The Allegory of Divine Providence painted by one of the masters of the Baroque Pietro da Cortona is a fresco that was painted on the orders of the Barberini family, in Rome. The Barberini family by chance was headed by Maffeo Barberini, then Pope Urban VIII and by completing this commission Cortona was following in the footsteps of another noted master but this being from the High Renaissance Correggio who painted the masterpiece the Assumption of the Virgin for the Parma Cathedral in the years 1526 to 1530 and yet these two masterpieces could alike and different at the same time with the Allegory of Divine Providence done by Corona being a work of celebration of the Pope’s life and his family while the Assumption of the Virgin painted by Correggio was purely a Christian work of art. Cortona was already known to the Barberini family through a previous commission that he had done for the family, a portrait that he had done of Pope Urban VII and was commissioned by the pope’s nephew Francesco Barberini to paint it with Cortona beginning the work in 1633 and was almost completely finished it in 1637 when he was called away to paint two murals in Florence for Fernando II de’ Medici in his family’s Pitti Palace and upon returning to Rome he completed his project for the Barberini family in 1639. The Allegory of Divine Providence is one of the highpoints of Baroque painting and rightfully so as the Allegory of Divine Providence is truly an exemplar piece of the feeling that can be invoked by a piece of Baroque art by just looking at said piece with how the colors flow, the forms meld together and the expressions on everyone’s face makes one to stop and contemplate what the intention is behind each expression on the people in the fresco. Also with Pietro da Cortona being commissioned to do this piece, this piece was created to decorate the ceiling of grand salon in the palatial home of the Barberini family and is considered a masterpiece of trompe l’oeil art.
Pietro da Cortona ensured that this quadratura fresco was considered the grandest secular fresco of the Roman High Baroque style and commissioned by the greatest pope of the era Pope Urban VIII who reigned from 1623 to 1644 and Cortona’s work marks the pinnacle of the power and display made by the Pope. As a side note, during the Thirty Years’ War the Papacy could maintain its image of being a great power who exploited the divisions between the various kingdoms in Europe but at the end of the war, France emerged as the dominant power in Europe and is indicative of the change that Louis XIV called the papal sculptor and architect Bernini to Paris and lead to Pope Alexander VII having to do something that his predecessor would have forbidden. During his early years, Pietro da Cortona was an apprentice to an undistinguished Florentine painter and with whom he travelled to Rome in 1612 and was living in Rome when his big break came when he met two rich Florentine brothers named Marcello and Giulio Sachetti who had moved to Rome and were friends of Urban VII which lead to Cortona gaining the patronage of the papacy. This painting by Cortona contains many mythological elements and decorates the guardroom or in Italian “Sala dei palafrenieri” or also known by the moniker of the Gran Salon which was the central public reception room of Barberini Palace which was designed by Carlo Maderno and through the assistance of Bernini, and Francesco Borromini. An interesting fact to note is that with each family that was elected to the papacy, took advantage of its good fortune to erect a palace for use by its secular heirs in the public realm. With popes being elected through God’s intervention and with this intervention being able to fulfill the pope’s plans therefore this why there is this reference made to it in the papal signature: Divina Providentia Pontifex Maximus (“Supreme Pontiff by Divine Providence”). Cardinal Barberini believed to have seen a divine sign preceding his election to the papacy- a swarm of bees which coincidently was on the Barberini family coat of arms alighted on the wall of his conclave cell. There is a reference to this story and forms a large part of the central section of the fresco where the Divine Providence (with Time and Fate seated below her) commands the embodiment of Rome to crown the family’s coat of arms. At the bottom of the central section of the fresco we see Minerva Goddess of Wisdom overthrowing the giants who are seen being hurled down past the mountains they had amassed together to challenge the prominence of Heaven which is an allegorical representation of the defence of religious things. An interesting fact to note is that the virtues that dominated and signified the Barberini rule in the papacy were emphasized through other references to mythology and the uses of personifications related to mythology in the rest of the ceiling.
Cortona’s ceiling is coved which is very reminiscent of the Farnese Gallery which decorated by the leader of the Bolognese School, Annibale Carracci set the standard for the art expected by the papacy and was decorated during the 1590s. In regards to Cortona’s work very much like the work done by Annibale with the Farnese Gallery and with the Genesis fresco painted by the master Michelangelo (see blog post about the Genesis fresco for more information) on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel which allows Cortona’s piece of work to have a great painted cornice which allowed Cortona to compartmentalize many of the scenes within the fresco and also formed a backdrop on which many of the figures painted by Cortona (including Minerva and the Giants) are represented in dynamic poses at the front of this picture but however the embodiment of Divine Providence is remotely shown high above in the central sky. The Barberini Gran Salon is two stories in height and unlike the Carracci’s Farnese Gallery allowed Cortona to give his work an ideal viewing point to be viewed from by the viewer and with the rich Venetian colours used in the work and the larger than life weighty, powerful figures gives the ceiling a larger-than-life grandeur about it. Moving onto the details of the ceiling itself, the ceiling is incredibly rich in the detail that is put into the work most prominently in the corners of the work with simulated bronze reliefs being painted in there, all of them representing one of the Cardinal virtues of the Catholic Church, the scenes depicting the virtues are as follows: Scaevola putting his hand into the fire thus representing the virtue of Fortitude, a well-known Roman Scipio sending back to Minerva untarnished Sanguntine the spouse of a young maid that he had captured as his war loot represents Temperance with the scenes representing Justice and Prudence opposite of this scene. There is also an infusion and profusion of mermen, nymphs, garlands and ox skulls which are usually done in stucco but Cortona instead shows them rather realistically. He even pays tribute to Raphael through direct pose of the Divine Providence which is taken from Raphael’s fresco “Sibyls”. The Allegory of Divine Providence has been named as one of the best Baroque paintings of the 17th century as it borrows styles associated with masters like Correggio.
The patron of this artwork was Pope Urban VIII and he is important as the Barberini family was increasingly becoming arrogant and wanted to show the other wealthy families in Europe that their wealth was something not to be trifled with and that they would also bring down the wrath of God if they messed with the Pope’s family. The importance of Pope Urban VII being the patron for this artwork is that he basically encouraged Cortona to go all out to prove that the Barberini family was the best family in the world.
The Allegory of Divine Providence is important today as it makes references to many of the great masters that came before Cortona and he paid homage to them by using some of their own hallmarks in this fresco while also using his own distinct creative style. The Allegory of Divine Providence is important today as it makes you realize that if you let your ego take precedence over what you want for this one shot that you have at life then there is the potential for you drive away those that care for you deeply.
Footnotes for this article:
“Allegory of Divine Providence (1633-39),” Allegory of Divine Providence, Pietro da Cortona: Analysis, , accessed February 27, 2017, http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/famous-paintings/allegory-divine-providence.htm.
Anthony Blunt, “The Palazzo Barberini: The Contributions of Maderno, Bernini and Pietro da Cortona,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 21, no. 3/4 (1958): , doi:10.2307/750826.
James Gordon Harper, “The Barberini tapestries of the Life of Pope Urban VIII: Program, politics and “perfect history” for the post-exile era,” Electronic Doctoral Dissertations, January 1, 1998, , accessed February 27, 2017, http://repository.upenn.edu/dissertations/AAI9913467/.
Walter Vitzhum, “A Comment on the Iconography of Pietro da Cortona’s Barberini Ceiling,” The Burlington Magazine , October 1961.