The Forgotten Frescoes

by Danilo Brunetti

Discover Carracci’s long-scattered frescoes of the Herrera Chapel, thanks to a fascinating new exhibit. Tiffany Parks has the details.

When one of the greatest painters of the early baroque period was commissioned to fresco an entire chapel in the Spanish national church in Rome, it promised to be a leading destination for art-lovers for centuries to come. Unfortunately it was not to be. The masterful painter from Bologna conceived and began the fresco cycle, and although he died before it could be completed, distinguished artists like Francesco Albani, Domenichino, Giovanni Lanfranco, and Sisto Badalocchio completed the project. Unfortunately, despite its enviable location in Piazza Navona, the church of San Giacomo degli Spagnoli was abandoned in the 19th century and eventually deconsecrated (it was later reconsecrated as Nostra Signora del Sacro Cuore). The Herrera Chapel, which housed Carracci’s frescoes, was destroyed.

But, luckily, not before the frescoes were removed. The works were transferred to canvas and dispersed—almost all of them to Spain. Today, thanks to a joint exhibition between the Prado Museum in Madrid, the National Art Museum of Catalunya in Barcelona, and Rome’s Palazzo Barberini, the frescoes have been brought together for the first time in centuries. 

Despite its exceptional artistic importance, the fresco cycle is almost unknown, due to its unfortunate dispersion. In addition, the precarious state of its conservation has made it difficult to study and admire. The recent restoration has finally made it possible to undertake research, deepen studies, and identify this cycle as one of the fundamental reference points for understanding and defining Carracci’s late style, as well as the talent of his collaborators. Seventeen frescoes from the now-lost Herrera Chapel are on display at Palazzo Barberini, including Carracci’s altarpiece that was transferred to Rome’s current Spanish church, Santa Maria in Monserrato degli Spagnoli.