Giovanni Baglione: Artistic Reputation in Baroque Rome

By Ostrow, Steven F. | The Art Bulletin, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Giovanni Baglione: Artistic Reputation in Baroque Rome


Ostrow, Steven F., The Art Bulletin


MARYVELMA SMITH O'NEIL Giovanni Baglione: Artistic Reputation in Baroque Rome Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 428 pp.; 15 color ills., 108 b/w. $130.00

Recent monographic studies of seicento artists, such as Richard Spear's on Guido Reni and Elizabeth Cropper and Charles Dempsey's on Nicolas Poussin, have breathed new life into this traditional genre. In the former case it was the author's psychoanalytic and social-historical methodologies that served so well to illuminate his subject's career and obsessive personality, while it was Cropper and Dempsey's critical engagement of Poussin's intellectual milieu-especially of the "friends" for whom he worked-that enabled them to produce such a rich and nuanced reading of their subject's paintings. And in each case it was the book's subtitle (Religion, Sex, Money and Art in the World of Guido Reni and Friendship and the Love of Painting, respectively) that signaled to the reader that it was not a typical monograph. The subtitle of Smith O'Neil's new book similarly suggests that it is not a straightforward account of the life and works of her subject, Giovanni Baglione. Indeed, Artistic Reputation in Baroque Rome leads one to expect a critical analysis of Baglione's professional career, of the ways he created and negotiated a patronage network, and of the reception of his work during his lifetime. To a certain extent, these expectations are fulfilled. But it must also be said that her book overlooks some of the most interesting aspects of both his paintings and writings, and it reads primarily as an attempt to restore, for 21st-century readers, a reputation that has been smarting for nearly four hundred years.

The fateful blow was struck in 1603, soon after the unveiling of Baglione's Resurrection, a large altarpiece for the church of the Gesu, when scurrilous verses attacking the artist began to circulate in Rome. Certain that they were written by Caravaggio and his cronies, Baglione brought a libel suit against them, claiming, in his deposition, that his detractors were envious of his having received the commission and, more generally, because his works were "held in higher esteem than theirs." During his interrogation, Caravaggio added to the insults. Queried about Baglione's reputation, he responded, "I don't know any painter who thinks Giovanni Baglione is a good painter." And when asked how he judges the Resurrection, he called it "clumsy [goffa]," adding, "it's the worst he's done, and I haven't heard a single painter praise the said painting."1 The lawsuit, and particularly Caravaggio's pronouncements on Baglione's talents as a painter, as Smith O'Neil observes in her introduction, have "almost completely overshadowed Baglione's artistic accomplishments" (p. 1). This is the case despite the fact that he participated in some of the most important fresco campaigns undertaken by Sixtus V, Clement VIII, and Paul V; was made a Cavaliere di Christo for an altarpiece in St. Peter's; was three times elected principe of the Academy of St. Luke; and enjoyed a long and productive career until his death in 1643. And although the author recounts these and many other of Baglione's successes, the trial and the artist's sullied reputation dominate her text. Thus, in many ways, this is a book about a vendetta-Baglione's and Smith O'Neil's. It is about Baglione's efforts to strike back at his detractors and to prove his virtu, and, simultaneously, it represents Smith O'Neil's attempt, as she herself states, to redress "the standard antagonistic position against Baglione" that has dominated the scholarly literature (p. 1).

It is not surprising, therefore, that the first chapter is devoted to "The Trial," in which the sensational events surrounding Baglione's lawsuit against Orazio Longhi, Filippo Trisegni, Orazio Gentileschi, and Caravaggio are presented in great detail. Smith O'Neil succeeds in her goal of helping us see the trial "through the wider lens of social protest and criminal justice in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Rome" (p. …

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