Baroque masterworks exhibition brings the powerful influence of Bernini from Rome to Western Maryland

Kate Rader

Large museum closings due to Covid and the generosity of community sponsors enable a rare display of Baroque masterworks to travel from Italy to a small museum in Hagerstown.

A rare man and sublime talent, he was born for the glory of Rome with the Divine Disposition to bring light to that century.” —Domenico Bernini, Life of the Cavalier Gio. Lorenzo Bernini, 1713

It’s been almost 350 years since his death, and even now, that’s how Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680), the singularly most influential artist of the Baroque era is remembered. His emotionally stimulating works of sculpture, painting, architecture, design and more are a testament to his exceptional talent and influence across the world. A master who, thanks to a rare combination of events—including the temporary closure of large museums in 2020 during the pandemic—will bring a landmark exhibition of works by Bernini and the generation of Baroque artists he inspired to the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts Jun. 27-Sept. 19.

Recognized as one of the finest small museums in the U.S., the accredited WCMFA in Hagerstown, Md., will be one of only four museums nationally to host Bernini and the Roman Baroque: Masterpieces from Palazzo Chigi in Ariccia. This rare exhibition, curated from the spectacular collection of the Chigi Palace in Rome, highlights more than 50 works by 40 artists, including the master Bernini himself.

Bernini and the Roman Baroque offers luminous examples of the topics most commonly addressed in Baroque-era art—dramatically portrayed (and sometimes graphic) scenes from mythology, the Bible, and history.

Sarah J. Hall, director of the WCMFA explains why seeing these works in person is so important, “One of the pieces in this exhibition is over 9ft. long (Summer by Mario Nuzzi (Mario de’ Fiori) and Carlo Maratti (il Maratta). You just can’t get that 'wow' factor in a book or on a screen. And, so often color doesn’t translate well to our screens. I often describe the Baroque movement as a propaganda campaign for the Catholic Church, so in the case of this show in particular, the artists are going for it in terms of drama and narrative. They really want to move you.”

And move you they will. Luminous painting techniques, dramatic facial expressions, heavenly and supernatural figures, all epitomize Baroque’s ultimate goal of elevating the viewer in mind and soul.

Organized thematically, the show begins with an introduction to Bernini, the Palazzo Chigi, and the surrounding town of Ariccia. Bernini’s work for the Chigi family is represented by decorative items from the palazzo, including a rare leather wall hanging bearing emblems of the Chigi family, an exquisite length of red silk embroidered with the Chigi coat of arms, and a decorative ceiling lamp depicting cherubs in flight, raising a crown for the Virgin Mary.

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Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Alessandro Nelli, Decorative Ceiling Lamp, 1885, Bronze and gilded bronze.Palazzo Chigi, Ariccia

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Ferdinand Voet, Portrait of Cardinal Flavio Chigi, 1670, Oil on canvas.Palazzo Chigi, Ariccia

Courtly portraiture portrays members of the Chigi family and Roman nobles, including the lovely Portrait of Maria Isabella Capranica Cerri by Jacob Ferdinand Voet. The sitter’s elaborate ruffled sleeves and beribboned costume complement her softly rendered hair and lustrous skin.

Here's where the show gets exciting.

The aforementioned nine-foot-long canvas depicting Summer “Is a showstopper,” Hall says. One from a series of stories with hidden meaning—envisioning the seasons as stages in life—it was commissioned for the palazzo around 1658. In it, the goddess of the harvest, Ceres is depicted admiring herself in a mirror.

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Carlo Maratti, called "Il Maratta" and Mario Nuzzi, called "Mario de’ Fiori,” The Summer, 1658-59, Oil on canvas.Palazzo Chigi, Ariccia

Hall believes both scale and subject matter contribute to the drama, particularly in works like “il Sassoferrato,” (Saint Lucy) by Giovanni Battista Salvi, which depicts St. Lucy, the patron saint of blindness, holding a platter of severed human eyeballs. “There are a few other monumentally-sized canvasses, including a really disturbing plague scene by Mattia Preti that’s about 5ft. long.”

Other key historical and biblical paintings consist of Domenico Fetti’s highly emotional “Morte di Cleopatra” (The Suicide of Cleopatra), depicting the legend of her self-inflicted death by cobra, Jacques Courtois’ “il Borgognone” (Agar and Ishmael), Pietro da Cortona’s dramatic Flagellation, and “Orpheus & Eurydice” by Giuseppe Cesari (Cavaliere d’Arpino), depicting the fateful love of Orpheus of Thrace for the beautiful Eurydice.

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Domenico Fetti, The Suicide of Cleopatra, c. 1613, Oil on canvas.Courtesy of Collection Lemme, Palazzo Chigi, Ariccia

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Giuseppe Cesari, called "Cavalier d'Arpino,” Orpheus and Eurydice, 1620-25, Oil on canvas.Courtesy of Collection Lemme, Palazzo Chigi, Ariccia

Landscapes include expansive works by Jean de Momper, anticipating the taste of the next century for scenes of hunting or leisure, and Salvator Rosa, an artist known for prefiguring the Romantic movement with his perilous and dramatic landscapes.

Other artists of note in the exhibition include Matia Preti, Pier Francesco Mola, Andrea Pozzo, Ottavio Leoni, and Giovanni Battista Falda.

WHEN YOU GO

Exhibit dates

June 27–Sept. 19, 2021

Washington County Museum of Fine Arts

Expect to see nudity and some graphic content.

Exhibition Opening Reception

June 25, 2021, 6pm-8pm

Call the museum for details about this special Italian-inspired evening. Capacity is limited and masks and social distancing will be required.

Opening Weekend Celebration

June 26–27

This first weekend of the exhibition, we’ll be celebrating with our friends from Cannon Coffee, who will have a pop-up coffee café in the museum’s Kaylor Atrium from 11 am–2 pm on Saturday and from 1:30–3:30 pm on Sunday.

Associated Programs

A variety of engaging complementary online programs are scheduled to enhance viewers' enjoyment of the exhibition, including discussions, lectures, concerts, and lesson plans for use in the classroom or at home. Check wcmfa.org or the museum’s social media pages for more details on registration and access. Programs are listed in chronological order.

Curation and Sponsorship

Bernini and the Roman Baroque: Masterpieces from Palazzo Chigi in Ariccia was curated by Francesco Petrucci, Chief Curator, Palazzo Chigi in Ariccia; and Dominique Lora, Assistant Curator for Glocal Project Consulting. The exhibition tour was organized by International Arts & Artists, Washington, DC. A fully illustrated catalogue is available in the museum’s gift shop.

The Washington County Museum of Fine Arts installation and interpretation is being managed by Agnita M. Stine Schreiber and Curator Daniel Fulco, a Baroque specialist.

Interested in sponsoring a favorite masterwork? The museum is currently accepting sponsors to help defray the costs of this exhibition. For more information, visit the WCMFA’s Bernini and the Roman Baroque Sponsorship Page.

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Writer, editor, and founder of Hagerstown magazine. Graphic designer with a passion for editorial design and photography. I've been telling the exceptional stories of everyday people for more than 20 years, with a focus on the MD, PA, WV tri-state area. Join me as publisher of the collaborative www.outpost-five.com for even more creative words and images.

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