Rome: Palazzo Barberini

The Palazzo Barberini (winter 2017).

After discussing three dozen churches in Rome, it is now time to discuss a museum again. The Palazzo Barberini was a pleasant surprise during my last visit to the Eternal City back in January of this year. It is one of two locations of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, the National Gallery of Ancient Art (the other is the Palazzo Corsini). The museum has an impressive collection of paintings, with works by Raphael, El Greco and Caravaggio to name but a few.

The palazzo

The Barberini family were originally from the small town of Barberino Val d’Elsa in Tuscany and later moved to Florence. Members of the family subsequently moved to Rome and became quite influential there. In 1623, a scion of the family named Maffeo Barberini was elected Pope Urbanus VIII (1623-1644). During his long pontificate new Saint Peter’s Basilica was consecrated (in 1626) and the trial against Galileo Galilei took place (in 1633; see Rome: Santa Maria sopra Minerva). When he had been elected pope, Barberini bought a piece of land in a deserted part of Rome on the Quirinal Hill to build a splendid palazzo for his family. The first architect he employed was Carlo Maderno (1556-1629). Work started around 1627, but Maderno died shortly after completing the foundations of the building. Construction was continued by two giants, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) and Francesco Borromini (1599-1667). In fact, Borromini had already been working under Maderno, who was a distant relative, and now continued to work with, or rather under Bernini. The Palazzo was completed in 1633.

Pietro da Cortona’s ceiling fresco.

One of the highlights of the Palazzo Barberini is the Gran Salone, which is graced by a dazzling Baroque fresco on the ceiling painted by Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669). It is known as the Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power and measures some 14 by 24 metres. Da Cortona painted it between 1633 and 1639. The three bees from the Barberini coat-of-arms near the gigantic Keys of Heaven are hard to miss. I took a picture of the fresco lying on my back, which led to strange looks on other visitors’ faces.

Art collection

The museum has an impressive collection of paintings. Perhaps the most famous among these is Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Woman. It is usually called La Fornarina, ‘the baker’s daughter’, after Raphael’s mistress Margarita Luti. It is not entirely certain whether this portrait really represents Luti, but it is often assumed that it is indeed her (and don’t let research ruin a good story). Raphael painted this portrait shortly before his death in 1520. The young woman is depicted with bare breasts and she is wearing a band around her arm which has Raphael’s name on it: RAPHAEL VRBINAS.

La Fornarina – Raphael.

Another famous portrait in the Gallery is that of Beatrice Cenci, a young Roman woman beheaded in 1599 and presumably buried in the San Pietro in Montorio. Beatrice’s story is a sad one indeed. She had been put on trial for the murder of her tyrannical father, who had raped her on multiple occasions, and was found guilty. The young Guido Reni (1575-1642) painted her just prior to her execution – at least that is what the story wants us to believe – and thus immortalised her. However, some would like to attribute the painting to the female painter Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665), whose father was a pupil of Reni. I am no art historian, so I will simply follow the Galleria’s opinion and attribute the work to Reni.

Portrait of Beatrice Cenci – Guido Reni.

A third portrait that needs to be mentioned is that of the English King Henry VIII (1491-1547). It is usually attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger (ca. 1497-1543), who was Henry’s court painter. The text on the painting – ANNO AETATIS SUAE XLIX – indicates that the portrait was painted in or around 1540, when Henry was 49 years old.

Henry VIII – Hans Holbein the Younger.

The museum has two works by the Cretan painter El Greco, born Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614). El Greco is known for his strangely elongated figures and the two paintings in the Palazzo Barberini are no exceptions. They are hung on the wall side by side, the Baptism of Christ on the left and the Adoration of the Shepherds on the right. They were painted ca. 1596-1600 and were presumably part of a triptych, with the third part – the Annunciation – ending up in Bilbao, Spain.

Baptism of Christ / Adoration of the Shepherds – El Greco.

The Palazzo Barberini has three paintings by Michelangelo Merisi (1571-1610), known as Caravaggio: Judith beheading Holofernes (ca. 1599-1602), Narcissus (ca. 1597-1599) and finally Saint Franciscus meditating (a late work, perhaps 1605-1606). The painting of Judith is by far the most impressive of the three. It tells the story from the deuterocanonical Book of Judith and captures Judith at the moment she is cutting off the Assyrian general Holofernes’ head. Judith has a determined look on her face, while the general looks completely horrified. On the right, Judith’s old maid (yes, it is a woman) stands ready with a bag or a piece of cloth to put the severed head in. The painting is beautiful and horrible at the same time.

Judith beheading Holofernes – Caravaggio.


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