculptures, and architectural commissions he undertook for the papacy. His great authority in artistic matters in the mid- and late seventeenth century, though, did not extend to the world of painting. Here the guiding figure that was to transform the experimentations of the Carracci and Caravaggio into a distinctively mature High Baroque style was Pietro Berrettini da Cortona (1599–1669). Born the son of a stonemason in the Tuscan town of Cortona, he was originally trained in his father's shop as a sculptor and stonecutter, a traditional avenue that often led into the practice of architecture. In painting, he was trained by a provincial artist in Cortona who had close ties to Florentine masters then active in Rome. When his teacher migrated to Rome in 1612, Cortona soon followed. Although he received many commissions during the years that followed, these demonstrate little of the finesse that appeared in his work after 1630. At that time, his art emerged as a mature synthesis fashioned out of the insights of the Bolognese painters of the previous generation, including the Carracci, Guido Reni, and Domenichino. At the same time, Cortona longed to unite the traditional concerns of Raphael, Michelangelo, and other Florentine High Renaissance masters with disegno or draftsmanship, with the rich coloristic tradition of Titian and the Venetians. His works around this period took on a greater finesse and surety of execution and were notable for their classical design, rich palette, and dramatic sense of movement and urgency. As a result of his rising status among the artists working in Rome at mid-century, he was given a number of important commissions, particularly from members of the Barberini family, whose son Maffeo then ruled as Pope Urban VIII.

Palazzo Barberini.

In 1633 Francesco Barberini commissioned Cortona to paint the ceiling of the Grand Salon of his palace in Rome, a massive project that became the artist's definitive masterpiece. The poet Francesco Bracciolini defined the iconography for this work, which was an allegorical treatment of Divine Providence. When completed six years later, the work astounded the Roman artistic world, and it set standards that later artists strove to attain during the remainder of the century. As an achievement it was not to be surpassed until the great frescoes that Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770) created in the eighteenth century. Until Cortona's time, a ceiling as vast as that in the Barberini Palace had usually been covered in smaller frescoes framed with illusionary architecture or frames to appear as if they were individual wall paintings transposed onto the ceiling. Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Ceiling, completed between 1508 and 1512, consists of a series of narrative scenes that relate the biblical history from the Creation of Man to the Flood. Annibale Carracci's great achievement in the Palazzo Farnese, a cornerstone of the early Baroque style, had similarly been divided up into a series of individual works, unified by seeming to be a great artistic collection of antiquities and discrete works of art. It had, in other words, been unified as if it was a connoisseur's cabinet of pictures and sculptures housed in the Farnese's barrel vault. One of the reasons for working in this manner, known at the time as quadri riportati or "framed pictures," lay in the technical problems of the fresco medium. To undertake a commission of this monumental nature, artists were forced to divide up a fresco into many different sections, each corresponding to a day's work. In true fresco, for instance, plaster is applied to the wall and a section painted while the surface is still damp. In this way the pigments are fused into the surface and become a permanent part of the wall. It is consequently difficult, when working on a large surface such as the Palazzo Barberini's Grand Salon, to treat the entire area as a single composition, unless one has executed a brilliant series of plans. Of course, artists before Cortona had experimented with ways to unify a large ceiling painting as a single work of fresco. During the 1590s, the brothers Cherubino and Alessandro Alberti had painted a single fresco on the ceiling of the Salon of Clement in the Vatican Palace. And in his single ceiling fresco of Aurora, completed around 1615, the great artist Guercino had created a single fresco, but he had framed his work with illusionary paintings of architecture that projected upwards the lines of the room below. In this way the actual space the figural painting of Aurora took up on Guercino's ceiling was quite small. In the Grand Salon of the Barberini Palace, Cortona took a new, unprecedented tactic. He originally planned to create his work in a way similar to the Palazzo Farnese frescoes of Annibale Carracci, yet as his designs progressed he abandoned such a scheme. The final work appears at first glance as if it is a single gigantic fresco, but it is actually five scenes forged into a single compositional unity through a series of complex devices. The result is a breathtaking tour de force that manages to captivate viewers by its density. Out of this swirling mass of figures, an amazing comprehensive design is readily intelligible; at the same time, this unity invites viewers to decode the ceiling's many symbolic and allegorical messages. Like many grand Baroque projects, Cortona began with a literary program, one that was devised from the works of the poet Francesco Bracciolini. The shape of the ceiling is a coved, rather than barrel vault, meaning that it slants upwards on all four sides of the rectangular room. In these coves, Cortona painted mythological scenes that serve as allegories glorifying the great achievements of Pope Urban VIII, the most distinguished member of the Barberini clan at the time. Above, in the central space of the ceiling, the virtuous attributes of the Barberini family are immortalized, and the reign of the family's son as pope is celebrated as a sign of the gifts of God's providence. While its allegory sometimes appears contrived and overly difficult to understand, the entire composition holds an amazing degree of sensual force. On stepping into the room, in other words, it appears as if the very heavens have been opened up onto the space, and the rich colors of the ceiling present a kaleidoscopic effect that invites an observer merely to bask in the work as a purely ethereal confection.

Cortona 's Other Works.

Success at the Barberini Palace established Cortona as an artist of the highest rank in Rome, and he received a number of commissions as a result. Among the most important projects that he completed in the final years of his life was a series of decorations for the Grand Duke's apartment in the Pitti Palace in Florence. This particular commission was fraught with problems and setbacks, and although the artist began working there in 1642, he was still returning periodically to Florence to paint in the 1660s, and some rooms remained unfinished at his death. The press of his success at Rome insured that he, like Bernini, was always kept busy there with many projects, and his artistic example helped to establish the grand manner, drama, and dense compositional techniques that many Baroque artists came to favor in the second half of the seventeenth century.

Other Artists in Rome.

At the same time, Cortona was only one of a large number of successful artists at Rome. Other figures who flourished during his lifetime included Andrea Sacchi (1599–1661), who also completed decorative frescoes in the Barberini Palace; Battista Gaulli who was known as Baciccio (1639–1709), and who decorated the huge barrel vault of the Jesuit's Church of Il Gesù; and Carlo Maratta (1625–1713), who painted a number of public religious pictures and ceilings in churches throughout the city. Maratta and Gaulli were a generation younger than Cortona and Scacchi, and they carried the High Baroque style into the early eighteenth century. During the later seventeenth century the fashion for Baroque ceiling frescoes increased everywhere throughout Rome, and many of the city's palaces and churches were decorated by the city's extraordinarily fertile group of artists. Two of the greatest practitioners in the medium on the Roman scene were Andrea Pozzo and Luca Giordano. Pozzo's fresco, The Entrance of St. Ignatius into Paradise, completed in 1694 in the nave of the Church of St. Ignatius, was very much influenced by the early example of Guercino's Aurora. While hardly great art, his work is the most impressive example of the attempt to create an illusionary architectural framework for a ceiling fresco. The complete artifice of classical architecture that appears to surge upward from St. Ignatius's walls amazes and astounds viewers. Populated with a dense agglomeration of figures, however, Pozzo's fresco fails to sustain the visual interest of those of Guercino or Cortona. The art of Luca Giordano (1634–1705), a Neapolitan painter who studied with the great master Ribera in Naples, was quite different. The Caravaggism, not only of Ribera, but also of the accomplished Neapolitan painter Giovanni Lanfranco (1582–1647), influenced Giordano. He traveled to Rome where he acquired an understanding of the compositional techniques of Cortona as well. Then he embarked on a life of constant travel, spending time in Florence and a number of Italian centers before settling in Spain for a decade. He left behind him a trail of accomplished works that helped create a fashion for the grand manner of the Roman Baroque throughout the Italian and the Iberian peninsulas. An enormously prolific artist, he was discounted in the decades after his death as facile and lacking in depth. More recently, his art has been extensively re-evaluated, and in his light forms, gorgeous, brilliant coloration, and suggestions of swift movement, art historians have come to see echoes of the Rococo movement that was to flourish in the early eighteenth century.


M. Campbell, Pietro da Cortona at the Pitti Palace (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977).

Julius S. Held and Donald Posner, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Art (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1971).

J. M. Merz, Pietro da Cortona (Tübingen, Germany: E. Wasmuth, 1991).

J. B. Scott, Images of Nepotism: The Painted Ceilings of Palazzo Barberini (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).

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The Baroque Matures in Italy

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