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Monday, October 22, 2012 / 8:56 AM

God in the Details: "Federico Barocci: Renaissance Master" at the Saint Louis Art Museum

God in the Details: "Federico Barocci: Renaissance Master" at the Saint Louis Art Museum

Federico Barocci, "Studies for the Hands of the Virgin Mary for the Annunciation." Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett; Photograph Volker-H. Schneider, Courtesy of the Saint Louis Art Museum


The first thing you see when stepping into the Main Galleries for Federico Barocci: Renaissance Master is a photo-mural of modern-day Urbino, Italy, where Barocci was born around 1533, and where he retreated after being poisoned by a jealous fellow artist in Rome. In the same room is an oil-on-paper self-portrait, circa 1595-1600, painted when Barocci was in his 60s, though not quite at the end of his life (he died in 1612, exactly 400 years ago).

As the exhibition catalog notes, you can see in this portrait a description offered by Barocci's contemporary, Gian Pietro Bellori: a man who is "melancholic, a chronic insomniac, and living with the legacy of pain caused by his supposed poisoning in the 1560s."  However, "one can also find in this remarkably sensitive and inviting visage the eyes of a keen observer."

It's an appropriate and helpful introduction: the towers of Urbino's Ducal Palace appear throughout the exhibit, in the background of paintings, prints and drawings. Residents of Urbino served as models, their faces idealized into depictions of the Virgin Mary, Christ, and St. Francis. And in every piece, you see evidence of Barocci's "keen eye," from a meticulously rendered drapery study in black chalk to perfectly placed dots of white highlight illuminating the eyes of the dog in the foreground of the Last Supper. Though Barocci was a religious painter, he was also, as curator Judith Mann explains, a masterful draftsman and colorist, giving him broad appeal.

"The essential point of the show is to demonstrate how an artist uses drawings to develop ideas that culminate in finished paintings," Mann says. "He is the perfect artist to do this, because he drew a lot; he apparently drew more than his contemporaries." (About 1500 of his drawings are known to exist.) "His drawings often involved color, so they became appreciated works of art. They were kept by collectors. So we have a huge number of his drawings, more than for any artist. And you'll have repeat drawings of a hand or a foot, and it's very difficult to figure out why he'd do that five times, when it seems like he got it, and yet he does it over and over again."

Mann, the Saint Louis Art Museum's curator of European art to 1800, began work on the exhibit in 2003, eventually traveling the globe to look at paintings and drawings, undertake research and academic puzzle-work, and organize loans from more than 50 different collections, from tiny churches in Urbino to private collectors in New York and England. She was assisted by Babette Bohn, consulting curator, Texas Christian University, and Carol Plazzotta of the National Gallery of London (where the exhibit will travel after closing in St. Louis on January 20). The exhibit is substantial, with 134 works, including nine-foot-tall altarpiece paintings; drawings and studies in chalk, pastel and pen and ink; and prints, including a particularly stunning version of The Annunciation printed on green taffeta. Many of the works have never been seen in the U.S.; the two head studies of St. Joseph in oil have not been in the same building since leaving Barocci's studio.

The head and hand studies, small-scale drawings, and in some cases fragments of cartoons (full-sized preparatory drawings done on sheets of paper which were then glued together and traced onto the canvas), are hung next to the finished paintings to show Barocci's process. They are also proof of the artist's perfectionist streak, as well as his skill and craftsmanship, which gave him an incredible amount of control and fluidity. In several cases, he flipped his original image in the finished painting; for the Il Perdono Altarpiece, he paints St. Nicholas in the right hand corner, but in an oil study using the same composition, he gracefully substitutes St. Claire in the same space (the speculation is that it was for an altarpiece that was never actually completed). And in his nude study for the figure of the Virgin for The Annunciation, you can see he was working with a male modelthe customs of the time would not have allowed for nude female modelswhich he feminizes to create the final figure. In the case of The Annunciation, the studies and prints serve yet another purpose: the painting was stolen by Napoleon, and was damaged. It has lost the paint at the bottom of the canvas, and the earlier studies, as well as a series of three prints, show the viewer what the full image once looked like.

The only drawings in the show that are not linked to a specific painting are a series of landscapes, of which 33 are known to exist.

"We have four in the show," Mann says. "So far no one has been able to link the landscape drawings to a specific painting. It looks like he may have even created some of these drawings outdoors. But we don't know that for sure."

Mann says one of the peak moments of the exhibit is Entombment of Christ, an altarpiece Barocci painted at end of the 1570s and into the 1580s, which hangs in a church outside of Urbino. It has more types of preparatory drawings than for any other piece. Seventeen are included here, including an engraving, reduced-format paintings, a study in black chalk, and two head studies of Saint John the Evangelist that show Barocci playing around with color and details like hair. The altarpiece, Mann says, was one of the most famous pieces of art in Italy during the first half of the 17th century, and was copied by other artists.

"He seems to have worked it up to a fairly finished degree, and then, for whatever reason, he changed it," Mann says. "I think it's because he went to the church, and realized that the sacristy was on the left, and he wanted the priest to be facing the body of Christ. Some others think it had to do with the lighting in the church. It has a row of lights on the right side, and certainly when you see the altarpiece in the church, it looks like the light is bathing the body of Christ, though that wouldn't change the orientation of the figure."

Though he was famous in his lifetime, and exerted a deep influence on the art and artists that followed him, Barocci is not as well known as some of his contemporaries. Mann says that may partially be due to changing sensibilities over time, especially during the Modernist period, when Barocci just struck critics, curators and tastemakers as too pretty or too sweet. (She says the Metropolitan Museum of Art didn't acquire a Barocci until the 21st century.) The hope is to bring Barocci to a much wider audience with this exhibit, which shows of the artist's gift for color, his flawless technique, his pioneering use of pastels and more naturally posed figures, and his incredible dedication to his calling.

"Barocci apparently had access to Michelangelo’s drawings, because Michelangelo was alive until 1564. Many artists were jockeying for position to be within his workshop, or within his orbit, or have access to his drawings," Mann says. "And it appears that Barocci did. So that would provide a motive for why other artists might want to hurt him." Mann says that a lot of the artists working in her area of knowledge—the 17th century—"were really horrible people. Barocci was not. And according to his biographer, as a result of this poisoning, he developed a lifelong illness. He was always throwing up, he couldn't sleep. He was constantly nauseated. So he could only work for maybe an hour or two at a time." That harassed state of mind and body is evident in the artist's self-portrait. And it makes the works in this exhibit, from the most dynamic altarpiece paintings to small but exacting foot studies, all the more astonishing.

Federico Barocci: Renaissance Master Trailer from Saint Louis Art Museum on Vimeo.

The Saint Louis Art Museum and Yale University Press have produced a nearly 400-page catalog for the exhibit, with color plates and essays by the curators. The museum is also offering substantial programming throughout the exhibit's run, including gallery talks, Baroque music performances, and drawing classes in the galleries, as well as a Barocci Symposium January 10 through 12. For more information on the exhibit or these events, visit Saint Louis Art Museum is located at One Fine Arts Drive, Forest Park (314-721-0072, Admission is $10, $8 students and seniors, $6 kids 6-12, free to members, and free to the public on Fridays. An audio tour is included with paid admission Saturday through Thursday, and can be purchased for $3 on Fridays. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, and 10 a.m to -9 p.m. on Friday. Advance tickets may be purchased at the museum, or through MetroTix (314-534-1111, These are timed-entry tickets; advanced purchase is recommended.

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