Barbieri, nicknamed “Guercino” [he had a bad eye, and Guercino means
“squinter” in Italian], was born in Cento a small village in Emilia in
1591. After having worked in the atelier of a “gouache painter” in his
native town, sometime around 1600 he moved to Bologna to work with the
perspective wall painter Paolo Zagnoni. In 1607 Guercino returned to
Cento to work with Benedetto Gennari. Presumably, after just one year
as an assistant, he was actively assisting Gennari on various projects.
The canon Antonio Mirandola was attracted by the young Guercino’s
paintings and became his sponsor and procured him some commissions such
as the Triumph of All Saints for the church of Santo Spirito in
The following year, still in the same town, he frescoed a room in the
home of Alberto Provenzale and then he decorated the Pannini residence.
In 1616 Guercino founded the first “Academy of the Nude” in Cento,
where he taught drawing from live models. In 1617-1618 he worked in
Bologna for the archbishop Alessandro Ludovisi. A brief stay in Venice
in 1618 gave him an opportunity to learn more about Titian’s and
Bassano’s use of color. He spent most of 1619 in Ferrara working for
the pontifical legate, Cardinal Jacopo Serra who encouraged him to
paint some of his most dynamic and monumental works. In 1620 he
completed his first altarpiece for a church in Bologna, St. William Receiving the Cowl. In 1621 he moved to Rome where, during the same year, painted the frescoes of Aurora and Fame in Cardinal Ludovisi’s residence. He also worked for Cardinal Scipione Borghese and painted the Glory of Saint Chrysogonus. In Saint Peter’s he painted the colossal Burial and Assumption of Saint Petronilla,
one of the milestones of Baroque art. The sudden death of Pope Gregory
XV on 8 July 1623 and hence the loss of his main protector and patron
prompted the artist to leave for Cento where he resumed working
locally. Aside from a few months that he spent in Piacenza (1626-1627),
where he completed the decorations of the cathedral dome that was left
unfinished by Morazzone who had died, Guercino spent most of the time
between 1623 and 1642 in Cento where he directed a flourishing atelier
with an international clientele. In 1643 he moved to Bologna. He
replaced Guido Reni who had died a few months earlier, as leader of the
movement, as it were and took over may of his clients and uncompleted
projects. He died on 22 December 1666 and was buried in the church of
San Salvatore in Bologna.
Guercino: the works
Susanna and the Elders
This extraordinary painting is one of the documents of the transformation that made Guercino – who up to then had been a talented young representative of the Emilian school, between Ludovico Carracci and Carlo Bononi - one of the greatest artists of his era. The painting was done in 1617, along with others for Cardinal Alessandro Ludovisi, archbishop of Bologna. That same year Ludovico Carracci described Guercino as a “freak of nature” in one of his letters. Although it is denied by Mahon to whom we owe the rediscovery of the artist and the greatest numbers of studies on his works, Caravaggio’s strong influence on the old man in the foreground is undeniable. However, the issue remains open due to the fact that the painting precedes Guercino’s Roman sojourn and, apparently, his knowledge of Merisi’s works.Iconography
Landscape with Bathing Women
This enchanting landscape that is comparable to the background of Et in Arcadia Ego (Galleria Nazionale di Arte Antica, Palazzo Corsini) is a surprising example of modernity in Guercino’s art. The fluidity of the ductus and lively chromatics, typical of his youth, create the scene of women bathing in a landscape similar to those by Poelenburgh or Elsheimer. The women may be Diana and her companions, or as some who already see a nineteenth century flair, almost à la Courbet, would interpret it, ordinary women one afternoon in the Emilian countryside.
Fame with Honor and Virtue
This ceiling fresco was commissioned by Cardinal Ludovisi, nephew of Pope Gregory XV. He had summoned the artist to Rome with the intention of having him decorate the Loggia of the Benedictions in St. Peter’s Basilica. Along with the decorations of the lower floor of the Casino Ludovisi, this is one of the first projects Guercino undertook during his sojourn in Rome (1621-1623). His decorations in the two rooms of the residence that Ludovisi had purchased from Cardinal Del Monte were meant to celebrate the pope’s family and to show the Roman “connoisseurs” Guercino’s extraordinary talents as a master of color. Guercino worked with Agostino Tassi who painted the architectural elements.
Magdalen and Two Angels
Giovanni Battista Pasqualini made engravings of many of Guercino’s works. This painting was done for the church of Santa Maria Maddalena delle Convertite al Corso in Rome, and was admired by many seventeenth century artists, from Mola to Van Dyck. Although the palette is still typical of the artist’s early period, with its magnificent use of petroleum blue and white, the painting reveals an unusual compositional stability that could be the result of his studies of antiquities during his stay in Rome.
The Burial of Saint Petronilla
This large altarpiece, done for St. Peter’s Basilica (in the eighteenth century it was replaced with a copy in mosaic) is most probably the greatest of Guercino’s Roman paintings. The contrast between the intense naturalism of the bottom scene, showing the burial (according to some sources it is actually the disinterment) of the martyred saint, and the idealized composure of the upper scene that portrays Petronilla in heaven before Christ, is the artist’s tool for emphasizing the relationship between the two moments of the story. There is the earthly moment, described in stylistic and compositional tools that involve the viewer, and the heavenly moment in which the faithful are urged to recognize the divine vision.Iconography
Presentazione di Gesù al Tempio
Guericino painted this picture for his friend and patron Bartolomeo Fabri upon his return from Rome. This, perhaps, is the painting that best reveals Guercino’s relationship with Zampieri: in the compositional structure, the architectural background and the female figure in the right foreground. It is interesting to note that, in 1622, a year before this painting was done, Giovanni Battista Pasqualini, whose worked was closely tied to Barbieri’s, had engraved a copy of one of Domenichino’s frescoes with scenes from the Life of St. Cecilia in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi. This painting was purchased by Sir Denis Mahon, the English scholar who rediscovered Guercino in the XX century.Iconography
Venus, Mars and Cupid
Mentioned by Malvasia and in the artist’s own Libro dei conti [ledger], this painting was done for the Duke of Modena, Franceso I. Guercino had painted a portrait of the duke and his wife some time earlier. It is important to note the power with which the figures of Venus and Cupid directly attract the viewer’s attention. The bow and arrow pointing towards the observer were an innovation that Guercino developed, albeit with a different style, when he decorated the ceiling of Palazzo Lancellotti in Rome.Iconography
Semiramis Receiving Word of the Revolt of Babylon
Sir Denis Mahon recognized this painting as the one described by Malvasia who dated it in 1624. The theme is taken from Valerius Maximus. In its compositional simplicity and the new precision in the depiction of the queen’s luxurious garments, it is typical of the transition that characterized this phase of the artist’s career, from his bursting, youthful naturalism to a colder, mature classicism.
The Resurrected Christ Appears to the Virgin
In this painting Guercino, by now a full-fledged classicist, reached one of the zeniths of his career. The recalling of Guido Reni’s models with which the painter from Cento clearly competed during this period dominates the beautiful figure of Christ who finds his mother after the Resurrection. The painting was done for the Compagnia del Santissimo Nome di Dio of Cento. It was highly praised by eighteenth century travelers and written about by one of the most famous of all, Goethe.Iconography
This painting was done for the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome that belonged to the order of the Canonci regolari di San Salvatore. The order’s mother church was in Bologna and Father Antonio Mirandola, man of letters, friend and Guercino’s first supporter belonged to the order. Mirandola’s probable intervention could explain why the fee for this painting, as entered in Guercino’s ledger (Libro dei Conti) in 1644 was lower than others.Iconography
The upper part of this altarpiece depicting God the Father is in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna. It was painted for the church of the Sisters of Jesus and Mary in Bologna (the payment is recorded in the Libro dei Conti, the artist’s ledger, in 1646). The composition and the poses reveal a fully classicist Guercino very close to Domenichino. However, some passages still show considerable smoothness and agility that recall his earlier works.Iconography
Madonna with Child and Saint Bruno
This large altarpiece was painted for the Carthusian monks of Bologna who, according to Scannelli in IlMicrocosmo della Pittura (1657), originally had asked Guercino to complete a piece already sketched out by Guido Reni. Guercino, however, refused stating that the artist had to work independently on his own paintings from first to last.Iconography