Gaulli held the position of Principe of the Accademia di S. Luca from 1673-74. Born in Genoa, he moved to Rome in 1658 following the death of his family from the plague. There, he proved his talents as a painter with his first public commission, the altarpiece St Roch imploring the intervention of the Virgin and Child on behalf of the plague-stricken at the Church of S. Rocco in Ripetta. Gaulli’s broad brushwork and method of enhancing darker tones with more saturated bursts of colour, demonstrate the influence of Genoese painting on his technique. In the following years, Gaulli then experimented with Bolognese classicism, forgoing his earlier painterly manner and warm colours in place of more determined modelling, a cooler palette and precise detailing. These qualities were further enhanced by his knowledge and study of Correggio’s work in Parma Cathedral. Such influences as these are brought together in his Cardinal Virtues for the pendentives of S. Agnese in Agone (1668–72), for example, where with billowing draperies and playful putti he establishes a manner of painting which would be significant for the development of his future style.
In 1672 Gian Paolo Oliva, the Superior General of the Jesuit Order, was persuaded by Gaulli’s long-term advocate, the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, to commission the 22-year-old Gaulli to decorate the church of Il Gesù. This immense sequence of illusionistic frescoes was to occupy him for the next 13 years and became one of the greatest achievements of his career. The hard outlines of his earlier work remain but otherwise, there is little trace of his Bolognese classicism. Along the nave, Gaulli’s Triumph of the Name of Jesus shows angels and saints gathered together adoring Christ’s name above, as demons fall into the abyss below. The rhythmic poses and richly saturated drapery deliver an exuberance that epitomised High Baroque taste. Gaulli’s process of designing these complex and expansive decorative schemes involved numerous rapidly produced bozetti as well as more finished modelli, the main corpus of which is held at the Kunstmuseum in Düsseldorf. These drawings reveal the various way in which Gaulli developed his compositions and experimented with the dynamic poses of his figures.
While Gaulli is best known today for his theatrical illusionistic works, during his lifetime he was much admired as a portrait painter. He is said to have painted ‘all the cardinals, all the important people of his day who came to Rome and the seven popes who reigned from Alexander VII to Clement XI; and in this work he showed, in truth, great art and singular mastery’ (Lione Pascoli, Vite de’pittori…moderni (Rome, 1730), vol. 1, p. 207). His earliest known portrait is of Cardinal Paluzzi degli Altieri, c.1666 (Karlsruhe, Staatliche Kuntsthalle) for whom Gaulli had painted the altarpiece in the Altieri chapel in San Francesco a Ripa. Gaulli was said to have been inspired by Bernini’s practice of encouraging his sitters to move naturally so that he might capture a truer likeness. His delicately animated Portrait of a Woman, c. 1670s (New York, The Metropolitan Museum) and the intense expression of his portrait of Bernini, c.1675 (Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland) are but two masterly examples.
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Books on Gaulli
Francesco Petrucci, Baciccio: Giovan Battista Gaulli, 1639–1709, Rome, 2009.
Robert Enggass, The Painting of Baciccio, Meriden, 1964.
Lione Pascoli, Vite de’pittori, scultori, ed architetti moderni, Rome, 1730, vol. 1, pp. 386–92.