Honors in Rome - Summer 2007
Maffeo Barberini, later Pope Urban VIII, was known for his patronage of the arts and his penchant for nepotism. Urban worked tirelessly to propel his family to the top of the Roman aristocracy; commissioning grand works of art was just one way he did so. Palazzo Barberini, the family’s palace on what was then the outskirts of Rome, is a spectacular example of both of Urban’s interests at work: his desire to establish the Barberini as an important noble family and his genuine interest in the arts. The palazzo exhibits ceiling frescoes never before seen in a secular palace, all with the goal of glorifying the pope and the Barberini family, and claiming their divine right to rule over the Papal States.
II. Personal and Family History
The Barberini came from Val d’Elsa, a Florentine territory, and first made their fortune by selling cloth. They intermarried with a number of prominent Florentine families before Francesco di Carlo Barberini became the first member of the family to rise high within the church. He was very influential in his nephew Maffeo’s career, helping him on a path that would end in his being crowned pope.
Young Maffeo was raised in his uncle’s household, studied at the Collegio Romano, and obtained a law degree before embarking on his ecclesiastical career. After his posting as papal nuncio to France in 1604-7, he was named cardinal by Pope Paul V. He was awarded the bishopric of Spoleto, and in 1611-14 was governor of Bologna, a post known to be a test for future popes.
He got his chance after the death of Pope Gregory XV in 1623. During the conclave, however, eight of the fifty four cardinals were struck dead by malaria. Maffeo was a candidate chosen in compromise, and he became the first pope to be elected by secret ballot. At first, however, only fifty three ballots could be accounted for, so Maffeo insisted on a new vote to avoid questions of his legitimacy and only then was he confirmed as pope, taking the name Urban VIII.
Throughout his rein, Urban was known particularly for his interest in the arts. He was a poet himself, had even published some of his works, and provided the accompanying inscriptions for the bases of his friend Bernini’s sculpture of Apollo and Daphne. As pope, his major work includes reconstruction on a number of churches, commissioning Bernini to build the baldacchino for St. Peter’s Basilica, and construction of his new family palace, Palazzo Barberini, on the Quirinal Hill.
The palazzo was built primarily for Urban’s three nephews, to showcase their new powerful and prestigious position, and to glorify the family name. Urban’s oldest nephew, Francesco, had been put into the church, as was typical for the eldest son in this time. He was made cardinal two months after his uncle became pope, at the age of 26. As the ecclesiastical head of the family, he was awarded a number of prestigious offices and benefices, including the position of secretary of state, becoming absentee abbot of the richest abbeys in the Papal States, Farfa, San Salvatore, and Grottaferrata, as well as, in 1632, becoming papal vice chancellor, the second most important position in the papal hierarchy. In 1633 he was made Archpriests of St. Peter’s; this was another very lucrative position. Much like his uncle, Francesco was known for his interest in the arts and sciences and his left behind a vast library at Palazzo Barberini.
The second nephew, Taddeo, was chosen to continue the Barberini dynasty as the heir to the family wealth and leader of the secular side of the family. In 1627, he married Anna Colonna, of one of the Roman royal families, further solidifying the Barberinis’ spot within the Roman nobility. He too received a number of political offices as a result of his uncle’s nepotism. Taddeo held the posts of general of the Church, governor of the Borgo and Castel Sant’Angelo, captain of the papal guards, and prefect of Rome. Taddeo is remembered for his arrogance and greed. It is said that as prefect of Rome, he ordered that all carriages be stopped to give him the right of way, and remain fully stopped until he had passed.
The youngest son, Antonio, was also put into the church, though the idea was that if Taddeo died without having produced heirs, Antonio would be able to renounce his vows without much difficulty. Antonio was always in the shadow of Francesco, but in 1627, Urban made him cardinal, and while perhaps not as prestigious, his posts were nearly as lucrative as his brother’s. Antonio became the principal link between the papacy and the Barberini alliance with the French, first as nuncio to Avignon in 1633, then as co-protector of France at papal court, and finally, as papal chamberlain in 1638.
The three nephews, particularly Francesco and Taddeo, were involved in the building of the palace, though Antonio was the primary occupant. In the later years, as Urban’s health declined, they took advantage of him and used his power to build up their own wealth and prestige. This is what caused a contemporary to remark that “if [Urban VIII] had reigned for only fourteen or fifteen years, instead of twenty-one, he would have been remembered as a good and even great pope” (Scott 6). The inquest by Innocent X, the subsequent pope, confirmed that the Barberini had accumulated 30 million ducats in land and in cash during Urban’s reign, twelve times the annual income of the Papal States. It is through these eyes that we view Urban’s pontificate, and this is why he is now remembered as the most nepotistic pope, not for his contributions to the arts.
III. History of the Palazzo
The land that the current Palazzo Barberini stands on passed through a number of hands before it was purchased by Cardinal Francesco Barberini. We can trace it back to 1549, when it was bought by Cardinal Rodolfo Pio da Carpi, who built a casino there. In 1565, Cardinal Guilio della Rovere bought it from da Carpi and in 1578; it was sold to Cardinal Alessandro Sforza. Sforza built a small palace on the grounds, and this was all that stood on the land when Francesco bought it in 1625. Though the property and the house were both considered too small for the newly powerful Barberini family, they negotiated for the property for two years and never considered tearing down the Sforza palace.
For six years after the purchase of the initial property, the Barberini purchased neighboring plots of land in order to enlarge the space. This was, after all, to be a step up from their house Via de’ Giubbonari, proclaiming their divine right to rule over the Papal States, and establishing their position at the highest level of Roman society.
To build their new palace, the Barberini hired papal architect Carlo Maderno, who by now was in his 70s, with long and illustrious career behind him. Though he died only a month after construction began on the palace, he is credited with much of the design. He was succeeded by Bernini, who at that time was renowned as a sculptor, but who had done very little architectural work. This was to be his first large architectural commission. Based on his very little experience, and on the architectural plans that survive, we can see that Bernini followed quite closely to Maderno’s original design, with the help of the older architect’s assistant, Francesco Borromini. The changes we do see are mostly in the details, for example, the introduction of sculpted figures or addition of reliefs on the façade. These show the influence of a sculptor, and it is quite likely that these revisions were the extent of Bernini’s changes.
The palace itself was shaped like an H, with wings on the north and south, connected by a central vaulted salone. The northern wing was built from the old Sforza palace, and intended to house the secular side of the family. Taddeo and Anna’s apartments were here, and it was this side that featured all of the ceiling frescoes. In fact, when the couple moved into the palazzo in 1632, there were already twenty three ceiling paintings. What is perhaps most ironic is that Taddeo and Anna only lived in this palace for two years. Anna insisted on moving back to their previous palace in 1634 because she was not having sons in the new one.
Figure 1. North Wing of Palazzo Barberini
The southern wing was entirely new, and this side was for the ecclesiastical side of the family, namely Cardinal Francesco. The two wings were connected by a vaulted salone; this is where Pietro da Cortona painted his masterpiece. The ceiling of the salone at that time was surpassed in size only by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, emphasizing the Barberinis’ role as pioneers in secular palace decoration and establishing their position through opulence.
Through the artwork commissioned by Urban VIII during his reign, we see similar themes, also echoed in the art of Palazzo Barberini. As discussed earlier, Urban emerged as the surprise winner of the papal election of 1623. Much of the artwork he commissioned therefore follows a theme of divine election. He and by association, his family, were chosen by God to rule over the Church and the Papal States.
Figure 2. Facade of Palazzo Barberini
As was also mentioned before, one of the main goals of the palace was to establish the family’s place in Roman society. Because they came from humble backgrounds, they needed to emphasize their current position and sought even to surpass some of the long-standing Roman aristocratic families, particularly the Farnese, whose palace they were intent upon outshining. To this end, the family used their literary skills to create “fresh allegorical programs based on exalted theological, astrological, poetic conceits as ideological support for social and political preeminence” (Scott 11). They incorporated new themes unprecedented in palace decoration and created a new standard for palaces that followed.
IV. Pietro da Cortona’s “Divine Providence”
During the Baroque period, certain conventions were established for ceiling painting. First, rooms in a palace were divided based on number of occupants and the rank of those occupants. Thus, the ceilings too, were conceived according to the number of rooms in an apartment and the rank of those that occupied it. These ceiling paintings were generally thought of in groupings, rather than individually. Similarly, the subject matter of the paintings was chosen based on the social status of the patron, the type of building, function of the room, and overhead location of the imagery. Ceiling paintings had an ideal station point. That is, there was one point from which was considered best to view a ceiling painting. Artists would consider where the viewer would enter the room, as well as the location of windows, as they painted. Also in the Baroque period we see the incorporation of family crests into the pictorial field of a painting. During the Renaissance, these usually appeared in the crowns of vaults, but during the Baroque they take center stage, and send a strong message about the status of the family. Lastly, the idea of optical persuasion reached its peak during this time. The creation of illusionistic domes and fake architecture moved beyond an amusing trompe l’oeil to persuade the viewer on an intellectual level that the event being depicted is taking place. The use of these techniques, particularly those pertaining to ideal station point and optical persuasion, can be seen in the salone of the palace.
The most famous ceiling painting in Palazzo Barberini is in the salone: Pietro da Cortona’s “Divine Providence.” What is perhaps the first thought of the viewer coming into the salone is its size. The room is long, and the ceiling vault is uninterrupted. Most Roman secular palaces of the time featured coffered, flat wood ceilings. Those that did have vaults were broken up with window embrasures and stucco enframements, leaving little room for elaborate paintings. The Barberini salone is the first example of an uninterrupted vaulted ceiling, and Cortona took full advantage of this in his work.
Most of what we know today about the iconography of Cortona’s ceiling is owed to Rosichino, a sweeper in the palace. The story goes that Rosichino, tired of being questioned by visitors about the meaning of the ceiling, set out to write a pamphlet detailing the iconography to give to the visitors to the salone. It is through him that we can now decipher the meaning of the complex, multi-scene ceiling. In the center, we see Divine Providence. Below her, Time and Saturn represent the present and the future. She is surrounded by the figures of Justice, Mercy, Eternity, Truth, Purity, and Beauty. Immortality crowns the arms of Urban VIII, and Faith, Hope, Charity frame the coat of arms with the laurel branches, as the three Barberini bees fly up the middle. Above, religion holds the keys and the personification of Rome holds the papal tiara . This sends the strongest message: Urban and his family were chosen by God to assume the highest post in Christendom.
Figure 3. "Divine Providence" by Pietro da Cortona (Scholars Resource)
The short cove directly below the main scene, depicts the story of Minerva overthrowing the giants. Here Minerva represents wisdom, and is a personification of the church, in defense of “ecclesiastical things”. On the cove opposite Minerva we see “the temporal government.” Authority and Abundance enter, while old men, children, and widows await their gifts. At the same time, Hercules casts out the Harpies. This represents the “chastisement of kings” and is a message to secular rulers who seek hegemony at expense of Papal States and prosperity of its citizens. Where Minerva represents the church, this represents the secular side of the family. Hercules is the virtuous hero, symbolizing the army of the pope, while the Harpies represent the avarice of the neighboring princes, who are kept at bay by Hercules.
Figure 4. Detail of Minerva (Scholars Resource)
On the south side of the salone, we see Moral Knowledge, holding a sacred text and a flaming urn, both indicative of the lofty knowledge she seeks. She is lifted by Divine Assistance, with Piety on the right. The south wing was for the cardinals, so this side sends an appropriately moral and religious message. On the right is Gluttony, embodied in Bacchus, personifying “the bad upbringing of youth.” On the left, Lasciviousness, as a reclining woman, who tries to defend herself against Chastity and the army of Chase Cupids.
Figure 5. Detail of Moral Knowledge (Scholars Resource)
On the north side, we see Dignity, who represents “rank of office.” On the right, Peace closes the temple of Janus as Furor is bound by Gentleness, both symbols of peace. On the left, Vulcan makes weapons at his forge. This is symbolic of preparations for war. Together, the two scenes are showing the “preparedness which is necessary for the defense of the provinces even in peace time.” (Scott 141) This depiction, on the side of the secular wing, indicates the importance of rational political leaders, and shows that the Barberini will seek to maintain peace, but will be prepared to fight if it is necessary.
Figure 6. Detail of Dignity (Scholars Resource)
These scenes symbolize a spiritual-temporal dualism within the papacy. The “Keys of Knowledge” represented by Minerva and Moral Knowledge refer to the pope’s authority in spiritual matters. The “Keys of Power” represented by Hercules and Dignity allude to peace and prosperity that result from the assertive authority and military preparedness of the papacy in temporal affairs. Together, they send an impressive message about the power and leadership of the pope.
The four octagonal medallions at the corners of the fresco are scenes from Roman history depicting the cardinal virtues. The animals below the medallions symbolize the same virtue. Scipio and the unicorn represent Temperance, Mucius Scaevola and the lion represent Fortitude, Titus Manlius and the hippogriff, Justice, and Fabius Maximus and the bear, Prudence.
Cortona also designed the fresco so that the four categories of symbolic imagery, mythological figures, allegorical personifications and virtues, historical personages, and bestiary animals, all occupy specific spaces in the pictorial system. Mythological figures are placed beyond the illusionistic frame, outside of the real space of the room, because they are the most distant from us. Allegorical personifications and virtues intervene into our space, showing that they are the most important. They are positive and Christianizing. The historical figures are part of the enframement but occupy a separate space, in a different realm from the other figures. The animals, because they are close to humans, move into the salone space. These spatial indications, whether they are within or beyond our space, give the viewer clues about those figures and images depicted.
According to Rosichino, the salone was open to “any person who could make a presentable appearance at the palace gate during the appropriate hours” (Scott 193). The fact that Rosichino went so far as to write a pamphlet detailing the meaning of the ceiling fresco indicates that many people did in fact view Cortona’s work. However, if the salone was open to the public (recognizing that “presentable appearance” could still apply only to a small percentage of the population), I wonder why the Barberini chose to make the fresco so inaccessible to their intended audience. The viewers would have recognized the Barberini coat of arms, and understood the symbology of it being crowned by a papal tiara, but many of the scenes on the side or end coves are less obvious. Though I believe that the message of the paintings would be stronger had they been more accessible to a large audience, the family may have wanted to display their literary knowledge through complex symbology. Those who did understand the fresco would have been part of an elite and exclusive group if this was the intention.
The iconography of Cortona’s ceiling is a complex but fascinating look into Baroque ceiling painting and offers great insight into the Barberini family and the messages they were trying to send to the outside world. While their lasting legacy may be one of nepotism, it is through their extensive patronage of the arts that we can understand more about the art of the time, and in the case of their palace, we have an example of a pioneer in ceiling paintings; one of the largest, most dramatic ceiling paintings of perhaps all time.
Blunt, Anthony. “The Palazzo Barberini: The Contributions of Maderno, Bernini, and Pietro da Cortona.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 21.3/4 (1958): 256-287.
Majanlahti, Anthony, “The Barberini,” selections from ch. 6 in The Families Who Made Rome. London, 2005.
Scholars Resource. Saskia, Ltd. September 20 2007. http://www.scholarsresource.com/browse/work/7874
Scott, John Beldon. Images of Nepotism: The Painted Ceilings of Palazzo Barberini. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.
Waddy, Patricia. “The Design and Designers of Palazzo Barberini.” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 35.3 (1976): 151-185.