Giovanni Battista Gaulli

The Italian painter Giovanni Battista Gaulli (1639-1709) is known for the drama of his illusionistic ceiling paintings in fresco and the brilliance of his color harmonies in oils.

Giovanni Battista Gaulli, called Baciccio, was born in Genoa and was baptized on May 10, 1639. When he was 18 years old, his entire family died of the plague. Soon afterward he left for Rome, where he spent the rest of his life. There he met Gian Lorenzo Bernini, with whose help Baciccio's career flourished. He received many commissions to execute frescoes in the churches of the papal city and mythologies in its palaces. "He painted all the cardinals," Lione Pascoli wrote in 1730, "all the important people of his day who came to Rome, and the seven popes who reigned from Alexander VII to Clement XI."

In 1674 Baciccio was president of the painters' guild, the Academy of St. Luke. After Bernini's death in 1680 Baciccio's prestige declined somewhat owing to the increasing popularity of the cooler, quieter art of Carlo Maratti, but he never lacked commissions. He died in Rome on March 26, 1709.

Baciccio's earliest identifiable works, such as the oil sketches for the frescoes at S. Agnese, show the natural style he brought with him from Genoa. In these sketches he often used colors at top saturation—the brightest, purest blue, the reddest red—and applied paint rapidly in almost explosive brushstrokes filled with energy and vigor.

Baciccio's most famous work is the Triumph of the Name of Jesus in the Church of the Gesù (1672-1679), which covers most of the nave ceiling of the massive church. Gazing upward, we have the illusion that the roof is open at the center. High in the sky are cherubim and angels who circle around the light emanating from the monogram of Jesus. Below on cloud banks are throngs of saints and churchmen who kneel in adoration. At one end is a group of the damned being cast down to hell by the same mystical light that draws the blessed up to heaven.

The most striking aspect of this work is the way in which large groups of figures spill over the edge of the frame and seem to hover above our heads and underneath the roof of the church. Thus they exist in the same zone of space that we do, only higher up. In this way Baciccio stresses the smallness of the distance that separates heaven from earth and therefore the immediacy of the celestial. These figures on clouds that seem to float inside the church take on the sense of mass, clarity of contour, and bright colors with which we are familiar in the material world. The figures gazing down from the higher regions of heaven assume a less physical, more spiritual existence. Their outlines blur, their solidity dissolves, and their colors drain as they sink back into the divine light.


Further Reading on Giovanni Battista Gaulli

The standard book on Gaulli is Robert Enggass, The Painting of Baciccio: Giovanni Battista Gaulli (1964). There is an excellent essay on him in Ellis K. Waterhouse, Italian Baroque Painting (1962).