SLAM presents Barocci exhibit en route to the National Gallery of London
While lying and deception seem to take precedent as today’s means of getting ahead, in the 16th century, poisoning your rival’s salad might also have been an effective strategy.
But even after suffering severe intestinal illness supposedly due to a toxic bed of greens, Federico Barocci, a 16th-century Italian artist whose work is currently on display at the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM), did not let his bout of botulism stifle his artistry. According to Chris Naffziger, a research assistant who has been working on the Barocci exhibition for more than four years, many 16th-century Italians believed that salad greens would cause disease, and if Barocci’s fellow artists had chosen to poison his salad, no one would have had any reason to expect foul play.
Although the SLAM isn’t known for classical Renaissance art, the museum devoted nine years to compiling an exhibition on the lesser-known Renaissance artist.
Born in Urbino, Italy, in 1526, Barocci moved to Rome at age 22 and lived there for four years before the pope invited him back to paint several pieces for the Vatican. Largely an altar painter, Barocci worked directly between the high Renaissance and Baroque periods, and his exploration of media and styles is clear through the 134 works that the SLAM managed to procure for the exhibit that opened Sunday.
Barocci may have been ill for the last 50 years of his life, but his work doesn’t speak much of this bodily suffering. Using red as the base coat for most of his paintings, his finished pieces have a vitality that shines even through some of the most damaged works in the exhibit, such as “Annunciation,” a piece on loan from the Vatican missing its entire bottom edge. The damage may have happened when Napoleon stole the painting and took it to Paris, but it also may have just been left in a dirt-floor storeroom where it could have suffered water damage.
That’s not to say, though, that most of the pieces were pulled from some basement where they lay unwanted and unnoticed. “These are not just objects of art; they are meaningful, used altarpieces,” Judith Mann, curator of the show, said. “They mean something to people. So you have to get the cooperation of the church because you’re kind of invading that space.”
Mann, who speaks fluent Italian, made several trips to Europe to procure the pieces, a difficult task not only because of the distance but also because SLAM’s reputation is largely limited to modern and German art. While SLAM has previously worked with institutions such as the Louvre and the Prado, going to a small church in Urbino and suggesting it yield its centuries-old masterpieces is an entirely different task.
But ultimately, Mann said, it isn’t the clergy that gets to decide whether the pieces get to be flown to Chicago and taken by truck into St. Louis. “You do talk to the priest,” she said, “but the way Italy is structured, it is the administrative head of the region who makes the determination about the loan.”
After nine years of effort, the artwork will only be staying in the U.S. until January, at which point it will be exhibited in the National Gallery in London. That may make it sound particularly impressive, but really, the exhibit is almost exactly what you would expect from a 16th-century painter, and an hour is probably long enough to browse through the exhibit and watch the informational video without feeling as if you’ve missed anything major. Not that you’ll necessarily have seen everything. There are so many works that it can begin to feel a bit claustrophobic at times, and if you back up a few feet to take in a giant canvas, you may find yourself tripping over a poorly placed bench.
Of course, you don’t go to a Federico Barocci exhibit expecting to see Raphael, unless perhaps you’re confused by the fact that they’re both from Urbino. Some of Barocci’s most famous works didn’t even make it to the show, but the exhibit really shines not with its finished pieces but rather with its color studies and sketches that show the artist’s process.
Where some Renaissance artists may have left behind a sketchbook, Barocci has left behind about 1,500 drawings at varying stages of development. In every medium from watercolor to acrylic to ink wash and chalk, they show incredible breadth and novel technique—at least, the curator said, assuming the few drawings they have from other Renaissance artists are representative of the time’s stylistic norm. One of Barocci’s drawings Mann pointed out was of a studio model drawn first as a man and then slightly adapted to be a woman.
“For whatever reason, he feels compelled to include the genitals. Other artists who do this with male figures or females never do,” Mann said of other Renaissance artist’s sketches. “[Then] he adjusts it, and that’s the way he works. He comes up with his mind what he’s going to do, and then he kind of corrects it based on observation in the natural world.”
For Renaissance and Baroque art history buffs, getting a Barocci exhibit of this size in St. Louis is little short of miraculous. SLAM’s next exhibit of this kind is slated for 2017. For most casual art enthusiasts, it’s still worth a visit, if only on a Friday afternoon when admission is free or during Parent’s Weekend when campus becomes overcrowded with lost family members.
“Frederico Barocci: Renaissance Master” will be on display through Jan. 20. Admission is $10 for adults and $8 for students on every day except Friday.