The Creative Process Behind Federico Barocci's Drawings

Uffizi Gallery

Florence, Uffizi Galleries, Department of Prints and Drawings

This exhibition, which follows the exhibition held in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the Uffizi Gallery from 18th December 2015 to 3rd April 2016, focuses on the drawings of Federico Barocci (Urbino 1533/1535-1612) to gain an understanding of their most distinctive features. “Creation of Images” is Barocci studio where ideas take shape through a constant transformation and review process, both mental and practical.The selected works highlight some of the recurring features of the artist's complex creative process. In particular, the exhibition investigates the connection between the different creation stages and the different ways of figure construction. It also focuses on varied reiteration: repeatedly drawing similar forms on a single sheet or in a sequence of thematically-connected studies was a method that proved extremely effective and fitting for the artist. Barocci constantly examined every single detail of his works, so this technique was perfect for him. Another important aspect is the examination of the procedural framework described by Giovanni Pietro Bellori in "The Life of Federico Barocci from Urbino", published in his work "The Lives of Modern Painters, Sculptors and Architects" (1672). The Roman biographer divides Federico's preparatory phases into a precise series of steps that were done in a particular order. This interpretation, although it remains valid in a general sense, cannot be considered as a model to be applied literally in organising and understanding the artist's "corpus". Rather it should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis against the work of art it produced, and articulated as necessary based on this.
Life drawing has often been described as the first and most important step in Barocci's artistic process, starting with the testimony of Bellori himself. In fact, as modern scholars demonstrate, the analysis of nature played an equally important role and was interchangeable with this purely mental process and the combination of various visual sources. Federico showed an incredible ability to assimilate very different cultural stimuli and transformed them in a way that was both personal and original. The artist's extensive alteration of his models often makes them difficult to identify. The switching between the accurate adaptation of natural fact and the “studio da sé”, the result of both imagination and photographic memory, has many aspects. As can be inferred from the exhibition sequence, they involve different creation stages, from the first figure analysis to the verification of every detail. Colour is a determining factor in the process of transforming (sometimes drastically) the original model in order to create a spontaneous and credible reproduction of the visual stimulus. His free use of new techniques, such as pastels, leads to assimilation between drawing and painting procedures.

Barocci's study of sculpture, which was an important starting point for him, is almost always hidden in favour of the principle of verisimilitude.

The drawing, a study for the frescoes of the Casino of Pius IV (1561-1563) - a significant papal commission which the artist received during his second stay in Rome - is one of the few examples in which the use of a sculpture as a model clearly shows, although the specific prototype has not been identified. The work appears to demonstrate an interest in both antique works and contemporary art, such as that of Bartolomeo Ammannati at Villa Giulia.

In his preparatory studies for the "Immaculate Conception" (circa 1575, Urbino, National Gallery of the Marche), classical statues are also used as models, perhaps filtered through a Raphaelesque interpretation of ancient art. This study focuses on the drapery and volume of the figures.

The central female figure is a preparatory study for the Virgin Mary in "The Annunciation" created for the Basilica della Santa Casa in Loreto (1582-1584, Vatican City, Pinacoteca Vaticana), in which the carefully-studied cloak on the right also features. This element contributes to the gestural art and delicate majesty of the Madonna.

The other sketch of a female figure can likewise be linked to the woman in the foreground of the painting, "The Martyrdom of Saint Vitalis" (1580-1583, Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera).

Neither of the figures, despite showing a certain softness and plausible volumetric definition, are by any means studies from life. Rather, the abstract and delicate outlines reveal that they are the result of a creative process that took place in the artist's mind.

Alongside extremely abstract figures and those resulting from anatomical studies from life, we also find stylised models which reveal the artist's use of mannequins. This practice, which had been in use since the 15th century, is in evidence in this sketch, in which the artist analyses the pose and drapery of the seated tyrant in "The Martyrdom of Saint Vitalis" (1580-1583, Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera).

In this drawing, the study of the pose of one of the executioners in "The Martyrdom of Saint Vitalis" (1580-1583, Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera) reveals a peculiar process in which we observe the tension between the abstract and the real. On top of the initial stylised concept, where only the outline is sketched out using charcoal, a second and better-defined figure is added in red chalk, especially for the anatomy of the lower half of the body.

Federico begins with a detailed life study of a nude male model, which he eventually transforms into the female figure that appears in the foreground of the painting "Madonna del Popolo" (1575-1579, Florence, Uffizi Gallery). Unlike the body of the man, which is well-proportioned with solid and controlled lines, the woman's body is depicted using quick, flowing strokes, making it difficult to use this as a model for future reworkings.

This analysis is substantiated by the lack of squaring or traces of outlining around the woman, whereas these are present around the figure on the left. Clearly, if the latter was the model, the study on the right must be considered a test that the painter quickly sketched out just to evaluate other potential adaptations.

Studies of animals and details, such as his famous "arie di teste" (head studies), have always been considered emblematic of Barocci's immediate approach to nature. However, they were often the result of studied reworking and a careful mental process. This is certainly the case in the sketch of a donkey, where the animal's pose is dictated by its role in the overall composition of the painting, "Rest on the Flight into Egypt" (1570-1573, Vatican City, Pinacoteca Vaticana).

The artist's study of chiaroscuro effects, creating using a combination of black and red chalk, falls into the same category. As these drawings show, reality for Barocci could be either an initial starting point or a benchmark for comparison throughout the creative process.

Barocci's interest in light and colour plays an important role in the form and expression of his paintings. His studies of these aspects were not relegated to the final stages of creation, as claimed by Giovanni Pietro Bellori. Instead, they were present throughout the entire graphic process.

The skilful use of pastels helps to create a surprisingly realistic rendering of the skin of the hand, as does the blue paper, which acts as an intermediate tone.

The chiaroscuro effect, which aims to give a sense of volume to the angel's body, is obtained by a sparing use of the paper and a soft use of the red chalk. It therefore seems clear that Barocci was capable of interpreting nature with a sensitivity demostrated, over roughly the same period, also by Annibale Carracci (Bologna, 1560 - Rome, 1609) in Bologna.

In this study, which is characterised by great liberty of both form and expression, the facial features are rendered with broad charcoal strokes,

while pink pastel, in conjunction with red and white chalks, carefully reproduces the effects of light hitting the skin.

Barocci constantly rethinks the figure, modifying it and reusing it for mental and practical necessities. This prolonged, almost exasperating, period of deliberation explains his method of creating varied reiteration of particular forms on a single sheet of paper. Of course, repetition is a very common process among artists, but for Barocci it almost became an obligatory step which helped him develop multiple aspects of the same study simultaneously.

In this drawing, believed to be a preparatory study for "The Calling of Saint Andrew", now located in Brussels (1580-1583, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium), the artist created various iterations of the saint not only to perfect his pose but also to examine the spatial relationship between the saint and Christ, who is seen from behind. In the following drawings, in which Barocci studies the two figures separately, the composition seems to be quite literally reversed with regard to the initial concept.

Here, Barocci studies the figure of Saint Andrew in reverse with respect to the previous sheet, with inverse positioning of the arms and legs. The pose seems more balanced and solid, and the slightly twisted torso and inclined head lend a sense of dynamism to the work. The artist's close attention to anatomy is linked to his interest in chiaroscuro; the shade that can clearly be seen behind the figure already creates the idea of a powerful source of light from the right, and this was also used in the final painting.

Particular attention is given to gradually perfecting the drapery of Christ's clothing, as well as the detailed depiction of certain elements which were studied separately, such as his arm and leg.

The artist also extends his study to the three-dimensional development of the figure. The prominent lighting effects, produced by a masterful use of white chalk, tend to shatter and obliterate the underlying lines.

This is an initial study for the figure of Brother Leone in the altarpiece depicting "The Stigmata of Saint Francis", painted between 1594 and 1595 for the main altar of the Capuchin church in Urbino, and now displayed at the National Gallery of the Marche. It is one of a series of four drawings which are linked by the use of the pen and diluted ink technique, as well as similar style and form characteristics. In this sequence, the figure is developed through continuous and seamless reworking.

Building on his previous idea, the artist depicts a pose known as "serpentinata" (snake-like) due to its spiral quality, creating a strong impression of movement. The body, nude in the first study, is clothed and rotated in a single movement; the disequilibrium of the figure is also mitigated by positioning the limbs differently. These two studies, as well as depicting variations of a pose, have two different purposes.

In the first, the focus is on the anatomical analysis of a twisted body, rendered with incisive and calligraphic pen strokes.

In the second, the artist uses diluted ink applied with a brush to suggest the stark contrast of light and shade produced by the light from above.
The artist's habit of studying figures from different perspectives seems to be linked to his custom of creating small wax or clay models, which according to Bellori helped to ensure that their clothes were depicted in a natural way. These models in fact played a key role in helping the artist understand the three-dimensional nature of figures.

Barocci examines another possibility for Brother Leone, which brings to mind an etching by Niccolò Boldrini (based on an original idea by Titian) depicting the same subject. The artist's final solution for his painting is therefore a composite, achieved through a lengthy development process.

The varied reiteration reflects the speed and complexity of the artist's thought process as it gradually shapes the figures, as the sketch for "The Deposition" in Perugia Cathedral (1568-1569) demonstrates. Barocci experimented with several variations of the position of the Virgin and the devout woman supporting her, and analyses one of the poses of the nude male model. Each study is very specific in terms of both style and form, but is subordinate to the unique intent within the context of the overall work.

In his drawing for "The Lamentation of Christ", commissioned around 1600 and never completed, Barocci replicates the same idea several times, starting with an outline sketch and gradually analysing the anatomy of the figure and the contrast between light and shade. The artist's attention to the smallest details of posture and expression plays a crucial role in defining the figures. This can be seen in the changes from one study to the next,

but also within each sheet, with the addition of lines in red chalk over the lines in black chalk.

In many of the drawings a complex and heterogenous stratification of symbols and semantics can be discerned, which throws up the idea of it being a constant work in progress in which sudden afterthoughts and alterations necessarily play a part. A perfect example of this is the sketch for the hurdy-gurdy player in "Madonna del Popolo" (1575-1579, Florence, Uffizi Gallery). This drawing represents a stage in the development of the figure's posture.

In addition to the final solution, which corresponds to the one in the preparatory cartoon, where the figure is turned towards the divine apparition,

there is a new version of the angle of the head, which is now bowed, and this was eventually chosen for the painting itself.

The pose of the kneeling servant in the foreground of the "Last Supper", completed in 1599 (Urbino Cathedral), was constructed by combing the model analysed as a whole and studies of its individual components, which were then reconsidered and further analysed in subsequent versions.

The coexistence of the entire figure and single details on the same sheet is an almost inevitable step in the artist’s preparatory process.
This practice, which is nothing new as far as life studies are concerned, nonetheless had a very particular significance for the artist from Urbino, as evidenced by the frequency with which he used it and the technical variation he employed, responding to different needs each time.

In his countless studies of details, including the preparatory sketch for the Virgin Mary in the "Madonna del Gatto" (circa 1574, London, The National Gallery), Barocci considers variations which are often so minimal as to be imperceptible. His persistent reworking of every element seems to ally perfectly with his constant search (although this played a secondary role to the principle of verisimilitude) for "decorum" and "varietas" (variety) in his choice of poses and expressions.

The artist, who was particularly interested in investigating the various manifestations of movement, eventually reinvented the practice of studying a model and overcoming the static nature of it in order to create dynamic poses. In some cases, the artist portrays an action being carried out by depicting individual anatomical details and then reworking them, as in the study for "The Martyrdom of Saint Vitalis" (1580-1583, Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera).

In this work, the suggestion of movement that is produced also simulates the flight of the angels, which is emphasised not only by the development of the figures in the space, but also by the series of reworkings

of individual details, such as the right foot of the cherub in the top-right. The artist's need to constantly reproduce certain figures may have contributed to the development of his unusual skill in depicting actions being carried out.

Time and space extend across the two dimensions of a single sheet of paper, creating a cinema-like sequence. In this study for "The Assumption of the Virgin", the downward motion of the apostle's body is captured; it seems to happen in front of our eyes as he leans forwards to look into the empty tomb.

 To understand Barocci's preparatory process in greater detail, we should concentrate on the dialectics between the study of individual figures and the composition of the scene as a whole. As part of his preparation, the artist created various compositional studies ranging from initial sketches and small cartoons, generally used to analyse the contrast between light and shade, to cartoons “grandi quanto l’opera” (as large as the painting itself), as Bellori puts it, ready to be transferred to the canvas. Even with respect to the final models, the composition of the painting itself almost always included further modifications and adjustments. This habit confirms once again the artist's singular conception of the creative process: the idea therefore represents not only the initial kernel to be developed, but an ever-present guiding principle, constantly revised in practice.

The close link between the various planning stages is demonstrated in two drawings for the fresco of the Holy Family which occupies a central position on the vaulted ceiling of the first room of the Casino of Pius IV in Rome (1561-1563).
Barocci depicts the whole scene with quick strokes of the pen, reworking and seamlessly integrating them to model the figures, the relationships between them and the surrounding area in more detail.

The artist then focuses his attention on a single section of the composition, the left side to be precise, depicting the figures with varying degrees of definition. These figures are then re-examined separately, even on the reverse side of the sheet.

In light of its unusual circular shape, the drawing could be a rare study for a majolica plate. We can clearly see the tension between the artist's rapid thought process and his attention to specific compositional details, the contrast between light and shade in particular. Another aspect that stands out is Barocci's ability to balance the figures with the surrounding landscape, using vibrant pen strokes in a technique that the artist himself seems to have invented, "scarpigno" : quickly-drawn sketches in which the initial idea for the composition emerges from an intricate tangle of lines.

“Cartoncini per il chiaroscuro” (chiaroscuro cartoons), a type of drawing that Barocci introduced, are used for studying lighting effects in detail. In his study for "The Circumcision", a painting completed in 1590 which now hangs in the Louvre, the artist fine-tunes the composition of the scene, with particular attention to his analysis of the chiaroscuro contrast.

Credits: Story

The exhibition was curated by Roberta Aliventi with the scientific coordination of Marzia Faietti.

Roberta Aliventi
Laura Da Rin Bettina

Marzia Faietti
Raimondo Sassi

The introduction to the exhibition, the in-depth analysis and the fact sheets of the artworks are available on the website of the Project Euploos:

Credits: All media
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