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Rome away from Rome.

Anyone fascinated by the Metropolitan Museum's recent exhibition of paintings by Evaristo Baschenis, the Northern Italian inventor of the still life of musical instruments, needs only the most minimal excuse to arrange a trip to London. The reason? Not an opportunity to see more works by Baschenis, pleasurable as that might be, but something far more ambitious and comprehensive: an exhibition at the Royal Academy promising a rapid refresher course in the context from which Baschenis emerged. "The Genius of Rome, 1592-1623,"(1) a survey of the formative years of Italian Baroque painting, is a thoughtful examination of the innovations and influence of the period's most powerful painters--Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Annibale Carracci, and Peter Paul Rubens.

The three decades explored by the exhibition were a remarkable period in Rome's long history, a time when the papacy passed through the hands of three powerful and notably cultivated families. In 1592 Ippolito Aldobrandini was elected pope (choosing to become Clement VIII), while 1623 saw the end of the pontificate of Gregory XV, a Ludovisi; in between came Paul V, a Borghese. During this span, Rome was the center of patronage and of art and architecture on a dazzling scale. In this city of luxury and elegance, where political acuity, piety, and sumptuous living coexisted, papal nephews appointed to the rank of cardinal (as they routinely were) commissioned splendid decorations for their villas and palaces. They also commissioned equally splendid works for the churches they administered, since the Catholic church of the period, despite the rigid rules of decorum it imposed on the representation of religious subjects, had an enormous appetite for new images that would capture the imagination of the faithful and strengthen their resistance to dangerous Reformation doctrine. During this time, too, a definitive distinction began to be made between secular and religious art, and new genres of subject matter began to emerge as the specialties of particular artists. Both the secular and the ecclesiastical nobility avidly collected not only sacred art, but also antiquities and all manner of art from their own time. The discriminating, wide-ranging patronage of the Borghese family, especially of Cardinal Scipione, is reflected in the spectacular collection--from Roman mosaics to masterpieces of seventeenth-century painting and sculpture--still housed in the Villa Borghese. That of the Ludovisi, especially of Cardinal Ludovico, is commemorated in the splendid collection of antique sculptures that forms the heart of Rome's National Museum--including the marvelous relief of Aphrodite rising from the sea into the arms of helpful nymphs, known as the "Ludovisi Throne." In response to this climate of possibilities for both creative and financial advancement, artists, architects, and craftsmen came to Rome from all over to participate in what was later seen, nostalgically, as a "golden age" of art.

The thesis of "The Genius of Rome" is that the defining characteristics of the Baroque were formulated in the paintings of three immensely gifted individuals working in the Eternal City in the earliest years of this glorious era: Caravaggio (born 1571) who came to Rome in 1592 after an apprenticeship in Milan; Annibale Carracci (born 1560) who arrived from Bologna two years later; and Peter Paul Rubens (born 1577) who left Flanders for a long stay in Italy in 1600 and spent extended periods in Rome in 1603 and from 1606 to 1608 while serving as court painter to the Duke of Mantua. Each of these gifted painters explored, in his own way, new notions of realism and idealism, focusing on both the reality of the present and the art of the past.

Caravaggio's contribution was a pitiless realism and an unerring sense of the drama of light and dark. Obviously, there was a lot more to Caravaggio's idiosyncratic paintings than "merely" reproducing what he saw, but in his own day he was believed to have done just that. He was both admired and criticized for not having based his complex figure compositions, as "intellectual" artists did, on an abstract, invented notion of ideal beauty. Caravaggio's influence also extended, as the organizers of "The Genius of Rome" note, to a new kind of picture, defined by his early paintings of music-making boys and cardsharps, in which the everyday was treated with the same ambition and seriousness as subjects drawn from history, mythology, or the Bible.

Annibale Carracci's work was seen by his contemporaries as exemplifying everything that Caravaggio's did not. The truth, of course, is that it is a question of emphasis, since both painters' work is rooted in the common heritage of Northern Italian naturalism and both profited from their study of the art of antiquity and of the more recent past. But if Caravaggio was believed by his detractors to have simply copied the flaws and quirks of nature without editing, Annibale was perceived--just as mistakenly--as having created, exclusively through the exercise of his intellect, a convincing world free of the irregularities of actuality. Present-day viewers, while still keenly aware of the differences between these artists, seem to grasp more readily how much Caravaggio invented, in response to the demands of pictorial requirements, and to appreciate how acute an observer of actuality Annibale was. Yet to his contemporaries and to many subsequent generations, Annibale's disciplined compositions and heroic, elegant figures were seen as expounding an ideal order and an ideal beauty. The painter was thought to have arrived at this high-minded imagery through a process of correcting nature's imperfections by measuring them against his understanding of her perfections and his understanding of the art of the past.

Rubens, who came to Italy to learn from the antique and to absorb the latest pictorial modes, established himself well enough to execute several important commissions during his sojourn in Rome. In a sense, his works announced the possibility of uniting Caravaggio's and Annibale's approaches by fusing coherent spatial organization, utterly convincing naturalistic details, and sublimely idealized types (not to mention the Fleming's virtuoso touch and his ability to make painterly gestures evoke all manner of seductive substances). The organizers of the exhibition suggest that Rubens's most important Roman commission, an altarpiece for the Chiesa Nuova, was one of the first devotional pictures to use iconographic divisions to suggest rational, but nonetheless dramatic, spatial relationships in a sacred scene--an innovation with significant repercussions.

By 1610, Caravaggio and Annibale Carracci were dead, and Rubens had returned to Antwerp. Yet the cumulative effect of their distinctive answers to the demands of their patrons essentially posited alternative notions of what a painting could be and provided influential models not only for their contemporaries, but also for several subsequent generations of painters (including, in Bergamo, Evaristo Baschenis). For much of the rest of the seventeenth century, artists in Rome--some Italian, some from elsewhere in Europe--responded both directly and indirectly to the example of their inventive predecessors and made it the basis of their own art. This was not a simple story of cause and effect, as "The Genius of Rome" makes clear. For one thing, artists other than the exhibition's triumvirate contributed to the equation. For another, Caravaggio's highly personal approach soon fell out of favor, although it remained popular with some connoisseurs and with certain younger painters, who, on returning to their native cities, disseminated Caravaggism, with many permutations, throughout Northern Europe. At the same time, Annibale's type of classicism became the basis of a high-minded "philosophical" approach to painting endorsed by the academies and official patrons. The overall result, however, was the generous, accomplished, heroic painting style--with all its many variations --that we now call the Baroque.

At the Royal Academy, the early part of this evolution is traced through a thematically organized installation, with each gallery including statements of the motif by the pioneers and demonstrating its development and variation in the work of the artists they influenced. Unlike the rather simplistic relationships forced upon the protesting permanent collection of London's new Tate Modern, the groupings at the Royal Academy are subtle and instructive. Instead of reducing complex connections--and often equally complex differences--between works of art to the one-dimensional, rapidly grasped categories of the Tate Modern, the installation of "The Genius of Rome" generally encourages viewers to look hard, make comparisons, and weigh the visual evidence.

The question remains whether any exhibition, however ambitious or lavish, could do justice to what was going on in Rome during the astonishing decades under review. The impact and meaning of many crucial works from the period are intimately bound up--metaphorically, as well as physically--with the character of their settings, although it's worth remembering that many of the monuments that seem to define Baroque Rome--the church of Sant' Ignazio, the portico of the Piazza San Pietro, the fountains of the Piazza Navona--postdate the years surveyed by "The Genius of Rome." It seems inevitable that, good as the exhibition is at the Royal Academy, it will be even better this summer, when it is installed in the Palazzo Venezia, not because some important works will be added, but because it will be possible, on leaving the museum, to go--say--down the Corso to Santa Maria del Populo to check on three of the masterworks with which two of the innovators first announced their presence in Rome: Caravaggio's Conversion of St. Paul and Crucifixion of St. Peter, flanking Annibale's Assumption of the Virgin. (Then an aperitivo at the nearby Rosati is recommended.)

Still, "The Genius of Rome" is exhilarating--an intelligently organized show full of wonderful paintings. It is flail of surprises, too, some in the form of iconic pictures whose presence inspires open-mouthed astonishment (and curatorial envy), others in the form of less familiar works, occasionally by less familiar artists, that turn out to be terrific. The section devoted to the classical tradition, for example, boasts the first painting Annibale Carracci executed for his patron, Cardinal Odardo Farnese, when he arrived in Rome, Hercules at the Crossroads (c. 1595-96, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples). Annibale's Hercules is a massive buff nude clutching an enormous club who sits between a pair of standing women--one facing in, one facing out, to demonstrate the artist's skill at rendering figures in all poses--personifying Virtue and Pleasure. It's an odd, rather rigid picture, but engaging for its blend of Northern Italian detail and antique-inspired generalizations. In the same gallery, the continuation and transformation of Annibale's ideals are demonstrated by a better-known mythological picture, Diana and Her Nymphs (1616-7), by his compatriot and sometime assistant, Domenico Zampieri, known as Domenichino. (Before coming to Rome, the younger artist had been a student at the academy that Annibale founded with his artist brother and cousin in Bologna.) Domenichino's gathering of athletic young women engaged in activities that reveal a good deal of appetizing flesh usually ornaments the Galleria Borghese; commissioned by an Aldobrandini cardinal, it was seized by the insatiable Scipione Borghese, and it's easy to see why the hedonistic, art-loving cardinal would lust after this enchanting picture. Domenichino, like Annibale, aspired to an ideal classicism, but at least in this painting his obvious knowledge of antique prototypes, as sources of both images and subject matter, seems to have been softened and made more graceful by an admixture of Venetian influence.

The section of the exhibition devoted to the portrait has equally impressive and illuminating inclusions, such as a confrontational, Titian-inspired portrait by Rubens (from the Palazzo Pitti, Florence) with a glistening purple-brown silk that explains just why his patrons so prized his bravura touch. Another Annibale from Capodimonte is a quirky, slightly crabbed composition recording the oddities of the more exotic members of the Farnese court--a dwarf, a madman, and a "wild man"--along with their non-human equivalents-- dogs, a parrot, and a monkey. But the most compelling painting in this section is Domenichino's sympathetic portrait of Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini's secretary, Monsignor Giovanni Battista Agucchi (c. 1615-20, York City Art Museum), an alert ascetic with an intense stare. The small, firmly brushed picture is a marvel of subtle contrasts between crisp paper and crisp linen, pale skin and paler cloth, all rendered with a rich, near-monochrome palette of grays and off-whites. Domenichino portrayed his sitter, apparently a friend, with a directness, breadth of handling, and immediacy that sets the painting apart.

Other sections of "The Genius of Rome" explore such categories as "Painting Nature: Still-life and Low-life Genre" "Painted Music" "The Enticement of the North: Towards Pure Landscape" and "Nocturnes, Night Scenes, and Artificial Illumination," and they cumulatively provide an excellent overview of the diversity of subject and approach typical of painting in Rome at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Within each focused section, this diversity is further explored. A group of small oil paintings on copper, for example, ranging from landscape to devotional scenes to mythology, reminds us generally of the breadth of choice available to collectors of the period and specifically of their enthusiasm for these glowing little pictures. An informative concise wall text reminds us, too, that while the technique probably originated in Italy, northern artists specializing in landscape had adopted it with particular enthusiasm; the popularity of small landscapes on copper, with or without the inclusion of mythological stories or episodes from the lives of the saints, encouraged painters to experiment with similar themes, at a larger scale, on canvas.

The most exciting picture in this section is a vigorous little Rubens of the Judgment of Paris, an early work in which the eager young painter demonstrated both his careful study of important works of art in Rome and his own native exuberance. But the most surprising works on copper are a pair of firmly structured, cinematically framed scenes from the Iliad and one of the fall of Simon Magus, all by the Dutch painter Leonaert Bramer and dating from the six years he spent in Rome as a young man. Scholars apparently debate whether Bramer's use of dramatic lighting and of equally dramatic contrast between large, boldly cropped foreground figures and small protagonists stems from direct knowledge of Caravaggio's work or from contact with the School of Utrecht painters--themselves profoundly influenced by Caravaggio--whose work Bramer would have seen when everybody was living in Rome. Either way, these are arresting little pictures, quite different from the rather wispy, mannered images that established Bramer's reputation after he returned to his native Delft. The Fall of Simon Magus (1623, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Dijon) is the strangest of the three, a weirdly symmetrical composition centering on a dappled horse and a round Roman building, framed by the wheeling arcs of a parasol pine, the back of a seated figure, and a fantastic throne, with the principal characters in the drama of the plunging magician fitted in as best they might be.

The difficulties of satisfying the requirements of a vigilant Counter Reformation church are examined in "Between the Sacred and the Profane." Under Clement VIII, a campaign was mounted to purge Rome's churches of ambiguous sacred images in which sanctity and earthly beauty--especially unclothed earthly beauty--naturalistically presented, risked being confused in the minds of worshippers. Theologians worried, too, that works that paid overt homage to antique prototypes might cause problems, even if they made clear the difference between superhuman, spiritual beauty and the tempting attractions of mortal flesh, because those antique prototypes were pagan deities and therefore bad precedents for Christian imagery. The Propaganda Fedi ("Office of the Propagation of the Faith") issued stern directives about what was and was not appropriate to the depiction of sacred personages. Artists occasionally got into trouble if they took too great liberties. (See the history of Caravaggio's first version of Saint Matthew and the Angel for the church of San Luigi dei Francesi and of his Dormition of the Virgin, now in the Louvre.)

The selection at the Royal Academy leaves no doubt about why the officials of the Propaganda Fedi were concerned. Witness Rubens's hunky Saint Sebastian, clad only in a conveniently placed flap of the cloth a ministering angel uses to stanch his wounds, or his voluptuous Susanna, seated so that while the prurient elders get only the back view, we have no impediments. The most equivocal image in this section is the Kansas City version of Caravaggio's petulant young St. John the Baptist (c. 1604-05, Nelson-Atkins Museum). Well, maybe not so equivocal; apparent as Caravaggio's debt to Michelangelo and various classical sculptures is in the pose and modelling of the sturdy, curly-haired boy, the appeal to senses other than the spiritual is equally apparent in the contrast between his luminous, pale skin and the shadowy setting, and between his smooth limbs and the furry sheepskin draped suggestively over his lap.

In the final section of the exhibition, described as its "climax" seventeen large altarpieces are installed "to evoke the atmosphere of a Baroque Roman church." Perhaps. There's more to the atmosphere of a Roman Baroque church than a group of early seventeenth-century devotional paintings disposed at regular intervals in a brightly lit room, even if they are placed rather high, above rectangular gray blocks meant to suggest altars. Still, the ensemble offers vivid evidence of the steady appetite of such new Counter Reformation religious orders as the Jesuits and the Oratorians for up-to-date sacred images--as long as they didn't violate decorum. (Many of the paintings in this section had connections, for example, with the recently constructed church of Santa Maria in Vallicella, known as the Chiesa Nuova, a product of the cult of St. Filippo Neri, founder of the Oratorians.)

And whatever one's reservations about the installation, the immediate effect of this section of "The Genius of Rome" is unabashed, drop-jawed astonishment at the presence of two of Caravaggio's most deservedly celebrated works: the Madonna di Loreto (c. 1604-05), which usually occupies a dim chapel on the north aisle of Sant' Agostino, near the Piazza Navona, and The Entombment (c. 1602-03), originally in the Chiesa Nuova, now in the Pinacoteca Vaticana. In the former, an elderly man and woman, devout peasants on a pilgrimage, kneel before a handsome young woman struggling to support the weight of a robust toddler who gazes intently at the rapt couple; delicately outlined halos signal the divinity of the mother and child, although the shaft of cool light that illuminates them from above does this to even greater effect. The Entombment is as complex as the Madonna di Loreto is economical. A frozen cascade of mourning women descends toward the powerful body of the dead Christ, a luminous, strangely vital corpse who seems at once to weigh heavily on the figures who support him and to be magically suspended for the contemplation of the worshipper. The Entombment insists that attention be paid; Nicodemus stares straight out and captures the gaze of the viewer.

If you can tear yourself away from these delights--although the opportunity to see the Madonna di Loreto in decent light and at an informative distance is almost worth the trip to London alone--the room discloses other impressive inclusions: some of Rubens's large studies for alternate versions of his revolutionary altarpiece for the Chiesa Nuova; an elegant Guido Reni of St. Filippo Neri himself, from the same church; and a dramatically lit Guercino of the Magdalen. Once the surprise of the Caravaggios being in London wears off, and you stop wondering whether Sant' Agostino is closed for restoration, cross-connections among all the various images in the room begin to declare themselves. You notice poses and compositional echoes that speak of common sources, as well as of the influence of the exhibition's three stars. Unfortunately, perceiving these reverberations is not always enriching. A rather silly Martyrdom of St. Matthew (1617, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Arras), by the French painter, sometime resident of Rome, Claude Vignon, is even sillier once you realize its clumsy debt to Caravaggio's harrowing version of the theme in San Luigi dei Francesi.

The catalogue of "The Genius of Rome" assembles informative essays by an international team of scholars, with their themes roughly paralleling the organization of the exhibition. Edited by the show's curator, Beverly Louise Brown, who also furnished several key essays, it is dedicated to the memory of Francis Haskell, best known as the author of Painters and Patrons (rev. ed. 1980), a definitive study of patronage in Baroque Rome. The catalogue is a fitting tribute to this brilliant scholar who died last year: a handsome, scrupulously researched volume, with a wealth of information, including plates and entries for all works exhibited in both London and Rome, plus many helpful comparative images, and, as a bonus, color reproductions that are noticeably less awful than in many other Royal Academy publications. Seeing "The Genius of Rome" made me hunt for my copy of Haskell's dense, absorbing account of the formation of the Baroque city--largely the core of modern Rome. Now if I can find a way to justify a trip to Italy this summer.

Karen Wilkin is the author, with Isabel Fonseca and Alan Jenkins, of Bruno Fonseca: The Secret Life of Painting (Abbeville).
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Title Annotation:Royal Academy's exhibit of Baroque artists
Author:Wilkin, Karen
Publication:New Criterion
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 1, 2001
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