Wednesday, November 25, 2015


"Between 1623 and 1797 the political decline of Rome and Venice, the two most vital centers of Italian Baroque art, was almost continuous. In both cities, architects, sculptors and painters of the first rank were employed by those in authority  in Rome the constantly changing upholders of a theocratic absolutism, in Venice the old and new families that composed a rigid oligarchic aristocracy  to impress themselves and foreigners alike with illusions of power which had little basis in reality. The achievements of Bernini, Pietro da Cortona and Tiepolo are there to prove with what conviction and genius great artists can serve great patrons however unpromising the cause. Nor can it be denied (though many have tried to do so) that these achievements, and others of a similar nature, represent the finest Italian contributions to the art of the period; and the significance of this is brought to light if we compare the situation with that of foreign artists. There are no Italian equivalents to Velázquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Louis Le Nain, Georges de la Tour, Poussin, Watteau or Chardin  all painters who expressed a private and individual outlook that is far removed from the 'public' masterpieces of the greatest Italians."

"It is perhaps precisely in the broad culture and tolerance of Italian patrons that the answer should be sought. Like 'advanced' parents of the most humane opinions, who apply no direct pressure to their children, yet whose views are all too paralyzingly communicated to them, the aristocracy, traditional and upstart, of Baroque Italy, may have stifled revolt through the very self-assurance of their inherited values. None of the artists mentioned above was deflected from his path by specific pressures; at no period in Italy did an orthodox  Academy or a dominating religious organization impose its artistic doctrines. Unorthodoxy was killed with kindness."

"Such an attitude had its advantages as well as its drawbacks. If it is true that we miss a certain type of individual and withdrawn artist in Italy (Domenico Fetti is surely the most beautiful exception), it is also true that the general level of painting in Rome, Bologna, Naples and Venice  to name only a few of the most important centers  was certainly higher than in almost any other town in Europe. The opportunities and encouragement given to architects, painters and sculptors have rarely, if ever, been equaled, and the debt of gratitude we owe to the liberal patrons of the time can be seen not only in Italy but in every gallery of the world."

"Yet the price to be paid was a high one. Artists so closely tied to the patronage of a particular society could not adapt themselves to new conditions when the foundations of that society collapsed. The 'bourgeois' painting of England and France had no real roots in Italy, and the attempts made by bodies such as the Academy at Parma to promote a more modern and 'enlightened' type of art met with little success. Whereas in France and England painting took on a new and more glorious lease of life with the decline of the Church and the feudal aristocracy, the fall of Venice [in 1797] signified no less than the humiliating expiry of Italian art."

 Francis Haskell, from the Conclusion to Patrons and Painters : a study in the relations between Italian art and society in the Age of the Baroque (2nd edition, 1980).