Photo credit: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
(b Urbino, ?1535; d Urbino, 30 Sept. 1612). Italian painter and draughtsman, generally considered the greatest and most individual artist of his time in central Italy. Apart from two visits to Rome early in his career (1556, 1560–3), he was based in Urbino all his life. During his second stay in Rome he is said to have abandoned his frescos in the Casino of Pius IV in the Vatican gardens because he thought that rivals were trying to poison him, and for the rest of his life he suffered from debilitating stomach pains (possibly the result of ulcers rather than poison). Whether the cause of his illness was physical or psychosomatic, he certainly had an acutely sensitive temperament that comes out in his work, in which he combined the influence of Raphael (also a native of Urbino) and Correggio in a refined and highly personal manner.
His colour harmonies are sharp but subtle, and although his paintings often convey a feeling of intimate tenderness, his handling has great vigour. Apart from a few portraits, such as that of his chief patron Francesco Maria II della Rovere, Duke of Urbino (c.1572, Uffizi, Florence), he concentrated almost exclusively on religious subjects: he was the leading painter of altarpieces in Italy in the second half of the 16th century and he also produced numerous smaller devotional pictures (Madonna and Child with St Joseph and the Infant Baptist, c.1575, NG, London). Despite the fact that he worked away from the main centres of art, his work was widely sought after, his patrons including the emperor Rudolf II (see Habsburg), for whom he painted his only known classical subject, The Flight of Aeneas from Troy, in 1587–8 (the picture does not survive, but Barocci made a second version in 1598 and this is in the Borghese Gallery, Rome). And although his illness limited the hours he could work, he had a long and productive career; he was especially prolific as a draughtsman (more than 2,000 sheets of drawings by him survive) and he was one of the first artists to make extensive use of pastels (he also made a handful of etchings). Certain features of his work are thoroughly in the Mannerist tradition (his rather indefinite treatment of space, for example, and his delight in fluttering draperies), but in his directness and freshness he looked forward to the Baroque. Bellori, the pre-eminent biographer of the Baroque age, considered him the finest Italian painter of his period and lamented that he had ‘languished in Urbino’.
Text source: The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists (Oxford University Press)