Federico Barocci is the type of artist who often is mentioned in art history books, but never the center of attention. St. Louis will get its first real look at the Renaissance painter when the Saint Louis Art Museum opens its exhibition, Federico Barocci: Renaissance Master, which runs from Oct. 21 through Jan. 20.
“This time in Italy is filled with incredible painters, and we focus on the big three: Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, but there are many other fascinating personalities and artists, and Barocci falls into that category,” says exhibition curator Judith Mann. Barocci is best known for his exuberant use of color, and was considered one of the most accomplished colorists of his age, Mann notes. “Old master painting is like cooking: It’s a question of how well you could prepare color and your process for preparing a painting. He had a painstaking process that ensured these absolutely beautiful colors that have survived well over time.”
The painter also was known for his many drawings, which are featured prominently in the exhibition. “We had the opportunity to bring the drawings together with the paintings for which they were made, so people can see and have an understanding of the artist’s thought process. They helped him make decisions about poses, lighting, color, expression and gesture. That was our objective—to get inside his mind,” Mann says. More than 1,500 Barocci drawings survive, which is a rarity for this time period, she notes, adding the reason is probably the drawings’ high quality.
“Barocci’s life is a sad one in many ways,” Mann says. “He was born in this little hill town not far from Venice, and he goes to Rome—which everybody wanted to do at the time. He went in the 1550s and again in the 1560s, and he came down with a terrible gastrointestinal disorder. Many people—and I’m among them—believe he was poisoned by his rivals.”
At the time, Rome was filled with talented artists who would go to great lengths to make their mark. Sometimes artists sabotaged each other’s scaffolding or hired thugs to scare people, Mann says. It is believed the master Michelangelo gave Barocci access to his own drawings, which would have been a great advantage, and because of that he was poisoned, she adds. After his illness, Barocci was plagued by sleeplessness and other maladies, and as a result frequently couldn’t finish commissions.
It is believed Barocci sometimes made drawings for collectors when his illness would not permit him to finish a commissioned painting. Barocci was an early user of pastels, which Mann says might have made them desirable to collectors. “He was very innovative as a draftsman. He used a lot of types of drawings that artists before him had not used.” Those featured in the exhibit range from pen-and-ink studies to head studies and ‘cartoons,’ which were full-scale drawings transferred onto the canvas to serve as a basis for a painting.
While much of Barocci’s work is based on religious themes, Mann says the art is engaging whether or not the viewer is familiar with the religious stories. “It’s really how he painted and communicated. Barocci puts in lots of charming details that are engaging and appealing to the casual viewer.” Recalling the response to Barocci’s Annunciation when it visited St. Louis as part of the Angels from the Vatican exhibition in 1998, Mann says she is excited for the response to Federico Barocci: Renaissance Master. “There was always a group of people standing in front of it. We already know that people will respond to Barocci’s work very well.”