by Roderick Conway Morris

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Palazzo Barberini, Rome
Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio, c.1598-99

Fall and Rise of a Grand Palazzo

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 17 April 1999


Palazzo Barberini was bought by Maffeo Barberini two years after he ascended the papal throne as Urban VIII in 1623. During his 21-year reign he changed the face of Rome, at the same time employing the great architects of the age - Bernini, Borromini, Pietro da Cortona and Maderno - to expand the existing palazzo to make it a residence of worthy of the family's public position.

Since 1949, when it was acquired by the state, Palazzo Barberini has been the home of Rome's National Gallery. But, despite its grand accommodation, it has long been the Cinderella of the city's museums. A primary reason has been the misfortunes of the building itself. Once set in vast gardens on the outer edge of the populated part of Rome, the Palazzo has become hemmed in by more recent urbanization. The facade facing Piazza Barberini has been obscured at ground level by an ugly parade containing a cinema and restaurant.

More problematic still has been the occupation since 1934 of much of the lower part of the palazzo by the Italian Armed Forces Club. However, after almost a decade in the latest round of indecisive skirmishing, the word is that the military will evacuate the premises next year.

The restoration of much of the rest of the building, which had become visibly dilapidated, has been completed, including that of the facades giving on to Piazza Barberini and Via Quattro Fontane, and of Borromini's majestic spiral staircase.

The gallery's collection of some 1,500 pictures has been amassed since its official foundation toward the end of the last century by donation and state purchase. One of the most significant components are the 400 pieces once belonging to the banker Giovanni Torlonia, who during and after the Napoleonic era in Rome, acquired many works that aristocratic households were forced to sell to pay the exorbitant taxes imposed by the French rulers. Another key group of pictures comes from the Monte di Pieta, which accepted art works as security against loans and ended up with a considerable collection of unredeemed items.

Among the most famous works at the Gallery are Raphael's portrait of his reputed mistress ('La Fornarina'), Quentin Metsys's of Erasmus, and Hans Holbein's of Henry VIII. Filippo Lippi, El Greco, Caravaggio and many others are also represented by important pieces.

The Gallery's latest addition is 'Bathsheba's Bath' by Jacopo Zucchi. It was lent to the Italian Embassy in Berlin in 1908 and believed to have been destroyed in World War II bombing raid. The Wadsworth Atheneum bought it in Paris in 1965, but now that it has become clear that the work was stolen, the American gallery has returned it to Italy.

One of the gallery's particular strengths is its 60 or so pictures dating from the late 16th and first half of the 17th century, which happen to coincide with the period when the palazzo saw the peak of its glory. Pietro da Cortona celebrated the acme of Barberini spiritual and secular power in his huge ceiling fresco in the great hall, 'The Triumph of Divine Providence,' and also built a fine Baroque theater adjoining the palazzo, destroyed, alas, when a road was driven through it in 1926.

To highlight the collection of early Baroque treasures and to mark the completion of the principal external phase of restoration of the palazzo, the gallery has mounted a special hanging of holdings from this pivotal age: 'Caravaggio and His Followers,' which continues until May 9, after which most of the canvases will be again displayed in the permanent collection.

The gallery has major Caravaggios, notably 'Judith Cutting Off the Head of Holofernes,' a rare work in that it is still on its original stretcher and in its original frame. This masterpiece, which was rediscovered only in 1950, is both startlingly violent and inescapably erotic - Caravaggio having painted Judith's torso naked before covering it with the thin veil of her diaphanous blouse. Modern photographic analysis has also confirmed the attribution of Palazzo Barberini's 'Narcissus' to the turbulent young genius.

The seismic effect of Caravaggio's appearance on the scene, not on only Italian artists but on many from the Low Countries and France, is extensively demonstrated. Indeed, so profound was the impact on a painter like the Provencal Triomphe Bigot that his subsequent change of style at one point led scholars to propose that his works were by two different artists, putatively father and son.

Many of the names of these 'Caravaggesque' artists are not well known - or even, as with the fascinating 'Candlelight Master,' a matter for conjecture. But there are a number of memorable paintings that should certainly encourage visitors to return in the future to a collection that has languished in semi-obscurity for far too long.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024