The Sovereign Image: Art and Science Under the Barberini

Marco Romani Mistretta |

A review of The Sovereign Image: Urbano VIII and the Barberini Family, on view at the Gallerie Nazionali di Arte Antica at Palazzo Barberini until July 30th, 2023.

Barberini coat of arms at Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Rome; source.

It is almost impossible to walk around central Rome without running into the most famous insects in the early modern world: the Barberini bees. Prominently featured in the family’s coat of arms, these small animals appear on city walls, on church ceilings, on entryways, on tombs and, especially, on each of the iconic fountains designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a long-time protégé of Maffeo Barberini himself — better known as pope Urban VIII.

It seems convenient, in this context, for a team of scientists interested in entomology to devote an entire treatise to bees, the Apiarium, which includes detailed and elaborate illustrations such as the Melissographia panel. To be sure, bees had been the object of scientific study in Europe at least since Aristotle, but never before had they been described in such minute detail — especially their stingers, antennae, and compound eyes, not clearly observable without the aid of optical instruments.

The Apiarium’s marvelous drawings by Mathias Greuter and Francesco Stelluti were made possible by new optical technologies (known at the time as specilla or perspicilla in Latin; occhialini in Italian) devised by the school of Galileo in the early 17th century, several years before the birth of the Dutchman Anton van Leeuvenhoek, who is generally credited with the invention of the modern microscope.

The authors of the Apiarium make their homage to the newly elected pope Urban VIII explicit through a Latin epigram in elegiac couplets accompanying the illustration: Respice, Natura qua nil praestantius omni, / e Barberinae stemmate Gentis Apem … (“Behold, in the Barberini emblem, the Bee, more distinguished than anything else in all of Nature …”). No subject-matter could have better lent itself to honoring — and flattering — the new pope than the anatomy of bees, and the Apiarium thereby offers an excellent example of the dynamics of patronage and scientific careers under Urban VIII, as well as of the subtle interplay between science and art in the Barberini era.

This and other gems await visitors at the National Gallery of Ancient Art in Palazzo Barberini, thanks to a wonderful exhibit titled The Sovereign Image. Urban VIII and the Barberini Family, open until July 30, 2023. Featuring works of art and early printed books by some of the most celebrated intellectuals of the Baroque period, the exhibition’s goal is to show the multifaceted nature of the Barberini’s political strategy, aimed at consolidating the family’s power through their simultaneous support of both the fine arts and the emerging scientific revolution.

Francesco Stelluti et al., Melissographia (Rome, 1625); picture by the present author.

For comparison (not exhibited): an illustration from the 14th-century medical handbook Tacuinum Sanitatis, based on an 11th-century Arabic work by Ibn Buṭlān; source.

As recent geographical discoveries had expanded the Roman Church’s reach to global proportions, so did the ambitions of scientists — especially at the prestigious Lyncean Academy — expand their horizons towards the New World. As a token of their bubbling curiosity, the exhibit includes a copy of the first edition of Federico Cesi’s Rerum medicarum Novae Hispaniae thesaurus, commonly known as the Mexican Treasure.

The work, produced by a large team of Lyncean scholars, includes the dedication of a newly discovered plant (the Lobelia cardinalis) to Francesco Barberini, pope Urban’s cultured nephew and himself a member of the Lyncean Academy, and even an extensive study of a one-horned dragon of dubious existence but of predictable name (Dracunculus Monoceros Illustrissimi Cardinalis Barberini).

Federico Cesi et al., Rerum medicarum Novae Hispaniae thesaurus, seu Plantarum animalium mineralium Mexicanorum historia (Rome, 1651); picture by the present author.

No wonder, in this lively intellectual climate, that Maffeo Barberini’s election to the papal throne was greeted as a mirabile congiuntura (i.e., a “wondrous circumstance”) by none other than Galileo, who in 1623 dedicated his groundbreaking work The Assayer to the new pontiff. Following the advice of several Lyncean scientists, the publisher went so far as to modify the work’s frontispice, which had already been designed by Galileo himself, to include the Barberini coat of arms and its unmistakable bees.

Galileo Galilei, The Assayer (Rome, 1623), frontispice; picture by the present author.

The relationship between Maffeo and Galileo is a notoriously complex one. An early admirer of Galileo, the future pope had composed the Latin poem Adulatio perniciosa as a eulogy to the scientist’s invention of the telescope and its crucial role in his subsequent discovery of the sunspots and the moons of Jupiter. After the pontifical election, Galileo and many Lyncean intellectuals began to see the Barberini patronage of the sciences not just as an opportunity for further progress in scientific research, but as a reason to hope that Copernican heliocentrism might finally be rehabilitated by the Church.

Without a doubt, Galileo’s hopes must have especially been ignited by the pope’s enthusiastic reaction to The Assayer, which presents a controversial new account of comets along with dramatically anti-Aristotelian positions. According to Galileo’s colleague and friend Virginio Cesarini, who promptly informed his fellow astronomer, Urban VIII was such an avid reader of the essay that he had his entourage read it aloud to him during meals (se lo faceva leggere a mensa).

Galileo Galilei, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (Florence, 1632), frontispice; picture by the present author.

But those high hopes were ultimately dashed: Galileo’s 1632 masterpiece, the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, initially approved for publication by the Roman authorities, was poorly received at the papal court, and irritated the pope himself. Among other things, Urban VIII certainly did not appreciate the fact that his “concluding medicine” (la medicina del fine, i.e. the conciliatory argument he had urged Galileo to include towards the end of the Dialogue) was put in the mouth of a foolish character whose views get systematically refuted throughout the work. Galileo was summoned to trial and eventually forced to abjure.

Galileo Galilei, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Fountain of the Bees (Rome, 1644); source.

In addition to these cornerstones of early modern science, the Sovereign Image exhibit includes over eighty works by artists such as Caravaggio, Poussin, Carracci, and Bernini, coming both from Palazzo Barberini’s own permanent collection and dozens of other museums and private collections, all converging towards the emergence of a distinctively Baroque idiom under the aegis of one of the most powerful Roman families of all times. If you happen to be in Rome this summer, go check it out!

Charles Mellin, Allegory of Peace and the Arts (Rome, 1627); picture by the present author.

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Marco Romani Mistretta

A native of Rome, Marco Romani Mistretta studied Classics at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa and received a PhD in Classical Philology from Harvard University before joining the Paideia Institute. He currently directs the Institute's European branch.


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