Federico Barocci – where Renaissance meets Baroque

This Wednesday just happened to be the day of Baroness Margaret Thatcher’s funeral service, of which I took the opportunity to witness first-hand. I arrived at St Paul’s Cathedral shortly after 10am and struggled to find a nice spot that didn’t have at least 10-12 people in front of it already. Also I was rather short compared to everyone else. In the end I managed to capture a few good shots of the Baroness’ Union Jack-covered coffin and her close family. The atmosphere was quite decent, with several cheers and applauses amongst the crowds as her coffin was taken into the cathedral. The sun came out too!

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Baroness Margaret Thatcher’s coffin being lifted out of St Paul’s Cathedral. Own photograph.

But what truly made my day in the end was a lucky encounter with the BBC presenter Jane Hill – she was buying lunch at the nearby Marks and Spencer after helping with the media coverage.

Image Jane Hill from the BBC, caught buying a sandwich at Marks and Spencer. Own photograph.

So, after a short walk to Trafalgar Square in the lovely heat, with a caramel macchiato in hand, I headed to the Barocci exhibition at the National Gallery. There, I had a less interesting encounter – a professor of art history by the name of Timothy Alves(?), who was writing a very long piece about the composition of the Institution of the Eucharist (1603-9).

Barocci: Brilliance and Grace features the works of Federico Barocci (about 1533-1612), from his large altarpieces for churches in Urbino, the Marches, and various parts of Central Italy, to his commissioned devotional paintings and portraits. One of the things I really liked about this exhibition was the format of the displays. Shown alongside each painting were their respective preparatory studies. The emphasis here is on his working methods, which very often showed last-minute changes, noticeable in his rather detailed compositional studies made late in the design process. These changes are made known to us in the studies for Visitation (1583-6) and Entombment of Christ (1579-82).

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Federico Barocci, Entombment of Christ, 1579-82. Image via www.stlouisreview.com.

The opening room exhibited his early devotional works, the earliest of which was Rest on the Return from Egypt (1570-3) for the art collector Simonetto Anastagi of Perugia. The second room was devoted to his early altarpieces from the late 1560s through to the 1570s, while the third briefly focused on his association with the Duke Francesco Maria II della Rovere of Urbino. The fourth (central) room exhibited his later altarpieces, including his most ambitious Last Supper (1590-9). As for the remaining two rooms: the first focused on the Visitation and its preparation while the other briefly showed his portraits and quick landscape studies. Included in the latter was a self-portrait from about 1595-1600, claimed to have depicted his personality quite well.

Essentially, Barocci was Raphaelesque with his compositions and sensitivity to colour. His style, however, was more proto-Baroque, being much softer than his Renaissance contemporaries. As a result of this, he has often been associated with the foreshadowing of Rubens’ style. He also pioneered the use of coloured preparatory sketches in chalk, pastel and oil, a number of which we are shown to us. My favourite was a compositional study for Aeneas Fleeing Troy (1598) done in chalk then overlaid with brown oil paint and heightened with white. It shimmered so wonderfully I didn’t want to leave. At times he would borrow and improve upon the poses of his predecessor’s paintings, such as that of Heraclitus in Raphael’s School of Athens (1509-10), used in the Institution of the Eucharist.

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Even cats were popular before the Youtube era! Image via www.wikimedia.org.

One thing I noticed about his paintings was the dynamism of the figures. Nearly all of them are shown with flowing hair, as if they were in a state of movement. His extremely subtle blending of tones gives his figures a very ethereal effect. The faces were usually idealised, and he mainly drew from male models. The studies for Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist (1566-7) give hints that he based the Virgin on a male assistant, hinted by the inclusion of male genitalia. Furthermore, the paleness of the crucified Christ reminded me of El Greco’s paintings of crucifixions.

Overall, this exhibition was quite simple and straightforward. The displays of sketches reminded me of the Royal Academy of Art’s exhibition on Antoine Watteau’s drawings back in 2011. The format, on the other hand, was slightly reminiscent of the blockbuster Leonardo da Vinci exhibition last year. However, the simplicity of the exhibition was probably also its downfall. It made the exhibition less stimulating: we were constantly reminded of his meticulous preparations. The emphasis on his sketches seemed to outshine the paintings themselves – I noticed very little background detail in the descriptions for the paintings.

I also felt the final room – the one with his portraits and landscape studies – was rather unjustified and slightly out of place. His Portrait of Francesco Maria II della Rovere (about 1571-2) would probably have been better placed in room 3, while his self-portrait could have been used as an opening piece to the exhibition. The rest of the works didn’t have much relevance to the exhibition, except for the reverse chiaroscuro study for the Madonna of the Rosary (1588-1591). Nevertheless, it is an interesting showcase of works by a seemingly avant-garde artist of the Renaissance.

Barocci: Brilliance and Grace runs until 19th May 2013 at the National Gallery, London, www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

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