Barocci is a key figure in the history of European painting. His work, with its combination of an elevated naturalism, heightened emotion, and coloristic brilliance, set the stage for what we know today as Baroque art. One of the greatest draftsman of Western art (see 50.143
), he popularized the practice of making highly individualized studies for the heads of the figures in his altarpieces, painted in oil on paper (see 1976.87.1
). He enjoyed an extraordinary reputation during his lifetime, his innovative compositions gaining widespread recognition through the medium of prints—both his own etchings (see 17.50.18-147
) and engravings after his work by other artists (Agostino Carracci and Cornelius Cort). Like El Greco, who was five years his junior, his art reflects the transformations in the religious culture of his day. But whereas El Greco’s art explores a realm of dematerialized spirituality, Barocci’s proposes an emotional engagement grounded in the physical world of experience.
Aside from two trips to Rome, Barocci’s entire career took place in Urbino, in the Marches, where he was born and died. There, at one of the outstanding courts of the Renaissance, he enjoyed a special relationship with its ruler, Francesco Maria II della Rovere (1574–1621). Barocci first studied under his father and was then apprenticed to the Mannerist painter Battista Franco, a follower of Michelangelo. In Rome he worked with Taddeo Zuccaro, who was born in Sant’Angelo in Vado (near Urbino) and enjoyed the patronage of Popes Julius III and Paul IV. Barocci later came under the influence of Correggio, whose sensuous, emotive paintings had a transformative effect on his work. He was a slow worker, often reworking his paintings in his quest for perfection.
Given his importance for Baroque art, it is not surprising that he occupies a conspicuous place in Giovan Pietro Bellori’s Vite de’ pittori, scultori e architetti moderni
(Rome, 1672). Bellori stresses Barocci’s refined sense of beauty, his compositional inventiveness, and his exquisite coloring. He also lauds the devotional aspect of his paintings, which was widely recognized and further enhanced his prestige. Barocci himself was extremely devout and established close ties with the Franciscan order that he maintained from early in his career until his death. Stuart Lingo ("The Capuchins and the Art of History: Retrospection and Reform in the Arts in late Renaissance Italy," Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1998) has explored the degree to which Barocci’s art represents a conscious reform of religious imagery inspired, in part, by his contacts with the Capuchins, the radical reform movement within the Franciscan order that began not long before Barocci’s birth and was centered in the Marches. A number of Barocci’s paintings were commissioned for Franciscan establishments and in his will of 1599, he provided for his burial in the church of S. Francesco in Urbino (a convent belonging to the Conventuals).The Painting:
A reformer and founder of the Franciscan order and one of the most venerated figures of the Catholic church, Saint Francis (1181/82–1226) is shown half-length, his arms extended in adoration of a crucifix that is propped on a ledge within a grotto. His hands are shown as though pierced by the marks of the stigmatization, which took place on Mount La Verna (near Arezzo) two years before his death. Before the saint is a devotional book with a Latin prayer (the word orationes
can be read on the left page, midway down) and the Pater Noster
(or Lord’s Prayer) on the right, while behind opens a distant landscape view with a coral-tinged morning sky. Christiansen (2005) relates the various details in the picture to Saint Francis’s reputation as a mystic. The crucifix, shown as though a living rather than sculpted figure, is as though miraculously transformed through the meditations of the saint. The grotto cannot help but recall a passage from the Fioretti
—an early life of Saint Francis the popularity of which was revived by the Capuchins—in which Francis, while preparing to receive the divine mysteries, "went to pray hard by in a hollow cave in the rock, at a great height from the ground and looking on a horrible and fearful abyss, suddenly the devil cometh in a terrible form . . . Whereat St. Francis . . . turned with hands and face and all his body close to the rock, commending himself to God . . . But, as it pleased God, . . . straightway the rock, whereto he clung, was hollowed out by a miracle to the form of his body, and received him into itself, in such wise that the said rock was imprinted with the form of the face and hands of St. Francis . . . (The Little Flowers of St. Francis
, London, 1910 [repr. 1973], p. 109). Barocci had incorporated the same fissured, niche-like grotto, adorned by the leaves of wild roses, in a celebrated altarpiece, The Stigmatization of Saint Francis
, painted in 1594–95 for the Chiesa dei Cappuccini, outside Urbino. Another feature that these two pictures share and that derives from the Fioretti
is the depiction of the stigmata as enormous protruding nails, "the heads whereof were in the palms of his hands and in the soles of his feet, outside the flesh; . . . and the heads of the nails were round and black" (The Little Flowers
, p. 115). Although in The Met’s picture Saint Francis is shown in prayer before a crucifix—a common theme in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—the dawn that colors the sky seems intended to recall to the viewer’s mind the saint’s stigmatization, which took place before daybreak. In all these ways, the painting has been carefully conceived so as to prompt a sequence of meditations on Saint Francis during his retreat on Mount La Verna. Such a picture would have been ideally suited for a Capuchin or Conventual Franciscan friar or establishment.Function and Purpose:
Christiansen has also argued that, together with an unfinished altarpiece showing Christ taking leave of his mother before his Crucifixion (Musée Condé, Chantilly; see Additional Images, fig. 1)—a quintessentially Franciscan subject—The Met’s painting may have some connection with the artist’s plans for burial in a chapel in the church of San Francesco in Urbino. This must remain conjectural, since we have no documents relating to the intended destination of the Chantilly picture, which is listed in the inventory of Barocci’s studio drawn up after his death. The provenance of the New York picture can only be traced as far back as 1815, when it was first mentioned in the Santangelo collection in Naples.
Still, the two works are clearly closely related, the pose of the saint being virtually identical. What remains unclear is how The Met’s painting fits into the creative sequence leading up to the Chantilly altarpiece. In the latter, the main features of the figures were traced onto the canvas from a full scale cartoon by the use of incisions—a practice Barocci frequently employed. By contrast, there are no visible incisions on The Met’s painting. Nor are there signs of squaring, as might be expected, since the figure of the saint is a third larger than his counterpart in the altarpiece: transfer by means of a squared drawing was a normal procedure for this sort of enlargement. The Met’s picture is painted thinly and with extraordinary directness, with the artist making adjustments throughout. Some of these alterations, although minor, suggest that its relation to the preliminary drawings (for which, see below) and/or the cartoon associated with the Chantilly altarpiece was very fluid and involved adjustments and changes. For example, the head of the saint in The Met’s painting is turned at a different angle from that found in the drawings and the Chantilly painting. It is also far more individualized—to such a degree that it is worth asking whether a portrait likeness may have been intended. The devotional book, open at the Lord’s Prayer, can be seen to have been painted over the branch-like cross of the Crucifix. In a similar fashion, the vertical edge of the grotto along the right-hand edge of the picture was painted over the habit of the saint, so that his body seems to be almost encased within the rock.
It is not only the fact that the pose of the figure of Saint Francis in each painting is closely related, but their common dependence on early Franciscan literary sources actively promoted by the Capuchins makes one wonder if both might be the outcome of Barocci’s preparations for his death and burial, The Met’s painting being perhaps conceived as a personal gift to a Franciscan such as the prior of the convent of S. Francesco, Antonio Tinti da Mondavio, who witnessed Barocci’s testament in 1599, and the other painted as the altarpiece of his funerary chapel.Date:
The dating of the two pictures, which must be contemporary, is complicated by the fact that in his late work, when Barocci found it increasingly hard to work, he recycled motifs from other pictures. Plans for the Chantilly altarpiece must have been underway by at least 1604, and there is reason to believe that it was begun shortly after Barocci drew up his will in 1599. Although the Chantilly picture is largely a workshop production, the New York Saint Francis
has all the hallmarks of Barocci’s autograph work and, on purely stylistic grounds—irrespective of shared motifs—would seem to date from about 1600–1604. The figure is pressed insistently close to the picture plane, and the light is used not merely to bind the colors and forms into some kind of atmospheric unity, but to give the picture a more complex and heightened emotional tone. In the Saint Francis
Barocci appears as a true Baroque and not merely a proto-Baroque painter, using those signal traits of vaghezza
(beauty and devoutness) that are the hallmarks of his finest work, defining a dynamic relationship with the viewer.Related Drawings:
The Chantilly painting includes a figure of Saint Francis on the right side in so similar a pose to that in The Met’s picture that there can be no question that they derive from the same series of studies. However, the figure in the Chantilly altarpiece is about a third smaller than The Met’s Saint Francis, which is life-size. Harald Olsen (Federico Barocci
, Copenhagen, 1962) lists twenty drawings related to the Chantilly composition, including a squared compositional study and a cartoon (both Uffizi, Florence).
There are two published drawings for the figure of Saint Francis. One (Martin von Wagner-Museum, Würzburg; see Additional Images, fig. 2) is a preliminary study for the pose of the saint. It is drawn rapidly, and three variant positions for the extended left hand, which evidently did not please Barocci, are worked out on the left half of the sheet; none was incorporated into the final composition. The drawing was squared so that the main features could be carried over to another sheet. The second drawing (Biblioteca Oliveriana, Pesaro; see Additional Images, fig. 3) is extremely close to what is found in both the Chantilly altarpiece and The Met’s painting. It is, however, very summary and must record a more elaborate compositional study. This drawing has also been squared for transfer, possibly for the compositional study in the Uffizi or for yet another, more detailed, drawing. Barocci was an obsessive reworker of ideas, and it is simply not possible to say when the creative part of his preparatory work stopped.
[2017; adapted from Christiansen 2005]