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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 22 JUNE 2015 The Baroque Underworld: Vice and Poverty in Rome is the first exhibition which uncovers the violent and murky side of early 17th century Rome’s glorious façade. It focusses on everyday Rome, rather than that of the triumphant Papacy, unveiling a city of impropriety and irreverence. It was the birthplace of the work of Manfredi and Caravaggio as well as a whole host of lesser known artists from all over Europe. Italians, French, Spaniards and Dutch gathered at the foot of the Villa Medici creating works illustrating the dark, depraved side of life in the city. They highlighted the dangers of the night, the drunken brawls, the permissiveness of the carnivals, the twisted illicit sexuality and the slums heaving with unrest.

Anonymous: Homme faisant le geste de la fica

This amazing and superbly presented exhibition in the sumptuous Petit Palais in the heart of Paris abounds with fascinating portraits of abject poverty, and glorifies sensual pleasure in works aiming, and succeeding, in provoking viewers. Freed from the constraint of established codes, there is no room of austere, commissioned portraits of frowning aristocracy to stand back and admire, but rather the occasion to discover works celebrating the myth of Bacchus and his rites. The classical story of Bacchus inventing wine by pressing it through his fingers is told, a tale played out by a wild and rapacious faun. The painting, completed in 1621, represents excess, and warns of the temptations of vice and mindless drunkenness. Nearby hangs Manfredi’s impressive Bacchus et un buveur, where a merry Bacchus imparts his love of inebriety to a thirsty drinker.

Instead of idealizing the world around them, this group of artists, known as the "Bentvueghels", (birds of a feather), were set on portraying a world of misery and vulgarity; the world as they saw it. As each new member joined them, they would celebrate Bacchus, their patron god, in one of Rome’s many taverns where they indulged in extravagant feasts with wine which flowed till dawn. In an anonymous painting, Initiation ceremony of a new member, the novice, in green, is presented to the priest swathed in white robes and wearing a crown of laurels. Behind them is a picture of an overweight Bacchus seated next to a satyr who is smoking a pipe.

Peter Van Laer: Self-portrait with magic scene

At the beginning of the 17th century, witches, fortune tellers and sorceresses depicted as repulsive old women practicing black magic represented the opposite of the honest woman, while attractive young girls were the lascivious enchantresses of Antiquity. Vanity-Prudence, by Angelo Caroselli shows a courtesan, but maybe an actress, singer or model, contemplating her reflection in a mirror; it is an allegory of Vanity, but also of Prudence who sees the past, present and future simultaneously in a mirror.

Self-portrait with a scene of magic is an extraordinary work by Pieter van Laer, who goes as far as painting himself as a sorcerer’s apprentice, but becomes a victim of his own black magic, doomed to fall into the devil’s clutches. It’s a frightening, ambiguous and self- depreciating scene and it’s difficult to imagine anyone, then as now, wishing to hang it in their bedroom.
 The exhibition continues with a section entirely devoted to sensual pleasures and passions, where all vices were permitted. A repulsive portrait by Simon Vouet showed a dubious individual making a rude, vulgar gesture, passing it off as being a "ridiculous painting", such a description giving him leeway to paint the most insulting, offensive works possible, under cover of them being ‘commedia dell’arte’.

Giovanni Lanfranco:Jeune homme nu sur un lit avec un chat
(Nude young man on a bed with a cat)
, 1620-1622
Oil on canvas, 60 cm x 113 cm
 Walpole Gallery, London

Visitors to the museum tended to gather around a portrait of a very insolent young man posing as Venus. Giovanni Lanfranco’s surprising Young man and a cat, a male Venus, depicting illicit sexuality, shows a naked youth, a suggestive smile playing around his lips, reclining backwards while caressing a cat, the animal itself gazing at him in feline ecstasy. The canvas was said to hang in the Roman Palace of Queen Christina of Sweden, the curtain in the foreground evoking one that must have covered the licentious painting since it could only have been shown to selected guests. A hundred years later, the painting was part of the collection of the Duke of Orleans, Regent to King Louis XI.

Paintings representing sexual penetration or the feminine sexual organ were everyday occurrences, as were those of rapes and murders. Parties that turned into brawls, robberies that ended in bloodbaths, works depicting brigands dispossessing travelers, stringing them up on a gallows along the way. All this was fair game for these artists who became known as the "Bamboccianti", painters who saw these occasions to portray the violence in mankind.

This extravagant display of a world teeming with unrest was staged against the background of the Petit Palais, built in 1900 for the Exposition Universelle, which 2 years later became the Paris Museum of Fine Arts, a beautiful setting barely at odds with all the subtle and less subtle audacious paintings it housed, if only temporarily. It gave an opportunity to discover the work of a group of artists who chose to celebrate, not the triumphant election of the Holy Roman Emperor nor the Pope, but rather the moment when the celebrations went sour. Soldiers, courtesans and musicians are represented not at the height of their merriment, but drained at the end of a night of pleasure, intoxicated by alcohol. Thanks in part to the spectacular presentation by Pier Luigi Pizzi, Les Bas-fonds du Baroque is a magnificent journey through early 17th century Rome, highlighting the glories and miseries of the times with intelligence and humour.

Patricia Boccadoro is a senior editor at Culturekiosque. She last wrote on the Spanish artist Diego Velázquez.


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