If there is a greater thrill than discovering a lost work by an old master it is perhaps discovering a lost old master instead. This is essentially what the National Gallery is presenting with its new exhibition of the work of Federico Barocci.
In his lifetime Barocci was the most celebrated artist of the generation that immediately followed the High Renaissance deities of Michelangelo, Leonardo, Titian and Raphael. His patrons included Pope Pius VI, the Emperor Rudolf, the Duke of Urbino and even a saint, Filippo Neri. While his work strongly influenced later artists such as Rubens and Bernini it is little known today outside Italy, and specifically his home region of Le Marche and the hilltop city of Urbino. Of his 80 finished paintings Urbino alone has more than Britain, France, Spain and America combined, and many of his altarpieces remain in the churches for which they were painted.
Geographical isolation is, however, only one reason why Barocci has slipped from sight. Apart from a few portraits and a single late painting of Aeneas fleeing Troy, his pictures are exclusively religious, which did not endear him to Protestant taste. Nor could his distinctive style – fondant colour harmonies and an emotional sweetness – outshine the shadowy dramas of Caravaggio and his adherents. So while Barocci holds an important place in art history as the missing link between the strained distortions of Mannerism and the dynamism of the baroque, he has left little impression on the public consciousness. The National Gallery's exhibition, which contains some 20 paintings and 65 drawings, pastel studies and oil sketches, sets out to return him to notice.
Barocci deserves it.