St Philip and Federico Barocci

Barocci’s Visitation        -        St Philip Neri  

An exhibition of the work of Federico Barocci is currently on display in the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery in London. Entitled Barocci: Brilliance and Grace, this exhibition brings to London for the first time a painting with a close connection to St Philip Neri; the Visitation.

Much of what we now see in the Chiesa Nuova, the church of the Roman Oratory, would have been unknown to St Philip. He knew a predominantly whitewashed church with only a single aisle. Yet there is a sight in the forth chapel on the left which St Philip knew well and which is now in London until the 19th of May; Barocci’s Visitation.

Federico Barocci (c. 1535-1612) was an artist from the city of Urbino in the Marches region of Italy. Federico’s family was one of scientific instrument makers, with his father specialising in astrolabes and clocks. The young Barocci went to study painting in Rome from 1553-5 and returned again from 1560-63. St Philip had been ordained priest two years before Barocci’s first visit to Rome and had already started the practice of the Oratory, but the community of priests would not be begun until 1564, and not formalised as the Congregation of the Oratory until 1575.

Whilst there is no direct evidence that St Philip and the young Barocci meet in these years, we know that Barocci’s patron, Cardinal Giulio della Rovere was a devotee of St Philip, and della Rovere sent his personal doctor to treat St Philip in 1562 as he would do for Barocci in 1563 when the young painter was seriously – though not fatally – poisoned at a picnic by jealous classmates. Barocci returned to Urbino; he never fully recovered, suffering from intense abdominal pain for the rest of his life.

Before this unfortunate event, Barocci’s uncle, Giovanni Maria Barocci made an ingenious watch shaped like an egg and signed 1563, which we know belonged to St Philip. The Saint’s biographer tells us that “In order to be punctual at his morning prayer, when he went to sleep he placed at the head of his bed a watch, on the face of which he could tell what o’clock it was by merely touching it.” It is speculated that the watchmaker’s nephew delivered it to St Philip for his uncle.

What we do know for certain however is that in 1582 St Philip’s Oratory commissioned an altarpiece from Barocci for their new church. This was to be his first Roman altarpiece, and was an important commission. Because of the painstaking precision of his work, and the limited hours he could work daily due to his ill health, the canvas was only delivered in 1586. Despite the delay, the resulting painting the Visitiation caused a sensation, with crowds gathered to file past it for three whole days, and requests by Roman patrons for more works by Barocci followed.

It seems however that it was St Philip himself who was most taken with the painting. It was noted in St Philip’s process for canonisation that he was often in the chapel of the Visitation. His biographer relates the following: “[Philip] was in the chapel of the Visitation, one of his favourite haunts, because he was particularly fond of Barocci’s picture which is there; and sitting down, according to his custom, upon a little seat, he passed unawares into a most sweet ecstasy.”

Barocci was now highly sought after, which, combined with of the length of time he required to execute his art, made him by some way the most expensive artist of his day. Despite this, the delicacy and devotion which he was able to convey with his brush meant that St Philip and the Fathers of the Oratory looked into commissioning a further three paintings from him, though the only the Presentation of the Virgin went ahead. Barocci was commissioned to start on the Presentation in 1592 and it was finished in 1603, some years after St Philip had died.

What was it about Barocci’s Visitation which resonated with St Philip? There are perhaps a number of factors. Firstly, looking at the painting, it seems that Barocci was influenced by the rosary book of Alberto Castellano; St Philip also had a copy of this book, so Barocci’s reflections would likely have been attuned to St Philip’s.

Then there is the subject matter itself. St Philip’s biographer devotes a whole chapter to the Saint’s great spiritual care for pregnant women and those in childbirth. In the Visitation the expectant Blessed Virgin Mary greets her cousin Elizabeth who was also expecting her child John the Baptist. In this one painting St Philip could then find his Lord hidden in his expectant Mother, and the as yet unborn St John the Baptist, the patron of his home city of Florence.

Finally, the style of Barocci’s art seems to accord with St Philip’s spiritual vision. St Philip emphasised the possibility and necessity of sanctity in the world. He would encourage shop boys and street sellers, princesses and priests, to prayer and to a lively and realist devotion to the Passion and other mysteries of Our Lord’s life. He declared that sanctity could and should be sought in daily life and that holiness could be lived amidst the pots and pans of the kitchen just as surely as in the cloister. Above all he knew that life with God perfects human life and gives a surpassing sweetness and joy to it, even in the sorrows of this world.

Barocci’s poses for the figures in the Visitation, as in the rest of his art, are naturalistic and painstakingly realist, yet the faces are idealised. The sacred encounter of Mary with Elizabeth takes place flanked by Joseph mundanely stooping to pick up a sack and by a woman carrying a basket of chickens as Zechariah stumbles in and a donkey looks on. It is not only the impeccable draftsmanship which makes a Barocci instantly identifiable, but above all his characteristic use of colour. The pinks and greys create a sweetness and docility without ever descending into mere sentimentalism and mawkishness, which St Philip also always avoided. Instead, Barocci’s coloration shows the sanctity of the Saints bursting out of the everyday and renewing the world. So he fills the viewer with a sense of Christian joy, in perfect harmony with St Philip’s spiritual vision.

An Italian art historian wrote of Barocci that “He spoke almost always of joy and of grace; he sang of small lights, of delicate, sweet and somewhat restrained feelings.” It’s no wonder that St Philip spent so much time in the chapel of the Visitation; finding in Barocci a painter who communicated Divine truths and conveyed the grace of God so well.

St Philip was interested in all areas of human of endeavour which could lend beauty to God’s Church. He desired by goodness and beauty to draw souls to God. In Barocci he found a painter who understood this desire and could apply his talents to the same holy venture. St Philip’s particular support for sacred music in 16th century Rome is well enough known, so St Philip’s natural affinity for Barocci’s art is even less surprising when we realise that Federico saw himself as a musician rather than a painter. Bellori, his first biographer wrote that: “he would say that just as a melody comprising different human voices delights the ear, even more is sight pleasurably rewarded by a concord of colours, accompanied by harmonious outlines. On that account he would call painting music and once, asked by the Duke Guidobaldo what he was doing, he pointed on to the picture on which he was working and replied: ‘I’m composing a tune’.” (in Peter Gillgren, Siting Federico Barocci and the Renaissance aesthetic, p. 76)

It’s no wonder that the memory of St Philip’s especial love for the art of Barocci has been preserved in Rome; in 1769 the painter Luigi Crespi wrote that it was said that St Philip called the artist “my Barocci”.

Clients of St Philip in London now finally have the opportunity to explore St Philip’s Barocci in their own city, to meditate on the Visitation, and to listen to the tune of colour and line which allowed St Philip to be transported to the contemplation of God.