Bernardo Strozzi: Genoese monk to Venetian master

Bernardo Strozzi, the principal figure of 17th-century painting in both Genoa and Venice, lived the very drama he painted. Early in life, he answered the religious calling by joining a strict monastic order which he then spent years trying to leave. As an artist, he started off as a Mannerist, evolved in the direction of Caravaggio’s theatrical naturalism and finally, working in Venice where his fame escalated, he adopted an exuberant colour palette in response to the paintings of Veronese.

Born to impoverished parents in Genoa, the young Strozzi became a Capuchin monk, a strict form of the Franciscan order, after initial artistic training. Soon he was allowed to leave the monastery to provide for his ill mother and unmarried sister and became successful as a full-time painter. When his mother died, the monks, who objected to his secular art, demanded his return to the order. To avoid prison, Strozzi fled to much more liberal Venice where his painting style triumphed.

Strozzi continued to develop his painting style throughout his career. His earliest style was defined by the Tuscan and Lombard Mannerism expressed in his works by elongated figures, tapering fingers and inclined heads. He later embraced a more naturalistic style inspired by at first Caravaggio and then by Rubens and Van Dyck, the latter of whom was Strozzi’s greatest rival in Genoa. His paintings from this period have about them a sensuous richness and an air of refinement and tenderness.

It was in Venice under the influence of Veronese that Strozzi developed a bold handling of colour. The use of colour in these works goes hand in hand with heavy impasto applied in a confident manner. Scholars have often commented on the presence of thick layers of paint applied with a loaded brush in Strozzi’s paintings and the virtuosity with which the artist varied his brushstrokes to create different textures. This style of painting lends Strozzi’s works a sense of vitality.

In Venice, Strozzi is best remembered for his small-scale compositions, both religious and secular, which he often repeated. My favourite of these, St Roch, painted for the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, has the chromatic effects of Rubens and the picturesqueness of Veronese. Strozzi’s exuberance here is clearly Baroque: the dense colours and luminosity render the saint physically and spiritually alive. This is signature Strozzi – the one who revitalised Venetian art of the 17th century.