Going for Baroque

Patrons and Painters: A Study in the Relations between Italian Art and Society in the Age of the Baroque

by Francis Haskell
Knopf, 454 pp., $15.00

This is a fascinating book, on a fairly special subject. To read it, one has to possess a developed curiosity about historical causes and effects, and know something about artists of seventeenth-century Italy like Bernini, Pietro da Cortona, Poussin, and Claude Lorrain. Starting from that base, the author’s Part One ties the careers and the styles of painting of these artists and others to the interests of the patrons who made them prosperous. The motivations of the Popes are the chief key: the violent shifts of taste when a new Pope appeared, the urgent need to create images of power quickly during a single reign, the preference for artists from the Pope’s home town, the relative submissiveness of the Jesuits and other religious orders, all fall vividly into place. Some of the trends which Mr. Haskell illuminates and most of the facts are known to investigators of Baroque, but many items are the author’s own finds, and his synthesis offers much that is new to the deepest specialist. Each of his criss-cross presentations dovetails beautifully.

Rome in this century had far more than its share of the best artists from everywhere, but its political history, in the long view, was trivial and therefore is unfamiliar. The opposite is true of Richelieu’s France, Cromwell’s England, or the Germany of Wallenstein and Gustavus Adolphus. To tie those potent figures to the dim art around them would be anticlimatic. But in Rome the historian can illuminate remarkable paintings by their connections with people who made no impact on the future, but did have tremendous local power and willful and distinctive personalities. This combination of major art and unfamiliar background is Mr. Haskell’s luck. The deepened understanding of the paintings occurs in a context of lively character sketches, and the paintings are worth it.

The only significant complaint I have about this first part is less the author’s fault than a general human failing. Phenomena which he calls typical of this seventeenth-century society often, in fact, existed a century or more before, in the Italy of the Renaissance. There was, after all, no big shift in habits of living. There are merely fewer records from the earlier period, a lack that happens to be reinforced by the author’s naturally greater knowledge of the later period. Thus he says that it was “new” and “most exceptional” in the earlier period, to give artists noble titles, but without hunting I can increase Mr. Haskell’s two earlier exceptions to seven, most of them never held in awe as particularly great (for example, Baccio Bandinelli). The graph does go up later, but not at so steep a rate as he thinks. On a larger point, he reports that artists, once they were assigned a subject, had “surprising” freedom in the actual look of the resulting painting. His conclusion rightly surprises him, not because it contradicts the data assembled before, but only, I am afraid, because it contradicts a well-worn convention in art historical research. Our detailed symbolic interpretations…

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