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 the first galleries of the exhibition in Washington, two small paintings on copper, of Saint Sebastian Succored by Two Angels and a later variation on the theme of The Dead Christ Mourned by Two Angels, combine a monumental sense of form with powerful emotion, particularly in evoking compassion for the sufferings of Saint Sebastian and Christ. Some crepuscular landscapes are remarkably idiosyncratic and mysterious, especially the Landscape by Moonlight with its coach glimpsed behind trees in the foreground. The four paintings of the evangelists, from Dresden, are ingenious in the new ways in which they suggest pictorially the attributes that usually identify the saints. Mark’s lion appears in the form of an inkwell standing on a shelf. Saint Luke, who by legend was an artist, is portrayed contemplating one of his paintings, of which we see only a part of the back of the stretched canvas, an unexpectedly realistic detail for the period, and a witty one.3 Apollo Flaying Marsyas is surely a response to Titian’s powerful late painting of the same subject, in which the faun who had the temerity to challenge Apollo to a singing contest is flayed alive.4 Guercino imbues the Venetian’s tremulous vision with a more familiar structure and a greater solidity of form.

A series of impressive pictures follows, culminating in the altarpiece of Saint William Receives the Monastic Habit, one of the summits of Baroque art. At the center of a rather crowded composition is the vigorously modeled head of Saint William of Aquitaine, a knight in armor who, having renounced war to enter a monastery, has just been handed a monk’s cowl in the presence of a church dignitary. Floating above are the heavenly Madonna and Child, while a hovering angel tries to direct their attention to the scene on the ground. The scene is described with rich gleaming colors, applied with a remarkable fluidity and accented by flickering lights and shadows. Some of the details, such as the ecclesiastic’s lavishly impastoed mitre, are stunning for the sheer physical impression they make.


The effect on Guercino’s contemporaries may be judged by the illogical comment of C. C. Malvasia, Guercino’s late-seventeenth-century biographer, that “this is the painting that astounds everyone and frightens all others.” It retained its power for, among others, Stendhal, who was passionately interested in Guercino and sought out his works when he was in Italy between 1797 and 1815 (ironically the Saint William was then on view in Napoleon’s Louvre). The image of this altarpiece recurs—in a reversed sense—in the scene in Le Rouge et le noir when Julien Sorel exchanges his seminarian’s garb for that of a soldier.5

How did an autodidact in the backwater of Cento achieve such a brilliant painting as the Saint William? Two years before it was painted Ludovico Carracci said simply that Guercino was “a phenomenon of nature and a wonder capable of astounding all who see his works.” 6 Ludovico, along with his cousins Annibale and Agostino, was the founder of the new Baroque style of painting in northern Italy. Thus one of the most famous artists of the day generously acknowledged Guercino’s genius.

That Guercino was self-taught worked in his favor. He was trained by hacks and not educated by a master, whose imposing style might have checked his nascent originality. He grasped the achievements of the Carracci—above all the significance of a clarity of composition—and while maintaining a careful distance from their overwhelming presence, he always acknowledged a debt to them. He said he considered Ludovico’s altarpiece for the Capuchin order at Cento his “Cara cinna“—a pun referring to both the Carracci and cara zinna, or “dear tit.” The young artist was of course very near Bologna, where the Carracci’s attempt to reform contemporary painting was carried out in their Accademia degli Incamminati. The Accademia emphasized renewed study of the painters of the high Renaissance, who had been on the whole neglected by the late-sixteenth-century Mannerists, the necessity of basing paintings on preliminary drawings from nature, and a fresh sense of clarity and dynamism. Yet Guercino resisted the lure of this school while grasping its guiding dictum—study from the live model. In fact, Guercino opened his own drawing academy in Cento, which in 1617 had twenty-three students.

The other great foundation of Guercino’s achievement is the art of Ferrara. Cento is almost halfway between Ferrara and Bologna. In the early seventeenth century, though, it was under the sovereignty of the Este family of Ferrara, and to this day the town in its reserved character seems to have more in common with Ferrara than with Bologna. Ferrara was particularly sympathetic to Venetian art. The Ferrarese duke, Alfonso d’Este had commissioned Bellini’s Feast of the Gods and Titian’s three mythologies to decorate his studiolo. Ferrarese painting is characterized by its rarified poetry, agitated mood, and charged use of color. The best known Ferrarese cinquecento master was Dosso Dossi, but Scarsellino and Carlo Bononi were also important influences on Guercino. His painting shares their flashing colors and idiosyncratic imagination.

In 1621 in Rome, Guercino painted for the Ludovisi family an exuberant fresco in which Aurora drives her horses across the ceiling of a seventeenth-century casino, or pleasure pavilion. In 1934, the prominent art historian Roberto Longhi wrote that it showed Guercino’s dependence on Dosso Dossi:

Night sleeps, producing in her dreams wonders like the last soothsayer of Dosso; and through the crumbling arch…blows the hot breath of old Ferrara.7

Other art historians have played down Guercino’s Ferrarese heritage, partly because Ferrarese art has long been considered a byway. As early as the sixteenth century, Giorgio Vasari slighted it when he did not ignore it. He originated the view, continued by the late-seventeenth-century historian Giovanni Pietro Bellori and others, in which Italian art history traces a direct path from central Italy to Venice and then to the founding of the Baroque in Bologna and Rome, and this version of history persists in the recent exhibitions. In this scheme, Ferrara has no place and Longhi’s view is an exception. 8

In recent decades, also, the understanding of Guercino has become much affected by the ambitious cultural politics of Bologna, the city that organized both the exhibition in Washington and the previous one in 1968.9 The Bolognese claim that Guercino’s art derived almost entirely from the reform of painting that went on in their city during the seventeenth century. However, while he learned much from the Carracci, Guercino—particularly in a work like the Saint William—should perhaps be perceived as the ultimate triumph of Ferrarese painting.


When in Rome, Guercino was occupied with secular fresco paintings and a huge altarpiece for St. Peter’s. His wall paintings, including the remarkable Aurora, are today all in private buildings and inaccessible. The altarpiece, whose unusual subject is The Burial and Assumption of Saint Petronilla, is over twenty-two feet high and is now immured in the Capitoline Museum in Rome.10 None of these works can travel, and so the most prominent moment of the artist’s career is barely represented in the exhibition. This underscores a fundamental problem with many monographic shows today: they give the public a partial and often misleading view of the artist.11

In the years immediately after his return from Rome, Guercino’s art underwent a gradual transformation. The forms become more defined, the light more even, the compositions less daring in their use of space, and the figures more idealized. The later pictures, with their exquisite colors, are certainly less spirited and more relaxed. When their subject corresponds to this feeling of languor, as in The Death of Cleopatra of 1648, from the Palazzo Rosso, Genoa, the result is very moving. But when they deal with any dramatic action or narrative, like the Samson and Delilah, they too often collapse into silliness. How can one explain this shift in his style?

Guercino himself seems to have been aware of a slackening in the power of his work. The historian G.B. Passeri describes the visit the sixty-nine-year-old painter made with some students to the church where the Saint William was installed. On being effusively complimented on the painting, Guercino replied, “But that was when the pot was really boiling!”12

Most of the commentators on Guercino have tried to account for the change in his work. As early as 1657, one asserted that the artist was trying to satisfy patrons who found parts of his earlier works obscure, particularly the facial expressions that are partly hidden in the shadows.13 However, a comprehensive historical explanation was not attempted until Sir Denis Mahon’s Studies in Seicento Art and Theory, published in 1947, in which the leading modern expert on Guercino postulates that Guercino when in Rome was deeply affected by the advocates of a classicizing taste, in particular by the views of Monsignor Giovanni Battista Agucchi. This art-loving secretary to Gregory XV maintained in his Trattato della Pittura that painting must improve on nature by idealizing its subjects and taking for its models antique statues and the work of Raphael.

Only recently has Mahon’s view been challenged. In the Washington catalog Sybille Ebert-Schifferer, director of the Museum of Darmstadt, suggests that Guercino’s later style reflects a study of the science of rhetoric and the meaning of gesture, subjects that were certainly of interest to some of the artist’s learned patrons.14 The difficulty with the suggestions of both Mahon and Ebert-Schifferer is that there is no evidence that Guercino himself had any interest in formal artistic theory. In fact, the opposite might seem to be the case. In 1652, Pietro da Cortona, then perhaps the leading artist in Italy, sought his opinion of a treatise on painting of which he was the coauthor. Guercino responded that he had no time to read it.

It seems clear that around the 1630s painting in Italy, including Guercino’s, began to move toward a brightening of color and an idealization of forms, along the lines advocated by Monsignor Agucchi. In Guercino’s case, however, some specific influences may have acted as catalysts. The first is the Bolognese painter Guido Reni (1575–1642), with whom Guercino seems to have considered himself to be in a complex competition, since at least the time of his Aurora fresco, which he conceived to rival Reni’s 1614 version of the same subject painted for the Borghese family casino. Guercino was often compared, to his disadvantage, to the older painter who dominated the Bolognese art scene after the Carracci, and who always commanded higher prices. Guercino’s art after his return to Rome could perhaps be seen as a gradual and grudging emulation of Reni’s lighter palette and simplicity of composition. Reni himself reportedly boasted around 1640 to a group of Neapolitan monks that Guercino “fishes my ideas.” 15 The rivalry ended only with Reni’s death, when Guercino moved permanently to Bologna and, in a striking act of identification, completed one of Reni’s unfinished pictures.16

In Guercino’s later works we can also see much evidence of workshop collaboration, evidently in response to increasing demand for his work. The rubbery dragon accompanying Saint Margaret in the canvas of 1644 from San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome, is by an assistant, as are the sausage-like warriors in the background of The Intervention of the Sabine Women. In contrast to the tightly constructed earlier works, these compositions appear to have been divided into sections that were each allocated to particular assistants in the bottega. Increasingly, it seems, Guercino’s helpers worked on the backgrounds and other secondary parts of his paintings, trying to fill the many commissions for his work.

A third possible explanation, one that has never been mentioned so far as I know, is that the pivotal period for the change in Guercino’s art, around 1630, coincided with a devastating outbreak of bubonic plague in northern Italy.17 The pestilence swept east, cresting in Venice in the fall of 1631. The worst moment in Bologna was the spring of 1630, when, according to some estimates, a quarter of the city’s population perished.18 One of Reni’s greatest paintings, the Palla della Pesta (the Plague Altarpiece) was made in 1630 as an expression of gratitude for deliverance from the disease, but there is little overt response to this disaster in Guercino’s art.19 Yet it is worth noticing that certain aspects of his later pictures are very similar to those claimed by the American art historian Millard Meiss to have typified Tuscan art after the Black Death.20 These include a more frontal and straightforward presentation, with less emphasis on recession into space, and a rejection of dynamic forms in favor of something more static and iconic. No doubt one can find such tendencies in Guercino’s art before 1630, but perhaps they were confirmed by the pestilence. The plague, whether in the fourteenth or the seventeenth century, often seems to have elicited conservative and even archaizing responses.

Ultimately one must see Guercino’s painting before 1630, with its turbulent and vigorous energy, as a young man’s style, as he put it, “when the pot was really boiling.” But he could not, to continue his own metaphor, make the transition to a steady, intense heat. Unlike contemporaries such as Rembrandt or Poussin, Guercino was unable to build on his youthful genius to accomplish something greater.


Guercino was an indefatigable draughtsman who preserved many of his thousands of drawings. Two exhibitions that have recently been touring North America give an idea of their richness, and David Stone’s catalog is particularly welcome for its perceptive and detailed analyses, which often differ from those of Mahon and his associates. The largest collection of Guercino’s drawings is that of Queen Elizabeth II, which has recently been superbly catalogued and of which a selection is currently on view at the Drawing Center in New York City.21 It includes some of Guercino’s best known sheets, including preparatory sketches for engravings, genre subjects, capricci, and caricatures apparently done for his own amusement. Most interesting are the pure landscapes, which were evidently drawn in the studio but can, with only a few strokes of the pen, give a memorable impression of life in the Emilian countryside.

These landscapes and Guercino’s more finished drawings were wildly popular after his death, particularly in England (the Windsor collection was acquired by George III). They were often imitated, copied, and even, from a very early date, faked.22 Interest was so great that they were widely reproduced in prints, often in the company of older and more revered Italian masters such as Raphael.23

Now that the exhibitions are concluding, two related questions arise. Have the effort, expense, and risk of physical damage to the art been worthwhile? And why the current degree of interest in Guercino? The answer to the first question must be a mixed one. It was gratifying to see a considerable group of his works in America for the first time, just as it was impressive to see the recent show of his drawings at the British Museum.24 However, the major exhibition—especially as seen in Bologna—hardly justified itself, particularly since little effort was made to go beyond the ideas about Guercino that were put forward by Denis Mahon for the exhibition in Bologna of 1968. The present catalog simply reprints with slight revisions his five essays from 1968. Some important paintings have emerged since then, notably the two large and beautiful canvases painted by Guercino in 1619 for Cardinal Serra: the Saint Sebastian Succored, which was in the Washington exhibition, and the Samson Arrested by the Philistines (which turned up in Beirut, owned by Lady Cochrane, a descendant of the Serra family; it is now in the Metropolitan Museum and cannot be lent.)25 Lacking, however, were both the new material and the significant new approach to the artist that would have justified so large an exhibition.

This raises the second question: Why is so much attention now being devoted to Guercino? One has the impression that it has much to do with Sir Denis Mahon. This historian, connoisseur, and collector, now eighty-two years old, has done more than anyone else to advance our knowledge of Guercino. After his early interest in art history was encouraged by Kenneth Clark at Oxford, Mahon audited the lectures at the Courtauld Institute in 1933–1934 of the German-Jewish émigré scholar Nikolaus Pevsner, one of the few people anywhere then interested in the seicento. (Pevsner, the brother of the sculptors Antoine Pevsner and Naum Gabo, is today probably best known for producing the monumental Buildings of England series.) Inspired by Pevsner, Mahon, the heir to a banking fortune, resolved to study an artist who, as it happens, kept a detailed account book. The result was Studies in Seicento Art and Theory, published by the Warburg Institute in 1947, which is still remarkable for its understanding of contemporary artistic thinking and its ambitious attempt to explain changes in style partly by taking account of the writings on art of the period. Mahon not only provided the detailed catalogs for the 1968 Bologna exhibition but has done the main work of sorting out Guercino’s immense corpus of drawings; he is also listed as “scientific adviser” in preparing the catalogue raisonné of the paintings.26

Mahon has also made substantial contributions to the understanding of other seventeenth-century artists, such as Poussin, while at the same time amassing a collection of Guercino paintings and drawings that would be the envy of any museum in Italy or elsewhere.27 He has labored hard to preserve the British cultural heritage (for which he was given his knighthood) and has implied that most of his collection will be left to his country’s museums. Italians acknowledge that he has reawakened them to the significance of Guercino, and the exhibitions of the last two years seem as much an homage to Sir Denis as to the artist from Cento.

This Issue

July 16, 1992