Bad Boys and Iconoclasts: Seventeenth Century Roman Art
Updated: Jun 13, 2022
Seventeenth century Roman art is one of surprises, contrasts, and drama. No one style predominated. Paintings could be evenly lit or have strong contrasts of light and dark; use a colorful palette or dark earthy tones. A cast of hundreds might be included or only a few figures. Architecture could be measured and balanced or curvaceous and twisting. Although seventeenth century Italian artists may not have reached superstar status like Michelangelo or Leonardo, there are inevitably four artists which characterize the Roman art scene: bad boy Caravaggio, multi-talented Gian Lorenzo Bernini, painter for the rich and famous Guido Reni, and the iconoclast architect Francesco Borromini.
The Backdrop: Roma
Rome was the European art hot spot in the 1600s. Italy had more artists working in the seicento (1600s) than any other European country. The papacy drove the art scene along with the cardinals and extended family members, all well to do, with plenty of money for commissions. Artists from northern Europe traveled to Rome for work and to borrow from other artists. Rome wasn’t much of a producer of materials goods. The pope, cardinals, and their male nephews powered the economy with luxury goods, services, and art. They built palaces, new churches, renovated churches, and decorated chapels. Pilgrimage and diplomatic entourages kept hotels and taverns busy.
Gasparo Mola, Pope Urban VIII, bronze medal. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0. 1638. Urban VIII was a great patron of the arts. Bees, suns, and laurel leaves on the medal are symbols of his rich Barberini family.
A snapshot of economic life in Rome illustrates financial discrepancies between the rich, middle class, and poor, creating great patronage opportunities for the rich. Roman artists were generally well to do and well cared for by their patrons. Scudi was the gold or silver payment used at the time. A family of five could live off of 90 scudi a year comfortably; a tailor made 42 scudi a year. Artists averaged 100 scudi a year, although there were great variations with some artists making anywhere from 3 to 400 scudi for a single painting. It was economically advantageous to be a cardinal or nephew of the pope. Cardinal Odoardo Farnese made 60,000 scudi in 1593. Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V, had an income of 140,000 scudi in 1612. In 1600 there were approximately seventy cardinals in the church. Cardinals and their male relatives were often sophisticated collectors of art and there was plenty of money for making and collecting art.
Artists often lived with their patrons, especially if they were starting out. Established artists had their own studios and accepted commissions from a variety of patrons. Some artists sold work in the art market for whomever would buy. Rich patrons amassed quite the collections of art, some of it commissioned and some of it gathered from Roman ruins. Powerful families, like the Borghese, Barberini, Chigi, or Farnese, had huge palaces with a hundred or so rooms to decorate. These palaces were not the fortified structures of centuries ago, but displays of wealth and meant to impress. Diplomacy and entertainment were their main purpose, not defense. With all this money and property to decorate, there was competition to find the next art talent or to employ the most renown.
Bad Boy Caravaggio (1571-1610)
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio arrived in Rome about age twenty. He lived with his cardinal patron making secular paintings until he received important public commissions. Three ten-foot canvases for the Contarelli Chapel featuring St. Matthew’s calling, martyrdom, and inspiration writing the gospel (1599-1600) created an uproar. Caravaggio’s technique was an artistic scandal of the highest order: he didn’t draw anything to prepare for oil painting. He scratched lines into the priming paint and away he went. Michelangelo, for whom drawing was the basic foundation of art, must have rolled in his Florentine grave.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew, Contarelli Chapel, S. Luigi dei Francesi, Rome, 1599-1600. Flickr, public domain. There is some uncertainty as to which figure is Matthew – the older man or the young man at the end of the table? Most scholars think the tax collector Matthew is the old man.
These paintings were Caravaggio’s largest works to date. In the Calling of St. Matthew Christ’s halo is a mere glimmer. The shadow and ray of light emanating from the unseen light source above Christ lead the eye directly to Matthew, who points to himself in disbelief. Matthew stops counting money. He asks, “You want me to follow you?” The scene is not some theoretical Holy Land but 1600 Rome. Real men, Caravaggio’s contemporaries, huddle around the table. In front of Christ stands Peter, a darkened figure suggested by contrasts of light and dark. There is no glory in this painting, only the moment of a very difficult decision. The dark paintings without landscape or minimal background eliminate any unnecessary figures or objects to bring focus to the important events.
The Inspiration of Matthew in the chapel is the second version. The first was rejected because Matthew’s bare feet, projecting out toward the viewer, was undignified for an apostle. Caravaggio changed the composition and with that the eye is drawn not to his bare, somewhat dirty feet but to the exquisite angel’s drapery and wings.
The drama and darkness surrounding the lit figures along with the monumentality of the poses were a clean break from idealized human forms common with other artists. Caravaggio represents a new naturalism with little attention to decorative halos, traditional religious gestures, or fancy regal clothing. These are real people, most likely painted from live models.
At the time he made a name for himself in the art scene he also became well known to the police. His criminal record included brandishing a sword without a permit, angry outbursts, street fights, and pitching artichokes at a waiter. Murder charges brought a different kind of notoriety which followed him to his death. At times outrageously obstinate and pretentious, Caravaggio evidently thought highly of himself and privileged.
Caravaggio had no students but many followers. His style greatly influenced Italian and European artists such as Rembrandt. His distinctive use of light and dark, known as chiaroscuro or tenebrism, rejected traditional lighting and compositional techniques.
Multi-Talented Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680)
Bernini, like Caravaggio, was incredibly creative and inventive. Bernini had a long, prosperous career not only in sculpture but also painting, architecture, and stage design. As a gifted artist favored by popes, Bernini made mythological sculptures, portraits of the rich and powerful, fountains, and masterpieces in St. Peter’s. Bernini is omnipresent in the historic center of Rome and left us with an indelible artistic heritage. Rome would not be the same without Bernini.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Baldacchino, St. Peter’s, Rome. 1624-33. Pixabay, public domain. Bernini created this high altar covering in his 30s; he would continue to work for about forty-five more years.
Bernini’s genius is seen in his use of multi-media approaches to complex problems. Texture, light, proportion, color, materials, and context contribute to his successful artworks. He uses unifying architectural elements combined with painting and sculpture to achieve “un bel composto” (a beautiful holistic effect). Many of his fountains do not have single viewpoints. Instead the viewer is invited, indeed compelled, to walk around the piece to take in multiple vantage points. Bernini’s art is never static. The figures, whether sculptured portraits or fountains, are always captured mid-point in action.
Soon after Pope Urban VIII’s election an aggressive artistic program was enacted to complete the interior decoration of St. Peter’s The nave was completed in 1609 and the huge complex needed visual focal points in the large crossing and high altar. The Pope tapped Bernini to provide a structure over the high altar of the church. The Baldacchino for St. Peter’s combines twisting bronze columns, gilt, marble, and stucco to frame the high altar and unify the enormous interior of the church. The design provides a focal point without overshadowing the space or other art. The bees, laurel leaves and suns refer to Pope Urban VIII of the Barberini family. The twisted columns are inspired by antique columns allegedly from the Temple of Solomon. Bernini was also tasked with decorations in the crossing piers, the four large niches with statues and areas above the niches. The overall effect is successful in proportion, color, and texture considering the nave’s enormous size.
Usually portrayed as a pious and upstanding Roman citizen, recent research demonstrates reality was different. Bernini was temperamental, adulterous, and would have benefitted from anger management. As the father of nine children and one of thirteen children himself, he was the breadwinner for a host of relatives. The Roman art scene was competitive and not very nice, full of nasty competitors all too willing to talk dirt about each other. Bernini was a hot commodity managing a large studio with many commissions.
Bernini was like his art – complex and made of many parts. The forty-year-old artist went into a rage and tried to kill his brother Luigi, when he discovered his mistress Costanza had another lover on the side: Luigi. Luigi fled Rome but Bernini retaliated against Costanza, with a common revenge tactic, by sending a servant with a razor to inflict a nasty facial wound. Costanza was married at the time to Bernini’s assistant. The slashing servant was exiled and Bernini was fined a large sum of 3,000 scudi. Pope Urban VIII absolved Bernini and he never paid a fine, suggesting instead that it was time for Bernini to marry and settle down. There were advantages being in the pope’s good graces and an artist in high demand.
Painter for the Rich and Famous Guido Reni (1575-1642)
No seventeenth century Italian painter was paid more nor had such as following as Guido Reni. Known for figures with gentle expressions and religious figures with eyes upturned to heaven, Guido had a refined, elegant style reminiscent of Raphael. He received commissions from popes, cardinals, and European aristocrats and remained popular for decades. Paintings are with few exceptions evenly lit with idealized figures presented with great harmony, symmetry and balance. Pictorial balance is achieved through composition and color.
Guido Reni, The Immaculate Conception, 1627, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Virgin lightly floats on a crescent moon, an attribute since Medieval time. The pristine moon shines a divine light from the sun, originating with Christ.
The Virgin in the Immaculate Conception, surrounded by angels, is the epitome of grace and holiness. The painting emanates a heavenly golden glow. By today’s standards, Reni’s paintings seem cookie cutter with similarly posed figures and appear saccharine, which was not how he was viewed in his day. Reni’s Virgin has porcelain skin and retains the typical religious attributes of halo, hands in prayer, moon, and blue mantle. He soon specialized in female religious works replete with adoring angels and was much sought after. The contrast between Reni and his contemporary Caravaggio demonstrates the variety of artistic styles in Rome. Reni painted the ideal and Caravaggio the real. Compared to Reni, more of a traditionalist, Caravaggio broke the mold of a classic style. Caravaggio exploits the drama in a scene while Reni prefers more low-key moments. Reni represents moments of divine grace while Caravaggio represents a moment of decision, or intense expression.
Reni arrived in Rome about 1602 and returned to his native Bologna in 1632. He managed a large workshop and churned out many religious and mythological paintings. As the most famous painter in Europe, he was well paid, which was necessary to support his gambling habit. Reni was not a nice man, known for picking fights, contentious behavior and stiffing his patrons, trying to get more money for paintings. A master marketer, he usually obtained high prices for his work. He reportedly had verbal altercations with Caravaggio. Eccentric at best and a misogynist at worst, he banned women from his home and studio although he excelled in painting female saints and the Virgin Mary. Although extremely difficult to get along with, yet supposedly pious and devoted to his mother, his patrons seemed to have put up with his behavior because of the prestige of owning a Reni painting.
Iconoclast Francesco Borromini (1599-1667)
Swiss born Francesco Borromini didn’t dabble in multiple art forms – he was an architect through and through. His imaginative use of space and rethinking traditional architectural forms is so unique one must see his buildings in person. Photographs cannot do it justice. His first independent commission was the small intimate San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (St. Charles of the Four Fountains) begun in 1638. Just a few minutes from the famous Trevi Fountain and across the street from the Palazzo Barberini, San Carlino (little Charles), as the church is also known, is situated on a busy intersection.
Francesco Borromini, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, facade, Rome. Flickr, public domain. 1638-67. There are four fountains at the intersection of the church, hence its name.
The church is still run by the Trinitarians, who worship the Trinity. At the time, the Trinitarians were a discalced (barefoot) very poor order whose mission was to help Christians imprisoned by the Moors. Borromini was so indebted to them for the commission that he waived his fee. Not surprising, he designed a series of “threes” in the architecture to invoke the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Borromini was trained as a stone cutter and earlier in his career worked for Bernini, later his rival in architectural commissions. Borromini worked with architects on St. Peter’s for some thirteen years and had a hand in working with Bernini on the Baldacchino. Once he was on his own, his talent for reinterpreting architectural forms shone through with complex interlocking geometrical forms. Bernini’s art was conceived in marble, gilt, and bronze; Borromini’s in math and geometry. Borromini used a medieval system of proportion, forgoing long standing Renaissance formulas to create a highly unique and individual architectural language.
Considering the very small footprint of San Carlo, Borromini endows the façade and interior with undulating convex and concave movement. He establishes a rhythm outside and inside that evokes a different spatial experience from other churches. The inside is oval-shaped. A plan of the church shows he devised the interior with two triangles placed flat sides together which form a diamond shape. Inside the diamond shape an oval is inscribed. Geometry is key to understanding the design.
Francesco Borromini, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, dome, Rome. Flickr, public domain. 1638-67. The dome appears higher and larger due to the decreasing size of the shapes.
The dome inside, supported on four semi-circle domes, consists of interconnected shapes of crosses, octagonal, and hexagonal shapes. The three shapes decrease in size towards the top of dome, giving the sensation of a larger taller dome. The white interior accentuates the play of shadow and light in the deeply incised geometrical forms. It is very puzzle-like in the fitting together of shapes to make a whole. This church, and his other masterpiece of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza in Rome must be experienced in person. Borromini’s architecture invites viewers to walk around and sit and take it in. The intimacy is engaging.
Borromini was not an easy-going man. Melancholic and irascible, he did not possess Bernini’s charisma, critical to managing complex patronage situations. His difficult personality, and what we would understand today as bouts of depression, probably impeded his career. In the end, he took his own life. His influence was not widespread and his architecture achieved the appreciation it deserved only in the late 1800s.
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Ebert-Schifferer, Sybille. Caravaggio: The Artist and His Work. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2010.
Mormando, Franco. Bernini: His Life and His Rome. The University of Chicago Press, 2011.
Sutherland Harris, Ann. Seventeenth Century Art and Architecture. 2nd edition. Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008.