National Gallery, London
Until 19th May 2013
Frederico Barocci (c 1533-1612) straddled the Renaissance divide between design and colour and mastered both. An outstanding draughtsman and colourist, one is astounded by his fusion of precise and masterly composition with sumptuous colour harmonies which results in a luxurious viewing experience. His works, though obviously indebted to the work of Raphael, remind us of Titian in their sumptuous use of colour and anticipate by almost half a century the principles of Baroque art in their sweeping and dynamic compositions. This current exhibition at the National Gallery aims to put Barocci back on the map. It is incredible that an artist, whose works were so sought after and copied during his lifetime that he subsequently had to repair them, is no longer part of the mainstream artistic ‘canon’.
Barocci returned to his native Urbino after a severe illness in Rome, where he had gone to fulfil his prodigious artistic potential. The illness, perhaps due to poisoning by a jealous rival, was not successful in hampering his artistic career. At once received and championed by the prospering Della Rovere Court at Urbino, his loyal patron the Duke Francesco Maria II Della Rovere ensured that his renown spread far and wide. This theme of fruitful patronage runs throughout the exhibition in the relationship between the Duke and Barocci. Small devotional works commissioned by the Duke for his private quarters are included along with his portraits and other commissions secured through his advocacy. Their friendship is documented through the works along with the importance of patronage to the artist. His highly polished sketches, included throughout the exhibition, surely played a role in impressing potential patrons and reassuring actual patrons of the quality of the finished piece at the end of his laborious creative method.
F. Barocci, Study of Hands
The real theme of the exhibition is Barocci’s obsessive preparatory process entailing his pioneering technique of making coloured preliminary sketches in chalk, pastel and oil. A baffling array of preparatory images greets the viewer in each room, executed in a remarkable assortment of media. They capture the attention of the viewer to such an extent that they too must be considered masterpieces in their own right. Included are his rapid initial compositional sketches, his extemporaneous life sketches and polished full-scale head sketches executed in oil. His preparatory sketches reveal his devotion to the precise and effective use of light and shade. Some of the most wonderful preparatory sketches in the exhibition are those which, at a late phase in the creative process, studied the chiaroscuro, or the fall of light and shade, for his final compositions. One of the most stunning of these pieces was for the Madonna of the Rosary. He was quite unique in this practice and this interest in the play of light and shade continued throughout his whole oeuvre. He also rehearses his colour harmonies and compositional layouts. His fastidious attention to detail is observed in repetitious studies of hands and feet while his exactitude of planning is revealed in his small sketches which mirror precisely the finished works. He explores, studies and meditates on every nuance of his works before completion of the whole.
F. Barocci, Chiaroscuro sketch for Madonna of the Rosary
After his early devotional pieces in the first room, the second room focuses on two of his large and masterful altarpieces and their painstaking design process. They belong to the period in the 1560s and 70s when Barocci was creating resplendent altarpieces for Urbino and central Italy. His Entombment (1579-82) was so popular in its day that Barocci had to repair it 25 years after its completion due to copies being made from it. The preparatory sketches document his notoriously slow working process. Some of these pieces are so ‘finished’ that it is hard to believe that they were not produced for resale such as the full-scale head of John the Evangelist which exists in not one but two exquisite versions. John is highly idealised with wind-swept hair and the glowing rosy cheeks which characterise many of his protagonists. These independent studies of the personages comprising the final composition capture the tumultuous emotion of the individual responses within the work. Here in lies one of Barocci’s strengths in integrating the parts into a dynamic and moving whole. He studied the pose and disposition of each personage obsessively and co-ordinated them into the final piece.
F. Barocci, Study for the Head of John the Evangelist
Barocci was primarily a religious painter completing breath-taking and massive altarpieces along with smaller scale devotional works. A real undercurrent throughout the entire exhibition is the spirituality and religious sentiment of the artist. His meticulous and unrelenting series of preparatory sketches betray significance in the actual process of preparation. This compulsive process seems almost to have been a form of devotion. We can sense that he has chosen religious themes that were especially significant to him in the attention that he lavished on each detail of the sacred personages and the scenes in which they take part. His devotional intensity manifests most clearly in the images of St Francis of Assisi found towards the end of the exhibition.
The man behind these devotional works is betrayed in the human touches found in many of his paintings. Charming representations of animals and children are included in most of his works. These endearing elements draw the viewer into these elevated sacred scenes. We can see from his preparatory sketches that they have been done from life and there is an intimacy and warmth which they embody and add to these majestic religious works. His family groups included in devotional pieces for private patrons such as the Rest on the Return from Egypt (1570-3) are wonderfully engaging. There is such a tenderness and humanity to the work. The cherub-like Christ child interacts most wonderfully with his mother as she fills water in a pewter cup while Joseph picks cherries in the background for his family. The work is above all a moving family scene. Its sweetness extends beyond the subject matter and the soft gestures and glances of the figures to the colour harmonies which add to the appealing nature of the work.
F. Barocci, Rest on the Return from Egypt
His preparatory sketches also form a witness to his appreciation of the human condition. A rare female nude study for the Virgin contains really personal elements such as the roll of flesh over her ribs. A well-known anecdote concerning the artist’s treatment of his models is included in the exhibition. It is related that Barocci ensured his models were in a sustainable and comfortable pose in order to achieve the level of naturalness he required. This certainly shows in his works and perhaps is the ingredient which makes his paintings so humane. Despite willing his personages to attain a natural disposition, his figures are sublimely idealised and conventional in their beauty. Their beauty is matched by the saccharine sweetness of the overall work in its colour and composition. If one cannot appreciate the spiritual significance of the works, they can be enjoyed on a purely visual level. The title of the show is thus fitting; his figures are thoroughly imbued with breath-taking naturalism, poise and grace.
F. Barocci, Nativity
Barrocci thus captures the humble humanity of biblical figures in honest simple paintings for devotional use such at the Madonna of the Cat (1575). He also encapsulates the inexpressible glory of God. The massive works at the end of the exhibition embody most closely the Baroque ideals which came after him in their huge sweeping compositions and turbulent emotion. His gentle and yet dynamic compositions anticipate the Baroque in their undulating curves and sense of movement. He depicts the glory of the ineffable divine light radiating from the heavenly apparitions in his spectacular altarpieces. His Nativity (1597), captures both humanity and ineffable divinity within the same work. The divine light which radiates from Christ and illuminates the Virgin signals the advent of God into the world. At the same time, the scene essentially comprises a mother gazing adoringly at her swaddled newborn baby. The large study for the head of the newborn which accompanies the finished work was evidently created from life. These life studies obviously allowed the artist to lend humanity to the gravity of the moment depicted.
F. Barocci, Study of a Newborn
The only real criticisms of the show would be that some of the exhibition is slightly technical for the average viewer in terms of the artistic process described with some specialist terms used and not sufficiently explained. The rooms were certainly dim and atmospheric and to a certain extent this recreated a ‘spiritual’ atmosphere in which to experience the works so that our encounter could closely mirror that intended by the artist. The gloomy lighting also accentuated the bright incandescent colour harmonies. That said, the rooms bordered on being too dark to properly see the works. The commentary on the works becomes a little repetitive after a while, focusing as it does on his creative process. There are other themes within the exhibition which could have been isolated and discussed at greater length for the viewer such as the celebration of Barocci as a colourist, his increasingly dramatic use of illumination, his influence on the artists who came after him and the experience of these works by contemporary viewers. His works were clearly intended to bring on a taste of enrapture. This is tantalisingly mentioned in relation to the Visitation altarpiece made for the Chiesa Nuovo of the Oratorians but could have been expanded on. The video accompanying the show is important to view in order to experience some of these works within their original context, integrated as they were into their architectural and decorative surroundings. These works would of course be more rewarding if we could enter into the original experience.
Overall it is an exhibition which is long overdue and laudable in its aim to reintroduce Frederico Barocci to the general public. The works are more rewarding than one would think when properly understood and certainly worth a visit.