Pietro da Cortona

The Italian painter and architect Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669) was one of the main representatives of the first full flowering of the high baroque style in Italy.

Pietro Berrettini, known as Pietro da Cortona from his birthplace of Cortona, a little town in Tuscany, was born on Nov. 1, 1596. In Rome, where he went in his teens, the paintings of Annibale Carracci and ancient Roman sculpture especially influenced him. With the encouragement of the learned archeologist Cassiano dal Pozzo he studied, as his contemporary G. B. Passeri tells us, "the statues and bas-reliefs of the ancient Romans, especially various columns, urns, and vases on which were represented sacrifices, bacchic revels, and other pagan ceremonies."

From such ancient sculpture Cortona usually selected those with the most dynamic compositions for his paintings. In his Rape of the Sabines (ca. 1629) the figures are arranged on planes parallel to the surface, almost as in a bas-relief, and the Roman architecture and Roman military dress are carefully rendered. But what is most evident is the violence of the individual gestures, the agitation and tumult that fill the whole composition. The highly active figures in Cortona's picture are painted in bright colors that are often laid on rapidly, so that the individual brushstrokes remain visible, much in the manner of the great Venetian artists of the 16th century such as Titian and Veronese.

Cortona's masterpiece of painting is the Glorification of Pope Urban VIII (1639), which covers the entire ceiling of the Great Hall of the Barberini Palace in Rome. It is painted to give the illusion that we are looking up into a wide stretch of open sky, partially interrupted by sections of an architectural framework. The sky is filled to overflowing with swarms of human figures who act out endless allegories as they drift back and forth over our heads and under the painted architecture like the last act in some theatrical spectacular in the sky.

Cortona's last major work, the ceiling paintings for the long gallery in the Pamphili Palace in Rome (1654), depicts the story of Aeneas. The gentler rhythms, the paler colors, and the uncrowded compositions with large stretches of open sky all seem to anticipate the 18th century.

Far less of Cortona's career was devoted to architecture, but here too he demonstrated the highest originality. His facade for the little church of S. Maria della Pace in Rome (1657) spreads across the front of a cloister on one side and an adjacent church on the other. A street runs through what looks like the right aisle. The whole surface of the building seems in motion. Sections of it rise and fall, bulge out or swing back, creating an orchestration as complex as his ceiling paintings and more sophisticated. Cortona died in Rome on May 16, 1669.


Further Reading on Pietro da Cortona

The standard biography of Cortona is in Italian: Giuliano Briganti, Pietro da Cortona (1962). There are good chapters on Cortona in English in Rudolf Wittkower, Art and Architecture in Italy, 1600-1750 (1958; 2d ed. 1965), and Ellis K. Waterhouse, Italian Baroque Painting (1962). The section on Cortona in Robert Enggass and Jonathan Brown, Italy and Spain, 1600-1750 (1970), gives a detailed explanation of the meaning of Cortona's complicated ceiling painting in the Barberini Palace.