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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Domenichino (1581–1641)

Together with his fellow northern Italian painters, Guido Reni (1575–1642), Francesco Albani (1578–1660), Giovanni Lanfranco (1582–1647), and Guercino (1591–1666), Domenico Zampieri—known after his small stature as Domenichino (little Domenico)—is one of the towering figures of seventeenth-century painting. Indeed, until the mid-nineteenth century, his reputation stood second only to that of Raphael, and his influence far outstripped that of Caravaggio, with whose work his own was often contrasted.

Domenichino was trained in Bologna, where he joined the academy founded by the Carracci. Reni and Albani were fellow pupils. Like them, he moved to Rome in 1602 to assist Annibale Carracci in the completion of the gallery of Palazzo Farnese—a formative experience. Domenichino became Annibale’s favorite assistant, and it was during his first years in Rome that he translated some of Annibale’s ideas into paint: his Lamentation (2008.72) is a fine example of the new classicism that blends an exquisite technique with carefully calibrated compositions and a formal repertory of gesture to convey emotion (what contemporaries referred to as the affetti).

Domenichino was a brilliant draftsman and always began his compositions with careful studies from posed models. But he believed firmly that nature was only the starting point for art, which needed to be transformed into a higher realm: one that would not be subject to the imperfections and transience of everyday life. One of his guideposts was the sculpture of antiquity, which he studied for its mastery of proportions and the idealization of the human form as well as the vigorous gestures it incorporated. His finely constructed yet atmospheric landscapes laid the groundwork for the ideal, classical landscapes of Claude Lorrain (see 1976.155.2). Their point was to create a mood, not to transcribe a casual view.

Domenichino read widely and was an accomplished musician and a gifted architect, and his art aspires to a kind of elevated poetry. His first completely independent cycle of frescoes—one of the great landmarks of Western art—is in the French national church of San Luigi dei Francesi, where over a decade earlier Caravaggio had decorated a chapel with his revolutionary canvases of the calling and martyrdom of Saint Matthew. Domenichino’s fresco cycle maps out an opposite approach to art. Carried out between 1612 and 1615, it illustrates the life and martyrdom of Saint Cecilia, a convert from a wealthy Roman family martyred in the second or third century. Throughout the cycle, the setting is rigorously classical—not contemporary—but the figures encompass a range of social classes, and the actions and expressions are choreographed with the authority of a great stage director. The frescoes were studied by generations of artists, not least by Nicolas Poussin, who deeply admired Domenichino. Each composition was carefully worked out on the basis of studies from life, then developed into full-scale cartoons that became landmarks of draftsmanship. The fragment in the Metropolitan is from the center portion of the cartoon for the martyrdom of the saint (1998.211). Today the expression of the expiring saint may strike us as forced and overly stylized—rather the way expressions in silent films seem exaggerated. But Domenichino fully subscribed to the classical notion that painting was like silent poetry and required a stylized expressive vocabulary to be properly understood and deciphered. Many of the expressive devices he employed were also current on the stage.

Domenichino carried out a number of important fresco cycles in Rome as well as in Naples, where he died while working in the Chapel of San Gennaro in the cathedral of the city. It was an unhappy experience, and the work he did there does not attain the quality of his earlier painting. He was constantly harassed by Ribera, and jealous local artists and he may have taken his own life. His altarpiece of The Last Communion of Saint Jerome (1614; Pinacoteca Vaticana) is one of the masterpieces of seventeenth-century painting and was, indeed, long considered second only to Raphael’s Transfiguration for its combination of dramatic moment and noble expression.