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Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Ceiling Race

 When we think of a large painting, wall-size dimensions of perhaps ten to twenty feet in either direction come to mind. Of course we're usually thinking in terms of a framed canvas painting. If we think of LARGE paintings, then we get to contemplating works too large for canvas--murals, usually frescoes. However when we stop measuring works in feet and start referring to yards, or meters, then we're talking...well, maybe ENORMOUS is adequate. And for this scale, the surface is usually a ceiling. It's tempting to thing first, foremost, and maybe even exclusively, of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco when the subject of ceiling painting comes to mind. But long before Michelangelo ever dripped paint in his eye, there was a long tradition of Italian ceiling painting. Michelangelo's masterpiece was simply an opening shot in what became a race among artists for several generations to paint the most remarkable ceiling frescoes ever seen by the eyes of man.
Loves of the Gods, Farnese Palace Ceiling, 1597-1601, Annibale Carracci
The first leg of the race was won by Annibale Carracci with his Farnese Palace ceiling fresco (above), painted between 1597 and 1601. The long, vaulted ceiling, not unlike that of the Sistine Chapel, is decorated by a series of tightly abutted, trompe l'oeil (fool the eye) groupings of framed scenes from mythological sources not unlike the French Salon habit of completely covering an entire wall surface with paintings. The trompe l'oeil sculptural decorations between the works and half concealed greenish medallions, add to what is already an overwhelming artistic encounter that leaves one breathless, not to mentioned stiff-necked. Each of the dozen or more paintings begs to be studied individually yet there is no place other than the cold hard floor to lie down upon ones back to do so comfortably.   

Triumph of Divine Providence, 1633-39, Pietro da Cortona
The second round might well be said to belong to a relatively unknown, Pietro da Cortona for the ceiling in the Gran Salone of the Barberini Palazzo in Rome between 1633 and 1639 (above). Titled Triumph of  Divine Providence (or of the Barberini), it is, in fact a last judgement in which the entire ceiling appears to open up to a giant whirl of figures being swept upward toward the figure of Christ looming from a cloud slightly off-center of the main axis.
Worship of the Holy Name of Jesus, 1676-79, Giovanni Battista Gualli
But possibly the ultimate in trompe l'oeil fresco ceiling decoration combines stucco sculpture with fresco in a mixed-media extravaganza titled Worship of the Holy Name of Jesus (above). Painted by the little-known Giovanni Battista Gaulli around 1676-79 to cover the vault of the Church of ll Gesu in Rome. In apparent direct competition with the Barberini ceiling, the effect is at once theatrical, yet inspirational. The theme is the same but the work is so much more visually believable, merging illusion with reality as it combines architectural elements (both 2-D and 3-D) with sculpture, painted figures, and almost surrealistic heavenly happenings. Miraculously, you no longer notice your stiff neck.

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