Carlo Dolci, “The Adoration of the Shepherds” (c. 1630s), oil on copper, 10 3/5 x 7 2/5 inches, Brussels, private collection

You didn’t know you wanted to go to an exhibition of Carlo Dolci paintings, but you do. Dolci, whose name, with a little punctuation (“Carlo, Dolci!”), sounds like someone ordering dessert in an Italian restaurant, painted mostly conventional religious subjects, but with such ardor and porcelain perfection that a room full of them – now on view at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College — will turn you into an enthusiast.

Dolci (1616-1686), like Michelangelo and Botticelli 150 years before him, worked in Florence in the employ of the Medici family. More than mere merchant power brokers, as they were in the 15th century, the Medici now enjoyed the status of Grand Dukes with an international profile. Florence itself, however, had become an artistic backwater. Even in Rome, the innovative energy generated by Annibale Carracci and Caravaggio earlier in the century was dissipating; in Florence, painting had calcified into a pompous, idealized naturalism that relied heavily on lush flesh and plentiful drapery.

Within this context, Dolci’s paintings stand out for their enamel-like finish, strong coloring, and subtle lighting. Eschewing the painterly — it is hard to believe that, even if geographically distant, he is a near-exact contemporary of Rembrandt (1606-1669) — Dolci creates surfaces that are so softly fine-grained and meticulous that they could have been painted by the sighs of angels.

Carlo Dolci, “Self-Portrait” (1674) (via Wikipedia)

Dolci’s “Self Portrait” (1674) stands sentry at the beginning of the exhibition. Peering intently through a pair of eyeglasses at an unseen canvas, brush in hand, he is wearing a light beard and a wide-brimmed hat (despite his lack of irony, was Dolci the first hipster artist?). But this self-portrait is just part of the painting: an image on a sheet of paper held in the hand of yet another Dolci, this one hatless, with a clean linen collar and a doleful expression.

It is the peculiar effect of this painting, like many of Dolci’s canvases, that the viewer’s attention is drawn away from what is ostensibly the main subject in favor of more ravishing subordinate elements. In “Self Portrait,” the painted Dolci occupies vastly more real estate than the drawn Dolci, yet the eye seeks the (painted) drawing as if it were a cupcake next to a cracker.

Of course, the eye naturally goes to a more brightly illuminated area and there is manifestly greater pleasure in watching a man intent in his work rather than looking at you as if you have disappointed him, yet again. But a similar effect appears in “Mary Magdalene” (1640s-1650s), the totality of which, though beautiful, is less innately engrossing than the parts. Like bee among flowers, the eye flits from detail to detail: the connection between the saint’s nose and her red upper lip; the dark fall of hair against her white neck; her pinkish fingers splayed over a richly red and blue robe; the gauzy golden scarf draped over her shoulder.

Carlo Dolci, “The Virgin and Child” (late 1640s), oil on canvas, 44 2/5 x 39 1/3 inches, Greenville, The Bob Jones University Museum & Gallery

In a series of images of the Madonna and Child, it is Dolci’s use shell gold — gold leaf ground to a powder and applied like paint — that upstages the central motif. The haloes are quasi-astronomical phenomena, a haze of gold around their heads. In the Detroit version, Mary’s halo is visualized like one of Saturn’s rings, with denser, brighter lines apparently casting a shadow on the golden cloud immediately next to it, which then explodes subtly from the aureole in a series of lightly traced zigzagging lines.

Elsewhere it is the lighting that absorbs the attention. In the “Adoration of the Shepherds” (1630s), a tiny (10.5 x 7.5-inch) painting on copper, Jesus is pink-kneed and radiant, accepting the adulation of a shepherd who kisses his foot while Mary dotes from above. Yet this conventional scene seems to fade away when you see St. Joseph, kneeling in the foreground, his head inclined toward the Christ child. His face, under a shower of powdery white light, is idealized but not stereotyped, and effects a powerful sense of a careworn man determined to do right by one of the world’s weirdest parenting arrangements.

Donatello, “David” (c. 1440s), bronze (via Wikipedia)

Himself a pious man, Dolci seems to have been most at home when depicting figures in prayer. His “David and Goliath” (1680), for instance, feels a bit too caught up in David’s outfit, with its dainty smears of blood from his encounter with Goliath and his chic cheetah-skin slingshot caddy. The painting drains all of the sexual tension out of the scene, so effectively exploited by Donatello and Caravaggio.

The sex emerges — or maybe submerges — in “St. Domenic in Prayer.” (1645-46). Bracketed by a scene of earthly malfeasance on the left (bandits and murderers) and purgatory (demons and sinners) on the right, Domenic has rushed into the privacy of a cave and stripped to his waist for an urgent session of self-mortification, his halo gleaming in the dark.

Dolci’s particular gift is to make a conventional scene more intense, like the “Ecce Homo” (date) with Christ’s blood rendered as bright carmine globules and his beard and hair heightened with glimmers of shell gold. But “St. Domenic in Prayer” and other paintings are evidence that his rare forays into innovation are also compelling. The “Sleeping Young Saint John with Elizabeth and Zachariah” (1670s) almost turns a devotional scene into a genre painting with the toddler John the Baptist sacked out on some red drapery, his reed cross falling out of his fingers as he sleeps. “The Marriage of Sarah and Tobias” (1649) depicts a young couple marrying, nested together in an oval frame, the entire composition as intricately interlocked as their hands and as complexly decorative as the beads on Sarah’s dress.

Overall, you get the sense from these works that Carlo Dolci might have been a nice man, an impression enhanced by a sketchbook on view in which he drew pictures for and with some of his seven daughters. Whatever the actual state of his soul, his paintings offer a vision of a better, prettier, shinier world. I would recommend that you accept it. It’s nice to take a break from all the ugly.

The Medici’s Painter: Carlo Dolci and 17th-Century Florence continues at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College (106 Central Street, Wellesley, Massachusetts) through July 9. The exhibition will travel to the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, where it will be on view August 24, 2017, through January 14, 2018.

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Natasha Seaman

Natasha Seaman is a professor of art history at Rhode Island College with a specialty in 17th-century Dutch painting.