For many people, the art of Giovanni Battista Gaulli, also known as Il Baciccio, is a big pain in the neck. Born May 8, 1639, Baciccio thrived during the age of the high-flying, illusionary ceiling frescoes of the High Baroque and early Rococo. Visitors still strain to look up at Baciccio’s The Worship of the Holy Name of Jesus (above, from 1685) in the nave of the Church of the Gesù in Rome. Other artisans helped out with the trickery of the faux architectural touches, but Baciccio is responsible for the breathtaking foreshortening that makes you feel as if the roof has come off and the heavens themselves are putting on a show. Baciccio’s painterly pyrotechnics belong to the armory of the Counter-Reformation as they fought back against the rising tide of the Protestant Reformation by appealing to the eyes and hearts of the still mostly illiterate masses. Where Martin Luther stressed the word, Baciccio and others stressed the image. Seven consecutive popes, from Pope Alexander VII through Pope Clement XI, picked Baciccio to paint their official portrait, demonstrating the trust the top men had in their artistic, not so secret, weapon.
Although Baciccio remains most remembered today for his grand frescoes, he did fine, more terrestrial work as well. His Pieta (above, from 1667) demonstrates what Baciccio could do with radical foreshortening closer to eye level. The drama Baciccio brings to this familiar religious scene shows the influence of Annibale Carracci and the Bolognese Baroque school, who tried to breathe new life into tired old tropes. By the time Baciccio paints this Pieta, the Baroque had begun to give way to the Rococo and the ostentatious displays of the frescoes of palaces and churches. This Pieta, however, shows just how precise and colorful Baciccio’s painting could be, a fact often lost when viewing his works set so high above. Baciccio achieves drama without resorting to deep, Caravaggio-esque chiaroscuro. For all the bombast of the frescoes, these humbler works by Baciccio may actually be his most deeply moving for those who believe. The expressions of sorrow worn by the angels on the left provide a perfect entry for empathy even today.
Baciccio learned the trade of being an artist from Gian Lorenzo Bernini, whom he painted in the portrait above in 1665. Baciccio learned Bernini’s style so well that this painting was originally thought to be a self-portrait by Bernini himself. Painted before the success of the great frescoes, Baciccio’s portrait of his teacher shows the love and respect he held for Bernini. Modern art is so much about the struggle of the individual artist and the development of an individual style, that we fail to appreciate the guild system that was in play for centuries in Europe as techniques were passed down from generation to generation and established artists nurtured younger ones. There were, of course, artists who used and abused the talents of their assistants, but the relationship between Bernini and Baciccio seems to have been a good one. Although Bernini is a fine artist in his own right, the work of Baciccio reflects on his talents as a teacher as well.