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About Pietro Berrettini da Cortona
Pietro da Cortona, byname of Pietro Berrettini, born Pietro Berrettini da Cortona, (1 November 1596 – 16 May 1669) was an Italian artist and architect of High Baroque. He is best known for painting fresco ceilings, a pursuit in which he had ample competition in the Rome of his day, but he was equally adept and masterful with architectural design.
Berrettini was born to a family of artisans including his uncle Filippo Berrettini, in Cortona, then a town in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. He first apprenticed with Andrea Commodi in Florence. But soon departed for Rome at about 1612, where he joined the studio of Baccio Ciarpi. In Rome, he had encouragement from many prominent patrons including the Colonna. According to a biography, his deft copies of Raphael's Roman frescoes brought him to the attention and patronage (1623) of the Sacchetti brothers, Marcello and Giulio Sacchetti, who became respectively papal treasurer and cardinal (1626) during the Barberini papacy. In the Sacchetti orbit, he met Cardinal Francesco Barberini, the nephew of Pope Urban VIII, as well as the antiquarian, Cassiano dal Pozzo.
These three men helped him gain a major commission in Rome (1624-1626), a fresco decoration in the newly constructed Bernini church of Santa Bibiana. In 1626, the Sacchetti engaged Cortona to paint for them three large canvases of Sacrifice of Polyxena, Triumph of Bacchus, and Rape of the Sabines (the latter, c. 1629), and to paint a series of frescoes in the Villa Sacchetti in Castel Fusano, near Ostia, using a team that included the young Andrea Sacchi. Soon the rising prodigy would attract the patronage of the powerful papal Barberini family. He had already been involved in the fresco decoration of the Palazzo Mattei. And Cardinal Orsini had commissioned from him an Adoration of the Shepherds (c. 1626) for San Salvatore in Lauro.
Grand Salon of Palazzo Barberini
Fresco cycles were numerous in Cortona's Rome; most represented framed episodes imitating canvases such as found in the Sistine Chapel ceiling or in Carraccis' The Loves of the Gods in the Farnese gallery (completed 1601). In 1633, Pope Urban VIII (Maffeo Barberini) commissioned from Cortona a large fresco painting for the ceiling of the Barberini family palace; the Palazzo Barberini. Completed six years later, the huge Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power marks a watershed in Baroque painting. A putative sketch of the plan, of doubtful authenticity, is exhibited in the hall. The fresco is an illusion with the central field apparently open to the sky and scores of figures seen 'al di sotto in su' apparently coming into the room itself or floating above it. It contains endless number of heraldic symbols and subthemes.
Cortona's panegyric trompe l'oeil extavaganzas have lost favor in minimalist times, yet they are precursors of sunny and cherubim infested rococo excesses. They contrast starkly with darker renegade naturalism prominent in Caravaggisti, and remind us that the Baroque style was not monolithic. Cortona, like Bernini in sculpture, appears reactionary, patronizing; yet if excellence in art is measured by the ability to match style to intent within the limitations of the medium, then Cortona was triumphant. He was among the first of the fresco painters that dispensed with the architectural masonry of the roof, erasing it away with painted integral architecture and a broad, non-framed vista. While rising heavenward, works like the Barberini Allegory are meant to stagger and humble the visitor, who seems to stand over, and not below, a looming abyss of mythic power that threatens to overwhelm the viewer.
By this time, Cortona was recognized among the top artists of his generation, and was elected director of the Academy of St Luke (Rome) during 1634-38.
Frescoes in Palazzo Pitti
Cortona had been patronized by the Tuscan community in Rome, hence it was not surprising when he was passing through Florence in 1637, that he should be asked by Grand Duke Ferdinando II de' Medici to paint a series of frescoes intended to represent the four ages of man in a small room, the Sala della Stufa, in the Palazzo Pitti. The first two represented the "ages" of silver and gold. In 1641, he was recalled to paint the 'Bronze Age' and 'Iron Age' frescoes.
He began work on the decoration of the grand-ducal reception rooms on the first floor of the Palazzo Pitti, now part of the Palatine Gallery. In these five Planetary Rooms, the hierarchical sequence of the deities is based on Ptolomeic cosmology; Venus, Apollo, Mars, Jupiter (the Medici Throne room) and Saturn, but minus Mercury and the Moon which should have come before Venus. These highly ornate ceilings with frescoes and elaborate stucco work essentially celebrate the Medici lineage and the bestowal of virtuous leadership. Pietro left Florence in 1647, and his pupil and collaborator, Ciro Ferri, completed the cycle by the 1660s.
For a number of years, Cortona was involved for decades in the decoration of the ceiling frescoes in the Oratorian Chiesa Nuova (Santa Maria in Vallicella) in Rome, a work not finished until 1665. Other frescoes are in Palazzo Pamphilj in Piazza Navona (1651-4).
Towards the end of his life he devoted much of his time to architecture, but he published a treatise on painting in 1652 under a pseudonym and in collaboration. He refused invitations to both France and Spain.
Cortona and Andrea Sacchi were involved in theoretical controversies regarding the number of figures that were appropriate in a painted work. These arguments were voiced in talks at the Accademia di San Luca, the painter's guild. Sacchi argued for few figures, since he felt it was not possible to grant meaningful individuality, a distinct role, to more than a few figures per scene. Cortona, on the other hand, lobbied for an art that could accommodate many subplots to a central concept. In addition, he also likely viewed the possibility of using many human figures in decorative detail or to represent a general concept. Sacchi's position would be reinforced in future years by Nicolas Poussin. Others have seen in this dichotomy, the long-standing debate whether visual art is about theoretical principles and meant to narrate a full story, or a painterly decorative endeavor, meant to delight the senses. Cortona was a director of the Accademia from 1634-1638.
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