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The trials and torments of Domenichino

For the timid 17th-century artist, painting light-hearted landscapes was a way of escaping his persecutors.

By Michael Prodger

Had Domenico Zampieri – Domenichino – been a happy man, he might never have painted a landscape. For all his talent, he was by nature timid and unsure, traits that invited jealous enemies – “of whom no painter ever had more”, as one Victorian apologist put it – to persecute him both as a person and as an artist. His landscapes – a low genre of art in the 17th century – were not just a way of showing his mastery of another style but a means by which to deflect attention from himself and perhaps, too, a way of salving his hurt. It is usually nature itself that is seen as balm for troubled souls, but for Domenichino it was the act of painting landscape that was palliative.

Domenichino (1581-1641) was born in Bologna and was given his nickname, “little Domenico”, because of his diminutive height; it was the first of many slights he was to receive throughout his life. For two centuries he was nevertheless a towering figure, a master of classical idealism who balanced gesture with poetic colour, with Raphael his only acknowledged superior. It was John Ruskin’s imprecations in Modern Painters, where he accused the Bolognese school of being “insincere” – the worst insult possible from the high priest of “truth to nature” – that chopped Domenichino’s reputation off at the knees.

Although the aspiring artist wanted to train with Bologna’s premier family of painters, the Carracci (Ludovico and his cousins Agostino and Annibale), his shoemaker father sent him instead to learn in the studio of Denys Calvaert, a Flemish painter who had made his name in northern Italy. It was only after a serious quarrel with Calvaert and a subsequent falling out with his father, which needed his mother’s intercession, that Domenichino finally got his wish. Not that Ludovico Carracci’s studio was a welcoming place; the newcomer found himself bullied by his fellow apprentices both for his reticence and his skill. Two of his peers, Guido Reni and Francesco Albani, who would both become leading painters, were among the few to hold back.

The envious attacks didn’t lessen when, in 1602, he moved to Rome to assist Annibale Carracci in his work in the Palazzo Farnese. Annibale treated Domenichino as his protégé and was instrumental in gaining him commissions with a cluster of cardinals – Aldobrandini, Farnese, Montalto and Agucchi – who employed him in both private palaces and their sponsored churches. Thanks to his work around Rome Domenichino became the most influential fresco painter of the early 17th century, even if his style had to compete with the greater drama of the emerging baroque. When it was suggested he accommodate the new manner, he briefly forgot his timidity: “I work for myself alone and for the perfection of art.”

[see also: The conscientious painter]

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It was perhaps Annibale, himself a painter of landscapes, who encouraged Domenichino to try his hand at the genre. This picture, River Landscape with a Boatman and Fisherman, an Elegant Couple Walking by the Shore, was painted circa 1605 and shows a light-heartedness that is not often apparent in his work. In his life of the painter, Giovanni Pietro Bellori (who was also Domenichino’s student) noted “the appropriateness of his views” and how he drew and painted them “with a superior genius, and he made jokes in these [paintings] with the usual depictions of his figures”. The joke here is in the cluster of figures on the left. A little boy has just been pinched by one of the crabs his mother is laying out for sale and as she starts to console him a fisherman gestures to a passing couple not to let on that he is about to put an eel down her neck.

Elsewhere the life of the river goes serenely on; nets are mended, horses watered, a singer serenades a couple on a pleasure boat, an energetic fisherman keeps his boat steady by the shore (his athletic pose, taken from Giambologna’s sculpture of Mercury, circa 1580, is an in-joke for connoisseurs). The landscape is not real but imagined, the segue between the river and the distant landscape is fudged, the hills and buildings are for picturesque effect. The painting carries a narrative but no moral; this tale of the riverbank is meant solely to give pleasure. It clearly did; it was bought by the noble Rondanini family and remained with them until the early 19th century and is now in a private collection. Nevertheless, Domenichino’s landscapes, of which there are about 20, greatly influenced younger landscape painters such as Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain, who took his harmonious and poetic effects and built a grander, classically inspired landscape art out of them.

Domenichino’s landscapes did not, however, escape the notice of his critics, who used them to reproach him for practising an inferior kind of painting. He was damned whichever way he turned. The enmity came to a head in 1620 when Giovanni Lanfranco, a fellow student at the Carracci Academy in Bologna and a competitor for Rome’s fresco commissions, accused Domenichino of plagiarism and having based his 1614 altarpiece showing The Last Communion of St Jerome for the church of San Girolamo della Carità in Rome on Agostino Carracci’s version of the subject in Bologna. Lanfranco instructed one of his pupils to make an etching of the Carracci picture which he then circulated, but the ruse backfired. Many painters, including Poussin, came out for Domenichino, refuting the charge of copying and pointing out that even if the Carracci version had influenced him, novelty didn’t mean a new subject but a new way of treating an existing one. Poussin was not alone in stating that Domenichino’s Last Communion was the equal of Raphael’s great Transfiguration now in the Vatican.

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The bested Lanfranco’s ire only increased in 1621 when the new Bolognese pope, Gregory XV, was elected and appointed Domenichino his papal architect. However, the pope’s death just two years later deprived Domenichino of his most important supporter, while a whispering campaign continued to wear down other patrons. Money became an increasing worry, as did an unhappy family life. His wife, Marsibilia Barbetti, was 21 years younger than him and did not share his ­quiet and solitary disposition.

In a letter to Albani, Domenichino lamented: “I have for enemies my relations even, and war is declared against me by those that ought to be the most eager to ­defend me.” The one family member to support him, he felt, was his daughter: “My only consolation in a thousand frights and continual chagrins.”

When he left Rome for Naples in 1631 things got worse rather than better. He had accepted the remunerative commission for frescoes to decorate the Cappella del Tesoro di San Gennaro in the city’s cathedral. The artistic hostility he found there made ­Lanfranco’s machinations seem genteel. Art in Naples was run as a mafia-like concern by a cabal of three painters – Jusepe de Ribera, Battistello Caracciolo and Belisario Corenzio – who had no compunction about using violence to protect their monopoly against incomers from elsewhere in Italy.

Domenichino received a death threat shortly after his arrival, he would find his work in the chapel rubbed out by the next day, anonymous letters besmirched his name and sketchy, unfinished works were taken from him and dispatched to the court in Madrid as finished works before he had the chance to complete them. Domenichino went to the viceroy for protection but to ­little effect and when the painter could take no more and tried to flee the city, the viceroy arrested his wife and daughter until he ­returned to continue his work.

According to his pupil Giovanni Battista Passeri, Domenichino lived in fear of being stabbed in the street or having his meals poisoned. Perhaps he had good reason: he died in 1641, 12 days after making his will. His wife believed he had taken poison poured into the water pitcher from which he habitually drank on waking before washing. Others felt the death was suicide. The final ignominy was that it was Lanfranco, his bitter and malicious tormentor, who was tasked with completing the painting on the chapel dome on which Domenichino had been working before death so suspiciously cut short his labours.

[see also: The aqueous scenes of Julia Beck]

This article appears in the 09 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Covid cover-up?