CORTONA, Pietro da
(b. 1596, Cortona, d. 1669, Roma)


Pietro da Corrtona (originally Pietro Berrettini), Italian painter, architect, decorator, and designer, second only to Bernini as the most versatile genius of the full Roman Baroque style. He was named after his birthplace in Tuscany and probably had some training with his father, a stonemason, before being apprenticed as a painter in Florence. In 1612 or 1613 he moved to Rome.

His first major works were frescos in Sta Bibiana, Rome (1624-26), commissioned by Urban VIII (Maffeo Barberini), and the patronage of the Barberini family played a major part in his career. For their palace he painted his most famous work, the huge ceiling fresco, Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power. This was begun in 1633, but he interrupted the work in 1637 to go to Florence and paint two of four frescos commissioned by the Grand Duke of Tuscany for the Pitti Palace. He returned to finish the Barberini ceiling in 1639. This, one of the key works in the development of Baroque painting, is a triumph of illusionism, for the centre of the ceiling appears open to the sky and the figures seen from below (di sotto in su) appear to come down into the room as well as soar out of it. It demonstrates Cortona's belief, which came out in a celebrated controversy with Andrea Sacchi in the Accademia di San Luca, that a history painting could be compared with an epic and was entitled to use many figures; Sacchi, intent on classical simplicity and unity, argued for using as few figures as possible.

In 1640-47 Pietro was back in Florence to finish his decorations in the Pitti Palace, where he received a new commission for seven ceilings. These Allegories of Virtues and Planets have elaborate stucco accompaniments uniting the painted ceilings with the framework of the rooms, and this form of decoration was widely influential, not only in Italy, but also in France. (Pietro turned down an invitation to visit Paris from Cardinal Mazarin, but his style was taken there by his best pupil, Romanelli.) From 1647 until his death Pietro again worked in Rome, his major paintings from this period being an extensive series of frescos in Sta Maria in Vallicella (the Chiesa Nuova, 1647-65), in which, as in his Pitti decorations, paint and stucco are magnificently combined. He painted many other frescoes in Rome. Throughout his career he also painted easel pictures of religious and mythological subjects.

Pietro once wrote that architecture was merely a pastime for him, but he ranks among the greatest architects of his period. His masterpiece is the church of SS. Martina e Luca in Rome (1635-50), which was the first Baroque church designed and built as a complete unity. Although his architecture has all the vigour of his painting, there is less correspondence between the two fields than might be imagined. He never decorated any of his own churches, and indeed they were not designed with fresco decoration in mind. Pietro's great contemporary reputation sank in the next century with that of many other Baroque artists. In a famous passage in his Dizionario delle belle arti (1797), Francesco Milizia wrote: 'Borromini in architecture, Bernini in sculpture, Pietro da Cortona in painting... represent a diseased taste — one that has infected a great number of artists.'