For My Next Trick, the Start of the Baroque!

By Darwent, Charles | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), March 3, 2013 | Go to article overview
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For My Next Trick, the Start of the Baroque!

Darwent, Charles, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)

Once famous for his pretty pink Madonnas, a neglected Italian painter has a deeper humanity which inspired Rubens - and led an entire generation Visual Art Barocci: Brilliance and Grace National Gallery LONDON ****

A family name can be a burden or a blessing. Jacopo Comin got his - Tintoretto, "little dyer" - from his father's trade, a stroke of luck for a man who would find fame as a colourist. Barocci, a painter of pretty pink Madonnas, was born Federico Fiori, or Frederick Flowers. That would have done nicely, too. Whoever dubbed his father's family Barocci did him no favours at all. Barocci, in some north Italian dialects, are ox-carts - a singularly hefty nickname for the artist now on show at the National Gallery.

One letter different, and all might have been well: barocco is the Italian for Baroque, and Barocci is famously a link between the art of that period and that of the Renaissance. I say "famously", although the Urbino-born painter is anything but famous these days, a lapse the National's show is meant to address.

The problem has been less one of name than of taste. Art history is made up of tectonic plates with labels such as Rococo or Modernism. Every now and then these shift, and artists near the edge fall off. Barocci is a case in point.

In his day (roughly 1526-1612), he was very big news indeed. To be a pioneer of the Baroque meant being at the forefront of the Counter-Reformation, toeing the line of the Council of Trent that art should be orderly, non-pagan and lust-free. In the whole of Barocci: Brilliance and Grace, there is only one secular narrative painting - of the highly edifying tale of Aeneas Fleeing Troy. All the rest are devotional works. The only bare breasts are on the Virgin Mary, and they are definitely anaphrodisiac.

If you think of what was being painted when Barocci was young - Michelangelo's Last Judgement, say - you will see how far things had come. An ox-cart he may have been, but no one would accuse him, as they did Michelangelo, of painting porcherie - pork-things, obscenities. Works such as Rest on the Return from Egypt turn their back on the High Renaissance. While the face of the elderly St Joseph is in what was, by 1570, old-fashioned sfumato, the picture's younger subjects, Mary and the Christ Child, are bathed in the shadeless light of the Counter-Reformation. A new generation is in town, and Federico Barocci is its leader.

As you look at Rest on the Return from Egypt, two things may strike you. One is that you have never heard of the man who painted it, and the other is that you have seen the picture before.

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