Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 5, 2001
Antonio Natali, ed. L’onesta dell’invezione: pittura della riforma cattolica agli Uffizi Milan: Silvana Editoriale, 1999. 128 pp.; 70 color ills.; 25 b/w ills. Cloth (8882151735)

When a bomb exploded outside the Galleria degli Uffizi in 1993, damaging the west wing, several painting galleries and their contents were affected, requiring restoration. The room that had been hung with paintings by Federico Barocci and contemporary Venetians was among those closed for repairs. During its closure, a plan was implemented to reorganize the gallery around the theme of the Catholic Reformation. Barocci’s Madonna del Popolo now serves as the focus, and is accompanied by Tuscan altarpieces of the late sixteenth century. The book under review, L’Onestà dell’invenzione: Pittura della riforma cattolica agli Uffizi, was occasioned by the reopening of the gallery and comprises essays and conservation reports by different authors on five of the paintings.

The introductory essay by Antonio Natali, the Uffizi’s director of the Department of Renaissance and Mannerist Paintings and supervisor of the new installation, provides an overview of the gallery’s paintings and their adherence to post-Tridentine prescriptions for clear, instructive, and decorous sacred images. As Natali notes, because of years of disinterest in Tuscan works of this period, he did not have many paintings of high quality to choose from within his own storerooms, and so had to borrow, acquire, and recall objects on deposit elsewhere. Natali outlines some stylistic and ideological points of commonality between the altarpieces, but his essay is not interpretive; he primarily brings neglected works back to light. Visual documentation throughout the book is, in fact, this volume’s chief virtue. The book has an oversized format, and many of the gorgeous color reproductions occupy full pages.

Detailed investigations are left to the other essays. Alessandra Giannotti writes on Barocci’s Madonna del Popolo, the featured painting in both this volume and the gallery. Giannotti gives a solid review of the painting’s genesis and, importantly, highlights Barocci’s role in the invention of the subject. The painter not only balked at the Aretine confraternity’s original request for a Madonna of Mercy, suggesting other “more beautiful inventions,” but he also modified the new choice of subject–the intercession of the Virgin and the charitable acts of the patrons–as his preparatory drawings attest. Many of Barocci’s paintings exhibit inventiveness in their conceptualization of sacred subjects, an apparent inconsistency with the orthodoxy of images prescribed during the third session of the Council of Trent. Barocci’s license complicates his usual classification as an exemplary Counter-Reformation artist.

The second part of Giannotti’s essay documents the reception of the Madonna del Popolo, primarily by Florentine and Sienese artists. She cites works that Barocci’s altarpiece inspired, such as those by Gregorio Pagani, Ludovico Cigoli, Francesco Vanni, and Ventura Salimbeni–all well-known students of Barocci’s painting. Giannotti adds to the list names unfamiliar in this context, such as the less talented Ulisse Ciocchi and the sculptor Giovanni Caccini. (One could also add Francesco Morandini, called Il Poppi, whose Uffizi sheet [inv. 4293F] records roughly the lower half of the altarpiece). This part of the study leads the way toward further, much-needed research into the impact of Barocci’s art during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

Natali’s well-rounded essay on Alessandro Allori’s Dead Christ explores the painting’s original location, but focuses on its theme of redemption. The altarpiece was executed for the chapel dedicated to St. John Gualbert in the Badia di San Michele in Passignano. Allori depicted Christ’s body supported by three angels, with the lamenting Virgin looking on. Above His body, a blood-filled chalice rests on a parapet bearing an inscription. Allori worked in a clear and austere style, consistent with the precepts of the Council of Trent, to convey the gravity of Christ’s sacrifice and to underscore the sacramental importance of the Eucharistic wine. Christ’s salvific powers are reinforced by the depiction of His descent into limbo in the background. The importance of early cinquecento paintings, both iconographically and compositionally, to the Florentine reform painters is a recurring theme in this volume, and here Natali compares Allori’s painting to apposite precedents by Andrea del Sarto and Fra Bartolommeo. The author gives a thoughtful reconstruction of the altarpiece in its original context, although his digression on the sixteenth-century restoration and provenance of the marble effigy of St. John Gualbert above the altar strays a bit far from Allori’s painting. Conversely, one wishes that Natali had discussed in greater depth the inscription, a quotation from Dante’s Paradiso, in the context of post-Tridentine theology.

Both Elena Testaferrata’s essay on Lodovico Buti’s Assumption of the Virgin and Stefania Vasetti’s on Bernardino Poccetti’s Apparition of the Virgin to St. Bruno and St. Nicholas of Bari deal with issues of attribution, original location, and compositional precedents. Testaferrata outlines the long history of switched attributions between Buti’s altarpiece and another by Jacopo Chimenti da Empoli (like Buti, a student of Santi di Tito), both originally from the church of S. Matteo. Though the Apparition is unsigned, Vasetti makes a strong case for assigning it to Poccetti based on comparison to autograph works and preparatory drawings. The authors both observe that Buti and Poccetti looked back to Andrea del Sarto, Fra Bartolommeo, and Raphael as exemplars of simplicity and decorous naturalism, as did their contemporaries, Santi di Tito and Chimenti. Vasetti suggests Poccetti’s lively treatment of color and texture, which differs from Buti’s somewhat prosaic naturalism, may have resulted from the added study of Barocci. As only too rarely occurs, Poccetti’s painting retains its original frame, which bears the date MDXCV, as well as an emblem of the Carthusian order. On this basis, Vasetti proposes convincingly that the work originally hung at the certosa in Castellare, although the prominence in the background of the Dominican church of S. Marco in Florence requires more credible explanation than she gives it. Drawing on her extensive writing on the painter, the author gives a fascinating account of the relationship between Poccetti and the Carthusian monks at Galluzzo from 1591 to 1612.

Roberto Contini begins his essay on Domenico Passignano’s St. Luke Painting the Virgin by recognizing the general lack of familiarity with the painter, a situation he seems intent upon rectifying in his few pages by illustrating several of the painter’s other altarpieces. He reattributes a Venetian altarpiece to Passignano, dating it to his Venetian sojourn in the 1580s. Contini notes the lasting traces of Venetian painting in Passignano’s Tuscan work in his stylistic comparison of the St. Luke to three of the painter’s other Tuscan altarpieces, all well-illustrated. Although one is grateful for the fine presentation of these other works, one wishes their number were somewhat reduced to make room for deeper analysis of Passignano’s treatment of the painting’s subject.

Passignano executed the St. Luke for the oratory of the Accademia del Disegno, and Contini dates it to the last years of the 1590s or the first of the 1600s. The Academy’s patron saint is depicted in the act of applying brush to canvas, and the saint’s particular protection of the institution’s members is suggested by the presence of Michelangelo’s model for a river god propped up in the foreground, based upon the sculpture that had been donated to the Academy by Ammannati in 1583 (now in the Casa Buonarroti). With portrait-like specificity, Passignano painted two figures standing beside St. Luke, one of which is the artist’s self-portrait; the other, Contini proposes, is St. Philip Neri. Though the latter figure’s bony, bearded visage does resemble Neri’s, it equally resembles Pietro Bembo’s and probably a number of other older Italian men with long noses. A more credible and illuminating identification will most likely be found among the members of the Academy, and research into the man’s black cape with red piping may show it to be the formal attire of an academician. Greater discussion of the altarpiece in relation to the Academy and to precedents, especially Giorgio Vasari’s fresco of the same subject for the Chapel of St. Luke at the church of SS. Annunziata, would have enriched Contini’s essay.

The objective of this volume, as articulated by Annamaria Petrioli Tofani in her introductory note, is to explain and document the works in the new installation, grouped together because the artists shared an interest in Barocci and were equally tied to Catholic reform ideology. It is disappointing that, as each author pursues problems concerning his or her altarpiece, the common issues have been somewhat neglected. Barocci’s altarpiece is hardly mentioned (excluding Giannotti’s contribution and a brief, isolated discussion in Natali’s overview), but might have been used as a shared lens to bring cohesion to the essays. Three of the authors cite the consultation of High Renaissance precedents by these late sixteenth-century painters, and a nuanced reading of imitation by all the contributors would have added some depth and complexity to an essentially commonplace observation about practice. The subject of practice is an area left to the volume’s conservation reports, which unfortunately are more documentary than interpretive. While this book does not take a great stride forward in reshaping our conception of late cinquecento Florentine painting, it handsomely presents images and information that will prove useful to any scholar wishing to pursue research further into the Florentine reform of painting.

Jeffrey Fontana
Colgate University