If Gianlorenzo Bernini can be called the heir to Michelangelo’s style of sculpting, then Giovanni-Battista Gaulli, better known as Il Baciccio, can be called Bernini’s heir in painting, especially high-flying frescoes such as Baciccio's The Worship of the Holy Name of Jesus (above, from 1674-1679) in the Church of the Gesù in Rome. Born May 8, 1639, Baciccio was Bernini’s protégé, following his mentor’s dramatic style and capitalizing on his mentor’s papal connections. The Adoration of the Holy Name of Jesus, represented by the blazing “IHS” at the center of the painting, commemorates the efforts of the Jesuits during the Counter-Reformation. It’s hard not to see the influence of Michelangelo via Bernini in the great tumult of figures surrounding the central symbol. Baciccio, however, outdoes Michelangelo in the power of his illusionary pyrotechnics, which literally blow the roof off of the church and open the gates of Heaven for the believers far below.
Baciccio made a lucrative career out of creating such grand illusions in the service of the Catholic Church. His Apotheosis of the Franciscan Order (above, from 1707) in the Basilica Santi XII Apostoli in Rome praises the good works of the Franciscans, the first monastic reformers of Catholicism. Baciccio’s ceilings, like the Jesuits, fought back against the rising tide of the Protestant Revolution by offering greater and greater spectacles for the masses. Baciccio’s close ties to the papacy won him commissions to paint seven consecutive popes, beginning with Alexander VII and ending with Clement XI. By incorporating the architectural details of the ceilings into his illusionary frescoes, Baciccio bridged the secular and sacred realms and helped bolster the flagging faith of those caught in the upheaval of the Reformation.
It’s fascinating to see the influence of Michelangelo and Bernini on Baciccio in works such as Baciccio’s St. John the Baptist (above, from 1676). Baciccio’s Baptist would fit in nicely with the muscular figures of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. When the young Baciccio followed Michelangelo’s example and painted nude figures in a church commission, they met the same fate as Michelangelo’s nudes in The Last Judgment, namely loincloths painted in later by another hand. As much as I enjoy the soaring aspect of Baciccio’s ceiling frescoes, I’m drawn more to works such as his Baptist, which literally bring religion back down to Earth and impress the corporeality of such figures onto the viewer. Baciccio’s name lacks the resonance of a Michelangelo or a Bernini, but his work carries their signature as much as his own.