Allegory of Divine Providence (1633-39) by Pietro da Cortona
Interpretation of Quadratura Fresco Painting

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Allegory of Divine Providence
(Central area, showing figure
of Divine Providence [in gold]
seated on a cloud.)
By Pietro da Cortona.
Considered to be one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Allegory of Divine Providence (1633-39)


Analysis of The Allegory of Divine Providence
Explanation of Other Famous Fresco Paintings


Name: The Allegory of Divine Providence (1633-39)
Artist: Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669)
Medium: Fresco
Genre: History painting
Movement: Baroque art
Location: Gran Salone, Palazzo Barberini, Rome

For an explanation of other celebrated oils and frescoes,
please see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).

To appreciate paintings by
Italian Baroque artists
like Pietro da Cortona,
please see: Art Evaluation.


The Allegory of Divine Providence, a masterpiece of trompe l'oeil art, was created by Pietro da Cortona to decorate the large ceiling of the grand salon of the palatial home of the Barberini family, in Rome. In completing this prestigious commission - the Barberini clan was headed by Maffeo Barberini, then Pope Urban VIII - Cortona was following in the footsteps of the High Renaissance master Correggio (1489-1534), whose own masterpiece - the Assumption of the Virgin in Parma Cathedral (1526-30) - had astounded quadraturisti of the cinquecento. There was a key difference however between the two works: The Assumption was a work of Christian art, while The Allegory was a secular celebration of the pope's life and family. Cortona, who was already known to the Barberini family as a result of his Portrait of Pope Urban VIII (1627, Capitoline Museums, Rome), was given the commission by Francesco Barberini, nephew of Urban VIII. He began the work in 1633 and was almost finished in 1637, when he was called away to Florence, to paint two murals for Ferdinand II de' Medici in the Pitti Palace. Returning to Rome, he completed the Barberini project in 1639. The Allegory of Divine Providence was seen as a highpoint of Baroque painting, and one of the greatest expressions of di sotto in su mural painting in Rome. It exerted a significant influence on later quadraturisti, including the renowned Andrea Pozzo (1642-1709), creator of the immortal Apotheosis of St Ignatius (1688-94), in the Jesuit Church of Sant'Ignazio, Campus Martius, Rome.

Analysis of The Allegory of Divine Providence by Pietro da Cortona

This quadratura painting is the grandest secular fresco of the Roman High Baroque, ordered by the greatest pope of the age, Urban VIII (reigned 1623-44). Cortona's scheme marks the apogee of papal power and display. During the Thirty Years' War (1618-48), the papacy was able to maintain the appearance of a great power by exploiting the divisions in Europe, but the end of the war saw the emergence of France as the dominant European force. It is indicative of that great change that Louis XIV (reigned 1643-1715) could call Bernini (1598-1680), the papal architect and sculptor, to Paris in 1665-66. Pope Alexander VII (reigned 1655-67) had to acquiesce in something his predecessor would have forbidden.

Pietro da Cortona was apprenticed to an undistinguished Florentine painter with whom he travelled to Rome in about 1612. Cortona's great chance came when he attracted the attention of Marcello and Giulio Sacchetti, rich Florentine brothers who had also moved to Rome.The Sacchetti were friends of Urban VIII, formerly Cardinal Maffeo Barberini (a fellow-Tuscan) and it was through them that the artist gained the patronage of the pope.

Cortona's mythological painting decorates the guardroom (Sala dei palafrenieri), or Gran Salon, which was the central public reception room of the Barberini Palace, designed by Carlo Maderno (1556-1629) with the assistance of Bernini, and Francesco Borromini (1599-1667). Each family elected to the papacy took advantage of its good fortune to erect a palace for its secular heirs. (In 1672, Cardinal Altieri was elected Clement X. He was in his eighties so work on the new Palazzo Altieri went on night and day in case the pope died before its completion!)



Popes are elected, thus God could intervene to fulfil his plans, and hence the papal signature: Divina Providentia Pontifex Maximus ("Supreme Pontiff by Divine Providence"). Cardinal Barberini enjoyed a "heavenly sign" foretelling his election - a swarm of bees (the family coat of arms) alighted on the wall of his conclave cell. A reference to this forms part of the central section of the decoration where Divine Providence, seated on clouds (with Time and the Fates beneath her), commands a personification of Rome to crown the Barberini arms. At the bottom is Minerva, goddess of Wisdom, overthrowing the Giants who are seen hurled down by those mountains they had amassed in order to challenge Heaven. Here is expressed the defence of ecclesiastical things. The virtues of Barberini rule were emphasized through other mythologies and personifications in the rest of the ceiling.

Cortona's ceiling is coved, as is the Farnese Gallery which Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) - leader of the Bolognese school - had decorated in the 1590s - see: Farnese Gallery frescoes (1597-1608). Like Annibale's scheme and the Genesis fresco (1508-12) by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Cortona's masterpiece includes a great painted cornice. This allowed him to compartmentalize various scenes. It also formed a backdrop in front of which many of Cortona's figures (including Minerva and the Giants) were represented in dynamic poses on a large scale at the front of the picture-plane. However, Divine Providence is more remotely shown high above, foreshortened in the central sky. The Barberini Gran Salone, unlike Annibale's Farnese Gallery, is two stories in height. This enabled Cortona to give his ceiling an "ideal" station point from which to be viewed. This, together with the rich, Venetian colour and the weighty, powerful figures, gives the ceiling an epic grandeur and immediacy of impact, despite its episodic character.

The ceiling is incredibly rich in details, especially at the corners, where there are simulated bronze reliefs of scenes representing the Cardinal Virtues (flanking the Minerva scene are Mucius Scaevola putting his hand in the fire, for Fortitude; and Scipio sending back untarnished to her Saguntine spouse the young maid he had captured as his booty, for Temperance; Prudence and Justice are opposite) and a profusion of mermen, nymphs, garlands, and bucrania (ox skulls), usually executed in stucco but here shown illusionistically. Cortona had assiduously studied ancient Roman sculpture and Roman architecture, and had a large library for reference. He even paid tribute to the High Renaissance painter Raphael in the central figure of Divine Providence, as her pose is taken directly from one of Raphael's Sibyls, a fresco of 1514 in the Chigi Chapel in Santa Maria della Pace in Rome.

Acclaimed as one of the best Baroque paintings of the 17th century, Cortona's Allegory of Divine Providence combines several traditions of illusionistic ceiling painting, borrowed in part from earlier masters including Correggio, Annibale Carracci, Paolo Veronese (1528-88) and others. Today of course, the idea of creating a visual memorial to a profligate and corrupt papal family based on a range of divine virtues, seems archaic and dishonest. At the time it was perfectly normal.

Explanation of Other Famous Fresco Paintings

Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel Frescoes (1303-10) by Giotto.

Brancacci Chapel Frescoes (1424-8) by Masaccio and Masolino

Camera Degli Sposi Frescoes (1465-74) by Andrea Mantegna

The Creation of Adam (1511) by Michelangelo

Last Judgment Fresco, Sistine Chapel (1536-41) by Michelangelo


• For more Baroque quadratura frescoes, see: Homepage.

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