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Simply divine: Barocci at the National Gallery

In his day, the 16th-century Italian artist Federico Barocci could count the Pope among his patrons – yet his work is almost unknown in Britain. A spectacular new show at the National Gallery will change that

If the director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny, can admit that he had never heard of the 16th-century Italian artist Federico Barocci before he studied for his doctorate, then I suppose that the rest of us can be excused for the same failing. Not after this brilliant show at his gallery, however.

It isn't the NG's own. It comes from the St Louis Art Museum, which bravely decided, with virtually no holdings of their own of the artist, to make a comprehensive exhibition of Barocci and were rewarded with an offer by the City of Urbino to lend 10 of his major paintings to spread the word about its favourite artistic son. And so it comes to London, with the addition of a couple of paintings from Rome, too delicate to risk the transatlantic voyage, and a loan from Russia, which is at the moment refusing to send works of art to America in an infantile dispute over the right of return.

About time too you might say of this show. British museums are woefully short of paintings by the Italian mannerists and post-Renaissance artists. And Federico Barocci was early on recognised by his contemporaries and his peers (he met and was praised by Michelangelo among others) as the finest of his generation. Too quickly perhaps. Seeking fame and fortune, the young artist left his native Urbino for Rome. On the second visit, patronised by the Pope and the elite of the Vatican, he succumbed to food poisoning during a picnic. Rumour had it that his local rivals were trying to kill him off. So, just as Guido Reni was later to flee from Naples after an attempt to bump him off, Barocci hurried back to Urbino. There he was to spend the rest of his life, patronised by the Duke, commissioned by religious orders and marketed by the printmakers, until his peaceful death, aged 77, in 1612.

Barocci took his cue from Raphael's serene pictures of holiness but he took them in his own direction. Perhaps because of the poisoning, he was too physically frail to paint more than a few hours each day. Instead, he took painstaking care to prepare his paintings with preliminary drawings in chalk, pen, pastel and oils. He was a great draughtsman and one of the joys of this exhibition is the display of these preparatory sketches alongside the final works. You can see him trying out gestures and compositions, sketching the hands and the feet (he was particularly precise in his delineation of those), adjusting the fall of light and trying to get the expression of the faces just right by trial and error.

The result was a series of works, relatively few in number but absolutely sure in their effect. If Barocci was so sought after for religious commissions in his day it was because he perfectly expressed the artistic ideals of the Counter-Reformation. After all the turmoil of the Protestant assault on the Church and the humanist revolution in art, the Catholic Church sought to reclaim its position by a faith that was more fervent and more directly attuned to the biblical readings. Barocci achieved it with altarpieces and works for private devotion that expressed divinity through naturalism and purity of spirit.

In painterly terms, he did it by a boldness of composition and a colour palette that were radical and forward looking. His melding through gradations of colour between skin and clothing is, acclaims Nicholas Penny, quite astonishing. But then so is the energy he imbues into his works through the rhythm of colour and movement.

One of his finest masterpieces on show here, Entombment of Christ, painted from 1579-82 for the Chiesa della Croce in Senigallia, is built upon a carefully balanced circular composition, the inner round of the three men carrying the body in the centre and the outer movement of the Virgin and Mary Magdalene around the edges, the dynamism enhanced by the rhythm of yellows and reds in the figures and the flow of their cloaks.

In the same way, in Visitation (1583-6), commissioned by Santa Maria in Vallicella in Rome, the intimacy of the meeting of the Virgin and her cousin Saint Elizabeth is portrayed by the central circle in which each clasps the other's shoulder, while the whole composition is given force by the diagonal of the two men either side and the woman moving into the space bottom right and the window onto the countryside beyond. The tenderness between the two ladies. Nothing I think in art can compare with the tenderness of the look between the two women as they greet each other.

The curators would argue that Barocci formed the bridge between the Renaissance and the Baroque. In styilistic terms this is undoubtedly true. But in terms of spirit he was quite different from the classically inspired art that preceded him or the full-blooded realism of the Baroque that came after. Where Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo concerned themselves with depicting man in all the glory of his physical presence and Caravaggio afterwards sought to give religious art the drama of real and ordinary people, Barocci devoted himself to depicting ecstatic emotion, the idealised joy of man in the presence of the divine. It is a spirituality that is at odds with our secular age and helps explain why there are only two of his paintings in public collections. The British don't do religious ecstasy nor have they a great taste for the Baroque.

If Barocci comes across now, it is more for his technical brilliance and graphic genius than for his message. And yet there is something in the intensity of his effort that is beyond technique and saves it from sentimentality. He never married but seems to have enjoyed friendships and gatherings of like-minded spirits. But he suffered dreadfully, according to his biographer, from nightmares that kept him from sleep. The “grace” that the National Gallery attributes to him in its title may have been his reach for resolution and release.

In a moving self-portrait at the end of this exhibition he shows himself – as he never showed his figures in his altarpieces or the portraits of the Duke and friends he made – greying, modest but also unblinking. The eyes look to the beyond with an air of waiting. Maybe it is his devoutness that we find hard to grasp today.

Barocci: Brilliance and Grace, National Gallery, London WC2 (020 7747 2885) to 19 May