Baroque Gone Bad

Small Fun in the Big Museum

Lucio Massari: La Maddalena

The Italian Baroque was indeed an exotic fruit, but like most exotic fruits it was sure to go off if not handled carefully. Bolognese art in the late 16th and 17th centuries, as seen in the Pinacoteca Nazionale, does often have a certain aroma to it.

The Counter-Reformation and Italy’s loss of political liberty created a quietly traumatized world, one in which a very sophisticated people was reduced to mouthing pious platitudes, with the police and the Inquisition constantly peeking over their shoulders. As long as they were careful, Italians could enjoy their last few decades of prosperity. They were impressed by the lavish, solemn spectacles provided by Church and state, and the new art, sanctioned by Rome and commissioned in vast quantities for churches and palaces, seemed an Olympian peak of beauty and elegance.

Something was missing. The Bolognese masters of the new official style, the Carracci and Guido Reni, may have dazzled with their technical perfection, but their innumerable imitators found them a hard act to follow. Bologna in this era has a lot to answer for, and the last rooms of the Pinacoteca will amuse you with a flood of some of the most uninspired painting ever made. Lifeless virtuosity alternates with rare flashes of witless virtuosity, including perhaps the silliest high-fashion Annunciation ever painted, by Bologna’s own Pietro Faccini.

The thought police of the popes can take most of the credit for this slow strangulation of art, but the Pinacoteca also provides a wonderful glimpse into the sort of people that inhabited this sad, twilight world. La Famiglia Gozzadini is a work by the excellent portraitist Lavinia Fontana, capturing a prominent family on the cusp of the Renaissance and the Baroque.

Lavinia Fonttana, La Famiglia Gozzadini

It’s hard to tell whether this strangely Victorian group is an intentional send-up, like Goya’s brutally caricaturistic portraits of the Spanish royal family, or Rousseau’s Cart of Père Juniet, or Grant Wood’s American Gothic; perhaps there simply wasn’t any other way to paint such creatures. The Gozzadini, jowly, smug and overdressed, are horrible enough, though the miserable little family dog steals the show, looking quite the Gozzadini herself in her bracelet and earrings.

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