In many ways the age of the Baroque was the dawn of a new era and people were acutely aware that somehow the human spirit had received a great infusion of power. One work of art, perhaps more than any other in Italy, both displays the new spirit and at the same time celebrates its descent upon the world. This is the frescoed vault by the painter Pietro da Cortona in the main ceremonial hall of the Barberini palace, built in Rome during the second quarter of the seventeenth century for the family of the newly elected pope, Urban VIII, the man who perhaps more than any other embodied and promulgated the transformation.
The allegorization of the pope and his reign is the dominant idea in the painting of the Salone, the large hall that forms the public centre of the palace. The divinely ordained rule of Urban VIII and the apotheosis of his Tuscan family whose roots could be traced back to antiquity, are cleverly incorporated into a timeless and universal perspective by Pietro da Cortona.
We feel its bold aggressiveness at a glance: the space of the room fairly erupts with turbulent masses of exuberant, cloud-borne and free-floating figures who perform a breathtaking aerial drama against the background of a heavy architectural vault and open sky beyond. Cortona succeeded in making even Michelangelo's mighty Sistine ceiling seem thin and fragile—a delicate house of cards populated by a series of sedate and isolated individuals, each viewed and illuminated uniformly from the front and quite oblivious to the series of small narrative scenes that march along the ceiling in regular rhythms, without any strongly defined focus.
Cortona instead conceived the vault as one, coherent, centrally focused unit, with four large but subordinate narrative panels along the sides, framing a single opening to the sky. The narratives are not confined within their frames but spill out and become part of the decoration of the vault itself. The illumination is not uniform; Cortona fills the whole field of vision with billowing contrasts that are created by light streaming down from a single source in the distant heavens.
The accompanying figures are no longer attached to the architecture but seem to have freed themselves and taken flight, all viewed from a single standpoint below and all participating in a single event taking place at the apex. The figures are not simply noble and muscular; they seem to be inflated by some superhuman principle of vitality that incorporated the urgent and heroic message of which they are the inspired agents.
The message is also a kind of intensification and concentration of that of the Sistine Ceiling. Christianity regarded itself as the successor to the two great religions of antiquity: Judaism and paganism. The Sistine ceiling recites the sequence of events that led through the promise of the Old Testament up to the fulfillment in the New.
The Barberini ceiling expresses essentially the same idea with respect to pagan mythology, except in a more structured way and with a more precise aim. The episodes that decorate the sides of the vault—such as Hercules dispatching the Harpies, and Minerva defeating the Giants—are not told sequentially but are selected and arranged, like the design of the vault, in a coherent system of values. The moral significance of these events from the pagan past for the Christian present is embodied in the airborne personifications of Justice, Wisdom, Peace, and so on, who occupy the real space of the room, and testify that those ancient presagements have indeed been subsumed beneath the infinitely greater power of the Christian virtues that now inhabit the world.