Barocci: Brilliance and Grace at The National Gallery


As Barocci has been described in one newspaper review I have read as ‘the greatest Old Master you’ve never heard of’, for once. I don’t feel more ignorant than everyone else at an art exhibition.  I wouldn’t have chosen to visit this one had it not been for the positive things I read and heard on radio review shows.  Everyone who commented said how much they enjoyed it and wondered why they’d never heard of the artist before.

It seems that it is both a combination of the fickleness of taste in artistic fashion and the fact that Barocci did most of his work in Urbino in Italy where much of it remains in churches and other institutions.

I went thinking that the National Gallery had decided to make an exhibition out of some old stuff they’d had in a cupboard for years, but that is not the case at all.  In fact the Gallery has only one Barocci, the idiosyncratically named Madonna of  the Cat (provoking the exhibition shop to be filled with cat related souvenir tut, but let’s gloss over that).  Only one other piece in the exhibition is in a UK collection, and that is a small sketch owned by the Queen.  For the rest, they have been brought together from various homes in Italy, America and Germany.

The paintings are huge, relatively small in number and mostly on the religious themes requested by his patrons, and while I could appreciate the bright colours and some of the clever compositions, they were, for me, the least interesting elements on show.

From the sketches and drawings on display it is clear that Barocci was an obsessive sketcher, drawing hands and feet over and over again, to get the right angle, the right feeling of tension to carry the weight of a figure or to attract the attention of the viewer.  He tried compositions this way and that; in the Visitation should Mary or Elizabeth be on the right or the left, and what angle should Joseph’s hand be to show the weight of the bags?

The studies in colour for heads of characters in larger pieces somehow felt they had more energy and immediacy than when they were transposed onto the bigger canvas.  Maybe that’s just because I could see them more closely, but I think it was also because there was so much to observe and learn about the thought process of someone else, and someone who lived so many hundreds of years ago.

The finished pieces, as well as the divine, there is also something of the mundane or practical; so in The Last Supper there are servant collecting the dishes and doing the washing up; in The Entombment of Christ there are nails and hammers laid out in the foreground, setting these events in to a world that the viewers of the time would recognise.

I’m not usually a much of a fan of religious art, but the sketches and the traces of his extensive experimentation made this exhibition well worth the visit.

Leave a comment


  1. You have a real talent for looking, and for describing how and why you look, and the conclusions to which your looking leads you to arrive. (Gosh, that has to be the most grammatically clumsy sentence in the world – yikes!!!) But you get my meaning 🙂

    • Thanks Jill. I certainly always try to look and to notice, and I think my drawing classes have taught me some of the vocabulary I need to express it.

  1. Warmth and the Occasional Cat: Barocci | Orange Pekoe Reviews

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