The main principles characterizing it had taken shape around 1600, when the foundations of two trends were laid in Rome – those of the Caravaggism and Academicism, which to a large extent determined the development of European painting in the first third of the 17th century. The Caravaggisti, who sought their inspiration in the work of Caravaggio, proclaimed that the main principle behind their art was the need to turn to life's Truth. The representatives of the other trend – Academicism, as propagated by the Carracci brothers in Bologna – stressed the unshakeable nature of the canons of classical art, enriched through the practice of drawing from life.
The picture Crowning with Thorns by the Roman painter Tommaso Salini can serve as an example of the first trend – that of the Caravaggisti – with its interest in a dramatic subject, typical of that trend. The subject is portrayed laconically, with expressive use of light focusing the beholder's attention on the key figures.
The trend embodied in the Bologna Academy is represented here by the works of Guido Reni - Joseph and the Wife of Potiphar and The Adoration of the Shepherds – and those of Guercino "Saint Gerome listening to the Trumpeting Angel, Allegory of Faith and Saint Sebastian. In these works great importance is attached to the emotional contact with the beholder, who can thus become a witness to the event depicted before him.
As in the preceding period, the development of Italian art was still being determined by the diverse range of local artistic traditions, inspiring various schools and trends. In the 17th century the painting of Northern Italy (where the Genoese school played a particularly important role) came into its own with dazzling effect. The founder of the Genoese school was Bernardo Strozzi, author of the canvases The Miracle of the Give Loaves and Two Fishes and The Old Coquette. The works of this painter are a good example of how fruitful contacts between artists can be: during his early period Strozzi encountered the work of the Flemish painters Rubens and van Dyck and later, after moving to Venice around 1630, he studied closely the work of Titian and Veronese. Both these sources of inspiration explain the unique combination of emotional conviction and painterly freedom, which embellish all the works of this master from Genoa.
An important contribution to the shaping of artistic traditions of the 17th century was that made by the Roman painter Domenico Feti (David with the Head of Goliath) and the German painter from Oldenburg, Johann Liss (The Punishment of Marsyas), who drew inspiration from the traditions of the Venetian school of the Renaissance period.
The Neapolitan school, distinct on account of its original path of development, is also represented by a number of works. From the political point of view the Neapolitan vice-royalty was subject to the Spanish crown which left its mark on the development of its art. The painting by Bernardo Cavallino The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple, in which are to be found unusual renderings of Academic traditions and works by Andrea Vaccaro distinguished by their sense of drama, bear witness to the diverse nature of the artistic quests of that period.
The small section of this gallery devoted to Spanish painting of the 17th century contains some of the finest works of that national school and these include pictures by Francisco de Zurbarán, Esteban Murillo, Antonio de Pereda and Jusepe de Ribera.