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Week 10: Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669)

April 1, 2011






Rape of the Sabine Women

Pietro da Cortona 1629-1631.

Oil on canvas.

For Palazzo Sacchetti, now in Pinacoteca Capitolina, Rome
Pietro da Cortona’s painting for Giovanni Francesco Sacchetti and emulates many characteristics of Baroque painting (Merz).  It also closely follows Heinrich Wölfflin’s Principles that define Baroque art (Minor 28).

Pietro rendered this scene in a painterly manner, inspired by Titian.  The figures are not plastic or defined by sharp contour, and edges are blurry.  There are quite a few picture planes in this single composition, each one set at a distance that is farther from the viewer (indicated by smaller figures than the plane in front of it.)  This idea of planer recession is adapted from Renaissance techniques, but made Baroque in that the space seems infinite.

This scene of chaos is presented to us in such a way that leads us to believe we are only seeing a portion of the action.  There are no repoussoir figures to keep the viewer out of the painting – for all we know, we can be in the midst of the scene as it goes on, encircling us.  It does, however, have a theater, stage-like quality about it.  Figures on the sides seem to be entering and exiting from the wings.  There is a lack of co-extensive space.

Pietro follows a sort of decorum in the depiction of this scene.  Perhaps inspired by Bernini’s Pluto and Persephone, or the other way around, the figures in Pietro’s Sabine composition seem to dance across the picture plane in intense contrappasto.  The strong dark-skinned men grab into the pale, flailing women, a contrast in color and direction.  The figures vibrate in anguish.

There are a number of characters in this composition.  Pietro da Cortona unites them in color and subordination.  One does not look at this scene and see individual players, but a scene as a whole with all parts working together, relying upon each other for context.  He sprinkles the composition with pops of color and chiaroscuro.  This, along with the strong diagonal forces, controls the eye throughout the painting.

Merz, Jörg Martin. “Cortona, Pietro da.” Grove Art OnlineOxford Art Online. 31 Jan. 2011

Minor, Vernon Hyde. Baroque & Rococo: Art & Culture.  Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, Inc.






Glorification of the Reign of Urban VIII

Pietro da Cortona 1633-1639.


Gran Salone, Palazzo Barberini, Rome.

Pietro da Cortona’s painting of the ceiling of a Salon in the Palazzo Barberini set a new standard in scale for ceiling paintings.  It is the largest private ceiling painting in Rome.  The entire composition was executed as one continuous painting utilizing di sotto in su and pushing quadratura to its limits.  The subject is the apotheosis of Pope Urban VIII, a new and influential idea at the time.  It is based on a poem by Francesco Bracciolini (Enggass 103) containing many episodes which are subordinate to the whole epic composition.

Many photographs attempt to show this painting in its entirety.  However, Pietro did not intend for the view to see it all at once.  He had the direction of the viewer’s own movements in mind.  Upon entering this room, one sees the far end of the painting first (Minerva and the giants).  The central scene at the top is oriented vertically for the viewer to comprehend while still di sotto in su. When viewed from directly below as this photo shows it (and as a person may never be able to actually see it), the lateral figures appear to be stretched out.  Once the viewer is oriented in a natural location beneath the painting, the composition makes sense.  Pietro’s use of Venetian atmospheric  effects and perspective helps resolve issues with di sotto in su.

Besides an apotheosis, this is an allegory of Divine Providence.  It is believed and accepted that the pope was elected through Divine Providence.  Many other allegorical figures are scattered about the entire composition.  The main event shows Rome crowning Religion with the papal tiara.  A putto helps Religion hold the papal keys.  Faith, Hope, and Charity surround the Barberini bees.

As aforementioned, Pietro used quadratura in this piece in an extreme fashion.  The architecture of the room seems to extend far above the actually ceiling.  The fictive architecture is painted to resemble marble.  Atlas figures hold up the cornices.  Figures within the lateral scenes step out of their frames and into the architecture, blurring the line between flesh and stone.  This painting comes to life as the marble figures mimic poses of the narrative figures (left; Hercules, the Forge of Vulcan, and Prudence).

Enggass, Robert, Jonathan Brown. Italian and Spanish Art. Evanston: Northwestern University Press. 1970.






Trinity in Glory & Assumption

Pietro da Cortona 1647-1651 and 1655-1660.


Santa Maria in Vallicella, Rome.

Decorating the dome of the Chiesa Nuova in Rome was Pietro da Cortona’s first major commission in the Eternal City.  He began executing a Trinty in the dome in 1647 (Merz).  In this composition, he arranged the group of figures separately from each other, as opposed to his jumbled compositions like in the Barberini Palace.  Trinity is painted di sotto in su.

Four years after completing the dome at S.M. in Vallicella, Pietro was commissioned to paint the apse of the half-dome above the altar.  The subject for this fresco was The Assumption.  Pietro executed this scene in a similar fashion as the Trinity, however, both compositions were in separate spheres.  Pietro’s task was to find a way to unify both of these scene that are very clearly separated by architecture.  Pietro’s solution includes an almost leaping Mary.  She sees to be about to fly out of her apse and into the dome to join her Son in the Trinity.

Just like in the Barberini Salon, the viewer’s own movement through the room controls his or her experience of the paintings.  In the church, it is difficult to see both compositions in the dome and the apse at the same time.  Upon entering the church, one sees the Assumption at the altar.  The viewer’s experience changes upon approaching the dome.  Once near the dome, some of the Trintiy can be seen along with the Assumption.  Once under the dome, the viewer is able to see the entire Trinity and experiences the Virgin Mary’s final destination.  This sense of a changing composition upon movement of the viewer is one of Pietro da Cortona’s greatest devices in his paintings.

Jörg Martin Merz. “Cortona, Pietro da.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. 1 Apr. 2011 <;.






Transport of the Holy House

Pietro da Cortona 1664-1665.


Santa Maria in Vallicella, Rome.

The fresco on the main vault of the church depicts St. Philip Neri’s vision of the Virgin and Child during the transporting of the Holy House of Loreto.  It is painted primarily di sotto in su. Although the composition would look strange on a vertical wall, Pietro also executed this as a quadro riportato.

The unusual orientation of this painting – or lack thereof an actual orientation – was made possible by the dearth of subject matter in the very center.  This is where the eye would naturally fall in order to make sense of the composition’s orientation.  Lack of figures of subject matter in this area causes the eye to wander around the rest of the painting without regard to its realistic sense of place.

There is a hint of quadratura in this fresco.  The architecture painted in the scene is very steep, emphasizing the di sotto in su, as figures must lean over elements to be visible.

Although there is quite a number of figures in this composition, there are only a select few necessary to the story.  These are easily identifiable, making this an appropriate piece in the Counter-Reformation.  Its compliance with the Decrees of Trent also account for its lack of true di sotto in su, for seeing the undersides of figures in such attire as depicted here would be inappropriate in a sacred setting.

Kemp, Martin. The Oxford History of Western Art. New York: Oxford. 2000. p.200.

Pietro da Cortona's Process of St. Charles Borromeo during the Plague in Milan, 1667.Process of S. Charles Borromeo during the Plague in Milan

Pietro da Cortona 1667.

Oil on canvas.

S. Carlo ai Catinari, Rome.

Painted very late in Pietro da Cortona’s career, this canvas painting shows how the artist’s style changes in response to subject matter.  The Caravaggesque chiaroscuro and tenebrism are certainly appropriate in this scene of disaster and chaos.

In the scene, St. Charles Borromeo uses the true nail of the Cross to ward off the plague in Milan.  This miracle was important subject matter for the legitimization of saints during the Counter-Reformation.  It seems as if the style in which Pietro painted this scene has been adjusted to fit the dismal subject matter, following a decorum on such works.

Although much more Classical in composition compared to Pietro’s earlier work, this painting still contains many Baroque elements.  The dark scene is punctuated by bursts of light from candles.  This was a characteristic of Baroque artists trying to flaunt their ability to represent multiple light sources.  The chaotic scene is full of diagonals and movement.  However, the action is taking place right up front in the foreground.  Two figures at the bottom corners frame the scene, keeping it within the picture plane.  There is a slight hint of distance in the background.

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