Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 21, 2016
Ian F. Verstegen Federico Barocci and the Oratorians: Corporate Patronage and Style in the Counter-Reformation Early Modern Studies, Vol. 14. Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2015. 171 pp.; 8 color ills.; 25 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (9781612481326)

Ian Verstegen’s new book, Federico Barocci and the Oratorians: Corporate Patronage and Style in the Counter-Reformation, examines the interior decoration of the Chiesa Nuova in Rome, specifically the altarpieces of the chapels, in light of the order and their beliefs. His focus is on Barocci and how his style corresponded so well to the tenets of the Oratorians that they repeatedly sought his paintings, despite the fact that other artists were available and Barocci was expensive, slow, always in demand by numerous patrons, and did not even live in Rome. Verstegen asks some key questions that successfully frame his study: Why did the Oratorians monopolize Barocci’s talents in Rome, and why does it seem that Barocci was their first choice when considering artists to decorate their church? What was it about Barocci’s art that appealed to Oratorian sensibilities and their vision of the artistic program for the decoration of their church? He answers these questions, while examining the order and its founder, Filippo Neri, and their relationship to another powerful reforming order of the period, the Society of Jesus. He also examines the role of art in Counter Reformation Rome.

The layout and technical aspects of the book are thoughtful and coherent. Of moderate length, it efficiently tackles the subject without extraneous information to distract the reader. A preface with acknowledgments is followed by a short introduction to set the scene. Five chapters address the key issues, supplemented by four appendices. These include a helpful floor plan of the Chiesa Nuova, identifying the decoration of each chapel, and timelines pertaining to those artistic and architectural embellishments. In the center of the book the reader will find eight color plates of the principal paintings considered, almost all by Barocci. Each chapter contains black-and-white reproductions of other works, including preparatory drawings by Barocci, and works by other artists related to the discussion at hand, as well as three tables.

Verstegen introduces the artist and the order, along with their special relationship—Neri is said to have spent hours meditating upon Barocci’s Visitation altarpiece (1582–86)—by suggesting a historiographical reexamination of style. A particular point of emphasis is the consideration of the “Jesuit style” as a cautionary tale. Throughout the book Verstegen makes references and comparisons to the Jesuits, as contemporaries and neighbors of the Oratorians in Rome. These allusions will prove fruitful and enlightening, and the debunking of the notion of a “Jesuit style” in recent years allows for a thoughtful prelude to a consideration of Barocci’s style and how it was embraced by the Oratorians.

Chapter 1 considers the period and background. A detailed examination of the Oratorians and Jesuits, including their founders, key tenets, the structure of the orders, their main churches and approaches to decoration of them, and finances, especially with regard to paying for their physical spaces, dominates this chapter. While this is not the first time that the orders have been compared, Verstegen does an admirable job of reviewing the appropriate literature and evaluating how it holds up in light of new research. These orders and the artists connected to them in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries form an essential component of Counter Reformation art, and an analysis of the Chiesa Nuova altarpieces is informed substantially by a comparison to those of the Jesuits’ Chiesa del Gesù. Verstegen’s analysis of the dates and finances of the commissions by both orders clarifies—both refuting and substantiating—earlier assessments of how each decorated their principal churches. The Oratorians’ artist, Barocci, is also introduced, as is the question of precisely why they were so drawn to his style. Ultimately, Barocci would complete two altarpieces for the Chiesa Nuova: the Visitation in the Cappella Pizzamiglio of the left aisle and the Presentation of the Virgin (1593–1603) in the Cappella Cesi in the left transept. But two more were either commissioned or sought by the Oratorians—projects never brought to fruition. Verstegen elucidates the Oratorians’ emphasis on personal devotion, and argues that Barocci’s paintings visualize that concept. This leads to a specific examination of the two paintings in the next chapters.

The Chiesa Nuova’s cycle of altarpieces is presented in chapter 2. The focus of the simple and direct program is on the Virgin Mary, with an emphasis on her joy. Verstegen analyzes it in light of its unique qualities in this period, considering other church interiors as well as the suggestion that it reflects their devotion to the Rosary. The important presence of the miracle-working Madonna della Vallicella icon, a medieval fresco remnant from the old church, is also considered. Verstegen suggests that it assumes the role of an image connected to the Madonna of Loreto, which allows it to work within the program orchestrated by Neri and the Oratorians. Neri was especially devoted to the Rosary; however, Verstegen concludes that more than being a direct application of it, the program is determined by the experience the viewer encounters at each altarpiece in turn, along with a typological emphasis influenced by the spirit of the Rosary devotion. As in the previous chapters, there is a great deal of discussion about the Jesuits, both in terms of general comparisons and a need to revise some conclusions made by previous scholars regarding the chronology of the decoration of their respective churches. Past scholarship on each order has argued that these church interiors were manifestations of their orders’ devotions. Yet Verstegen does not provide an explicit comparison between the idea of a decorative program in the Chiesa Nuova organized by devotion to the Rosary and the long-perpetuated notion of the decorative program of Il Gesù being modeled on the structure of the Spiritual Exercises. While Verstegen’s arguments are clear and well-supported, it seems a missed opportunity to not remark on the historiographic parallels.

Chapter 3 draws the focus in on Barocci. Verstegen considers the highlights of his career and how he came to the attention of the Oratorians, then proceeds to a detailed analysis of the two works Barocci executed for the Chiesa Nuova. A variety of sketches—including compositional studies and figure drawings—are considered to promote an understanding of the stylistic process, narrative development, and iconography of each altarpiece. Verstegen considers the Coronation of the Virgin altarpiece, originally to have been executed by Barocci before the commission went to Giuseppe Cesari (completed 1615), and additional works Barocci painted for others in the Oratorian sphere, notably a Nativity (ca. 1597–99) for Cardinal Federico Borromeo in Milan.

The high altar of the Chiesa Nuova was also supposed to be painted by Barocci. When his Presentation of the Virgin was delivered to the Oratorians in 1603, the artist sent word that he would be pleased to paint another work, a Nativity of the Virgin that was planned for the high altar. The saga of this project is the focus of chapter 4. A complex web of difficulties, including financial challenges, politics, other commissions, and the presence of the Madonna della Vallicella icon—which was moved to the high altar in 1606—precipitated a change in plan, and the altarpiece was eventually executed as a “sacra conversazione” by a young Peter Paul Rubens. Verstegen thoroughly and effectively examines the circumstances of the project, including the idea that a Nativity of the Virgin (ca. 1588–1603), now in the church of San Simpliciano in Milan, may be the work started by Barocci for the Oratorians (later finished by his assistant, and ending up in Milan after the plan was reconfigured). The chapter concludes with a discussion of the altarpiece by Rubens, the Adoration of the Madonna della Vallicella (1608), and how it fits into the church’s decorative program, and the Institution of the Eucharist (1603–8), painted by Barocci for Pope Clement VIII in the same period, which Verstegen calls a “kind of sublimated Oratorian work” (120). Although this chapter does not actually consider any paintings that Barocci produced for the Chiesa Nuova, the material presented allows for a better understanding of the order, those connected to it, and how artistic commissions of this period are rarely as straightforward as they may seem.

The final chapter considers the ability of Barocci and his followers to vividly express the beliefs of the Oratorians through direct narratives with a strong meditative component. A variety of artists, including Federico Zuccaro, Cristoforo Roncalli, Francesco Vanni, Guido Reni, and Antonio Viviani, are examined in this context, solidifying ideas presented earlier in the book. Verstegen ends with a lucid assessment of the tight connection between artist and order:

When one considers which artists the Oratorians chose—Barocci when he was available and Baroccisti when he was not—it is clear that Barocci’s style appealed to early Oratorian sensibilities and that his style gradually solidified into an Oratorian brief that other artists followed. What is more, Barocci’s style concretized the shared values of the Oratorians and those sympathetic to them. (142)

Alison C. Fleming
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Visual Studies, Winston-Salem State University