Letter from JAMES BARRY to EDMUND BURKE, written February 1771 , at Paris

Source: Fryer, Works of Barry, i. 217-223.

After leaving Turin, where he left his friend and fellow student of painting John Francis Rigaud (1742-1810), Barry crossed the Alps and stopped at Lyons; he starts this undated letter there and finishes it in Paris shortly before crossing over to England. He mentions that passing through Savoy, 'all was snow and sleet', which suggests he travelled back to Paris in harsh winter weather, possibly early February. He continues to describe to Burke the art works he had seen in northern Italy; for additional comments on these see his 'Observations', Fryer,Works of Barry, ii. 19-29.

Full display

Dear Sirs,


In order to divert my attention from disagreeable reflections upon the fatigues and extraordinary expenses of travelling in this time of the year, as I have also an idle day upon my hands in waiting for the diligence, and as there is nothing worth looking after here in Lyons, except trade and manufacture, in which I have neither knowledge nor taste, so I shall turn to my old resource of more pleasing memorial.2

I shall say nothing3 of Corregio's ceilings in the Duomo, and in S. Giovanni at Parma:4 they are, I will allow, what might be expected from the great abilities of such a man; but as I do not like this kind of painting where macchia5 and effect is more consulted than expression, beauty, form, and character, so I shall leave for others to say about it whatever they please. Corregio's fragment of the Annunciation 6 is excellent, full of grace and beauty. His Madonna della scudella7 is admirably well coloured in all the parts, and in the whole together, but the drawing is bad and much wanting in the proportion, &c. This picture is a convincing testimony, that he was ignorant of drawing (very ignorant) and yet some part of his other picture of S. Girolamo, at the academy,8 proves as convincingly that he drew well, and very well, and in excellent, proper, and variegated proportions. To reconcile this might be more difficult and troublesome than useful, and therefore, I will only suppose either that this Madonna della scudella was an early work of Corregio's, or that sometimes he made light of the drawing of his figures, or that sometimes he succeeded in his drawing more from pains, and a habit of mere imitation, than from principles and knowledge. There are other pictures by him in S. Giovanni, 9 in which there is much to praise, and something to dispraise. In the palace of S. Vitale is a little Madonna and Child by him,10 which is very excellent, and much like Titian's manner of colouring, which is very different from the general style of Corregio. In the same palace is also a most beautiful precious little picture of S. Cecilia, and two angels by Parmegianino:11 it is admirable in every respect, for most elegant true drawing, good colouring, most gracefully invented, and cleanly and well finished; the landscape and foliage are full of taste, spirit, and beauty. There is also a collection of drawings, several by Parmegianino, which are now engraving by Signor Bosse,12a man of merit both as a stuccatore of fruit, &c.13 in which he is very able, as in engravings in aqua-fortis. 14 There are also two studies, done with a pen by Michael Angelo, for figures in his Last Judgement. 15 There is also a picture, with Leonardo da Vinci's name wrote upon it;16 there is much of a painful, laboured merit in some parts of it, but as it is totally devoid of taste, it cannot surely be his, so that the name must have been forged.

The famous Volta in Piacenza, by Guercino, merits all the praise which is general!y given to it. 17 It is his best and most gustoso manner of colouring, with a chiaro scuro, broad, and as the Italians say, piazzato .18 The style of design, and the naked, are infinitely more noble, and more in the historical character, than he generally has them. Of all the works I have seen of Guercino, this is what does most honour to his character.

The two bronze equestrian figures of Alexander, and Ranusio Farnese19 are very good, and also the bronze basso relievos 20on the pedestal shew much taste of design, invention, or composition. There are some singularities*21 in the manner of working those basso relievos, which we will reserve for conversation, as I want to come to matters of more importance.

In the academy of Milan is Raffael's Cartoon (in oiled charcoal, or black chalk) for the school of Athens: 22 there are parts of it not finished, others only in the contorno,23 some few parts of it different from the picture. The head of Diogenes is rather a placid, general sort of a head, without that acute, critical character of face, which he has given to him in the picture. As this cartoon has merit enough to pretend to be original, the above particulars incline me to think that it is undoubtedly so.

There is a piece of an admirable cartoon by Julio Romano of a battle.24 Also a drawing of Michael Angelo, for the angle of the Capella Sistina, of the brazen serpent.25 It is outlined with a pen, and washed with bistre26 and white. Angelo's powers in the naked all are agreed upon; but there is besides in this drawing, an admirable conduct in the grouping and composing the figures; and a general effect, and broad piazzato manner of chiaro scuro, which I could hardly have believed, had I not seen this drawing, notwithstanding I had seen the picture.27

There is here28 also a holy family, &c. by Bernardo Lovino, in which the pleasing sweetness in the heads of the Christ, the Virgin, and the S. Anna, deserve every commendation,29 and is not inferior to Leonardo da Vinci himself, whose scholar he was. As to Da Vinci, there is here of him, a half figure of S. John Baptist, a bust of Christ, and a portrait of the Duchess Beatrice.30 In the sacristy of S. Celso, is the S. Anna, Madonna, &c. of Da Vinci: it is a copy by Salaio; 31 the great sweetness of character, the roundness, and great relievo, breadth of effect, deep thinking and gusto, in those pictures, verify what Vasari says, that Leonardo was the pillar and foundation of the perfection that was given to art in the cinque cento. 32 Giorgione might well have drawn from this source his strength of relievo and shadowing, and Raffael his pleasing sweetness, expression, precision, and truth of nature; and though all those perfections do not exist together in any single work, yet they might be well collected from his works in general.

As to his picture of the Last Supper,33 which has made such a noise in the world, the account I have to give you about it is as follows; when I came into the Reffettorio, I found a scaffold erected, which on ascending, I saw one half of the picture covered by a great cloth; on examining the other part that was uncovered, I found the skin of colour, which composed the picture, to be all cracked into little squares of about the eighteenth of an inch over, which were for the most part in their edges loosened from the wall and curling up—however nothing was materially lost. I saw that the picture had been formerly repaired in some few places; yet as this was not much, and as the other parts were untouched, there was nothing to complain of. The wonderful truth and variety of the expressions, so well described by Vasari and Rubens,34 and the admirable finesse of finish and relievo taken notice of by Armenini35 were still remaining. Whilst I was examining this part of the picture, two gentlemen came up the scaffold and drew aside the cloth which covered the other half, which to my great horror and astonishment was repainted. One of those men seemed to be at great pains to shew the vast improvements the picture was receiving by this repainting: but the repainting and the discourse so kindled my indignation, that I was no longer master of myself: What, Sir, said I, is it possible that you do not perceive how this painter, if I can call him a painter, has destroyed the picture in every part on which he has laid his stupid hands? Do not you see that this head is distorted and out of drawing, that there is no longer significance or expression in it, that all his colouring is crude and wants accord? Do, Sir, open your eyes and compare it with the other half of the picture which he has not as yet buried under his cursed colours. He answered me that this was only a dead colour,36 and the painter was to go over it a second time. O confusion, said I, so much the worse; if he has thus lost his way whilst he was immediately going over the lines and colours of Leonardo's work, what will become of him when he has no longer any guide, and is left blind and abandoned to his own ignorance: and turning myself to two friars of the convent who stood by, fathers, said I, this picture and the painter of it has suffered much by the ignorance of your order. It was whitewashed over some years ago, it has been again hurt in washing off the white, and now you have got a beast to paint another picture upon it, who knows no more of the matter than you do yourselves; there was no occasion for thus covering it over with new colours; it might be easily secured in those parts that are loosening from the wall, and it would stand probably as long as your order will. The friar told me that he did not understand those matters, and that he spoke but very little Italian, that he was Irish, and that it was by the order of the Count de Firmian,37 who was secretary of state, that this picture was repainted, and that the convent had no authority and had given no order for it. Indeed then countryman said I, the world will be very little obliged to Count Fermian; it were to be wished, and it will be for the interest and honour of your convent, if you can prevail upon the count to spare at least what is remaining of the picture and take down the scaffold immediately." 38

There is in this church of the Dominicans the Christ crowned with thorns by Titian;39 it is certainly in the number of his very best pictures. All that is admirable in Titian's character is to be found in this picture, and it is in excellent preservation.

In S. Celso there is a good picture of Paris Bordone,40 the tone of colouring in the landscape and figures is as usual very Titianesque. There is in the Reffettorio of the church, a large picture of Abraham, Melchisadeck, &c. by Paolo Lomazzo, a man famous for his writings upon art.41 One sees in it that he knew every thing and imitated every thing; there is Raffael, Da Vinci, Titian, and every body to be found in it, and yet it is good for little: it is a mere hateful caput mortuum42 without perfection or worth of any one kind.

In Turin I saw the royal collection of pictures, but, except a picture or two of Guido, which I did not like,43 all the rest are Flemish and Dutch, Rubens's, Vandyke's, Tenier's, Rembrandt, Scalken, &c.44 They are without the pales45 of my church, and though I will not condemn them, yet I must hold no intercourse with them. God help you, Barry, said I, where is the use of your hair-breadth niceties, your antiques,46 and your, &c. ?—Behold the hand-writing upon the wall against you; in the country to which you are going, pictures of lemon peels, oysters, and tricks of colour, and other baubles, are in as much request, as they are here.

I am now in Paris, and expect with the blessing of God to be over with you on the heels of my letter. I will just look over the things here, and will bring you accounts about them in my pocket. I say nothing to you of Savoy and the Alps; the country was no longer to be found, all was snow, and sleet, and misery. My head was disturbed and clogged with the drams and the wine with which I was obliged to fill myself in order to thaw the blood of my veins. I am, dear sirs, whilst I live, as I should be,

Yours and the family's,