8 May 2020

Giovanni Battista Gaulli – artist

Baroque painter decorated leading Jesuit church in Rome


Baroque painter Giovanni Battista Gaulli, a self-portrait  painted in about 1667
Baroque painter Giovanni Battista Gaulli,
a self-portrait  painted in about 1667
Painter Giovanni Battista Gaulli, whose nickname was Baciccio, was born on this day in 1639 in Genoa.

He became a leading baroque painter whose work was influenced by the sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini. He is most remembered for his beautiful frescoes in the Church of Gesù in Rome, which are considered a masterpiece of quadratura, or architectural illusionism.

Gaulli was born in Genoa and his parents died when he was just a teenager in an outbreak of plague in the city.

He was apprenticed with the painter Luciano Borzone but would also have been influenced by some of the foreign artists who were working in Genoa in the mid 17th century.

Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck were in Genoa at the time but it is also said that Gaulli adopted the warm palette of Genoese artist Bernardo Strozzi.

Gaulli was introduced to Bernini, who recognised his talent and helped to promote him. In 1662 he was accepted into the Roman artists’ guild, the Accademia di San Luca.

The following year Gaulli received his first public commission, for an altarpiece in the Church of San Rocco in Rome.

Gaulli's masterpiece, the Triumph of the  Name of Jesus, in the Church of the Gesù
Gaulli's masterpiece, the Triumph of the
Name of Jesus,
in the Church of the Gesù
At the height of his popularity, Gaulli was also one of Rome’s most prestigious portrait painters.

But a visit to Parma in 1669, where he saw Correggio’s frescoed dome ceiling in the cathedral of Parma, had a profound influence on his style.

With the support of Bernini, the 22-year-old Gaulli was awarded the prestigious commission of decorating the interior of the large Jesuit church in Rome, the Church of the Gesù.

Gaulli decorated the entire dome, central vault, window recesses, and the ceilings of the transepts. He unveiled the main vault fresco on Christmas Eve 1679 and after this he continued the frescoing of the vaults of the tribune and other areas of the church. The work took him nearly 14 years.

Gaulli’s nave masterpiece, the Triumph of the Name of Jesus, is an allegory of the work of the Jesuits that envelops worshippers below into the whirlwind of devotion. It is one of the grandest baroque ceilings in Rome and the theatrical effect prompted art experts to label Gaulli as ‘a Bernini in paint’.

A series of ceilings like this were painted in the naves of other Roman churches until the beginning of the 18th century. But as the high baroque movement evolved into the rococo, the popularity of this style dwindled.

Gaulli also moved in the new direction, adopting less intense colours and more delicate compositions.

He had many pupils during his long career, who spoke of him as ‘generous, liberal of mind and charitable’.

Gaulli died in 1709 in Rome, at the age of 70.

The facade of the Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace) in Genoa. one of the maritime city's architectural highlights
The facade of the Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace) in Genoa.
one of the maritime city's architectural highlights
Travel tip:

Genoa, where Gaulli was born, is the capital city of Liguria and the sixth largest city in Italy. It has earned the nickname of La Superba because of its proud history as a major port. Part of the old town was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2006 because of the wealth of beautiful 16th century palaces there.   Genoa has a rich history as a powerful trading centre with considerable wealth built on its shipyards and steelworks, but also boasts many fine buildings, many of which have been restored to their original splendour.  The Doge's Palace, the 16th century Royal Palace and the Romanesque-Renaissance style San Lorenzo Cathedral are just three examples. 

The baroque facade of the Church of the Gesù, which Michelangelo offered to design for free
The baroque facade of the Church of the Gesù,
which Michelangelo offered to design for free
Travel tip:

The Church of the Gesù, which was built between 1568 and 1584 was the first Jesuit church in Rome and its design has been much imitated throughout the Catholic world.  Located in the Piazza del Gesù, it has the first truly baroque façade, which introduced the style into architecture. Gaulli’s ceiling fresco is considered the most striking feature of the interior decoration.  Although Michelangelo offered, out of devotion, to design the church for free, the endeavor was funded by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, grandson of Pope Paul III, and the main architects involved in the construction were Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola, architect of the Farnese family, and Giacomo della Porta.

Also on this day:

1587: The birth of Victor Amadeus I of Savoy

1898: Genoa become the first football champions of Italy

1960: The birth of AC Milan and Italy icon Franco Baresi


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