The Greatest Unknown Italian Painter

Barocci La Madonna Del Gatto

Barocci, Brilliance and Grace at the National Gallery just closed. But it's worth taking a trip to discover Frederico Barocci.

Federico Barocci was certainly well known to his contemporaries; the masterpieces shown at the National Gallery inspired many imitations. The fervour of fellow painters to be as good as him – as tender and yet totally exact in pastels, as wondrously luminous in his oils, as amazingly exiting in his chiaroscuro – was so strong, it seems they tried to poison him when he visited Rome. So Barocci decided to stay put in Urbino for the rest of his life.

He was a great painter – devoted to his Duke and the Madonna – and he was much loved by the very erudite della Rovere family of Urbino. They commissioned him for their beautiful Palazzo, one of the best preserved in Italy. The churches he adorned with his giant altarpieces are also close to Urbino, with Seraglio just a few kilometres away.

So here is what you do: go to Urbino for a long weekend. The truffle season is not too far away, so you can combine the useful and the beautiful, just like a classical Italian!

Certainly, the Annunciation (1682) is a must; to see Mary, the mother of Christ, meet Elisabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, is worth the journey alone. Such tenderness and grace in those soft yet expressive colours is wonderful. My personal favourite is La Madonna del gatto, the Virgin posed while giving her breast to Jesus, and the other baby playing with a bird and the cat. So very normal and yet totally mystical. You will rarely see a Madonna with such a sweet face, sweet in the Italian 'dolce' sense, kind and warm.

Barocci went to incredible trouble preparing his pictures, and at the National Gallery we got to see the sketches, many heads, fingers, and compositions of scenes. He then added his colours and painted the pictures rather quickly. He was a masterful painter and punctilious draughtsman. To see his heads of old men like the father of Aeneas pr Saint Zacharias is to see a study of old age in a picture. It’s his craftsmanship and the kindliness it expresses that will stay with me for a long time

And you can fill up with this almost supernatural beauty, and some very natural spaghetti al tartufo, by booking that trip.