For a long time, British art lovers have not had the chance to view the brilliant works of the Italian artist Federico Barocci, whose only easel painting on display here is the National Gallery’s lively The Madonna of the Cat. Now, however, the exhibition Barocci: Brilliance and Grace brings to London masterpieces that have never before been seen outside of Italy, such as Barocci’s ‘Entombment’ from Senigallia and ‘Last Supper’ from Urbino Cathedral. The exhibition at the National Gallery, which runs until 19th May, features the majority of Barocci’s most famous altarpieces and paintings, as well as preparatory drawings that grant viewers a glimpse into the intricate methods underlying his art.
To coincide with the recent opening of this fascinating exhibition, here’s an excerpt from the catalogue Federico Barocci: Renaissance Master of Color and Line—written by the curators and published by Yale University Press—exploring the paradox of Barocci’s forgotten legacy. Meanwhile, on the Yale University Press facebook page there’s a special sneak preview of images from the exhibition.
Barocci was, therefore, an innovator and, perhaps more importantly, an artist who wielded a great deal of influence on succeeding generations of painters. It is thus surprising that his art is not more widely known today. Several explanations have been proffered. First and foremost, Barocci made the fateful decision to return to Urbino in the early 1560s and from then on conducted his career there, away from a major artistic center. […] Also important is the fact that Barocci did not set up a workshop in a major center, like those established by such predecessors as Raphael and Titian, with artists trained to replicate his style and his methods, which would, perhaps, have ensured his legacy.
The best explanation for Barocci’s lower profile was offered by Gillgren in his recent monograph on the painter. He pointed out the experience of Walter Friedländer who, having written on the Casino of Pius IV, including its architecture and the group of artists who assisted in its decoration, considered writing a monograph on Barocci. However, he found the artist’s work less interesting than that of Caravaggio […] Barocci’s aesthetic is not one that adherents of modernism can readily embrace, which reminds us that his fame is more an assessment of the contemporary audience than an evaluation of his inherent artistic strengths. In our present age, when private struggles and personality disorders often trump achievement as means to engage a broad-based public, one might think that Barocci’s personal story could perhaps have resonance. The artist’s lifelong struggles with health and perhaps even depression (or simply social phobia) have the makings of a good narrative, but they would have resonated more had they resulted in imagery and a style that spoke more to the masses and less to the Church. In their major study of the artistic psyche, Born under Saturn, Rudolf and Margot Wittkower struggled to reconcile Barocci’s tormented body with the sweetness of his imagery.
Nevertheless, Barocci’s continual rethinking of tradition, narration, and theology makes him the quintessential post-Tridentine painter. His interpretations and ideas enmesh him completely in his time period, both in terms of the specifics of the theological issues and of their surrounding debates and devotional aspects. But it is his extraordinary aesthetic achievement that, in the end, secures him a place among the great artists of the sixteenth century. In an age of such luminaries as Michelangelo, Titian, and Tintoretto, Barocci’s art easily holds its own for the grace and ease of his compositions, the extraordinary beauty of his color, the warmth and clarity of his lighting, and the exquisite, even poetic, integration of gesture into his paintings. The fact that he continuously brought new and original interpretations to his stories is the extra and fascinating “icing” on the delicate and rewarding “cake” that is the paintings and drawings of this marvelous master.
From Barocci: Renaissance Master of Color and Line by Judith W. Mann and Babette Bohn, with Carol Plazzotta