On the southern side of Piazza Barberini, the Palazzo Barberini houses the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, a rich patchwork of art, mainly Italian and focused on the early Renaissance to late Baroque period. Perhaps the most impressive feature of the gallery is the building itself, worked on at different times by the most favoured architects of the day – Bernini, Borromini, Maderno – and the epitome of Baroque grandeur. In an impressive show of balanced commissioning, there are two main staircases, one by Bernini and a second by his rival Borromini, and the two couldn’t be more different – the former an ordered rectangle of ascending grandeur, the latter a more playful and more organic spiral staircase. But the palace’s first-floor Salone di Cortona is its artistic high spot, with a ceiling frescoed by Pietro da Cortona that is one of the best examples of exuberant Baroque trompe l’oeil you’ll ever see, a manic rendering of The Triumph of Divine Providence that almost crawls down the walls to meet you. Note the bees – the Barberini family symbol – flying towards the figure of Providence.
The collection is divided into three sections, the first of which, on the ground floor, has the oldest works, from the medieval to the early Renaissance. Among the numerous Madonnas, highlights include the Madonna Advocata in Room 1, the gallery’s oldest work, a panel dating to c.1075, and Fra’ Filippo Lippi’s warmly maternal Tarquinia Madonna in Room 3, painted in 1437 and introducing background details, notably architecture, into Italian religious painting for the first time.
The second section, on the first floor, is the core of the collection, with works taking you through the Renaissance and Baroque eras, and including Raphael’s beguiling Fornarina, a painting of a Trasteveran baker’s daughter thought to have been the artist’s mistress (Raphael’s name appears clearly on the woman’s bracelet), although some experts claim the painting to be the work of a pupil. Later rooms have works by Tintoretto and Titian, and an impressive array of portraiture: Bronzino’s rendering of the marvellously erect Stefano Colonna, a portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein and another of Erasmus of Rotterdam by Quentin Metsys. Next door are two unusually small paintings by El Greco, The Baptism of Christ and Adoration of the Shepherds, and then, further on, a couple of rooms of work by Caravaggio – notably Judith and Holofernes – and his followers, for example the seventeenth-century Neapolitan Ribera, and the Dutch Terbrugghen and Jan van Bronckhorst.
The new galleries on the top floor (closed for renovation at the time of writing) finish off the collection by taking you from the late Baroque era, starting with works by more Neapolitan Baroque painters and their acolytes, most significantly Luca Giordano and the Calabrian Matia Preti, whose dark, dramatic canvases again owe a huge debt to Caravaggio. Next door, Bernini’s portrait of Urban VIII has been rightfully reinstated in the pope’s own palace, while the final rooms cover the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with a number of cityscapes of Rome by Gaspar van Wittel and classic Venetian scenes by Guardi and Canaletto.