At his election in 1623, Maffeo Barberini chose the name of Urban to underline, among other things, his adherence to the classic concept of urbanitas, the kindness and courtesy that was to distinguish moderate spirits, as opposed to rusticitas, rudeness. An intentional choice, by way of a personal warning, to mitigate, if not even slow down, an excessively severe nature. The desire to present himself - or rather self-represent himself - as an “urban” pope also distinguishes the specific character of this portrait: the pontiff, wearing a mozzetta and camauro, has a bright and welcoming face, almost patiently waiting for someone to notice him. When this happens, then in the viewer's gaze the planes overlap: the official dimension is added to the personal motif. The individual portrait is transformed into an icon of the sovereign pontiff's ideal moral, political and spiritual conduct.
Commissioned from Bernini, and probably executed with the conspicuous collaboration of Giuliano Finelli, a talented pupil and then a rival of the same master, the bust represents the ideal portrait of Antonio Barberini (1494-1559), great-uncle of Urban VIII. Of republican and anti-Medici sympathies, Antonio had left Florence to travel for a long time in Italy, taking care of the family business, and was assassinated in Rome, perhaps by the assassins of Cosimo I de 'Medici's ambassador. In 1629 the Barberinis had him erect a funeral memorial in San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, decorated with a more modest replica of the sculpture of Palazzo Barberini, destined instead for the ideal gallery of portraits of family glories collected by Cardinal Francesco, as also shown by the capriccioso cartouche unfolded by the heraldic bee and perhaps intended to bear the name of the effigy.
Mother and Son emerge illuminated by the light in the half-light of the room. In the background you can see the thalamus of the Virgin, decorated with a partially raised curtain. The image refers to the mystery of the Incarnation and to the role of co-redemptrix that medieval theology assigned to Mary, who in fact raises the arm of Christ in an act of blessing. But it is the whole spatial and luministic setting of the painting that is charged with a symbolic connotation and transforms the place of the miracle of the Annunciation into a visual metaphor of the very body of Mary. Rare and unexpected is the detail of the cord with the counterweight that was used to close the door: the door that opens here without anyone pushing it can then allude to the mystery of the incarnation, according to an invention as sought after as it is unprecedented, which makes Giulio Romano a worthy heir of Raphael.
The body of Christ is about to be placed in a classical sarcophagus, perhaps of that red porphyry reserved for imperial tombs. Magdalene helps Joseph of Arimathea (or Nicodemus), while the Virgin assists contrite. From the background emerge the faces of two other characters and the tomb carved into the rock, described in the Gospel. As in Michelangelo's Pietà Bandini (Florence, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo), the painter favors the essential character of the composition and the dominant, upright and frontal pose of the abandoned body of Christ. The iconic and ostensive value of the work prevails, underlined by Joseph's fixed gaze at the viewer, who invites us to reflect on the sacrifice of Christ, "the stone rejected by the builders" which becomes the "cornerstone" [Psalm 117 (118), 22]. As a corner is the foreshortening at the bottom of the slab destined to close the sarcophagus, here a visual metaphor of the stone on which the new Church rests.
Patent homage to the Leonardesque magisterium of the nuanced and the chiaroscuro, the legendary episode of the mystical union of Saint Catherine of Alexandria with the Christ child is conceived by Sodom as a collected and composed ceremony. While the young martyr humbly bows to receive the ring, the old Joseph is summoned to testify at the wedding, who with his presence also serves to give a balanced symmetry to the image and a centrality not only geometric to the figure of Mary. Finally, the singular, rustic pergola that frames the trio contributes to underline the hierarchical structure of the composition, beyond which a distant, misty and indistinct view opens up, a landscape of “perdimenti” equally mindful of Leonardo's lesson.
The painting was commissioned by Marco Marazzoli (1602-1662), court musician of the Barberini family, who donated the work to his patrons as a sign of gratitude. In an atmosphere full of desire, the painter constructs the scene of a baroque melodrama, presenting us the sovereign of Egypt as the woman for whose love Marco Antonio renounced Rome and domination over the world. It is the culminating moment of the tragedy, in which the heroine, in order not to be exhibited as a war trophy, chooses suicide. Her eyes are wide open and her lips parted, but she is as sensual and seductive as the stereotype of her legendary beauty dictates. The shining perfection of the body - almost an ancient marble - wrapped in a fiery red cloth, stands out against a dark background, an anticipation of imminent death. The artist used the same model as the Venus playing the harp.
This intense portrait of the cardinal at a young age, painted on paper and made later on canvas in two versions, one of which is preserved in the Corsini Gallery, was probably painted in 1631 during the prelate's stay in Pesaro, as a papal legate, on the occasion of the passage of the Duchy of Urbino to the Church. The painter investigates the face of the young man with an immediate, almost impressionistic sign, making a speaking portrait of it, live, as revealed by some details such as the mention of the slight squint. The naturalistic vein of the work indicates the painter's experimental approach and at the same time expresses the personality of the cardinal, whose face emanates deep calm and conscious strength, which will be characteristics of his life (1607-1671), marked by great powers, sudden falls and subsequent rebirths.
Other works on display
Giovanni Battista Caracciolo, detto Battistello