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July 2023

Vol. 165 / No. 1444

Urban VIII and the Barberini

By Joseph Connors

On the 400th anniversary of the election of Maffeo Barberini as Pope Urban VIII, an exhibition at Palazzo Barberini, Rome, has brought together examples of the spectacular patronage of the arts for which he and his three nephews were responsible.In 1625, two years after he had been elected as Pope Urban VIII, Maffeo Barberini (1568–1644) made the unusual decision to leave Rome’s densely populated Campus Martius and to build a new family palace on the Quirinal Hill. Its designer, Carlo Maderno, the doyen of the architectural profession, died in 1629, shortly after groundbreaking, but the young men in his entourage – Bernini, Borromini and Pietro da Cortona – created a wondrous cultural symbol, crammed by the end of the pontificate with antiquities, paintings, books, tapestries and some of the most glorious ceiling frescos of the Roman Baroque. With breaks in the direct line of inheritance in the nineteenth century and picking up the pace in the twentieth, treasures began to leave the palace to the benefit of the Vatican and Capitoline museums as well as collections in Florence, Paris, Munich, Kansas City, Madrid, Vienna, Minneapolis and – for the tapestries – Philadelphia.

Opening on the 400th anniversary of Maffeo’s election to the papacy, the exhibition L’immagine sovrana: Urbano VIII e i Barberini (18th May–30th July) repopulates the palace with many of these departed works.[1] It is also a re-examination of the way Barberini cultural preferences pervade poetry, rhetoric, science, gardening and the visual arts. It examines what Dale Kent called (in the case of Cosimo de’ Medici) ‘the patron’s oeuvre’,[2] but in a complex case where the patron is an entire family and the result is a brand exportable to other centres.The exhibition opens in the wing of the palace that, until the expansion in 2016 of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, had been an officers’ club for the Italian armed forces, bringing back into circulation spaces that had originally been used as a museum by the Barberini cardinals. In jet-black rooms spot-lit masterpieces emerge as epiphanies. Visitors learn at the start how the future pope formed his taste. For his earliest portrait, by Caravaggio (cat. no.1; Fig.1), he donned robes of an apostolic protonotary identical to those in a portrait by an unknown artist of the uncle who had bequeathed him his fortune, Francesco Barberini the Elder (c.1595; private collection; no.2).[3] It is a case of clothes announcing career trajectory. Maffeo acquired one more work by Caravaggio, the superb Abraham and Isaac (1603; Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence; no.3), but wider horizons opened when he went to France in 1601–02 and again in 1606. The young prelate formed a bond with the country that would give a strong tilt to his foreign policy. Elevated to the cardinalate during the second visit, he received the red hat from the hands of Henri IV together with a gift of inestimable value, the right to replace the horsefly and scissors, symbols of the mercantile clan that the Barberini had been up to then, with the heraldic bee. These monarchy-loving, hive-defending, honey-producing little soldiers would eventually populate Barberini Rome by the thousands. They swarm through the exhibition, alighting on paintings, musical instruments and portrait busts before swelling to fighter-jet dimensions in Divine Providence, the famous ceiling fresco by Pietro da Cortona in the palace’s Salone. 

During his term as papal legate to Bologna (1613–16) Maffeo’s taste matured. Confirmed in his self-image as poet by friendships within the Accademia degli Insensati, he commissioned a pair of paintings by a painter of anti-Caravaggesque whimsey, Giovanni Andrea Donducci (1575–1655), called Il Mastelletta. These huge canvases show dozens of ‘fantasmagoric landscapes peopled by creatures of ethereal beauty’ gathering to lament the Rape of Europa (1614; private collection; no.7) or celebrate the arrival of Cleopatra’s barge in Tarsus (1614; Collection Francesco Micheli, Milan; no.6).[4] In Bologna Maffeo discovered the last of the Carracci, Ludovico, and commissioned a St Sebastian (no.5; Fig.4) for the sub-chapel attached to the larger family chapel then in construction in S. Andrea della Valle, Rome. Although movingly unconventional in the way it depicts brutal soldiers rolling the body of the martyr into the Cloaca Maxima, it missed the point, which was to show not the disposal but the discovery of the body in the sewer under the chapel. When Barberini returned to Rome he commissioned Bernini’s first masterpiece, St Sebastian (1617; Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid). Even in the Factum Arte copy shown in the exhibition (private collection; no.4), the young sculptor’s emulation of Michelangelo’s Pietà in St Peter’s Basilica, Rome, can be sensed. Bernini was only nineteen but a profound bond was formed between artist and prelate. It was to endure through the triumph of the Baldacchino of St Peter’s and the disaster of the basilica’s bell towers, and would leave the sculptor with the fondest memory of any of the half-dozen popes he served. 

The exhibition aims to explore concepts as well as art and surely the dominant one is nepotism. Although not invented by Urban VIII, he certainly ushered in its golden age.5 The exhibition shifts from Maffeo to his nephews after his election. The erudite and diplomatic Cardinal Francesco is shown in a posthumous portrait bust (c.1681–82; Palazzo Barberini, Rome; no.13) by Lorenzo Ottoni. The hedonist Antonio Barberini is shown as a red-robed prelate in a posthumous Richelieulike portrait (after 1671; Palazzo Barberini) by Carlo Maratti. The ruffian Taddeo gets a grand portrait by Andrea Sacchi in the pompous robes and strange bonnet of Praefectus Urbis (1631–33; Direzione Generale Istituto Nazionale di Previdenza Sociale, Rome; no.12). This was a purely ceremonial office traditionally held by the duke of Urbino but usurped for this least competent and most pretentious of the clan, putting him on the same level as a cardinal. 

The pope’s older brother, Carlo, father of the three nephews, was made general of the papal armies but died in 1630, just seven years into the post. He is represented on horseback in a breathtaking small bronze (no.11; Fig.3) by Francesco Mochi. Mochi had been away from Rome for decades, working on the Farnese equestrian monuments in Piacenza but, freshly returned, he seized his chance. He repeated the wild mien of the Farnese chargers, their headlong rush (with only two hooves touching the base) and the rider’s all’antica armour, on top of which the portrait head of Carlo sits with the well-groomed calm of a seasoned courtier. 

Mochi’s other small masterpiece in the exhibition is a bronze of the Veronica in St Peter’s (c.1633; private collection; no.16). Jennifer Montagu discovered it long ago in an English country house and rightly surmised that it might be a cast of an early model. It invites the viewer to move around it while scrutinising a billowing veil that sweeps over Veronica’s head until at its outer edge a faint Holy Face comes into view. Mochi sensibly reasoned that biblical women did not carry handkerchiefs and Veronica would have wiped the Saviour’s face with the first thing that came to hand. He had to be reminded that the famous relic in St Peter’s was a small square of cloth, not a flowing veil, instructions to which he conformed in the dramatic statue as completed, which vies with Bernini’s Longinus to dominate the basilica’s crossing. 

In the same room, under the heading of the pope’s care for religion, is Bernini’s small bronze of the Countess Matilda of Canossa, one of the dozen or so small casts that were used as diplomatic gifts (1634–37; Berlin, Staatliche Museen, Kunstgewerbe Museum im Schloss Köpernick; no.17). An ideal female ruler (quite unlike the offensive heretic that Elizabeth of England had been) Matilda proudly bears the tiara and keys in the service of the papacy, whose lands she augmented with her own. Next to her hangs Nicolas Poussin’s Martyrdom of St Erasmus, painted for St Peter’s (1629; Pinacoteca Vaticana; no.15). This powerful canvas was Poussin’s only foray into the genre of the Counter-Reformation torture scene. It did not please and Francesco Barberini realised that the painter’s genius was best suited to easel pictures on recherché subjects. The great Death of Germanicus (1627; Minneapolis Institute of Art; no.23) was commissioned by him. The presumptive heir of Augustus, aged only thirty-three, lies dying in a praetorium resembling Palazzo Barberini, while his generals stand aghast and his wife, Agrippina, veils her face in inexpressible grief. It is discussed in the catalogue by Sebastian Schütze in terms of the revival of interest in Tacitus, from whose Annals the subject was taken, and Germanicus, a play by the poet Ludovico Aureli performed in the Collegio Romano about ten or fifteen years previously, that Maffeo, a faithful student of the Jesuits, surely attended. 

The third Poussin in the exhibition, the second version of his Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem (1638; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; no.73), was commissioned as a diplomatic gift for the Holy Roman Emperor. In it, the take-no-prisoners Roman soldiers do their bloody work as flames begin to consume the structure. The room it hangs in is appropriately dedicated to art as diplomacy, including portraits of Richelieu by Bernini (1640–41; Musée du Louvre, Paris; no.75) and Philippe de Champaigne (1642; National Gallery, London; no.74), a triple portrait like the one, now in the Louvre, on which Bernini’s bust was based.[6] 

The second part of the exhibition is on the piano nobile, where the palace itself becomes protagonist. The architecture is perceptively studied in a catalogue essay by Flaminia Gennari Santori. Wall labels remind the visitor that this wing was occupied by Anna Colonna (1601–58), the aristocratic bride of Taddeo. In her audience room a large floor mirror allows the visitor to contemplate Sacchi’s ceiling fresco, a charming cosmos where – daringly – the sun of Divine Wisdom is more central than the globe of earth. Next door is the grand Salone, where lawn chairs have been set up to allow quiet contemplation of Pietro da Cortona’s Divine Providence, a painting so rich in epic incidents and subplots that when it was completed in 1639 a booklet had to be printed to explain them (Fig.5). 

Now normally bare, the Salone was intended as a gallery for changing sets of tapestries, that most expensive and princely form of interior decoration. Maffeo had begun to acquire them as young cleric but it was under Cardinal Francesco that the collection blossomed, with Louis XIII’s gift in 1626 of seven tapestries of the life of Constantine to designs by Rubens. A tapestry workshop was set up in Rome to complete the series and weave others on the life of Christ and, as posthumous tribute, the life of Urban VIII. By Cardinal Francesco’s death in 1679 there were five hundred pieces in the collection. As discussed in the catalogue essay by James Gordon Harper, they were lent to show favour and cement alliances, always broadcasting Barberini magnificence. Many left the palace in the late nineteenth century to go to a Philadelphia dealer and his New York clients. Two have returned to join a third from the Vatican, each paired with its cartoon along one side of the Salone. Visitors are invited to think of the tapestries together with the Cortona ceiling, a woven epic in dialogue with a painted one. 

From this riot of colour and illusionism visitors pass to the dazzling whiteness of the Sala Ovale, the realm of sculpture – there are eight antique statues in niches – in which cardinals and their learned friends could engage in philosophical discourse on Platonic themes. It once contained a bust of Cicero, guiding spirit of the Christian Ciceronianism that Marc Fumaroli saw as the silver thread running through Barberini rhetoric, poetry and art.[7] Here the organisers placed the finest of Bernini’s four busts of the pope (no.61; Fig.6). In its sublime urbanity it makes the sitter seem unaware of the dark clouds gathering in 1632: malicious astrological influences that terrified the pope, attacks from the Spanish faction of cardinals, the intrusion of plague-bearing armies in north Italy and the publication in Florence of a heretical book on cosmology, Galileo’s Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo. Decidedly, the mirabil congiuntura that had opened the pontificate was over. 

In 1902 Francesco Barberini’s library of thirty thousand books and ten thousand manuscripts was sold to the Vatican. In this seriously intellectual exhibition, books matter. The catalogue, the most substantial contribution to Barberini studies since a volume of conference papers published in 2007,[8] includes intellectual and social history on a par with art history. The editions of Urban VIII’s poetry with frontispieces by Rubens and Bernini are the excuse for probing essays on poetry by Schütze, Caterina Volpi and Camilla Fiore. Galileo is present in the Saggiatore (Assayer) of 1623, dedicated to the newly elected Urban VIII, as well as the Dialogo of 1632 that precipitated his trial. These are put into a larger context in an essay by Filippo Camerota on the three poles of science in Rome: the Jesuits at the Collegio Romano, the French Minims at the Trinità ai Monti and the Accademia dei Lincei (at least up to the death of its founder, Federico Cesi, in 1630). A famous but surprisingly rare print of a bee under a microscope, Melissographia (1625; Biblioteca Vallicelliana, Rome; no.48), is present as a reminder of Cesi’s attempt to reorientate the Lincaean scientific enterprise from the dangerous heavens to the safer realms of plants and animals. The geographical range of his ambition is shown in the Tesoro Messicano (1651; Biblioteca Casanatense, Rome; no.49), an ambitious and long-delayed publication on the fauna and flora of the New World. Louise Rice maps out a new terrain of iconography in the section on prints commissioned to accompany the theses of high-class university graduates, which she expands in an essay on Barberini branding through the use of heraldry and emblems. Anthony Colantuono explores the role of art as diplomatic gifts. 

Irene Fosi provides a reality check with a powerfully compact essay on Barberini foreign policy, largely a failure due to its unreciprocated pro-French leanings. Maurizia Cicconia provides a balance sheet of what the regime gave the city (protection against the plague of 1632, several fountains, a granary) versus the harm it wrought (taxation to breaking point, unbridled nepotism, incompetent generalship in a frivolous war it need not have started). Michele Di Monte explores antiquarian culture and Ingo Herklotz the importance of church history, especially the vestiges of early Christianity. The late Frederick Hammond explores Barberini music and spectacle – a room devoted to music features that fiendishly complex instrument, the Barberini triple harp (1633; Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti Musicali, Rome; no.27), which a nude Venus plays in a nearby painting by Giovanni Lanfranco (c.1633; Palazzo Barberini; no.26). 

Although all three Barberini nephews commissioned operas it was the youngest and most luxury-loving, Antonio, who kept a large collection of musical instruments and flirted with scandal in his intimacy with a celebrated castrato, Marc’Antonio Pasqualini (1614–91). Andrea Sacchi’s magnificent portrait of Pasqualini (no.28; Fig.7) shows him playing a clavicytherium, a harpsichord with vertically mounted strings. Two bound satyrs and a fleeing Daphne suggest the powers of music to enchain the audience. Pasqualini is fully clothed but Apollo, who crowns him, is definitely not and the painting, like the leopard pelt the singer wears, still has teeth. 

The exhibition reaches a climax in the enormous room known as the Sala delle Commedie from the operas that were performed here until a theatre was built in the garden. However little the Barberini did for the common good of the city, they put on splendid festivals. Three huge canvases show the most famous of these. The painting of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Society of Jesus by Andrea Sacchi with Filippo Gagliardi and Jan Miel shows the pope and his nephews standing out from a vast crowd thronging the Gesù, which was decked out with Barberini tapestries for the occasion (no.87; Fig.2). A great chivalric joust in Piazza Navona in 1634 was ostensibly to welcome a Polish prince, but it really served to put the Barberini allies on display (c.1634; Museo di Roma; no.86). Although it was a later pope, Alexander VII, who welcomed the newly converted Queen Christina of Sweden to Rome in 1656, it fell to the Barberini to celebrate the event with a grand carousel in the riding grounds next to the palace, a torch-lit spectacle captured in a giant painting by Filippo Gagliardi and Filippo Lauri (1656; Museo di Roma; no.88). The palace once again assumes the role of protagonist by allowing visitors to leave via its great spiral staircase, reflecting as they descend on the ways a poet–pope shaped an all-encompassing cultural policy that could be exported to the courts of northern Europe, especially Versailles.

[1] Catalogue: L’immagine sovrana: Urbano VIII e I Barberini. Edited by Maurizia Cicconi, Flaminia Gennari Santori and Sebastian Schütze. 432 pp. incl. 210 col. + b. & w. ills. (Officina Libraria, Rome, 2023), €45. ISBN 978–88–3367–231–1. 

[2] D. Kent: Cosimo de’ Medici and the Florentine Renaissance: The Patron’s OEuvre, New Haven and London 2000. 

[3] Cicconi, Gennari Santori and Schütze, op. cit. (note 1), p.160. 

[4] Ibid., p.170, no.6. 

[5] J.B. Scott: Images of Nepotism: The Painted Ceilings of Palazzo Barberini, Princeton 1991. 

[6] A. Colantuono explains in catalogue entry no.74 (p.366) that the London portrait was an autograph copy made to send to Rome to enable Mochi to make a full-length statue, later mutilated during the French Revolution. 

[7] M. Fumaroli: ‘“Cicero Pontifex Romanus”: La tradition rhétorique du Collège Romain et les principes inspirateurs du mécénat des Barberinis’, Mélanges de l’École française de Rome 90, no.2 (1978), pp.797–835. 

[8] L. Mochi Onori, S. Schütze and F. Solinas, eds: I Barberini e la cultura europea del Seicento, Rome 2007.