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January 2, 2020

Highlights: A Superb Baroque: Art in Genoa, 1600–1750

The visual arts in Genoa at the beginning of the 17th century exhibited extraordinary diversity and richness and its enormous wealth enabled its artists and their patrons to create an expression of the baroque style. A Superb Baroque: Art in Genoa, 1600–1750 is the first comprehensive exhibition of the period in nearly 30 years and the first of this scale in the United States to explore these works created with visual splendor and exuberant feeling

Painting and Drawing:

The great age of art in Genoa began with Peter Paul Rubens whose art challenged the current standards and expectations of painting. Although Rubens never lived in Genoa, he visited several times between 1604 and 1607, and completed two altarpieces for the church of the Jesuit Order as well as numerous portraits. Among these portraits are three for Giovan Carlo Doria and close members of his family, one of which is on view in the exhibition: Giovan Carlo Doria (1606, Galleria Nazionale della Liguria a Palazzo Spinola, Genoa). Rubens’ works were fundamental to the development of the baroque, in Genoa and beyond, and became benchmarks for later Genoese painting. Combining the immediacy and power of Caravaggio’s naturalism with breadth and dynamism, the vocabulary of antiquity, and the lessons of the principal Venetians, Rubens sought to capture the experiences of motion, time, and change, with tangible form and authentic feeling.

The city’s artistic climate at the beginning of the 17th century is exemplified by the contrast between Bernardo Castello, the leading artist in Genoa from the 1580s to the 1590s, and Giovanni Battista Paggi. Although stylistically different, Castello and Paggi shared concerns about the intellectual role of artists and the unrestricted import of works of art form other schools. Castello’s approach, while fundamentally more conservative than Paggi, was filled with narrative imagination, engaging incident, and increasingly classical dress, depicted in Christ Healing the Centurion’s Servant (c. 1590, private collection), one of his largest existing drawings.

Paggi attempted to illicit an emotional response in the viewer, as seen in The Stoning of Saint Stephen (1604, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe di Palazzo Rosso, Genoa), a drawn study of his altarpiece of the same subject in the church of Gesù. With the support of leading aristocrat Gain Carlo Doria, Paggi established an accademia del disegno that was frequented by the most promising artists of the new generation. His Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist (1604, private collection) depicts the Virgin Mary tending to baby Jesus playing with his cousin, John.

Anthony van Dyck’s activity in Genoa was the most distinguished among several Flemish painters in the city that included Jan Wildens, Lucas and Cornelis de Wael, Jan Roos, and Giacomo Legi. His style influenced artists such as Domenico Fiasella, Luciano Borzone, Giovanni Andrea De Ferrari, Giovanni Battista Carlone, and Orazio De Ferrari who began to create works based upon perception rather than rendering specific detail as well as a focus on design and articulation, a sober palette, and broad execution in the 1630s.

From his arrival in Genoa in 1623, Van Dyck dominated and redefined the field of portraiture, completing about 100 portraits within a few years. Capitalizing on Rubens’ model, he became the premier portraitist in Genoa, as well as throughout Italy and Europe. Among the first portraits that Van Dyck painted upon his arrival in Italy, and considered the single greatest, was Agostino Pallavicino (1621/1623, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles) on view in the exhibition. It marks the first significant appointment of an aristocrat who would commemorate his advances to the most prestigious positions in the republic through a series of elegant portraits.

The first Genoese artist to incorporate Netherlandish themes was Sinibaldo Scorza whose vast graphic output includes some of the earliest Genoese etchings. Scorza favored household pets, local wildlife, and exotic species, including ostriches, lions, and leopards in his drawings that are sometimes preparatory studies for paintings of biblical or mythological subjects, but more often autonomous works. Signed and dated, Orpheus Charming the Animals (1621, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) is a magnificent example.

Beginning in the second decade of the century through the third, a younger generation of Genoese painters—principally born in the 1580s—synthesized fashionable individual artistic elements and used them in various combinations and contexts. Well-established mannerist design was fused with intense naturalistic observation and charged emotion. Elaborate perspectival schemes were populated with busy and robust narratives. Genre subjects were personalized and elevated through virtuoso handling.

The effects of the new cultural stimuli in Genoa at the beginning of the 17th century is epitomized by the Genoa-born Bernardo Strozzi. His work is characterized by a rare sense of color and extraordinary brushwork that can be seen in works such as The Story of Mark Antony and Cleopatra (1618/1620, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford) and Saint Catherine of Alexandria (c. 1617, Wadsworth Atheneum of Art, Hartford). Strozzi’s Calling of Saint Matthew (c. 1620, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA) shows the influence of Caravaggio’s masterpiece on the same subject for the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome, in the shaft of light grazing the back wall; the seated figure in the middle ground turned three-quarters with left hand on his chest; the figure leaning over the desk counting the coins; and, at far right, the figure of Christ, with the gesture of his right hand hinting at which of the men he will choose.

In its complex style, varied sources, and thorough synthesis, Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione’s work epitomizes the Genoese baroque. Castiglione developed a repertory of subjects from Genesis such as Noah’s Sacrifice after the Deluge (1645/1650, Los Angeles County Museum of Art) and ancient sources as seen in Diogenes Searching for a Man (1635/1640, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid) to create a lavish grouping of animals and objects. His graphic work features brush and oil on paper in a technique derived from the early Flemish and Giulio Cesare Procaccini, and follows a tradition of autonomous drawing originating from Luca Cambiaso, whereas his etchings recall those of Claude Lorrain and Rembrandt. Other works on view are drawings such as Scene from Apuleius’ “Golden Ass” (1630/1635, The Morgan Library & Museum, New York) and Noah Leading the Animals into the Ark (1645/1650, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) and etchings that include The Animals Going toward the Ark (1645/1650, National Gallery of Art, Washington) and six renderings of large oriental heads (all c. 1645/1647, National Gallery of Art, Washington).

Domenico Piola, whose technique is emblematic of the Genoese baroque combined with a classical influence, is represented by both painting and drawings in the exhibition. Among the graphic work is Virgin and Child with Saint George (1671, The British Museum, London) and Vault with the Immaculate Conception (1684, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe di Palazzo Rosso, Genoa). Other highlights include painted studies for autograph paintings such as Job and His Sons (1650, Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao) and larger fresco projects, such as The Coronation of the Virgin (c. 1695, Musei di Strada Nuova, Palazzo Bianco, Genoa) and The Annunciation (1679, Basilica della Santissima Annunziata del Vastato, Genoa).

Gregorio De Ferrari’s works on canvas stand out for their compositional freedom, movement of the figures, and chromatic range ranks among the highest accomplishments in European painting of the time. Some of the works on view in the exhibition are The Assumption of the Virgin (c. 1692, Musées royaux d'Art et d'Histoire, Brussels), a modello for the frescoes in the Dominican church of Santi Giacomo e Filippo, and the paintings, The Infant Moses with Pharaoh’s Crown (1675/1680, Collezioni d'arte Banca Carige) and The Death of Saint Scholastica (c. 1700, TBD) as well as several drawings.

Bartolomeo Guidobono’s lifelong collaboration with his brother, Domenico, in majolica painting is reflected in the delicate drawing and soft color found in his work. By 1590, he became one of the most sought-after painters in the region for both frescoes and altarpieces. Guidobono often incorporated exquisite still-life elements and alluring figuration into his compositions, as seen in Flora and Zephyr (c. 1700–1705, private collection). These tendencies are less pronounced in his religious works, such as Lot and His Daughters, 1689 (Musei di Strada Nuova, Palazzo Rosso, Genoa). Guidobono embodies the transition from the grand baroque to an art of greater restraint and modesty.

Alessandro Magnasco’s thematic range included subjects unprecedented in Italian painting: scenes depicting cult worship among religious sects and minorities, brigandage, judicial practices (including the use of torture), poor religious communities, and female monastic communities—all rendered with a vibrant and personal pictorial technique, clearly distinguishable even when he collaborated occasionally with Clemente Spera, Anton Francesco Peruzzini, and Marco Ricci for the landscape backgrounds. Among the masterpieces by Magnasco on view in the exhibition are Garden Party in Albaro (1745/1749, Musei di Strada Nuova, Palazzo Bianco, Genoa), Saint Augustine and the Child, (c. 1740, Musei di Strada Nuova, Palazzo Bianco, Genoa), and Bacchanal (1735/1740, private collection) as well as several works on paper.


Sculpture developed much more slowly than painting did in Genoa through the first half of the 17th century and remained largely subservient to architecture and generic in style. Stoneworkers and craftsmen from Lombardy, particularly the area above Como, dominated the medium and exerted their control in Genoa. Because of its proximity to Carrara and the quarries of Tuscany, the city served as a center for marble preparation and export to the western Mediterranean.

The French sculptor Pierre Puget transformed local understanding and appreciation of the medium and determined its subsequent course in Genoa. He not only raised Genoese sculpture to the level of its painting, but also moved them toward a reciprocal stylistic relation. His plan for the crossing in Santa Maria Assunta di Carignano (1664)—grand scenography based on Bernini’s in Saint Peter’s—would have activated the entire space but was never completed. The only two sculptures realized for the project were radical in their plasticity and dramatic expression: Saint Sebastian (c. 1664, Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris), on view in the exhibition, and Blessed Alessandro Sauli (c. 1665–1667, Saint Louis Art Museum).

Two versions of Puget’s Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, for the Lomellini (1669–1670, Oratorio di San Filippo, Genoa) and Balbi (1666–1670, Chiesa della SS. Concezione, Genoa) families, demonstrate his rich imagination and refined execution. The Lomellini family version, on view in the exhibition, illustrates the complex rhythm, articulation, and fall of light that reflects a greater stability and plasticity of form, as well as new iconographic and figural types. After returning to Marseille, Puget continued to receive commissions from Genoa, including The Abduction of Helen (1683–1686, Detroit Institute of Arts) for the Spinola, on view in the exhibition, as well as the Madonna and Child (1682, Museo di Sant’Agostino, Genoa), later acquired by the Carrega family, in addition to other workshop reductions.

The most significant Genoese sculptor of the period was Filippo Parodi, Puget’s follower. Trained in woodcarving, he learned marble carving and developed an aptitude for mythological subjects while in Rome between 1661 and 1667. One highlight is the Bust of Lucretia (1685/1702, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), the epitome of his work. It shows the influence of Puget’s sculptural techniques combined with the fluid rhythms, elaborate surfaces, and emotional focus found in the paintings of Piola and Gregorio De Ferrari.

Parodi’s workshop, the first serious alternative to those of the traditional Lombard-Genoese sculptors, ensured that Puget’s basic proposition and Parodi’s elegant idiom became fashionable throughout the region and into Piedmont. Among the sculptors in Parodi’s workshop was Giovanni Antonio Ponsonelli, a virtuoso marble carver, whose bust portrait Stefano Durazzo (1677, Casa dei Preti della Missione di San Vincenzo de’ Paoli, Genoa) depicts his awareness of contemporary Roman sculpture and his gift for portraiture with its deep cutting and arresting glance.

Other artists in Parodi’s workshop include Francesco Biggi and Bernardo Schiaffino. Biggi often collaborated with Filippo’s son, Domenico, in an extension of Piola’s style. Schiaffino, whose later work displays greater compositional order and more generalized description, signaling a new, academic tendency in Genoese sculpture, also collaborated with Biggi and Domenico. Francesco Biggi’s The Wolf with Romulus and Remus (1707, Musei di Strada Nuova, Palazzo Rosso, Genoa) and Bernardo Schiaffino’s Jupiter as the Swan with Helen and Pollux (1707, Musei di Strada Nuova, Palazzo Rosso, Genoa) were made for an indoor grotto in the Palazzo Brignole-Sale (1707), alongside illusionistic frescoes and panel paintings—a project that epitomizes the collective nature of Genoese workshops.

Among the magnificent works in silver on view in the exhibition are Giovanni Aelbosca Belga’s Basin and Ewer with Scenes from the Life of Giovanni Grimaldi (The Lomellini Basin and Ewer) (basin: 1621, ewer: 1622, both, Victoria and Albert Museum, London), that commemorates the naval victory of Giovanni Grimaldi of Monaco—in support of Duke Filippo Maria Visconti of Milan—against the Venetian fleet, on the Po River on May 22, 1431.

Grand Decoration:

At the beginning of the 17th century, Bernardo Castello, Lazzaro Tavarone, and two younger artists, Giovanni and Giovanni Battista Carlone, created many of the city’s fresco paintings. In the 1630s, a succession of fresco projects marked the transition from the ate Cinquecento painters—Castello and Tavarone—to Bernardo Strozzi, Domenico Fiasella, Giovanni Carlone, Andrea Ansaldo, and Gioacchino Assereto. These fresco painters were successful not only in Genoa, but alsol in other cities across the Italian peninsula, as well as abroad.

The Carlone brothers were awarded some of the city’s most prestigious commissions, including the decoration of the vaults of the Gesù and Santissima Annunziata. Three of Giovanni Battista Carlone’s studies for the frescoes in Gesù are on view: The Calling of Saint Peter, The Cruxifixion of Saint Peter, and The Fall of Simon Magus (all c. 1658, Galleria Nazionale di Palazzo Spinola, Genoa).

Giovanni Battista Gaulli’s, known as Baciccio, style is epitomized by the spectacular ceiling decoration in the church of the Gesù (1672/1685) that is widely regarded as the culmination of the baroque in Rome. The characteristics that distinguish his style point to a distinctly Genoese formation —fluid composition, elastic figures, saturated palette, and a warm luster—are depicted in works such as The Triumph of the Name of Jesus (c. 1676, Princeton University Art Museum).

Other artists such as Gregorio De Ferrari collaborated with Piola on the frescoes in the right nave of the church of San Siro (1676/1677) and the decorations of several Genoese buildings under construction. Gregorio also decorated some of the vaults in the city’s most prestigious palaces that depict the deformation and elegance and represent the culmination of the visionary mode. He was also most likely responsible for the entire scheme for the ceiling of the church of Santi Giacomo e Filippo where he devised a fictive architectural framework opening onto three large, illusionistic fields, with secondary scenes in monochrome between and below them. Gregorio executed the central section with the Assumption of the Virgin (c. 1690, Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, Brussels), leaving the section closest to the entrance to Bartolomeo Guidobono and the presbytery to Giovanni Battista Carlone (until 1692). They were followed by Giovanni Andrea Carlone and Guidobono (after 1692) and Paolo Gerolamo (1700 and 1709).

At the end of the century, two non-Genoese painters were chosen to decorate the two principal vaults of the Palazzo Ducale. The Emilian Marcantonio Franceschini decorated the ceiling frescoes of the Sala del Maggior Consiglio (1702/1704); and from Campania, Francesco Solimena decorated the vault of the Sala del Minor Consiglio, the room in the Palazzo Ducale where the doge and the senators met to conduct affairs of state during the summer the Minor Consiglio (1715/1717). Destroyed in a fire in 1777, only the extensive preparatory works, from conventional drawings at every stage of development to presentation models in oil on canvas, remain. On view in the exhibition is a modello for Solimena’s Massacre of the Giustiniani at Chios (1711/1713, Museo di Capodimonte, Naples). Franceschini’s success pushed the major decorative projects of the early 18th century toward a proto-academic classicism, a style in which his main collaborator, Giacomo Antonio Boni, established his own reputation.

Other artists involved in fresco decoration included Paolo Gerolamo Piola and Domenico Parodi, as well as Giuseppe Palmieri whose style reflected his additional training in Tuscany. Sebastiano Galeotti, trained in Florence and successful across northern Italy, brought an ornate style to the decoration of Santa Maria Maddalena and the Palazzo Spinola in Genoa.

The direction toward regularity in form and expression was reinforced by Lorenzo De Ferrari, the last of the Genoese school’s great fresco painters. Although he began as an indistinguishable collaborator of his father Gregorio, Lorenzo absorbed the lessons of the academic baroque and its precursors in the Roman school of Annibale Carracci. His principal projects—the secondary domes in the church of the Gesù (1737) and the Galleria Dorata of the Palazzo Carrega-Cataldi (1743/1744)—adhere to Genoese schemes, but his figures reveal a style more systematic in procedure and idealized in appearance than those of any Genoese artist of the period. Two of his preparatory drawings for these projects are on view in the exhibition: Study of an Angel (c. 1738, National Gallery of Art, Washington) for Gesù and Two Goddesses (Horae) (1742/1744, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe di Palazzo Rosso, Genoa) for the Palazzo Carrega-Cataldi.

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