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Art & Theory in Baroque Europe

Christopher L.C.E. Witcombe

Giovanni Battista Agucchi (1570-1632), who was born into a prominent Bolognese family, began his career as an administrative aid to his uncle, Filippo Sega, who was then papal nuncio to Paris and later a cardinal in Rome. On Sega's death in 1596 Agucchi transferred to the service of Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini, the nephew of Clement VIII and his secretary of state. Early in 1621 Agucchi became the personal secretary of the Ludovisi Pope, Gregory XV, who also came from Bologna. When Gregory died two years later, his successor, Urban Vlll, named him papal nuncio to the Republic of Venice, a post he held until shortly before his death.

Agucchi's contribution to artistic theory is contained in his Trattato della Pittura, which was probably written during the years 1607-1615, when, temporarily withdrawn from public service, he devoted himself to the study of art, history, mathematics and astronomy..

Agucchi's Trattato survives only in fragmentary form. His friend, Giovanni Antonio Massani, writing under the pen name of Giovanni Atanasio Mosini, published in 1646 a section of it in his preface to a book of engravings made by Simon Guillain after the drawings of Annibale Carracci. Massani says in his preface that the Trattato was written by a certain Gratiadio Machati, which is a name known to other writers in the 17th century as a pseudonym for Giovanni Battista Agucchi. The Trattato has been considered by some as a joint work by Agucchi and the painter Domenichino, though this view is no longer generally accepted. During the period when, apparently, Agucchi was writing his Trattato, Domenichino was a member of his household. There can be little doubt that Agucchi drew heavily on his discussions with the painter for practical advice. We have no reason, however, to believe that Domenichino contributed to the development of the artistic theory per se.

Agucchi's importance lies in his having anticipated, to a notable degree, concepts that were later systematized and elaborated by Giovanni Pietro Bellori, and which spread from Bellori throughout much of Europe, becoming, especially in France, a sort of paradigm of classical artistic theory. These concepts would have been readily available to the young Bellori through Francesco Angeloni, in whose household Bellori grew up. Early sources record the friendship between Angeloni and Agucchi. Both worked in the service of the Aldobrandini. Both were good friends of Domenichino. Both celebrated the art of Annibale Carracci and the new current of Baroque classicism.

Agucchi starts by saying that the origins of art are to be found in the imitation of nature, and that many artists still do no more. But the finest artists are those who attempt to ennoble and make more beautiful that which they find in nature. Such artists are appreciated by the enlightened few, while the imitators of nature please the vulgar mob.

Though his thoughts are not expressed as clearly as Bellori's, Agucchi shares with the younger theoretician the Renaissance neoplatonic concept of nature as an imperfect reflection of the divine, impeded in achieving perfection by the corruption inherent in earthly existence. The artist achieves the Idea of Beauty by reproducing nature not as it is but as it ought to be. In Agucchi too we find the concept (though not nearly as fully stated as in Bellori) that the artist is to select and synthesize those parts of nature that are the most beautiful.

Agucchi and Bellori both agree that the modern artist who has most fully achieved the Idea of Beauty is Annibale Carracci. It is he who has done the most to save art from the decline it suffered during the recent past (the age of mannerism), and it is he who has restored it to the heights achieved in the High Renaissance, above all by Raphael. For an example of the artist who celebrates the worst in nature (that is, the painter of low-life genre) Bellori chooses Pieter van Laer, one of the bamboccianti; whereas Agucchi, who belongs to an older generation, chooses the family of Venetian mannerist painters called Bassano.

Giovanni Battista Agucchi
Trattato della Pittura

The following is taken from Robert Enggass and Jonathan Brown, Italy and Spain 1600-1750 Sources and Documents (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1970), 24-30

Very likely what took place in the beginning in all the arts occurred at the outset to that most ingenious art of painting. That is, that it began with very simple and imperfect principles, and that it reached the peak of perfection only after a long period of time and a multiplicity of practitioners who, one after the other, added to what their antecedents had invented and were able in this way to perfect the art.

And what the writers all say can be held to be true. That is, that the first principle was taught by Nature herself, with the shadows cast by bodies receiving light, and that in this way they began to delineate the outlines of the shadows and from thence to distinguish the members and then to distinguish the illuminated parts from those that were shaded.

And one may say that, as Pliny affirms, painting's first destiny was the outline, and Ardice of Corinth and Telephanos of Sicyon were the first to practice it without colors, simply putting lines between the figures to simulate shadows.

In another, more important, matter painters have always differed amongst themselves, that is to say, concerning, more or less, the investigation of the beautiful. Since some of them, imitating several kinds of things, dedicated themselves solely to imitating what, as a rule, appears to the eyes, their aim was directed to the perfect imitation of the natural as it appears to the eye without trying to do anything more. But through intelligence others rise higher.

They embrace in their Idea the excellence of the beautiful and the perfect: that which Nature wished to accomplish even though she does not do so in any one object because of many factors that impede her, such as time, matter, and so forth. Like worthy artists, if she does not perfect one individual completely, she tries at least to do so discretely in many, making one part perfect in this one, another part in that one.

Other painters are not content with imitating what they see in one object alone. Instead they regularly collect the segments of beauty scattered in many parts and unite them with subtle judgment, painting things not as they are but as they would have been if they had been perfectly realized.

Given that, it is easy to understand to what extent [if any] painters who only imitate things as they are found in nature deserve praise. The estimate may be made of them that the common herd makes. Since they never arrive at an understanding of that beauty which nature would like to express, they dwell on what they see, even though they find it very imperfect.

From this it comes about that the objects painted and imitated directly from nature are pleasing to the common people, since they are accustomed to seeing such things, and the imitation of what they already know well delights them. But the knowledgeable man, lifting his thought to the Idea of the beautiful, to the concept that Nature demonstrated she wished to make, is enraptured by it and contemplates it as a thing divine.

Do not therefore think that we do not here wish to confer well-deserved praise on those painters who paint portraits excellently. But in order to work with perfection one need not know the face of Alexander or Caesar but only what face a king would have, or a magnanimous and powerful captain.

Nevertheless the most worthy painters, without departing from the likeness, have aided nature with art. They have portrayed the faces as more beautiful and more noteworthy than in life, indicating, even in this kind of work, a recognition of that greater beauty which, in that particular object, nature had not completely perfected.

It then follows that one must consider whether the artists of the past had their own particular style, as was hinted above. It does not, therefore, follow that there must be as many styles of paintings as there were painters, but that one style alone may be deemed that which was followed by many, who, in their imitation of the true, the lifelike, or simply the natural, or the most beautiful in nature, follow the same path and have the same intention, even though each one has his peculiar and individual differences.

Hence, although the ancients had a multitude of painters, we discover that the Greeks at first had painting of two kinds: the Hellenic, or that which is actually the Greek, and the Asiatic. Later the Hellenic divided into the Ionic and the Sicyonic and became three.

The Romans imitated the Greeks, but nevertheless had a different style, and therefore the ancients had four styles of painting.

In modern times, after having been as if buried and lost for many centuries, painting almost had to be born again from those early, crude, and imperfect principles of its ancient beginnings.

Nor would it have been so quickly reborn and perfected, as actually happened, if modern artists had not had before their eyes the light of the ancient statues preserved up to the present day. From these statues, as from the architectural works, they were able to learn that refinement of design that has so greatly opened the road to perfection.

One must give great praise to all of those who began to draw forth the field of painting from the dark shadows of barbarous times and, endowing it with life and spirit, brought it into the most brilliant light.

One could name many excellent Italian masters and those from other nations who worked ingeniously and worthily. Nevertheless, since others have already alluded to these things and have already described the lives of these very artists, we will restrict ourselves here to just those who by common agreement among the knowledgeable are considered masters of the first order and leaders of their particular school, and we will make mention of them briefly on a suitable occasion.

If we divide the painting of our times in the way the Ancients did, we may say that the Roman School, whose leaders were Raphael and Michelangelo, followed the beauty of statues and drew close to the creations of the ancients.

But the painters of Venice and the Marches and Treviso, whose leader is Titian, imitated instead the beauty of nature as it appeared in front of them.

Antonio da Correggio, the leader of the Lombards, was almost a greater imitator of nature, since he followed her in a tender, easy, and equally noble way. By himself he created his own style.

The Tuscans [that is the Florentines] created a manner that was different from those above, since it possesses much fine detail, accuracy, and reveals much skill.

Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Sarto hold first place among the Florentines, since Michelangelo, so far as style is concerned, does not show himself to be very Florentine.

Domenico Beccafumi and Baldassare Peruzzi were the first among the Sienese.

Thus four types of painting came into being in Italy - the Roman, the Venetian, the Lombard, and the Tuscan.

Outside of Italy Albrecht Dürer formed his school and is worthy of the praise he receives throughout the world.

Germany, Flanders, and France have had many other worthy artists who have achieved fame and renown.

Now it is true that the above-mentioned masters, and many other worthy men who following in their footsteps, led the way to the perfection of art and brought glory to our centuries to equal that of antiquity when the Apelles and when Zeuxis, with works of marvelous beauty, caused tongues and pens to celebrate their brushes.

We can thus confirm that which is not concealed to persons of healthy understanding. That is to say, that during our century the leaders of the above-mentioned schools or styles flourished, and all the other artists with good taste and knowledge studied and imitated them.

Then there came about the decline in painting from the peak it had gained. If it did not again fall into the dark shadows of the early barbarianism, it was rendered at least in an altered and corrupt manner and mistook the true path and, in fact, almost lost knowledge of what was good.

New and diverse styles came into being, styles far from the real and the lifelike, based more on appearance than on substance. The artists were satisfied to feed the eyes of the people with the loveliness of the colors and rich vestments.

Using things taken from here and there, painting forms that were gross in outline, rarely well joined together, and straying into other notable errors, they went, in short, far from the good path that leads one toward perfection.

While the profession of painting was infected, so to speak, in this way with so many artistic heresies it was in real danger of going astray.

But in the city of Bologna there arose three citizens who were closely joined by blood and no less united by their resolve to use every form of study and effort to arrive at the greatest perfection of arts.

They were Ludovico, Agostino, and Annibale Carracci of Bologna. The first named was a cousin of the other two, who were blood brothers. Since he was the oldest he was also the first to dedicate himself to the profession of painting. From him the other two received their first training in the art.

And since all three were happily endowed with the gift of natural ability, which this very difficult art so greatly demands, very soon they saw that it was necessary to restore art from the state it had fallen because of the corruption we have discussed.

While the city was being enriched with many works by their hands, they also founded an academy of design [called the Accademia degli Incamminati]. There they studied constantly from nature, not only living bodies but often the dead: cadavers obtained from the execution of justice, in order that they could learn the true relaxation that bodies possess. They gradually rose to greater and still greater excellence.

These masters, and their superior manner of painting, were the reason that many youths were so attracted to the beauty of art, and dedicating themselves to the same profession they also produced objects of great worth and became famous in the world.

As we have stated above, during the last century, Raphael and the Roman School, by following the style of the antique statues, had imitated the best more than the others.

Bassano was like Peiraikos in representing the worst.

A great many of the moderns did the same, and among them Caravaggio who was most excellent in color but must be compared to Demetrius, because he deserted the Idea of Beauty and preferred to give himself over completely to realism.

We now turn to the School of the Carracci and Annibale in particular.

It remains to compare him with the above-mentioned painters, both the ancient and the modern. In regard to color, he endeavored to express its rarest beauty.

Having pursued that goal, he proposed on his arrival in Rome, to unite the mastery of design of the Roman School with the beauty of color of the Lombard. It can be said that in this kind of work, which touches the most sovereign beauty, he achieved a level of highest eminence.

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