National Gallery, London

Charles Darwent on art: Barocci, Brilliance and Grace - For my next trick, the start of the Baroque!

4.00

Once famous for his pretty pink Madonnas, a neglected Italian painter has a deeper humanity which inspired Rubens – and led an entire generation

A family name can be a burden or a blessing. Jacopo Comin got his – Tintoretto, "little dyer" – from his father's trade, a stroke of luck for a man who would find fame as a colourist. Barocci, a painter of pretty pink Madonnas, was born Federico Fiori, or Frederick Flowers. That would have done nicely, too. Whoever dubbed his father's family Barocci did him no favours at all. Barocci, in some north Italian dialects, are ox-carts – a singularly hefty nickname for the artist now on show at the National Gallery.

One letter different, and all might have been well: barocco is the Italian for Baroque, and Barocci is famously a link between the art of that period and that of the Renaissance. I say "famously", although the Urbino-born painter is anything but famous these days, a lapse the National's show is meant to address.

The problem has been less one of name than of taste. Art history is made up of tectonic plates with labels such as Rococo or Modernism. Every now and then these shift, and artists near the edge fall off. Barocci is a case in point.

In his day (roughly 1526-1612), he was very big news indeed. To be a pioneer of the Baroque meant being at the forefront of the Counter-Reformation, toeing the line of the Council of Trent that art should be orderly, non-pagan and lust-free. In the whole of Barocci: Brilliance and Grace, there is only one secular narrative painting – of the highly edifying tale of Aeneas Fleeing Troy. All the rest are devotional works. The only bare breasts are on the Virgin Mary, and they are definitely anaphrodisiac.

If you think of what was being painted when Barocci was young – Michelangelo's Last Judgement, say – you will see how far things had come. An ox-cart he may have been, but no one would accuse him, as they did Michelangelo, of painting porcherie – pork-things, obscenities. Works such as Rest on the Return from Egypt turn their back on the High Renaissance. While the face of the elderly St Joseph is in what was, by 1570, old-fashioned sfumato, the picture's younger subjects, Mary and the Christ Child, are bathed in the shadeless light of the Counter-Reformation. A new generation is in town, and Federico Barocci is its leader.

As you look at Rest on the Return from Egypt, two things may strike you. One is that you have never heard of the man who painted it, and the other is that you have seen the picture before. Or something like it. The Virgin's soft-fleshed pink cheeks and the pixie-like face of the baby Jesus seem like an echo of Rubens. Actually, the reverse is true. When the Flemish painter came to Italy in the early 1600s, he was captivated by Barocci, particularly by the porcelain look of the Italian's female subjects. Barocci was one of the first to make finished preparatory studies for his canvases in pastel: several, including Head of the Virgin Mary, are in this show. To his decorous drawings we owe, at least in part, those big-bottomed women we think of as Rubenesque.

Rubens saw something in Barocci that succeeding generations lost sight of: an underlying humanity. He was not alone. You'll have read recently about the gift of the late Denis Mahon to British public galleries, including the National. This is of Roman Baroque pictures, so reviled when Mahon began to collect them in the 1930s that they were pretty well given away: the Irishman paid £120 for Guercino's Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph. The late 19th century saw Baroque art go out of fashion and the so-called Italian Primitives come in. Victorians thought of Barocci as a pretty painter, which was true, and dismissed him as shallow, which was not.

Look again at his Rest on the Return from Egypt, and then at Nude Study for the Virgin next to it. The latter is drawn not just from life, but of it. Far from being idealised, the Virgin is a woman with the beginning of a droop to her breasts, creases of cellulite in the join of her thighs. And those things are there, too, in Barocci's painting of her – a slight pull of the bodice on her nipples, a sense of mortal flesh beneath the silk.

By the end of his long career, that humanity resurfaced in a different form: Barocci's dirty-handed St Francis in Prayer has the feel of an unruly young Milanese called Caravaggio. If, like Caravaggio, Barocci had been born in 1571, he might have made the leap to a later, meatier Baroque. As it was, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Exhibitions often claim to rediscover forgotten geniuses, and seldom do. This one does.

To 19 May (020-7747 2885)

Critic's Choice

The impact of Marcel Duchamp, in changing the way we see art, objects and the process of creation, is explored at the Barbican's exhibition The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns (till 9 Jun). As the title suggests, it traces his influence on other media too.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence