Pietro Cortona

Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power (Cortona)

The fresco of the Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power is a masterpiece of Pietro da Cortona, filling the large ceiling of the grand salon of the Palazzo Barberini (now Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome). Begun in 1633, it was nearly finished in only three years; upon Cortona's return from Venice, it was extensively reworked to completion in 1639. The Palazzo, since the 1620s, had been the palatial home of the family headed by Maffeo Barberini, by then Urban VIII. This pope was extravagant in refurbishing Rome with art and architecture: among his commissions are the Bernini-designed bronze Cathedra and Baldachinno in Saint Peter's Basilica. Not all such embellishment were well-received; it was said of Urban VIII, that when he pillaged the bronze relief from the Pantheon's facade to furnish the bronze for Bernini's baldachin, that what the "barbarous vandals" had not ruined, the "Barberini" had--(in Latin: "Quod non fecerunt Barbari, fecerunt Barberini").

Those myriad commissioned artworks often teem with suns and bees (his family's heraldic symbols), and the Cortona fresco is no exception. At one end of the sky sits the eminent solar Divine Providence, while at the other end are putti and flying maidens holding aloft the papal keys, tiara, with robe belt above a swarm of heraldic giant golden bees. Below Providence, the simulated frame crumbles. Time with a scythe seems to swallow a putti's arm. A starry Crown of Immortality is ferried up to the heraldic swarm. Some suggest that one goal of this fresco was to portray the Barberini papal election, which had been rumored to have been rigged, as divine providence. Of interest at one edge, are laborers in a forge so hard at work, they shatter the outer frame.

Critical assessment and legacy

Frescoes were numerous in Cortona's Rome; most represented galleries of framed episodes, quadri riportati such as found on the ceilings of the Sistine Chapel ceiling or in Carracci's Palazzo Farnese (completed 1601) cycle. Baldassare Peruzzi had pioneered this style of painting called quadratura, in which the fresco replaces or simulates some of the architectural framework, using often forced perspective. Such trompe-l'oeil artifices were not novel to Italian art, since for example Mantegna and Giulio Romano in Mantua had featured such frescoes; however, for Cortona, the luminous sky became a teeming tour de force, a style that became influenced many other large fresco spectacles such as those by Tiepolo for example, in Madrid and in the frescoes depicting the Apotheosis of the Pisani Family in the Villa Pisani at Stra. Other famous sotto in su frescoes in Rome include Andrea Pozzo's Apotheosis of St Ignatius at the Roman church of Sant'Ignazio.

Cortona's extravagant trompe l'oeil panegyrics lost favor in subsequent minimalist and sardonic centuries; they seemed cheap, theatrical trickery in the 19th century, which prized "sincerity" and in which viewers became accustomed to photographic distortion. His sunny and cherubim-infested panoramas recalled Rococo excesses and stood in stark contrast to the darker, renegade naturalism prominent among the Caravaggisti and to the sober, classicizing restraint of Andrea Sacchi -- but served as a reminder that the Baroque period was not at all monolithic. Despite the exuberant energies of Cortona, his Baroque excesses, like those of Annibale Carracci in the Palazzo Farnese Gallery, were, by mid-century, reined in by the strong urge towards classicism represented by the art theorist Gian Pietro Bellori and by Sacchi and his school, particularly his student, Carlo Marratti.

In his time, Cortona was prized by his patrons. To contemporary observers, his art seems reactionary and, to be exact, patronizing, attaching an encyclopedia of divine virtues to a profligate, nepotistic, and generally Machiavellian papal family; yet if artistic conquest is achieved by the adept matching of style to intended subject, then in this fresco, Cortona is imperially triumphant and the work is a crowning effort of apotheotic grand manner depictions. There is no humility in this horizon. Cortona was a pioneer Baroque fresco artist who sought to dispense with the architectural roof by painting it away. While rising heavenward this universe of Barberini glory is meant to humble visitors as if they stood over, and not below, a looming abyss of mythic power, which threatens to engulf them in its complexity.

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