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Some of the greatest art you’ve never seen was created four centuries ago in the Republic of Genoa. There, celebrated foreigners (Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, Pierre Puget) mixed with brilliant but lesser-known locals (Bernardo Strozzi, Valerio Castello, Gregorio De Ferrari) to create a singularly rich expression of the baroque—dynamic, exuberant, and innovative in its synthesis of styles and subjects. Much remains private to this day, particularly Genoa’s spectacular interior frescoes. This vibrant period begins with Rubens’ initial visits just after 1600 and ends with the death of the eccentric local painter Alessandro Magnasco in 1749. The city’s nickname—La Superba—persists to this day.

The Crucible of the Baroque

Peter Paul Rubens, Giovan Carlo Doria, 1606, oil on canvas, Galleria Nazionale della Liguria a Palazzo Spinola, Genoa, GNL 42/1988. Scala / Ministero per i Beni e le Attività culturali / Art Resource, NY

At the beginning of the 17th century the visual arts in Genoa reached extraordinary variation and richness encouraged and supported by the city’s patrons and collectors, notably Giovan Carlo Doria. His palatial residence housed the so-called accademia del disegno, an informal art school attracting both visiting and local talents. There, young artists could gather, exchange ideas, and study the masterpieces in Doria’s collection. Peter Paul Rubens, Giulio Cesare Procaccini, Simon Vouet, and Anthony van Dyck all passed through the palace, leaving important examples of their work, while local painters could expand their cultural horizons and benefit from Doria’s patronage.

First Syntheses

Bernardo Strozzi, The Cook, c. 1625, oil on canvas, Musei di Strada Nuova, Palazzo Rosso, Genoa, PR 20. © Musei di Strada Nuova

Beginning in the 1610s, the next generation of Genoese painters came to terms with the many styles and artistic approaches in their midst—local and foreign, conservative and advanced—then combined and reconceived them in varied and original ways. In their multiple forms, these syntheses marked the emergence and set the terms of a distinctive baroque art. Well-established mannerist design of exaggerated forms was fused with intense naturalistic observation. Elaborate perspectival arrangements were populated with busy and robust narratives. Collaboration with Flemish craftsmen resulted in luxury silver goods of unsurpassed intricacy. Subjects from everyday life were personalized and elevated with brilliant touch and striking devices, such as the four elements—Fire, Air (birds), Water (ewer), and Earth (female figure)—“hidden” in Bernardo Strozzi’s The Cook.

A New Naturalism

Anthony van Dyck, Agostino Pallavicino, c. 1621, oil on canvas, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 68.PA.2. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

The Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck introduced persuasive and enduring elements of the Genoese baroque. Considered by Rubens to be his finest pupil, Van Dyck followed in his teacher’s footsteps and went to Genoa, where he worked about 18 months between 1623 and 1627. His transformative style inspired local painters, including Domenico Fiasella, Luciano Borzone, and Gioacchino Assereto. They arrived at a new kind of naturalism—one based upon normal observation, broad effect, and only selective detail. Though their training and backgrounds varied considerably, their styles converged toward dynamic composition, sober palette, and dramatic expression.

Scenes of Daily Life

Sinibaldo Scorza, Orpheus Charming the Animals, 1621, pen and brown ink, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Purchased with the support of the F. G. Waller-Fonds, RP-T-1965-336. Image: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

While Van Dyck’s art inspired some painters to pursue a naturalistic style, the subjects associated with Netherlandish painting—landscape, still life, and scenes of daily life—were taking their own deep root in Genoa. The city’s increasing appetite for such subjects, its enormous growth in wealth, and the expansion of its art collections attracted various northern European artists, who relocated to Genoa and brought the production of genre painting with them. At the same time, numerous local artists took up these northern themes or, in characteristic Genoese fashion, created hybrids that incorporated the essential elements of both traditions.

Mystical Visions

Bartolomeo Biscaino, The Holy Family, c. 1655, brush and brown wash over red chalk, Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, The Suida-Manning Collection, 47.1999

Among the artistic choices of the early 17th century, a late mannerism combining stylization and strained feeling had deep local roots. Rapidly, however, Genoese artists came to pursue naturalism, which would remain their priority for the next few decades. Only in the 1640s, after artists synthesized elements of that very naturalism, would the stylized and subjective current reemerge with a new extravagance, pictorial vibrancy, and often mystical intensity. This visionary hybrid guided the basic language and determined the essential forms for the next generation of artists, who would offer the most complete and consistent realization of the baroque in Genoa.

A Superb Baroque: Painting

Domenico Piola, The Annunciation, 1679, oil on canvas, Basilica della Santissima Annunziata del Vastato, Genoa. Photo by Luigino Visconti

Genoese painting reached its height in both extravagance and consistency in the second half of the 17th century. Two figures dominated: Domenico Piola and Gregorio De Ferrari. Impresario of a large workshop, Piola brought together the previous currents in a seemingly effortless and efficient style. De Ferrari took this grand synthesis in an even more expansive and lyrical direction, anticipating important aspects of 18th-century art. Their work fills the churches, palaces, and villas of Genoa and the surrounding region—from altarpieces and easel paintings dynamic in composition and compelling in expression, to fresco decorations breathtaking in their illusionism and elegance.

A Superb Baroque: Sculpture

Pierre Puget, Virgin of the Immaculate Conception (L’Immacolata Lomellini), 1669–1670, marble, Oratorio di San Filippo Neri, Genoa. Photo by Luigino Visconti

Genoese sculpture had remained largely secondary to architecture and lagged far behind painting in development until the arrival of the French sculptor Pierre Puget. He would transform local understanding and appreciation of sculpture, and determine its subsequent course, just as Van Dyck and Rubens had done with painting. Complex in rhythm, articulation, and fall of light, Puget’s masterpieces from the 1660s seem informed by painting of the moment, especially that of Piola. Puget’s imprint on Genoese sculpture continued through the work of his followers, above all Filippo Parodi, a significant native sculptor in the later part of the 17th century.

Grand Decoration

Gregorio De Ferrari, The Assumption of the Virgin, c. 1690, oil on canvas, Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, Brussels, 2019.0014. © RMAH, Brussels

Genoese artistic production is distinguished above all by fresco painting, whether in churches, palaces, or villas. Most historical buildings in Genoa feature substantial decoration. The style, extravagance, and procedure by which these monumental cycles were created can be gathered from bozzetti (preliminary compositional studies in oil) and modelli (final models for presentation to the client), along with innumerable preparatory drawings. Over a 30-year period in the church of the Annunziata, for example, the brothers Giovanni and Giovanni Battista Carlone, with Assereto and Fiasella, decorated the three naves; Andrea Ansaldo, the cupola; and Giulio Benso and Giovanni Battista Carlone, the presbytery. Such corporate work by artists, in parallel and succession, characterized fresco production in Genoa.

A Sumptuous Baroque

                    Paolo Gerolamo Piola, Apollo and Daphne, 1700/1705, oil on canvas, private collection, Genoa

Art in Genoa changed significantly around the turn of the 18th century. The two dominant figures of the preceding decades, Domenico Piola and Filippo Parodi, died in 1703 and 1702, respectively. Their numerous followers adhered to their basic styles, but also contended with changing fashions and successful alternatives, notably the handsome classicism of the Bolognese painter Marcantonio Franceschini. As the naturalistic and visionary aspects of the full baroque began to wane, more conventional and decorative elements became exaggerated. Complete by midcentury, these transformations marked the effective end of the most consistent and distinctive period of Genoese art.

Last Visions: Alessandro Magnasco

Alessandro Magnasco, Bacchanal, 1735/1740, oil on wood, private collection

The art of Alessandro Magnasco stands in contrast to the fashions of the first half of the 18th century. His subjects are eccentric, his compositions fiercely animated, his handling of paint, palette, and form intensely personal. Magnasco’s paintings and even his drawings are the most readily recognized, and probably the most familiar, of all Genoese works. Beyond idiosyncratic, they have long been admired as self-consciously radical, and proto-modern. However, his style was also reactionary—exaggerating features of earlier trends and fusing them into a last difficult synthesis. Magnasco was an artist who was conventional in his individualism, highly successful in his nonconformity, and ultimately one with his own time.