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The Incarnation of Christ

The Incarnation of Christ

Bernardo Strozzi (1581-1644). Conservatorio Interiano. Genoa. Ca. 1632.

Bernardo Strozzi was born in Genoa around 1581. He was not really destined to become a painter but entered the Capucine monastery of San Barnaba in Genoa when he was seventeen years old, in 1598. When his father died around 1608 he left the monastery however, to support his mother and sister. He was apprenticed in the workshop of Cesare Corte (1550-1613) and later he worked with Pietro Sorri (1556-1622) in Genoa. His father, Agostino Strozzi, had been a painter also and Bernardo had not stopped top paint while in the abbey. Between 1614 and 1621 he worked as an engineer at the port of Genoa. The he set up his own painter’s workshop and painted many frescoes in the palaces and government buildings of Genoa, of which few are however conserved. In the 1630’s he had a bitter dispute with the Capucine Order and the Papal Court. His mother had died and his sister got married, so the Capucines wanted him back. Strozzi refused to return now to the monastery. Bernardo Strozzi left Genoa then for the more tolerant Venice and he stayed there until his death in 1644. In Venice he received the nickname ‘Il Prete Genovese’, the Genoese priest. In Genoa Strozzi had worked for the Doria family and for other leading aristocrat families of the town, for the Durazzis, the Interianos, and others.

Bernardo Strozzi started to paint Baroque pictures, in the style and representation he had seen from the examples of Pieter Paul Rubens and Giulio Cesare Procaccini. At first he did not really apply their technique of very free, even rough brushstrokes. He detailed his figures and objects minutely. He is thus very well known by his painting ‘The Cook’, made in 1625, which epitomises Genoese painting now. Gradually however, his style evolved, even before he moved to Venice, to less detail and more emphasis on colour. His painting ‘The Incarnation of Christ’ is a good example of this style, which would later lead to Venetian Rococo and inspire painters such as Giambattista Piazetta and Giambattista Tiepolo. Strozzi was well in line then in his later years with Venice’s liking for strong contrasting hues, less working on detail and a more impetuous technique of brushstroke work, which he was among the first to further enforce in Venice.

The painting ‘The Incarnation of Christ’ shows the Virgin Mary and the angel knelt before her. The painting was known as an ‘Annunciation’, but the picture suggests Mary’s pregnancy since part of her robe is heavily wound around her waist and the angel is in adoration before her. Moreover, a white pigeon, the symbol of the Holy Spirit, hovers above her head, leading to think of the Immaculate Conception. The white linen, which could be a symbol of Mary’s purity, is not on her but lies at her feet. She points to that linen also, and seems to explain to the angel with her left hand that virginity has left her, and that she is indeed pregnant with the Christ. Strozzi showed Mary in ecstasy, proud and conscious of her honour. Above the white bird, above the Holy Spirit, the clouds depart and a golden, heavenly light breaks through to enlighten the scene. Here also is a vague view of God opening the clouds. Around this scene are many little angles, children, putti, that inhabit the clouds of the skies. Strozzi worked during the Counter-reformation in Genoa. With pictures like ‘The Incarnation of Christ’ he showed an emotional, ostentatious and combative Christianity, that forced strong religious images upon viewers.

Bernardo Strozzi painted in light, contrasting and fine colours. He used not white and blue, clear hues on Mary, but warmer red and gold and darker blue. Mary’s red robe is however of a hue that slightly goes to purple and that fits harmoniously with the blue and golden hues, which are complementary colours. He used the same basic hues on the angel; red in the angel’s cloak, blue and gold on its wings. The angel’s robe is white and we remark also some white on Mary’s sleeves. So, Bernardo Strozzi showed Mary and the angel in almost the same colours, and the warm red dominates the scene in a nice way. White and gold hues dominate the sky, the scene just above Mary and the angel, so serve as contrast to the main theme. The dark blue of the angel’s wings and of Mary’s cloak seems to be answered in the very dark tones, in the black colours of the top and bottom parts of the frame. Thus, although the colours may seem hard and striking, Strozzi used them to forceful expressiveness combined with a keen sense of composition and of aerial perspective so that space was well indicated without receding lines.

Strozzi used colour to create space. He used colours to strong design of colours only. One might discover a composition of the traditional pyramid in Mary and the angel, the Holy Spirit being at the top of that pyramid, but Bernardo Strozzi only hinted at that composition by placing the angel higher than would be necessary for a true pyramid structure. Strozzi was breaking strong composition of lines deliberately, making composition of lines more free, diminishing its rigidness yet retaining some of its value. He did the same with the level of detail in his painting.

Bernardo Strozzi combined freedom in colours with a remarkable show of skills in detailed attention points. Whereas he could paint in all smallest item of detail such as in faces or in the wealth of colours of an angel’s wing, he deliberately painted in broader brushstrokes large parts of the picture, leaving the strokes obvious and unsmoothed in places. But he modulated. He drew and coloured some parts in the smallest detail, such as the hands and fingers of Mary. He drew Mary’s face less sharp and he blended less the colours and the transition of hues there. He painted very roughly, without detail, the golden sun shining through the clouds opened by God the Father and God is reduced to a vague shadow. The result of this style is a visual effect of forceful expressiveness combined with high skill. The viewer instantly receives the impression of a strong and rapid picture aimed at a forceful and colourful impact. Yet, the viewer also is forced to admire and taught to admire the skills of the painter. Strozzi developed this dual style in his years after 1630, around the time he left for Venice and it was the main novelty he brought with him to the lagoon metropolis. Several Venetian artists would find value in the style and develop it to the pictures of Giambattista Tiepolo and Piazetta, and even in the veduti of Gianantonio Guardi. Strozzi’s style would evolve into the main Venetian pictorial style of the eighteenth century.

The panel of the ‘Incarnation of Christ’ is of a rare theme in painting. It was made for the chapel of the Conservatorio Interiano, a school for the education of young girl orphans of Genoa, instituted by the Interiano family B27 . The painting is still in this Conservatorio.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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