At his election in 1623, Maffeo Barberini chose the name Urban to emphasize, 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 curb, 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 waiting patiently for someone to notice him. When this happens, then in the viewer's gaze the levels 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 to 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 family affairs, 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 the role of co-redemptrix that medieval theology assigned to Mary, who in fact raises Christ's arm 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. The detail of the cord with the counterweight that was used to close the door is rare and unexpected: the door that opens here without anyone pushing it can then allude to the mystery of the incarnation, according to an invention as refined as it is unprecedented, which makes Giulio Romano a worthy heir of Raphael.
Patent homage to Leonardo's magisterium of nuanced and 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, 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 "perditions" equally reminiscent of Leonardo's lesson.
Other works on display
Jacopo Negretti, detto Palma il Vecchio