Book Reviews: Steven F. Ostrow / The Art Bulletin

Giovanni Baglione: Artistic Reputation in Baroque Rome

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Ostrow reviews "Giovanni Baglione: Artistic Reputation in Baroque Rome" by Maryvelma Smith O'Neil.

MARYVELMA SMITH O`NEIL Giovanni Baglione: Artistic Reputation in Baroque Rome Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 428 pp.; 15 color ills., 108 b/w. $130.00

Recent monographic studies of seicento artists, such as Richard Spear`s on Guido Reni and Elizabeth Cropper and Charles Dempsey`s on Nicolas Poussin, have breathed new life into this traditional genre. In the former case it was the author`s psychoanalytic and social-historical methodologies that served so well to illuminate his subject`s career and obsessive personality, while it was Cropper and Dempsey`s critical engagement of Poussin`s intellectual milieu-especially of the "friends" for whom he worked-that enabled them to produce such a rich and nuanced reading of their subject`s paintings. And in each case it was the book`s subtitle (Religion, Sex, Money and Art in the World of Guido Reni and Friendship and the Love of Painting, respectively) that signaled to the reader that it was not a typical monograph. The subtitle of Smith O`Neil`s new book similarly suggests that it is not a straightforward account of the life and works of her subject, Giovanni Baglione. Indeed, Artistic Reputation in Baroque Rome leads one to expect a critical analysis of Baglione`s professional career, of the ways he created and negotiated a patronage network, and of the reception of his work during his lifetime. To a certain extent, these expectations are fulfilled. But it must also be said that her book overlooks some of the most interesting aspects of both his paintings and writings, and it reads primarily as an attempt to restore, for 21st-century readers, a reputation that has been smarting for nearly four hundred years.

The fateful blow was struck in 1603, soon after the unveiling of Baglione`s Resurrection, a large altarpiece for the church of the Gesu, when scurrilous verses attacking the artist began to circulate in Rome. Certain that they were written by Caravaggio and his cronies, Baglione brought a libel suit against them, claiming, in his deposition, that his detractors were envious of his having received the commission and, more generally, because his works were "held in higher esteem than theirs." During his interrogation, Caravaggio added to the insults. Queried about Baglione`s reputation, he responded, "I don`t know any painter who thinks Giovanni Baglione is a good painter." And when asked how he judges the Resurrection, he called it "clumsy [goffa]," adding, "it`s the worst he`s done, and I haven`t heard a single painter praise the said painting."1 The lawsuit, and particularly Caravaggio`s pronouncements on Baglione`s talents as a painter, as Smith O`Neil observes in her introduction, have "almost completely overshadowed Baglione`s artistic accomplishments" (p. 1). This is the case despite the fact that he participated in some of the most important fresco campaigns undertaken by Sixtus V, Clement VIII, and Paul V; was made a Cavaliere di Christo for an altarpiece in St. Peter`s; was three times elected principe of the Academy of St. Luke; and enjoyed a long and productive career until his death in 1643. And although the author recounts these and many other of Baglione`s successes, the trial and the artist`s sullied reputation dominate her text. Thus, in many ways, this is a book about a vendetta-Baglione`s and Smith O`Neil`s. It is about Baglione`s efforts to strike back at his detractors and to prove his virtu, and, simultaneously, it represents Smith O`Neil`s attempt, as she herself states, to redress "the standard antagonistic position against Baglione" that has dominated the scholarly literature (p. 1).

It is not surprising, therefore, that the first chapter is devoted to "The Trial," in which the sensational events surrounding Baglione`s lawsuit against Orazio Longhi, Filippo Trisegni, Orazio Gentileschi, and Caravaggio are presented in great detail. Smith O`Neil succeeds in her goal of helping us see the trial "through the wider lens of social protest and criminal justice in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Rome" (p. 3). Like recent studies of the famous rape of Artemisia Gentileschi, which have reinterpreted that event within the context of social alliances, professional reputations, and juridical realities in 17th-century Rome,2 here Baglione`s lawsuit is given a broader social historical dimension by means of fascinating digressions on contemporary jurisprudence, codes of honor, and the Roman prison system. The author paints a vivid picture of the complex relationships-often antagonistic-between Baglione and his contemporary painters and provides a lucid account, of the trial itself, accompanied, in appendix 6, by an English translation of the entire legal record. Notwithstanding the drama of the trial, there is little here that Helen Langdon did not include in her monographic study of Caravaggio,3 and Smith O`Neil`s revisionist reading of Baglione`s intermezzo Caravaggesco (his emulation of Caravaggio`s style) and its role in provoking Caravaggio and his cohorts to pen the libelous poems ultimately fails to convince this reader.

Chapters 2 and 3, entitled, respectively, "Making a Name" and "Fame and Fortune," are, for the most part, entirely traditional presentations of Baglione`s artistic career and stylistic development. In the first, Smith O`Neil provides an overview of his early artistic training; she rightly stresses the importance of Giuseppe Cesari to his growth as a painter, and she discusses a number of his major commissions through the Holy Year of 1600. Her narrative is enriched by brief digressions on (the often dire) economic conditions of late cinquecento Rome, on artistic rivalries in the papal capital, on workshop organization and practice, and on the lives of Baglione`s various patrons, among them the Santacroce family and Cardinals Jacopo Sannesio and Paolo Sfondrato. The following chapter begins with one of the artist`s most successful public commissions, his altarpiece of The Raising of Tabitha for St. Peter`s, for which, in 1606, he was made a Cavaliere di Christo. Baglione`s subsequent work for Paul V and Cardinals Scipione Borghese and Alessandro Peretti-Montalto are discussed at length, as are his paintings for Ferdinando Gonzaga, the duke of Mantua (for whom he served as court painter from 1621 to 1622), and other notable patrons. What emerges from Smith O`Neil`s account is a convincing picture of a highly successful artist who achieved the "fame and fortune" of her chapter`s title. What fails to emerge in these chapters, unfortunately, is a balanced evaluation of his artistic talents. Baglione was, without question, a gifted draftsman, steeped in the tradition of Roman disegno. His chalk and pen and ink drawings reveal a force and lyricism rarely found in his paintings; indeed, one of the values of this book is the serious consideration it gives to the artist`s graphic output and the integration of his preparatory drawings into the discussion of his paintings. As a painter, however, Baglione was extraordinarily uneven, at best, competent, and his work pales in comparison with that of many of the contemporary artists he emulated, such as Caravaggio, Guido Reni, and Giovanni Lanfranco. Yet Smith O`Neil wants us to see him as an innovative, unfailingly original, first-rate artist. Instead of critically evaluating his strengths and weaknesses as a painter, she embraces the (hardly convincing) assessment by one of his contemporaries that he was "one of the greatest talents of his age" (p. 127). Her analyses of the paintings themselves do not strengthen her case, for they are largely confined to formal descriptions of composition, color, light effects, and paint handling, with frequent recourse to cliched-and ultimately meaningless-adjectives, such as "manneristic" and "Baroque." No less disappointing is her discussion of the iconography of some of Baglione`s most provocative and original compositions. About his Spinario of about 1625, for example, which the artist based on an engraving of 1581 after the famous antique bronze in the Capitoline, she simply states that the print "inspired Baglione to surpass Pygmalion by infusing stone with life on the surface of the canvas" (pp. 139-41), ignoring the ways in which the image cleverly engages the paragone, the comparison of painting and sculpture. And the painter`s astonishing Venus Whipped by Love, also of the 1620s, which presents a rear view of the fleshy goddess mounted by Cupid, is presented merely as an example of "Baglione`s propensity for unusual iconography" (p. 145), without any consideration of either its unabashed eroticism or moralizing allegorical content.4

In "Man of the Arts," the book`s brief fourth chapter, Smith O`Neil leaves Baglione`s paintings and drawings behind for an examination of his association with Rome`s Academy of St. Luke. Making good use of the academy`s frustratingly incomplete archival holdings, Romano Alberti`s Origine e progresso dell`accademia del disegno (1604), and more recently published sources, she presents a thorough review of the origins of the institution and its instructional activities. Baglione`s continuous involvement with the academy, from 1593, the year of his admittance, until the time of his death, is painstakingly reconstructed, with special emphasis given to his role in the academy`s revision of its statutes and his support for the reconstruction of its church, Ss. Luca e Martina. This reveals Baglione as an artist obsessed with status, his own and that of his fellow academicians, which could be elevated, he believed, by making the academy a more elitist and professional organization.

Smith O`Neil`s final chapter takes up the under-studied subject of Baglione`s career as a writer. Entitled "First Historian of the Roman Baroque" (presumably following Julius von Schlosser`s designation of Baglione as "il primo storiografo romano di questo barocco romano"), it focuses on Le vite de` pittori, scultori et architetti, dal pontificato di Gregorio XIII del 1572, in fino a tempi di Papa Urbano Ottavo nel 1642, which was first published in 1642. Prior to delving into this infinitely rich corpus of artistic biographies, however, she briefly considers his Le nove chiese di Roma, a guide to Rome`s nine major pilgrimage churches, published three years earlier. She draws attention to what she calls Baglione`s "roving eye" (p. 178), that is, his sensitivity to works of all periods, from Early Christian to modern, and to his wide range of interests, from painting, sculpture, and architecture to marble revetment, liturgical objects, and inscriptions. And her observations about Baglione`s comments on the technical means by which works were produced serve to underscore one of the unusual aspects of his text. But in the mere three pages she devotes to Le nove chiese she barely goes beyond the book`s surface characteristics. For example, that Le nove chiese marks a watershed in the guidebook literature of Rome-the turning point between the older tradition of devotional guidebooks, such as Onofrio Panvinio`s Le sette chiese romane (1570) and Ottavio Panciroli`s I tesori nascosti nell`Alma citta di Roma (1600), and the modern tradition of artistic guides, exemplified by Filippo Titi`s Studio di pittura, scoltura, et architettura, nelle chiese di Roma (1674) and Antonio Nibby`s Roma dell`anno MDCCCXXXVIII-goes unmentioned. She says nothing about how Baglione structured his itineraries of the churches; she considers neither the accuracy of his historical claims nor why he omitted certain works; and she offers no commentary on the nature of his aesthetic judgments. Moreover, her suggestions that Giovanni Maggi`s map of Rome may initially have been "devised to illustrate" Baglione`s book and that his engravings of the nine churches provide "evidence of an intended collaboration between author and engraver" (p. 178) are entirely implausible, as those works and Maggi`s death (sometime between 1618 and 1625) predate the publication of the book by many years. For a truly probing assessment of Baglione`s volume, therefore, one must still turn to Liliana Barroero`s introduction to her critical edition of Le nove chiese and to C. Guglielmi Faldi`s entry on Baglione in the Dizionario biografico degli italiani.5

Smith O`Neil`s discussion of Baglione`s Le vite consists, essentially, of three distinct parts. In the first she considers a number of interrelated and much-debated issues concerning the history and reception of the book. These include its various editions (and the differences between them); Giovan Pietro Bellori`s "Alla pittura," a poem published in the preface to Le vite, and his postille in several copies of the book; the possible role of the poet Ottavio Tronsarelli in ghostwriting the text; its critical fortune; and its dedication to Cardinal Giacomo Colonna. In the second she describes the structure and scope of Le vite (its division into five chronological sections, called giornate, each introduced by a dialogue between a "gentleman" and a "foreigner"; its more than two hundred biographies of painters, sculptors, architects, engravers, woodworkers, bronze founders, silver- and goldsmiths, all of whom, except for Baglione himself, had died; and its almost exclusive consideration of works executed in Rome and accessible to the public) and comments briefly on Baglione`s debt to the writings of Vasari, Raffaello Borghini, and Giulio Mancini. In the third and longest section devoted to Le vite she attempts a broad characterization of the lives, contrasting Baglione`s "clarity of truth" to Vasari`s "ideal biographies," arguing that "artistic realities prevail over ideological concerns and a hierarchical ranking of artists according to theoretical criteria" (p. 190). She also emphasizes Baglione`s particular appreciation for trompe l`oeil effects and softly modeled sculpture and reads his moralistic judgments on the behavior of certain of his fellow artists as being determined by his "belief in the ideal image of the well adjusted and socially integrated artist" (p. 195).

If we are to believe Smith O`Neil, Baglione`s biographies are models of their kind, the work of "an almost infallible connoisseur" (p. 190), characterized by "objectivity" (p. 189), based on "reliable written and oral sources" (p. 189), which furnish "an invaluable primary source for art in Rome from 1572 to 1642" (p. 196). Baglione did have a good eye, and as he knew many of the artists about whom he wrote, his attributions and biographical information are usually trustworthy. And there is no question that Le vite is often the first and, in certain instances, the only source of information on the lives and works of artists who were active in Rome from the time of Gregory XIII through the pontificate of Urban VIII. But is Baglione`s text as objective and lacking in theoretical bias as Smith O`Neil suggests? And can the book be read in ways she fails to do, for example, in terms of its larger sociological agenda or as an example of life writing, a specific literary genre with a long and distinguished history?

The answer to the first question, I believe, is no, for Baglione is quick to pass negative judgments on artists or specific works if he finds them to be lacking in the fundamentals of what he believes to be good art. Thus, despite his praise for Pietro Bernini`s remarkable skill in carving marble, he criticizes his lack of disegno. Similarly, he ridicules the statue of Moses by Prospero Bresciano and Leonardo Sormani, which was erected at the center of the Fountain of Moses, for its awkward proportions. And although he admires the "beautiful, smoky, sweet, and charming manner" of Federico Barocci`s Visitation in the Chiesa Nuova, he finds fault with his Institution of the Eucharist in S. Maria sopra Minerva for being too dark. His most severe criticisms, however, are reserved for Caravaggio, notwithstanding the claim by Smith O`Neil and others before her that the biography of his archrival "is quite remarkable for the absence of rancor" (p. 38).6 While it must be acknowledged that Baglione expresses his appreciation for the diligenza (great care), rich coloring, and vivid naturalism of some of Caravaggio`s early Roman works, his mature paintings meet with serious disapproval. His Contarelli Chapel paintings, Baglione claims, "were excessively praised by evil people," and, furthermore, he was incapable of working in any medium other than oils. Caravaggio`s Madonna dei Palafranieri and Death of the Virgin were rejected, Baglione implies, for their breach of decorum, a problem he also finds in his Madonna di Loreto. "Moreover," he writes, "some people thought he had destroyed the art of painting" [and] "in his pictures he did not have much judgment in selecting the good and avoiding the bad."7 Some of Caravaggio`s followers meet with even more dismissive judgments. For example, simply because he decided to "imitate the manner of Caravaggio," Carlo Saraceni abandoned his studies, Baglione tells us, and, as a consequence, his style was "weak." And Giovanni Serodine, also owing to his decision to imitate the style of Caravaggio, painted only "after nature . . . without disegno, and with little decorum."8 Despite Baglione`s personal antipathy toward Caravaggio and his own intermezzo Caravaggesco, these and other comments, as I read them, unequivocally reveal a specific aesthetic bias-rooted in central Italian theoretical precepts-against works insufficiently grounded in disegno, lacking in decorum, and overly dependent on (an imperfect) nature.

In answer to the second question posed above, I would argue that the answer is yes, that Le vite can and should be read both as expressive of a very clear sociological agenda and within the context of the genre of biographical writing. As Joseph Connors observed, in addition to providing a wealth of generally reliable attributions, characterizations of style, and colorful anecdotes, Baglione "mined a . . . sociological vein. . . . He treasured decorous behavior and recorded all signs of social status, including houses, dress, collections, permission to wear a sword, splendid funerals, and tombs."9 Similarly, he never failed to mention if an artist was a member of his beloved Academy of St. Luke, had been elected to the Virtuosi del Pantheon, had been knighted, had been well paid for his work, or had been employed by noble patrons. And the corollary to this is Baglione`s delight in recognizing artists as virtuosi, not simply as an expression of their artistic ability but in reference to their possessing literary, musical, or dramaturgical skills. Running throughout Le vite, in other words, is an abiding concern with the honor of the profession-with the elevated status and nobilta of the artist as gentleman.

No less than it is a sociological portrayal of artistic life in Rome, Baglione`s text exemplifies the genre of life writing and demands that it be read as such. The lives that it contains, although relatively brief and lacking in great literary style, nevertheless conform to the structure and conventions of early modern biographies, especially those of artists as codified by Vasari. In general, they begin with an account of an artist`s birth and early training; they move on to list major works and patrons, the circumstances of death and burial, and students and followers; and they conclude with an account of his costumi, his character and personal habits. The lives are peppered with anecdotes and topoi, and they employ the rhetorics of praise and blame. And alongside their facts are fictions, imagined realities that become integral to the historical record.10 When we read in Baglione`s life of Caravaggio, for example, that while visiting the Contarelli Chapel he was joined by Federico Zuccaro, who exclaimed, "What is all the fuss about? . . . I don`t see anything here other than the style of Giorgione," should we accept this as truth, or might we better understand it is a poetical fiction-no less meaningful-in which the author speaks through the (imagined) voice of academic authority? To cite one other example, we read that the teenage Giuseppe Cesari, while working as a lowly grinder of colors in the Vatican Palace, took advantage of the painters` midday break and executed some "well-formed and wonderfully lively" figures, and that their quality surpassed the work of his masters, who, on their return, were "amazed . . . that from a hand so young a work so perfect could emerge." Their whispers were overheard by Egnazio Danti, the superintendent of the decorations, who, on seeing the figures, recognized an extraordinary talent in the youth, and so impressed was Danti that he presented Cesari to Pope Gregory XIII, who took him on as one of his favorites. Are we to accept this story as historical fact, as Smith O`Neil does, or might we recognize it as a classic example of what Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz called "the tale of the discovery of talent," a topos that appears throughout Vasari`s Lives and in numerous later biographies?11 To read Baglione`s text without considering its sociological and literary character is, I suggest, to overlook some of its richest aspects.

To this reviewer, then, Smith O`Neil`s book is a disappointment. It endeavors to be an apologia for Baglione, yet most of its arguments ultimately fail to convince us that he was the great talent the author would have us believe. The author presents material on the trial already familiar from recent publications, provides a rather superficial discussion of Baglione`s career as both a painter and a writer, and neglects a considerable body of literature (dealing with specific paintings, attributions, patrons, and so on) that might well have enriched her text. The book also contains a number of surprising errors of fact, only one of which I mention here. In her discussion of Baglione`s life of Caravaggio, Smith O`Neil writes, "Among Caravaggio`s biographers, Baglione alone was informed about Caravaggio`s every move after his arrival in Rome in 1592 and knew of the earliest dealers and owners who advanced his career during the final decade of the sixteenth century." As evidence for this claim, she then states that Baglione reported "important details unknown to Giulio Mancini and others, such as the key role played by the Neapolitan poet Giambattista Marino in helping Caravaggio to obtain the commission for the Contarelli Chapel" (p. 35). Baglione, in fact, wrote, "With the help of his Cardinal [del Monte] he got the commission for the Contarelli Chapel." It was, instead, Giovan Pietro Bellori, in his biography of the painter, who maintained that Marino intervened on Caravaggio`s behalf and recommended him for the commission.12 In a book that purports to be the authoritative study of Baglione, a mistake of this kind is startling. And in light of Smith O`Neil`s earlier articles on Baglione and other seicento topics, which demonstrate a consistent scholarly rigor, this and other errors are even more striking. In the end, Smith O`Neil`s Baglione is an opportunity missed, for her subject-as both artist and writer-deserves a more balanced, more rigorous, and more probing analysis than the one presented here.


Notes 1. I quote from the English translation of the trial record in Smith O`Neil, pp. 338, 349, 350; in translating the word "goffa," I prefer "clumsy" to Smith O`Neil`s "bungle." 2. See, especially, Elizabeth S. Cohen, "The Trials of Artemisia Gentileschi: A Rape as History," Sixteenth Century Journal 31, no. 1 (2000): 47-75, with additional bibliography. 3. Helen Langdon, Caravaggio: A Life (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1998), 252-74. 4. The intriguing relationship between this painting and the Allegory of Painting in the Musee de Tesse, Le Mans, usually attributed to Artemisia Gentileschi, is also ignored. See R. Ward Bissell, Artemisia Gentileschi and the Authority of Art: Critical Reading and Catalogue Raisonne (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), 299-301; and Keith Christiansen and Judith W. Mann, Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi, exh. cat., Palazzo Venezia, Rome, 2001, 353-55. 5. Giovanni Baglione, Le nove chiese di Roma (Rome, 1639), ed. Liliana Barroero, with notes to the text by Monica Maggiorani and Cinzia Pujia (Rome: Archivio Guido Izzi, 1990); and C. Guglielmi Faldi, "Baglione, Giovanni," in Dizionario biografico degli italiani, vol. 5 (Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1963), 187-91, esp. 189-90. 6. Richard Spear, for example, in his entry on Baglione in The Age of Carravaggio, exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1985, 90, stated that his life of Caravaggio "is remarkably objective, given the circumstances." 7. I cite the English translation of the life in Howard Hibbard, Caravaggio (New York: Harper and Row, 1983), 352-56. 8. Giovanni Baglione, Le vite de` pittori, scultori, et architetti (Rome, 1642), ed. V. Mariani, facsimile ed. (Rome: E. Calzone, 1935), 146, 311. 9. Joseph Connors, "Review of G. Baglione, Le Vite de` pittori, scultori, et architetti (Rome, 1642), facsimile with notes by J. Hess and H. Rottgen (Vatican City: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1995); J. Hess, Die Kunstlerbiographien von Giovanni Battista Passeri (1934; reprint, Rome: Biblioteca Hertziana, 1995); L. Pascoli, Vite de` pittori, scultori, ed architetti moderni, ed. V. Martinelli and A. Marabottini (Perugia: Electa Editori Umbri, 1992)," Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 57, no. 4 (1998): 470. 10. The bibliography on biographical writing is far too vast to cite here. On the poetics of Vasari`s Lives, see especially the work of Paul Barolsky, including Michelangelo`s Nose: A Myth and Its Maker (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990); Giotto`s Father and the Family in Vasari`s "Lives" (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992); and Faun in the Garden: Michelangelo and the Poetic Origins of Renaissance Art (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994). 11. Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz, Legend, Myth, and Magic in the Image of the Artist: A Historical Experiment, trans. A. Laing, with a preface by E. H. Gombrich (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 26-38. For the story of Cesari`s discovery, see Baglione (as in n. 8), 367-68. 12. See Hibbard (as in n. 7), 353, 364-65.


STEVEN F. OSTROW is associate professor of art history at the University of California, Riverside. [Department of the History of Art, University of California, Riverside, Riverside, Calif. 92521].

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