Italian Masters


"Baroque" is a description applied, often loosely, to most European art in the seventeenth century and on into the early eighteenth; but its variations, from Caravaggio to Poussin, from Rubens to Rembrandt, from its service to Catholicism to its use by the Protestant north, may seem at times to have little in common.

If essentially it was a realist reaction against the artificiality of the Mannerist style, at the same time astonishing techniques of illusionism and exuberant movement were developed, especially in Rome.

Its greatest practitioners were all-rounders, to whom narrow specialization in any one art would have been an unacceptable limitation. It found its fullest expression in the persons of Bernini in Italy and Rubens (fundamentally influenced by his Italian stay) in the north: both supreme representatives of an aristocracy of genius, moving as equals among aristocrats of blood and rank.

The latter, however, were also their patrons, and in Rome the period saw the sharpening of rivalries between the great family dynasties, Farnese, Borghese, Barberini, who were aware of the prestige and glamor that artists could provide for them.


The division between the Renaissance and Baroque periods is a fairly recent convention of historians, and Baroque art represents an expansion and development of Renaissance art, rather than a radical transformation of its principles.

Italy continued to be the goal and inspiration of many artists throughout Europe, not only because of the great monuments of the past, but also because artists such as Caravaggio, Annibale Carracci and Bernini had made Rome the most vital artistic centre in Europe.

Louis XIV's summons of Bernini to Paris in 1665 and the rejection of the latter's plans for the Louvre are, however, events symbolic of the new order in which France was gradually to assume leadership artistically as well as politically.

Baroque art was often used for propaganda purposes, whether for church or state, and Louis's enormous palace at Versailles is one of the most complete examples of the Baroque ideal of the union of all the arts, the Gesamtkunstwerk, the orchestration of architecture and landscape, painting and sculpture, furniture and metalwork into one splendid whole.


While Caravaggio's dramatic realism was to be one seminal constituent of Baroque painting, the vigorous and equally radical return to High Renaissance principles initiated by the Carracci family in Bologna was to be another -- and in Italy the more important.

The Carracci drew their inspiration not only from Raphael but also from the Venetians, excluding neither the grandeur of Michelangelo nor the tenderness of Correggio. Like Caravaggio, they were in reaction to the artificialities of the Mannerist style, but they attempted reform and, unlike Caravaggio, they wholeheartedly espoused the traditional practice of disegno, the elaborate analysis and resolution of a composition by means of drawings.

The Carracci designated their studio in Bologna a teaching academy about 1585. Their attempt to combine the best elements of previous masters produced a codification of "classicism", in which ideal forms, reprieved from Mannerist distortion, were clearly organized according to the demands of the subject, placed in correct perspective, structured by firm lines of direction and enlivened by resonant color.

Their "academic" program inevitably repelled many critics of the nineteenth century, who saw the Carracci and those who followed them as dead-handed imitators, even plagiarists, boring offenders against the cardinal Romantic virtue of originality and the inspiration of genius. The renewed appreciation of their classical revival is comparatively recent.


Bolognese painters, the brothers Agostino (1557-1602) and Annibale (1560-1609) and their cousin Ludovico (1555-1619), played leading roles in the revival of Italian painting around 1600.

In about 1585 their studio became a teaching academy, and, in opposition to the prevailing rather vapid Mannerism, revived the high Renaissance practice of drawing from nature, encouraging a realistically solid sense of form.

All three were brilliant draftsmen (more than 500 of their drawings are in the Royal Collection at Windsor), and clear, firm drawing characterizes the work of the leading Bolognese painters of the next generation -- notably Domenichino and Reni -- who were trained in their studio.

Annibale was certainly the greatest artist of the three, the only contemporary Italian painter who ranks beside Caravaggio. His achievements were diverse.

He was the inventor of caricature in the modern sense, and his early genre paintings are remarkable in their directness and liveliness of observation (The Butcher's Shop, c. 1582, Oxford, Christ Church), but his greatest work was the ceiling of a gallery in the Farnese Palace, Rome (1597-1600).



The three Carracci were Ludovico and his cousins, Agostino (1557-1602) and his younger brother Annibale (1560-1609). Agostino, the intellectual and the teacher, probably the principal motivator of the academy and a disseminator of Renaissance designs by able engravings after Old Masters, was less of a painter, though his altarpiece at Bologna, The Last Communion of St. Jerome, was famous.

The eldest, Ludovico, remained based all his life in Bologna. In his early work, full of color and movement, a Venetian feeling predominates, but his later work is paler, more refined -- sometimes sentimental. Annibale was the major artist among the three. His fame during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries rested on his decorations for the Farnese Palace in Rome and in the nineteenth century was denied on the same evidence.

While his formal style shows a consistent development, the sensitivity of his technique was matched by a very flexible attitude to subject matter. Early on there were exercises in realistic genre, unprecedented in Italy, such as the life-size Butcher's Shop; brisk drawings that are perhaps the earliest true caricatures; and many delightful "straight" portraits.

Annibale Carracci developed, from early experiments by Veronese or the Bassani, a new art of landscape; this was influenced when he was in Rome by Flemish artists resident there, and also by the fragments of antique frescoes newly revealed.

In Annibale's landscapes nature, freshly observed and gravely ordered, reflects the solemnity of the events portrayed in it. Not only his pupil Domenichino but Claude and Poussin were to acknowledge Annibale's example in different ways in their own work.

Annibale had visited Venice and Parma (where he saw Correggio's work) in the mid-1580s. A remark from a letter of his, about Correggio, illustrates sharply a main and enduring concern in his own work. "I like this straightforwardness and this purity that is not reality and yet is lifelike and natural, not artificial or forced."

In Bologna, he painted a series of large altarpieces, developing a sure ability in monumental composition, in the interrelating of large forms; he also acquired admirable fresco techniques in the decoration of various Bolognese houses. By 1595, when he was summoned to Rome, he was fully equipped for work in the Farnese Palace. The impact of Rome simplified his compositions and rendered his forms more massive in this alone resembling Caravaggio's. His late work, overshadowed by attacks of melancholia, is darkly expressive and emotional.



Guido Reni's work shows both a slightly unexciting restraint and an ability to charm; his later work, such as Atlanta and Hippomenes (c.1620), became subtly but markedly simplified. His studio's large output of cloying Virgins led to an unjust devaluation of his ability until recently.

The younger Guercino never worked with Annibale, but was much influenced by Ludovico: his early paintings in Bologna were attractively vivid, and soon reinforced by a rather Caravaggesque light and shade.

In Rome, his Aurora of 1623, on the ceiling of the Casino Ludovisi, is a masterpiece of illusionist perspective. His boldness of conception was, however, to be followed up by others. His later work in fresco and oils is much more conventional, though the brilliance of his drawings was undimmed throughout his career.



The Zuccaros were Italian painters, brothers, born near Urbino. Taddeo (1529-66) went to Rome at the age of 14 and developed a smooth and harmonious style, chiefly dependent upon Raphael and Michelangelo.

His later, more classical style (The Conversion of St. Paul, c.1558, Rome, S. Marcello al Corco) was popular, and he undertook many decorative commissions in Roman palaces and churches.

On his death these were continued by his younger brother and pupil, Federico.

Federico, whose style never developed beyond a rather dry Mannerism, travelled to the Netherlands and to England in 1574 and on his return to Italy worked in Rome, Florence and Venice.

He was internationally famous during his lifetime and first director of the Academy of St. Luke in Rome and an influential art theorist.



Pietro da Cortona was an Italian painter and architect. With Lanfranco and Guercino he was one of the founders of the Roman High Baroque style in painting.

He ranks second only to Bernini as the all-around Italian artistic genius of the age, for he was also a designer of festival decoration and sculpture, although not a sculptor himself.

His most famous painting is the huge fresco Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power (1633-39, Rome, Palazzo Barberini), a triumph of illusionism in which the centre of the ceiling, peopled with brilliantly foreshortened figures, appears to open to the sky.

The scarcely less splendid frescoes in the dome and apse of S. Maria in Vallicella, Rome (1647-60) are set in Cortona's own rich framework of gilded coffers and stucco figures, and this combination of paint and stucco, seen also in his work in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence (1637-47), was highly influential, in France as well as Italy.