Carlo Maratti: A Personal Appreciation
Maratti is one of the most understudied of Italian Baroque artists. This situation will soon be remedied by the publication of Stella Rudolph’s monograph, but a brief and apposite summary of his achievement is provided by Pete Bowron in his catalog essay for the exhibition Art in Rome in the Eighteenth Century held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2000: ‘It is difficult today to appreciate adequately’ he writes, ‘the authority that Maratti, this modern “Apelles of Rome”, exercised on the European artistic imagination in the early decades of the eighteenth century. For several generations of painters from the 1670s to the end of the eighteenth century, Maratti was the embodiment of the ideal classical artist and the chief exemplar of the tradition of Roman painting that began with Raphael. Nearly every painter that encountered Maratti’s work was affected profoundly and subtly reoriented his art thereafter toward new ideals of formal dignity, nobility, purity of contour and silhouette, and compositional clarity.’
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Maratti established his reputation with a series of altarpieces for Roman churches which, since displayed in public spaces, were equivalent to exhibition pieces in Salons of later generations. Patrons in time- honored fashion included members of leading Roman dynasties and reigning popes and their relatives. Maratti also attained fame with his Madonnas and pictures for private devotion. One of the best is the Christ Child Sleeping Surrounded by Music-Making Angels in the Louvre which reads like a more relaxed and domestic take on the Madonnas of Raphael. Among his altarpieces, a particularly felicitous example is the Virgin Appearing to Saint Philip Neri today in the Pitti Palace in Florence (fig. 1). Here the Virgin has the poise and grace of a Guido Reni and the relationship between her and the adoring saint is discreetly and harmoniously supported by the subsidiary figures. Harmony is indeed the essence of this picture, achieved by clarity and controlled energy. It is far from experimental but reassuring and beguiling in its good manners and attractive palette. There is also a nervous energy in the draperies which recalls the work of his principle Roman rival Giovanni Battista Gaulli, called Baciccio, who might be rather crudely described as Bernini in paint. In that respect, Gaulli is representative of the more extrovert side of Roman Baroque painting, triumphantly displayed in his illusionistic ceiling of the Triumph of the Name of Jesus in the church of the Gesù. There the effect is almost explosive as the bad guys are expelled from the heavenly realm and tumble out of the frame into the spectator’s space.
Maratti was appreciated in Germany, Austria, and Spain but also in England which notably lacked a native tradition of history painting. After the dispersal of Charles I’s collection during the Commonwealth, the English were just beginning to accumulate that vast store of continental works of art so meticulously recorded by Gustav Waagen almost 200 years later.The first serious British Grand Tourist, the 5th Earl of Exeter, bought a number of Marattis for his refurbished Burghley House where they still remain. Lord Exeter was more interested in acquiring contemporary Italian art than antiquities so Maratti’s studio in Rome was a first port of call. There was also a Maratti room in the Walpole collection at Houghton. These and other Italian Baroque paintings from there were later sold to Catherine the Great, but were fairly recently reinstalled in their former setting in a memorable loan exhibition from the Hermitage. At Stourhead is to be found one of Maratti’s most magnificent if pretentious compositions the Marchese Niccolò Maria Pallavicini (1650–1714) Guided to the Temple of Virtue by Apollo with a Self-Portrait of the Artist. Pallavicini was a banker and rather nouveaux riche, so the Maratti is emblematic of both aristocratic and plutocratic patronage which was to burgeon throughout Europe in the eighteenth century. The painting also gives an idea of Maratti’s princely status and clout in the Roman art world. Here artist and patron are equals.
Francesco Solimena, the leading artist in Naples and considered one of the greatest painters of his day, changed his style after a spell in Rome from the plump dynamic manner of Luca Giordano to something crisper and more Marattesque. However, he mobilized his conventionally academic figures with a flickering chiaroscuro, perhaps in deference to the Caravaggesque tradition which persisted in Naples longer than in another Italian centers. Maratti’s late Baroque classicism also proved very compatible with French taste, which oscillated between the poles of Rubens and Poussin, and thus was important for artists sojourning at the French Academy in Rome.
As long as Grand Tour ideals prevailed, which they did especially in England well into the nineteenth century, Maratti was still a significant, if diminishing, presence. When the Baroque fell from favor later in the nineteenth century he was forgotten until reappraisal of the style in the mid-twentieth century. However, there has still never been a Maratti exhibition and though his drawings are ubiquitous, few of his major paintings can be found in public collections outside Italy. Among the best in America are the Bob Jones’ Saint Andrew, a version of the Gosford House painting, and the Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well in the Indianapolis Museum of Art. There are no Maratti paintings in the National Gallery in Washington nor the Metropolitan in New York, though the latter has a faithfully Marattesque Bathsheba by Chiari. It is to be hoped that the appearance of Stella Rudolph’s monograph will stimulate renewed awareness of Maratti’s work and perhaps restore his reputation, at least among connoisseurs, to something approaching that which he enjoyed in his lifetime.❖