The Genius of Cento

Guercino: Master Painter of the Baroque 15–May 17, 1992

an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, March

Guercino: Master Painter of the Baroque

catalog of the exhibition by Denis Mahon, with contributions by Andrea Emiliani and Diane De Grazia and Sybille Ebert-Schifferer
National Gallery of Art, 315 pp., $39.95 (paper)

Guercino: Drawings from Windsor Castle

an exhibition at The Drawing Center, New York, June 2–August 1, 1992

Guercino: Drawings from Windsor Castle

catalog of the exhibition and Nicholas Turner
National Gallery of Art, 144 pp., $29.95 (paper)

Guercino: Master Draftsman, Works from North American Collections

catalog by David M. Stone
Harvard University Art Museums/Nuova Alfa Editoriale, 254 pp., $30.00 (paper)

Guercino (1591–1661): Drawings From Dutch Collections

catalog by Carel van Tuyll Van Serooskerken
Gary Schwartz, Sdu/University of Washington Press, 204 pp., $25.00 (paper)


Perhaps no other artist, excepting the Renaissance painter Giovanni Antonio Bazzi called Il Sodoma (the Sodomite), has been as unfortunately nicknamed as Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called Guercino, or the “little squinter.”1 In spite of his defective eye Guercino “was a great draftsman and a felicitous colorist,” to quote Ludovico Carracci, one of the most eminent artists of his day. This judgment has recently been confirmed in a series of exhibitions celebrating the fourth centennial of his birth, at the Louvre, in London, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Ottawa, Cleveland, Bologna, Rome, Genoa, Frankfurt, Rotterdam, Fort Worth, New York, and recently at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. Still, after all this attention, perplexing questions remain about Guercino’s work, particularly in the way his painting suddenly seemed to change its character and become less interesting in the middle of his career.

Guercino was born in 1591 in Emilia in Cento, whose main piazza is today named for him, and he was deeply attached to his native town. After working as little more than a house painter, at sixteen he became an assistant to Benedetto Gennari, an obscure local artist. Quickly recognizing the youth’s talents, Gennari took him into partnership and together they formed a family “company” (Guercino’s sister married Gennari’s son) which continued through the next generation, well into the eighteenth century. Around 1613, Guercino was discovered by Antonio Mirandola, a cultivated church canon, who provided him with his first major commission, promoted his art in Bologna, and encouraged him to broaden his experience—for instance by visiting Venice in 1618.

By the end of the second decade of the seicento, Guercino was firmly established, working on major pictures for the papal legate to Ferrara, Cardinal Jacopo Serra, while juggling requests for works from such imposing customers as the Duke of Mantua. Guercino was most reluctant to leave Cento and he spent the first fifty-one years of his life there, except for two years, starting in 1621, when a major patron, Cardinal Alessandro Ludovisi of Bologna, assumed the papacy as Gregory XV and Guercino followed him to Rome. On the Pope’s death in 1623, the artist returned to Cento, where, with a studio of helpers, he ran a carefully organized business, painting works for, among others, Charles I of England. He declined an offer of employment in Paris from Maria de Medici. Perhaps no previous Italian artist had so successfully established himself in such an obscure place, a little town that was not an artistic center or the seat of a prince’s court. In 1642, however, he moved to Bologna, where he worked continually until his death in 1666. He was a lifelong bachelor, and had a pet cat who woke him up in the morning.2

One comes away from the recent exhibitions of his work with the conviction that until about 1630 Guercino was among the most astonishing and original artists of his time, not only in Italy, but in the Europe of Rembrandt, Rubens, Poussin, and Velázquez. In…

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