The National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing basement is irretrievably Modern Institutional. It can’t help but lend an academic atmosphere to whatever is being displayed. With Barocci, it unapologetically offers us the splendid altarpieces and other devotional artworks of an underrated late Renaissance/early Baroque master totally detached from their religious context – the emphasis is laid firmly on a pragmatic didacticism. In this, however, it is most successful. The fourth room, the real climax of the exhibition, in which are displayed his enormous and breathtaking works such as The Last Supper and St. Francis receiving the Stigmata, is cleverly arranged with preparatory drawings in a long display case down the centre so that one looks at the drawings and then up at the finished work.
The focus throughout is on Barocci’s working methods which were fairly intensive – drawings followed by head studies of the protagonists in oil, followed by a small study of the whole composition in oil, then squared up cartoons… No wonder that his output of finished work was fairly limited. That added to the dramatic fact that he was supposedly poisoned by rivals in Rome, sending him resolutely back to his native Urbino with a lifelong affliction. His self-portrait shows a serious, drawn face – his glance slightly nervous, or perhaps it is the look of one in perpetual pain – framed with a neat grey beard and a white ruff against an austere dark background. Here he is the upstanding citizen of Urbino; he could be a professor, a courtier, a well-off tradesman, detached as he is from the tools of his craft. His patron, the Duke of Urbino is portrayed opposite, youthful, full of life and character, his intricately tooled armour exquisitely realised.
It is the depictions of St Francis receiving the stigmata that really stand out. Barocci seems drawn to this subject, with three very different interpretations of the scene displayed. In Barocci’s mind’s eye the event occurs at night, conferring a greater drama to the scene; in the largest work, St Francis’s companion sprawls in the left foreground, delineating the edge of the forest clearing that is momentarily lit by the light of the six-winged seraph from whose rays the stigmata are inflicted. In the background is a building before which silhouetted figures dance about before a fire, relating the fantastic events glimpsed from afar… And watching it all from high above sits a falcon, for which there is a detailed sketch, an insertion perhaps gleaned from entertainments at the ducal court.
In the smaller painting, St Francis appears half-length, his hand, freshly wounded, extended out almost into the viewer’s space. His face is heart-rendingly full of passion and pain and love as he stares towards the replica of the crucifixion. Beyond the room he inhabits the indigo sky is streaked with a gash of red.
If the power of these paintings is such in a London basement, I can hardly imagine their impact in a tenebrous, candlelit Northern Italian monastery. Regardless of the indisputable technical skill of Barocci, the deep humanity and force of expression he achieves would move the hardest and most atheistic heart.