A master of colour, line and Christian devotion

William E. Wallace on “Federico Barocci: Renaissance Master of Color and Line”, St Louis Art Museum, and “Federico Barocci: Brilliance and Grace”, the National Gallery, London, until 19 May

Barocci, Federico (1526-1612): Trasporto di Cristo al sepolcro (detail).

Federico Barocci (1526-1612) has not been a well known artist. Even specialists might have been hard pressed to name one of his masterpieces or more than a half dozen pictures. Barocci was born and lived in Urbino, a charming city in the Italian Marche far removed from the artistic centres of Florence, Rome and Venice. One might, therefore, legitimately ask why Federico Barocci deserves a major international loan exhibition – the first monographic showing of his paintings and drawings outside Italy.

Aside from the sheer pleasure of his lush and swooningly beautiful paintings and drawings, Barocci proved a significant influence in the development of the Baroque. He is – along with Correggio and Veronese -- an all-important bridge between Raphael and the Carracci, between Venice and Rome, between the 16th and 17th centuries. He was also one of the most prolific and original draftsmen in the history of Italian Renaissance art, even more dedicated to preparatory drawing than Michelangelo or Raphael.

The decision to focus on the artist’s creative process as manifested in his numerous drawings provided a principal rationale for the exhibition. As Babette Bohn points out in her masterful catalogue essay, Barocci brings pastel and oil colour to drawing, which he employs as a highly flexible medium of artistic invention and development. He drew assiduously: composition and figure studies, both nude and draped, oil sketches, pastels, small and full-size cartoons, and, quite unusually, he repeatedly drew heads, hands, and feet with near obsessive attention. There are some 1,500 to 2,000 extant sheets (compare his prolific output with the approximately 150 extant drawings by Veronese, some 600 drawings by Michelangelo, or the nearly 1,000 extant sheets of Parmigianino).

The principal curators – Judith Mann and Babette Bohn, in collaboration with their colleague at London’s National Gallery, Carol Plazzotta, assembled more than 100 of the artist’s drawings, pastels, and oil sketches (as well as nearly a dozen prints), in conjunction with the paintings with which they are associated. In the St Louis version, each exhibition gallery featured two or three paintings accompanied by their related and various preparatory studies, thereby illuminating multiple stages in the artist’s laborious process of design and execution. According to Bohn, Barocci made 50 preparatory drawings for the Entombment of Christ, 16 of which were included in the exhibition.

Barocci’s oeuvre almost exclusively comprises religious work, although the exhibition did include five painted portraits and half a dozen exquisite landscape drawings, some with a whispery delicacy that anticipates Gainsborough. When painting his specialty – saints, the Madonna, and the Christ Child – Barocci revels in deliciously ripe colour and highly rhetorical expression. Although his paintings occasionally appear saccharine, his devotional imagery is highly innovative. In the monumental Stigmatisation of Saint Francis (Galleria Nazionale delle Marche) we see the stigmata rendered not as a miraculous sign, but as thick iron nails driven so forcefully into the saint’s palms that blood spurts from the lacerating wounds.

In the equally large and impressive altarpiece of the Entombment of Christ (Chiesa della Croce, Senigallia), St John, Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimathea struggle with Christ’s dead weight. Swirling multi-hued draperies accentuate the stumbling movement and spill from the picture. Additional pieces of cloth and drapery serve as visual and iconographic accents. For example, in the left foreground, we note a still-life of passion relics which includes a small basin and a white embroidered cloth alluding to Pilate's washing his (white) hands. At the right, a man in striped breeches wipes the tomb with a bunched cloth in preparation for Christ’s burial. It is a curious action, yet one Barocci fixed upon from the earliest moment and never altered through many compositional sketches. Was the tomb previously occupied? Or, are we meant to think proleptically of the Resurrection when Simon Peter looked into the empty tomb and “saw the linen cloths lying, and the napkin, which had been on Christ’s head” (John 20:6-7)?

Furthest from the viewer is a dishevelled figure who buries her emotion and distorted face in a fluttering cloth. Given that the Three Marys are accounted for, this additional figure may be Veronica. Rather than drying her tears, she appears to be tenderly kissing the face which miraculously appeared on the cloth (Sudarium) with which Veronica dried Christ's sweat and tears on his way to Golgotha. The installation of the painting as the high altarpiece of the church dedicated to the Holy Cross reiterates this iconography. We know that Barocci furnished drawings for the painting’s frame and recommended the frame maker. At the top right, a gilt angel displays a bunched cloth and gestures to the picture. The pediment of the architectural frame is adorned with a yet more explicit representation of the Sudarium. Contrary to his reputation as a limited artist who tended to recycle imagery, Barocci made innovations at every stage of art making, from the earliest sketch to finished work.

At more than three-meters square, the monumental Last Supper (Cathedral of Urbino) was a stunning climax of the exhibition (fully deserving the extended and richly informative catalogue essay by Judith Mann). Bustling servants clear, clean and pack away the dishes of the just completed Passover meal. Only a princely household might have owned such an abundance of precious metal plate (credenza), properly managed and carefully inventoried by the senior member of the household staff. In a highly inventive manner, Barocci surrounds the sacred subject with the contemporary rituals of gastronomy (“fare la credenza”), and the noisy messiness of quotidian life. At the right, a mongrel dog timidly looks at us before lapping from a spectacular silver-gilt basin, which reminds a sensitive viewer of the earlier moment when Christ washed his Apostles’ feet.

The cacophony momentarily distracts us from the sacramental character of the picture. The table has been cleared of food and dishes. With a full glass, small loaf, and angelic accompaniment (unusual in a Last Supper), Christ institutes the Eucharist. In the varied reactions of the disciples, one fails to recognise easily Judas. We are tempted to see him as the prominent figure dressed in conventional Judaic yellow, but his knife (being sheathed at the completion of the meal) might also suggest St Bartholomew. Although the meal is over, the other most prominent figure distractedly requests more wine while fixing Christ with a traitorous eye. The cloth with which he wipes his mouth partially conceals his emotions while also suggesting that those same treacherous lips will betray our Lord with a kiss. As the viewer's attention wanders among the servants, dog and disciples, he may, as Ignatian spiritual teaching would have encouraged, suffer a similar wavering of faith, prompting him finally to ask, “Lord, is it I?”

With a panoply of artistic tools at his disposal, Barocci created masterpieces at once seductive and instructive. The St Louis Art Museum and the National Gallery in London have given us a unique opportunity more fully to enjoy and learn from this truly exceptional artist.

William E. Wallace is the Barbara Murphy Bryant Distinguished Professor of Art History at Washington University, St Louis

Published Wed, 08 May 2013 08:21:00 GMT

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