A study in strictures

The director of London’s National Gallery has dared to suggest that the subject of its new exhibition, the now obscure Federico Barocci of Urbino, was a better painter than his contemporary El Greco.

Barocci’s reputation was indeed very high at his death in 1612 at the age of 77, and this exhibition reveals an extremely interesting painter, draughtsman and printmaker. But does he deserve promotion to the front rank of late Renaissance masters? Or is Nicholas Penny’s remark more of a circus barker’s promise, designed to pull in passing trade?

This is a selection of fewer than 20 canvases from what was (given the length of his life) a slim body of finished work. The young Barocci twice crossed the Appennines to Rome, attracting the patronage of the papacy but also the jealousy of rivals. His second visit was cut short by sickness caused (it was said) by a picnic salad deliberately laced with poison. Barocci never fully recovered his health and stayed close to home in Le Marche for the rest of his life. Under the wing of his patron Francesco Maria II, Duke of Urbino, he devoted himself almost exclusively to producing altarpieces and smaller devotional paintings.

Barocci’s stay-at-home policy did not mean that he worked in isolation. Church commissions came in from across the region, and Barocci’s only significant secular piece, “Aeneas Fleeing Troy”, was ordered for the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, in Prague.

Barocci became famous for his tardiness in getting work finished. Because of poor health, he restricted himself to two hours of easel-time each day – but every composition was also preceded by exhaustive preliminary sketches. More than 1,500 of his drawings survive, and it is illuminating to see so many of them here alongside the finished pieces. These studies in chalk and charcoal, and sketches in both pastels and oils (of which Barocci was a pioneer), unpeel the layers of his creative thinking, some of it brilliant and innovative.

But we should not get too carried away. Barocci was no mould-breaker: he was subject to the constraints of a man entirely dependent on the approval of a pious prince and a prescriptive church. At this early stage of the counter-reformation, painting and religious politics were closely entwined, and Barocci’s studies show some of the effects of these strictures.

Barocci’s study for his 1567 painting ‘Christ on the Cross’

A fairly early Crucifixion is the least successful large painting in this exhibition – yet the drawings that accompany it reveal the disparity between Barocci’s instinctive vision and what could openly be shown in church. In one fine sketch, the completely naked figure of Christ convincingly demonstrates the torsion in a crucified body under the drag of gravity, with the iron nails driven into the wood through the wrists. In the finished painting, however, Christ, now loinclothed, is nailed through the palms, and appears to repose weightlessly on his cross. The figures of Mary and St John may stand grieving eloquently below, but the cute flying cherubs hovering to catch Christ’s blood in silver dishes destroy any remaining traces of tragedy.

The tendency for an artist to orient himself around theological correctness is seen also in “The Institution of the Eucharist”. This dramatises a critical moment in the theology of the counter-reformation when the Last Supper became the first mass, with wine no longer distributed at communion and real bread replaced by wafer discs. Barocci had wanted to show the devil whispering into Judas’s ear as he kneels to receive the anachronistic wafer from Christ, and he also featured a young mother among the servants in the foreground, bare-breasted after feeding her child. As this was a papal commission, both Satan and the bare-nippled woman were expunged from the final version, it being unthinkable for either to be present at a mass.

A head study for ‘Saint John the Evangelist’ (c.1580)

There are recurring chalk or charcoal studies for the Virgin Mary in which she stands in the nude. These have no lascivious intent, of course, for Barocci is simply following the principles of Leonardo and Michelangelo that a painter cannot do the clothed body without first considering it unclothed. Possibly more surprising is that he did not seem to care – as Michelangelo had not – whether the model was male or female, with the result that some of these study-sketches are visibly hermaphrodite.

Paintings made for private devotion allowed greater scope. “The Return from Egypt”, with St Joseph feeding the boy Jesus cherries from the tree, and “Madonna del Gatto” (of the Cat) are exceptionally accomplished and beautiful in colouring. Their strongly diagonal compositions derive from Correggio but, with their smiling faces and incidental details, these canvases are suffused with a spirit of visible happiness that is all Barocci’s own.

Barocci emerges from this show as a sweet technician with a sensitive drawing line, a marvellous colour sense and an individual approach to composition. He is not a better painter than El Greco, or than his other great contemporary Caravaggio – but in art history terms he is a more useful reference point than either of those mavericks because you see in him just how the counter-reformation worked on Catholic art. As such, Barocci fully deserves his rehabilitation.

‘Barocci: Brilliance and Grace’, National Gallery, London, to May 19.


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