Federico Barocci, 'Entombment', 1579-82. Oil on canvas. 295 x 187 cm. Diocesi di Senigallia - Chiesa della Croce, Senigallia. © 2013. Photo Scala, Florence.
The National Gallery’s exhibition of sixteenth-century Italian painter Federico Barocci is the first major monographic show on the artist. Like Dulwich Picture Gallery’s current presentation of Murillo – reviewed in my recent blog here – it affords an opportunity for many to discover an artist who, in his own time, enjoyed great popularity but has since had his star eclipsed by others.
Barocci’s unfamiliarity to us is partly due to the fact he dedicated himself almost exclusively to religious works, particularly altar paintings installed in relatively remote parts of Italy; few easel paintings are present in either private or public collections. The gallery brings together some of the Urbino-based artist’s finest altarpieces, although two of his most dramatic, the Uffizi’s Madonna del Populo (1579) and the Deposition (1569) from San Bernardino, Perguia, are masterpieces one will have to visit on a trip to Italy instead.
Barocci’s famous altarpiece from Senigallia, the Entombment (1579–82), is included in the exhibition and – like the wonderful, large-scale Last Supper (1590–99) in one of the later rooms – this show is the first time it has left Italian shores. The Entombment demonstrates two characteristics of the painter: a boldness of composition that anticipates the Baroque period and a lyrical sense of colour. When it comes to the painting’s tones, Barocci forsakes the richness of tone seen in Venetian work as well as the soft treatment of flesh (or ‘sfumato’) of his earlier influence, Correggio – instead warm yellows, slightly sickly reds and lilacs comprise the disciples’ drapery, punctuated by a dash of blue in the Madonna’s dress. The figures all jut in different directions around the dead Jesus, their clothes forming a swirl of colour that surrounds Christ’s pale skin as he is laid to rest.
Federico Barocci, Studies for the Virgin's Hands. Charcoal with red and pink pastel heightened with white on blue paper. 27.3 x 39.4 cm. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett. KdZ 20453 (4190). © Volker-H. Schneider.
The foreshortened Saint John the Evangelist is the subject of a notable series of studies. The exhibition’s strength is the way it gathers such preparatory works around the paintings, so that one can follow the master step by step as he works out the details ahead of the final composition. This drawing process for each commission would take years; so exhaustively did the artist sketch that, when ready to start the actual work, he could finish it quickly.
Barocci’s art is sometimes at its most breathtaking in these works on paper, with chalk, pen, ink, pastel and oil used to model everything from individual fingers and hands to the arrangement of people. I was particularly taken by his chiaroscuro studies, the final part of his preparatory process in which he would map with verve all the areas of light and shade.
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine