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Pietro da Cortona: A 17th-Century Baroque Artist and Architect

Updated on May 2, 2017
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John is a professional librarian, now semi-retired, who writes articles based on material gleaned from obscure books and journals.

Self-portrait of Pietro da Cortona
Self-portrait of Pietro da Cortona

Pietro da Cortona

Pietro da Cortona was one of a trio of artists and architects who gave the greatest impetus to the Baroque style in Rome in the 17th century, the others being Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini. Of the three, Cortona was the best artist, being noted mainly for his fresco paintings, but he was also a competent and talented architect.

Pietro Berrettini was born in 1596 in the town of Cortona in Tuscany, and so acquired the name “da Cortona” when he arrived in Rome in either 1612 or 1613.

After several years’ training, he was taken up by an influential patron, Marcello Sacchetti, to whose household he was attached from 1623 onwards. Sacchetti’s contacts included Cardinal Francesco Barberini, the nephew of Pope Urban VIII, and Cortona made good use of these connections to gain commissions to paint frescoes in Roman churches.

At some stage, he learned the techniques of architecture because in the 1630s he emerged as a highly capable architect as well as continuing to paint frescoes. He was elected by his artistic colleagues as “principe” of the Accademia di San Luca for a four-year term from 1634 to 1638, and he was in Florence during the years 1640 to 1647, mainly working for Grand Duke Ferdinand II. He spent the latter part of his life back in Rome, where he died in 1669.

The Barberini Ceiling

His masterpiece in fresco was the “Barberini Ceiling” on which he worked intermittently from 1633 to 1639. The ceiling was of the main salon of the palace of Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, who had become Pope Urban VIII in 1623 and was spending huge sums of money on rebuilding much of the palace which he had inherited from his uncle. Both Borromini and Bernini had also worked on the project.

The salon ceiling fresco was entitled “Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power”. It is a very dramatic work which incorporates a “trompe d’oeil” illusion of a false ceiling that is open to the sky and through which heavenly figures pour blessings on the Barberini family. It is very much in Baroque style, with flowing draperies, cherubs and mythical figures all over the place. In this respect, it is far removed from the classicism of the past and the neo-classicism that would follow, and to the modern eye, it is in dubious taste, given that its whole purpose was to celebrate the secular power of the head of the Church. However, Cortona’s figure painting still had classical elements to it. The Barberini Palace now forms part of the Italian National Gallery of Ancient Art, so Cortona’s work is on permanent public display.

The Ceiling of the Palazzo Barberini
The Ceiling of the Palazzo Barberini | Source

His Other Work

Pietro da Cortona’s work can also be seen today at the Pitti Palace in Florence. He was originally commissioned to decorate a small room with four allegorical scenes representative of the four Ages of Iron, Bronze, Silver and Gold. He was later asked to paint five ceilings of the ducal palace to represent Venus, Apollo, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.

Back in Rome, Cortona painted frescoes for Pope Innocent X at the Doria Pamphili Palace and also produced a number of excellent works at the Chiesa Nuova church.

Cortona also worked in oils, mainly on religious and mythological subjects, and was a highly skilled portraitist.

As an architect, Cortona showed himself to be in sympathy with the ideas expressed by the more prolific Borromini but was less extreme in his use of exaggerated curves, tending to be more austere and regular in his approach. A good example of his work is the façade of Santa Maria della Pace, in Rome, where in 1656-7 he undertook the modernisation of a 15th-century church. The central feature is a boldly projecting semi-circular portico that creates a strong three-dimensional effect that is also restrained and, to an extent, classical. Another important architectural project was the church of Santi Luca e Martina (in the Roman Forum), which was completed in 1664.

Of all the great Italian Baroque painters, Cortona’s work is the richest. His colouring was always strong, and his paintings were highly detailed and often florid. He was excellent at portraying the human figure, although his poses tended to be idealistic in a classical mode, so that he forms a link between the classical and the Baroque. He was able to be both serious and decorative, and so has been considered to be Italian painting’s nearest counterpart to Rubens.

Santa Maria della Pace, Rome
Santa Maria della Pace, Rome | Source

© 2017 John Welford

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