Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 4, 2013
Judith W. Mann and Babette Bohn Federico Barocci: Renaissance Master of Color and Line Exh. cat. St. Louis and New Haven: Saint Louis Art Museum and Yale University Press, 2012. 376 pp.; 214 color ills.; 46 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300174779)
Barocci: Brilliance and Grace
Exhibition schedule: Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, October 21, 2012–January 20, 2013 (under the title Federico Barocci: Renaissance Master); National Gallery, London, February 27–May 19, 2013
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Federico Barocci. The Madonna of the Cat (La Madonna del Gatto) (probably about 1575). Oil on canvas. 112.7 x 92.7 cm. © The National Gallery, London.

Students of the late John Shearman who were too young to have seen the exhibitions devoted to Federico Barocci (1535–1612) in Bologna and Florence in 1975—myself included—often heard that their beauty and interest had finally proved that exhibitions could be of real inspiration and value, subtly altering and enlarging one’s understanding of an artist’s achievement. Current generations had the possibility of experiencing the same pleasure and profit through exhibitions recently held in St. Louis and London. This monographic exhibition traced the work of the great Urbinate artist, who probably came of age in Pesaro in the later 1540s, attempted a career in Rome in the early 1560s (cut short by illness), and then worked in Urbino until his death in 1612. The exhibition mixed works of art on paper (including the artist’s etchings) and paintings, as he is equally well known as a draftsperson and painter, with substantial loans from the major repositories of drawings in Florence and Berlin and the cooperation of museums and churches in the Marches and elsewhere in Italy. The specific mix of objects was somewhat different at each location, and this review will focus on the installation in London, which had the advantage of the addition of a few key paintings, but, alternatively, a smaller number of drawings.

Both installations were brilliantly organized so that preparatory drawings were clustered around the paintings for which they had been made—sometimes on the wall, or at times on platforms that allowed the visitor to look readily from the drawing to the painting, facilitating easier comparison and aiding in the understanding of each sheet’s role in the preparation of the completed work. To see the great Visitation from the Chiesa Nuova in Rome of 1583–86 (famously San Filippo Neri’s favorite work) flanked by eleven drawings (from almost as many collections) that ran the gamut from pen-and-wash compositional sketches to chalk figure studies and both pastel and oil studies of heads was to see this majestic composition take shape. The artist began with ideas for a lively but less focused scene and built to the spellbinding encounter seen today. Likewise, to have the opportunity to examine the Institution of the Eucharist (1603–9) at leisure, not only outside the viewing constraints of the Aldobrandini Chapel in Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, but across from the two compositional studies prepared for Pope Clement VIII, each with a different approach to the pivotal figure of Judas (in one the artist went quite uncharacteristically wrong, with Judas and a devil whispering in his ear standing immediately before Christ), was exceptional. The exhibition galleries of the National Gallery’s Sainsbury wing can be difficult to install, but in this case the curator, Carol Plazzotta, was unfailingly successful in her choices of placement and juxtaposition. She proceeded in a roughly chronological fashion, with each of the six galleries focused on related paintings, while in the last rooms a crescendo of images culminated in a gallery with three of the most spectacular portraits of the sixteenth century: Barocci’s great patron, Duke Francesco Maria II della Rovere (ca. 1571–72); the duke’s bookish cousin, Monsignor Giuliano della Rovere (ca. 1595); and the rarely seen Count Federico Bonaventura (ca. 1595–1600), as well as a moving self-portrait oil sketch painted around 1600.

In a recent review of Stuart Lingo’s important Federico Barocci: Allure and Devotion in Late Renaissance Painting (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), Charles Dempsey remarked that Barocci has been “exceptionally fortunate in the caliber of scholarship devoted to his work” (The Art Bulletin 92, no. 3 [September 2010]: 252), mentioning authors ranging from Harald Olsen (Federico Barocci: A Critical Study in Italian Cinquecento Painting, Stockholm: Almquist and Wilksell, 1955; 2nd ed., Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1962) to Andrea Emiliani (curator of the above-mentioned exhibition and subsequent monographs [Federico Barocci (Urbino 1535–1612), exh. cat., Bologna: Nuova Alfa, 1985 and Federico Barocci (Urbino, 1535-1612), exh. cat., Ancona: Il Lavoro Editoriale, 2008]). To these could be added numerous others who have made significant recent contributions, including Marilyn Aronburg Lavin, Edmund Pillsbury, Jeffrey Fontana, Peter Gillgren, Ian Verstegen, David Scrase, and the contributors to the catalogue of a recent exhibition in Siena, the subtitle of which speaks of its contents, “L’incanto del colore: Una lezione per due secoli” (Alessandra Giannotti and Claudio Pizzorusso, Federico Barocci, 1535–1612. L’incanto del colore: Una lezione per due secoli, exh. cat., Milan: Silvana, 2009). Indeed, it is safe to say that since Olsen and Emiliani’s groundbreaking work there has been a growing realization of Barocci’s centrality to any discussion of artistic development in the second half of the cinquecento and into the first, critical years of the next century. There has been, moreover, a desire to account for the independent cast of mind of the outwardly isolated painter who, after early travels and tribulations, left Urbino only rarely and yet proved an inspiration for artists of almost every region of Italy. These studies have focused attention on certain key issues of Barocci’s work, biography, and the judgment of his contemporaries: the intense graphic preparation for his comprehensively thought-through paintings, especially referring to its sequence and innovative use of media; his rapport with Urbino’s society, including the duke but especially its religious organizations; the analysis of his work by critics, above all Bellori, who devoted a chapter to Barocci’s life in his Vite published in 1672; and the sources informing the artist’s compositions and artistic choices. Speaking generally, scholars have attempted to elucidate the means by which Barocci broke through the formulas of painting of later maniera painting (what the Bolognese author Carlo Cesare Malvasia disparagingly called the maniera ammanierata) and replaced them with an art based on relentless observation of the human figure and experimentation with color and expressive gesture, especially relevant for an artist who concentrated on sacred images immediately following the Council of Trent.

Despite this intensifying critical interest in recent decades, Barocci has not become a household name outside Italy. It was therefore an ideal moment for Judith W. Mann and Babette Bohn to reexamine the works individually, presenting both the state of research and their own hard-won observations and conclusions (they sought to examine almost every one of the approximately 1,500 drawings attributed to the artist) to an English-speaking public. Although their admiration—indeed, passion—for Barocci emerges clearly, in both their catalogue and exhibition texts they could have proclaimed even more loudly that they were presenting the achievement of one of the most significant and inventive Italian artists. Each gallery in London demonstrated this, moving from the warmly intimate Madonna del Gatto (Madonna of the Cat), of the mid-1570s, with its choreographed and rhythmically intertwined figures in a narrative that is simultaneously informal and yet delicately allusive to Christ’s Passion (and about whose early history in the newly decorated palace of Count Antonio Brancaleoni in Piobbico scholars now know much more thanks to Plazzotta’s recent research), to the majesty and fervor of masterpieces of the 1590s and beyond, such as the Stigmatization of Saint Francis (1594–95), painted for the Capuchin church of Urbino, and related works such as the haunting painting in distemper (1590s?) and a beautiful pen-and-wash drawing from the British Museum (cat. 13.3), in both of which Brother Leo turns down a bend in the road away from the kneeling, ecstatic saint. Sequences of drawings had the same impact, especially the landscape sheets (cat. 14, 1–3), undertaken without any reference to a particular painting. Although they may have been in part inspired by drawings by other artists, they are unique in their coloristic effects and shimmering observation, and are certainly linked to Barocci’s deep attachment to Urbino and its lands, illustrated above all in the transcendent landscape that seems to roll away from the bottom of the cross of the great Christ Expiring on the Cross (1600–4), sent by Francesco Maria II della Rovere to the King of Spain and installed in the chapel of the Alcazar.

While settings were always of importance to Barocci in his conception of a narrative, the evolution of his interest in architecture is a fascinating aspect suggested by the installation. His frequent citation of Urbino’s beautiful fifteenth-century Ducal Palace—both its exterior towers and interior details—is well known, but seeing the magisterial classical language of the paintings from the 1590s forward strikes a completely different chord. Bellori mentioned Barocci’s study of architecture under his relative Bartolomeo Genga, and his close study of Bramante’s Tempietto is made clear in the background of Aeneas Fleeing Troy (1598; the modifications that the painter makes to the architecture are discussed by Lingo, as above, 177–86, and then in the current catalogue, 277–78). But it is seeing that painting alongside the Last Supper from the Cathedral of Urbino (1590–1600) and the Institution of the Eucharist from Rome (1603–9) and their related drawings that demonstrates forcibly his continued development of architectural vocabulary, with the play of its tonality and geometry against the stronger color of the figures—an aspect of his art that deserves further study.

The extraordinary sequences of Barocci’s preparatory drawings have received much attention, and have been much debated, in recent years, and the authors of this catalogue provide careful analysis of the drawings that they accept (or exclude) for each of the paintings under discussion, with significant new suggestions in some cases. Most discussed of all have been the colored “drawings”—both the chalks and pastels, and the oil-on-paper studies of heads. The issue of their inspiration is a complex one, although it is likely that Barocci owned pastels by Correggio that are no longer extant, as Bellori reported (Dempsey as above, 254), and that the artist was also aware of other colored chalk drawings being produced in central Italy. The other artist whose name has often come to mind in this regard is Jacopo Bassano, whose contemporaneous, innovative use of colored chalk and pastel was equally striking. Bohn, following Thomas McGrath, is quite right in claiming that the two artists mostly used these media to strikingly different effect (66, no. 51; Thomas McGrath, “Federico Barocci and the History of pastelli in Central Italy,” Apollo 148, no. 441 (1998): 3–9). At the same time it is worth noting that the authors seem convinced that Barocci may have traveled to Venice for a specific commission in 1583, when Bassano’s drawings would have been well known (see cat. 12, 227). Thus it is interesting that an unusual drawing in Barocci’s oeuvre, the compositional study for the Annunciation (cat. 9.1), a dated work of those same years, is the closest of all to Bassano’s drawings, with its welter of black chalk lines and rough blocks of peach and yellow pastel used for the figures. No other known pastello is of a full composition or so freely drawn (see cat. 9, 186): could this be a response to Bassano’s compositional drawings of the 1560s and 1570s? Various artists in the later decades of the sixteenth century must have been moving along similar paths in their exploration of the use of color in drawing and the oil studies on paper that hover between drawing and painting. Famously, there were some forty-two oil studies on paper in the inventory of Barocci’s studio, of which fourteen were heads, perhaps including some of those that have come down to us, such as cats. 10.6 and 10.10 (both preparatory for the Visitation, 1583–86; the latter contains chalk and pastel as well as oil). The recently published inventory of Daniele da Volterra’s studio drawn up in 1566 includes “Teste dipinte a olio sopra carte no. 17,” among all of the other kinds of drawings (Andrea Donati, Michelangelo Buonarroti. Jacopino del Conte. Daniele Ricciarelli. Ritratti e figure nel manierismo a Roma, Dogana: Asset Banca, 2010, 330); and beautiful examples may be found in the work of Cigoli, for example. All expand the possibilities of color used in preparation for paintings; some, perhaps, were sought after by contemporary collectors.

The selection of paintings at the National Gallery included Barocci’s most powerful and important works, and it would be surly to miss others that were not on view. Mann and Bohn did not wade into areas in which studio assistants played important roles in the completion or execution of paintings, nor did they bring forward any recent attributions. One that would have interested me in this context is a Portrait of a Woman in Black that was published by Michel Laclotte in 2001 (“La ‘Dama in Nero’ di Barocci,” L’Intelligenza della Passione. Scritti per Andrea Emiliani, eds., Michela Scolaro and Francesco P. Di Teodora, Bologna: Minerva Edizioni, 2001, 269–73), which would have added a different note to that engrossing section in London. While the attribution of a small number of drawings or painted studies might continue to be debated, overall Mann and Bohn achieved a remarkable standard of precision and quality in their choices from among the many hundreds of extant sheets. Barocci’s stature and complex artistic achievement could not have emerged more clearly.

Andrea Bayer
Curator, Department of European Paintings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.