Federico Barocci: a poisoned picnic changed this Old Master’s life

One day in 1563, Federico Barocci suffered a terrible misfortune. At the time, Barocci, a painter, was living in Rome, and enjoying a degree of success – enough to inspire jealousy among a group of fellow artists, who lured him to a picnic and there tried to kill him with a poisoned salad. Barocci survived – and went on to live for another half century, back in his native Urbino – but that poisonous picnic became the turning point of his life.

Thereafter, he became a reclusive invalid who – very, very slowly – painted pictures of supernatural sweetness and beauty. This month, those pictures become the subject of a major exhibition at the National Gallery, Barocci: Brilliance and Grace. It may seem a bold decision to give such a prominent show to an artist who is by no means a household name, even among art historians. But Barocci, who was born around 1533 and lived until 1612, is a master well worth reviving.

Earlier this year, I accompanied Carol Plazzotta, the curator of the National Gallery exhibition, on a pilgrimage around the Marche region of Italy, between the Adriatic and the Apennine Mountains, where many of Barocci’s works can still be found. Quite a few hang in the churches for which they were originally painted. For me, this was an introduction to an artist of compelling subtlety and charm – and a religious sensibility that seems quite distant from contemporary tastes. Barocci’s paintings are remarkable for their ethereal colour harmonies, and the complexity and refinement of their designs, but they also convey a mood of heady, swooning piety.

Barocci came from a family of artists, astronomers and clockmakers. His uncle was an architect, and his great uncle Girolamo Genga (1476-1551) had been a fellow apprentice with Raphael and eventually became painter to the court of Urbino. Barocci, you might say, was born into the aristocracy of art.

His work is a bridge between two eras that might seem quite distinct: the High Renaissance and the 17th-century Baroque. In his youth, great figures of the early 16th-century Renaissance such as Titian (d. 1576) and Michelangelo (1475-1664) were still at work (indeed, Barocci once encountered the latter in the street in Rome; Michelangelo looked at his portfolio of drawings and encouraged him).

At the other end of his life, Barocci’s contemporaries were the masters of the early 17th century, among them Rubens, who was coming into his artistic maturity. His drawings have a supple freshness that anticipates not only the 17th century, but even the 18th. Looking at his studies of heads, for example, you think of Watteau.

However, Barocci was also a man of his own times, and his era was the Counter-Reformation. Among the Protestant British, that movement has always had a bad reputation. We associate it with the Inquisition and the Spanish Armada. And there certainly was a repressive, disciplinarian aspect to the Catholic church at that time. But there was also a genuine Catholic revival taking place simultaneously. The Counter-Reformation was the era not only of the inquisitors and the index of prohibited books, but also of missionaries and mystical saints, such as Teresa of Avila.

That was the context for Barocci’s art. The unearthly beauty of his colour, the sweet expressions of his Madonnas and Christs (sometimes verging on sugary to a northern taste), the melting looks and passionate gazes of his saints – these were intended to speak to the heart and move the viewer to penitence.

Barocci’s 17th-century biographer, Gian Pietro Bellori, described how, after the poisoned salad incident, “it took four years for the seriousness of his illness to abate, during which time he was always in such pain that be never once took up his brushes”.

He was eventually partially cured by a minor miracle. “Being miserable, above all else because he was unable to paint, he one day placed himself, in his prayers, before the mercy of the glorious Virgin, with such effect that he was heard.”

The Virgin didn’t heal him completely, but he felt well enough to complete a small picture of the Madonna and Child in thanks. From that point onwards, he began to work again, but only painting for two hours a day.

Barocci was apparently a man of almost saintly piousness and, with few exceptions, his works are religious in subject (though slightly surprisingly, he made nude studies not only for the figures of his male saints, but even for Madonnas). His art has a gentle devoutness, and a mood that echoes some 16th- and 17th-century poets in whose verse the writer’s relationship with Christ becomes so intimate as to be almost amorous.

Barocci lived in a modest house on a quiet street in Urbino. He was usually sick shortly after every meal, and as a result was “rather thin”, though otherwise apparently robust. He suffered from insomnia, and, according to Bellori, in “the short period that he slept, he always suffered; so it was that during those wakeful times when he found relaxation, he would have someone read stories or poems to him, from which he derived pleasure and relief”.

A psychiatrist might suggest Barocci’s illness was in some ways convenient. Indeed, some scholars suspect that that salad was not poisoned at all, but that the painter was the victim of a psychosomatic condition that allowed him to do precisely what he wanted: withdraw from the stressfully competitive Roman art world, and return to the tranquillity of his home town. Certainly from that point onwards, he was able to work in exactly the way and at precisely the pace that suited him.

Barocci’s methods were extraordinarily laborious – his altarpiece for the church of San Francesco in Urbino allegedly took seven years to complete. For every picture, he made an abundance of drawings, of which a large number still survive. These delicate, fresh sketches from life are among the easiest of his works for a modern eye to appreciate. Barocci drew first from nature, looking constantly for useful ingredients in the people around him. Bellori noted that “if he chanced to see a beautiful upward glance of the eyes, a fine profile of a nose, or a beautiful mouth”, Barocci would use it as raw material for a saint or angel.

Next, he would make small models of the figures, compositional drawings and studies of the disposition of light and dark – chiaroscuro. Barocci was a pioneer in the use of pastel, producing ravishing studies of individual heads in that medium. Only after all this was done was he ready to begin painting.

The unhurried rate at which he worked was almost a selling point, and Barocci’s reclusiveness only added to his mystique. The Duke of Urbino, Francesco Maria della Rovere II – a fellow depressive neurotic – took pride in his ability to obtain works from this difficult man for his fellow princes. Barocci’s one mythological picture was made as a present for the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II (who probably found it disappointingly unerotic). By the last decades of the 16th century, he was perhaps the greatest painter at work in Italy, rivalled only by the Venetian Tintoretto.

So naturally, other rulers coveted Barocci’s services.

On a rare journey away from the Marche, he visited Florence. There the Grand Duke Francesco I de’ Medici was so intrigued by Barocci that he acted incognito as the painter’s guide to the Medici collections. He took him “from room to room, showing him the pictures and the statues in order to hear which were the ones that he held in most esteem”. Finally, a courtier came with a message, accidentally revealing who this guide really was. Then the Duke tried to persuade him to come and work in Florence, offering extremely favourable terms. But Barocci, politely pleading poor health and “his need to stay in the surroundings of his home city”, made his apologies and returned to Urbino.

Although most great galleries have an example of a Barocci, it is still normally to Urbino that you have to go to see his work, and also to small towns in the Marche such as Senigallia, on the coast, or Piobbico, nestling near the summits of the Apennines. But for the next few months, this brilliant, subtle, very unBritish painter is on view in London. Catch him while you can.

First published in the Daily Telegraph

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