The High Drama of Baroque Art

A wall of epic paintings from the Barberini palace evokes power, prestige, and spiritual anguish


By Tim Gihring

Two years ago, the Minneapolis Institute of Art acquired four Italian paintings from the 1620s, all commissioned by the Barberini family at the height of their power and patronage. Until now, only two have been on display: a monumental depiction of the Archangel Michael defeating Satan, by Cavaliere d’Arpino, and a smaller but highly original take on Christ’s crucifixion, by Paolo Guidotti. This week, they have finally been joined by the others, flanking the d’Arpino in the museum’s third-floor Baroque gallery — a floor-to-ceiling display of high drama.

From left: The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, by Domenico Passignano; The Archangel Michael, by Cavaliere d’Arpino; Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, by Cristoforo Roncalli.

“We’ve really transformed this space with these new acquisitions,” says Rachel McGarry, Mia’s Elizabeth MacMillan Chair of European Art. “I’m thrilled that we have this gorgeous wall of newly restored paintings.” Both recently installed works — Domenico Passignano’s Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise and Cristoforo Roncalli’s Jacob Wrestling with the Angelrequired conservation to restore their appearance and enable their display, and now gleam in gold frames with a luminosity that belies the spiritual anguish of their subjects.

In Passignano’s painting, Adam and Eve appear desperate and distraught as they’re escorted out of Eden by an angel; in Roncalli’s shadowy picture, Jacob and the angel are at the end of their all-night struggle, locked in exhausted embrace. They are emotional and tender scenes, in contrast to d’Arpino’s more regal and restrained image of the Archangel, who seems to pin Lucifer underfoot without much effort. “What they have in common is their scale — this monumentality — and their clarity,” says McGarry. “You can see very quickly what’s going on and the message is very clear.” At the height of the Counter-Reformation, projecting the supremacy of God — and, by extension, the Church — was among the primary preoccupations of Rome.

In 1623, after years of accumulating influence, the Barberinis managed to elevate one of their own to the papacy — Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, who became Pope Urban VIII — and the family’s wealth and art collection expanded accordingly. Maffeo was already a patron of the arts, erudite and intellectually curious — a friend of Galileo, even if he would famously throw him over to the Inquisition as pope. He commissioned the Guidotti crucifixion painting in 1621. It’s a curious scene, Christ hanging from the cross with touching vulnerability as six different biblical Marys — including his mother — look on. (Guidotti, a Renaissance man not unlike Maffeo, was described as “a crazy master,” his style “hallucinatory.”) D’Arpino’s painting of the Archangel Michael, made for Maffeo shortly after he became Urban VIII, is more straightforward: Maffeo had long identified with the figure, as a defender of the faith, and d’Arpino hoped the flattering allegory would earn him more lucrative commissions for the pope’s overhaul of St. Peter’s Basilica. It did.

A recently acquired bronze of Anna Colonna Barberini.

All of these paintings decorated the Barberini palace for more than 300 years, kept together like the rest of the collection in a family trust established by Urban VIII. Only in 1934 was the family successful in breaking up the trust, allowing them to export and sell many of the works. Starting in the 1940s, Mia began acquiring some of the pieces, including an important tapestry woven in the Barberinis’ private workshop. In 1958, Mia acquired Nicolas Poussin’s Death of Germanicus (1627), considered by many — including McGarry — his finest painting. Now, the cluster of Barberini artworks at Mia forms something of a museum within the museum, presided over by the latest addition: a bust of Anna Colonna Barberini. A formidable princess, she was married to a nephew of the pope, uniting one of Rome’s most respected families with one of its most aspirational. When the family’s grasping ways ultimately resulted in their exile, she was the one who saved what remained of their fortune and reputation.

The bronze likeness, acquired last year, suggests her determination and was once part of her funerary monument, erected per her instructions. When its carved marble base — currently being restored — is reunited with the figure, it should convey the scale of both her regard in Rome and the artistic labor required to create such a monument. Gabriele Renzi (who once worked with Bernini) designed the marble elements, others cast the bronze and gilded it, and an architect oversaw the decorative framework surrounding the figure. “We have this idea of sculpture as a solo endeavor — Michelangelo working all by himself,” McGarry says, “but these projects are on the scale of Hollywood films. Huge teams would work together.”

Anna died in her late 50s and was buried in the chapel of the convent she fought to create in Rome. Her tomb and monument were placed near the high altar, where the nuns would gather for communion. The convent was demolished in the late 1800s. “She was an important woman in Rome,” McGarry says, “a shrewd and very clever power player. I’m so happy she’s here.”



Minneapolis Institute of Art
Minneapolis Institute of Art

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