Swooning Virgins Meet Kitsch Saints at Barocci Exhibit

Federico Barocci had his life transformed by a poisoned salad. He was fed this dish at a picnic in Rome in the 1560s, and never quite recovered.

From that point onwards, the Italian artist became an invalid and recluse, returned to his native Urbino and spent the rest of his long life producing, very slowly, the works that are revealed in a London exhibition that opens today. “Barocci: Brilliance and Grace” is at the National Gallery in London.

Whether, as Barocci alleged, the fateful salad dish was actually poisoned by jealous rivals or whether the whole episode was really an excuse to lead the quiet life he craved, the results were spectacular.

There is a great deal to enjoy in Barocci’s art; also, for some 21st-century viewers at least, one drawback. He was pious in a gentle way that means some of his figures, often the central one, Christ or the Madonna, can seem just off religious kitsch.

It wasn’t fake devotion. Barocci (c.1535-1612) was painting at the height of the counter-Reformation. He was one of the great painters of Italy in a neglected period: the late 16th century, the interval between the Renaissance and 17th-century Baroque.

Swooning saints such as Teresa of Avila were his contemporaries. The Catholic revival was all around.

In his peaceful studio, the neurotic Barocci shared in that mood. It isn’t a very modern one, less congenial to tastes in 2013, perhaps, than Caravaggio’s violence and drama.

Tear Glazed

There’s a feeling of tremulous emotion about Barocci’s art -- and not only about the religious pieces. Even in his portraits, the subjects’ eyes are unnaturally big and shiny, as if glazed with tears.

Barocci’s picture of his patron, the Duke of Urbino, suggests that nobleman was a delicate soul, a pallid poet inside his ornate armor.

If you can swallow, or even relish, that sweet side, there’s a great deal to enjoy. His big altarpieces are careful composed harmonies of all manner of unusual hues: Dusky pinks, blue-grays, and violets are favorites. And viewed as abstract arrangements in luminosity and color, some of his paintings are fabulous.

The “Nativity”’ he painted in 1597 as a gift for Urbino to give to the Queen of Spain is all about light. It radiates from the Christ child in the crib, and illuminates his mother, the Madonna, her face, her rose-colored dress and lemon yellow garment underneath. The rest is in shadow.

Looking at a picture like that, you could think of Barocci as a late-16th-century Mark Rothko.

Pastel Pioneer

One of the reasons his work took a long time to finish was that he made enormously thorough preparations. Sometimes, those are the best bit: wonderfully delicate studies of faces, heads and hands, occasionally in pastel, a medium he pioneered.

These look like much later art: Rubens, Van Dyck, even Watteau (who was a known Barocci Fan).

Even though he was very much a man of his times -- the era of Jesuit missionaries and the Inquisition -- Barocci was a progressive, forward-looking artist.

This is an exhibition that, instead of focusing on a known star such as Leonardo or Monet, takes a fresh look at a painter who is almost forgotten, except by specialists.

Barocci was well worth reviving. Assuming his life was really changed by a poisoned salad, this definitely shows the upside of eating toxic greenery.

“Barocci: Brilliance and Grace” at the National Gallery, London, from today to May 19.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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