Allegory of Painting and Sculpture (1637), oil on canvas, cm. 114.5 x139 Rome, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica di Palazzo Barberini

From December 16, 2011 to April 29, 2012 – Palazzo Barberini, Rome

The Special Superintendancy of Historical, Artistic and Ethno-Anthropological Heritage and of the Polo Museale of Rome is inaugurating new exposition areas for temporary exhibitions on the ground floor of Palazzo Barberini, with a grand show dedicated to the genius of Francesco Barbieri, known as ‘il Guercino’ (Squinter), one of the major painters of seventeenth Century Italy. He was born and lived in the city of Cento and was also active in Rome between 1621-1623.
Curated by Rosella Vodret and Fausto Gozzi, the Director of The Municipal Art Gallery of Cento, the exhibition is both a significant tribute to Guercino and an homage to the recently deceased Sir Denis Mahon, who, during his century-long life, dedicated a large part of his studies to the painter.
The exhibition is composed of works from museums and collections in Rome and in Cento, as well as from the Cultural Heritage Fund of the Ministry of the Interior. Held in the renovated section of Palazzo Barberini, the exhibition gives us an opportunity to admire an extraordinary body of paintings that provide an overview of the Emilian master’s work. Thirty-six masterpieces cover the entire history of his long artistic journey, providing an ample display of his exhuberant talent. The exhibition brings the artistic development of the artist to light, from his first paintings that reflect the influence of Ferrarese painters such as Ippolito Scarsella (1551-1620) and Carlo Bononi (1569-1632), up to the works linked to the style and ideas derived from Ludovico Carracci.
Guercino’s precocious talent has often been highlighted. It was an innate ability that was immediately recognized even by the undisputed master of the period, Ludovico Carracci, who was much admired by Guercino himself. Carracci recognized a modern propensity towards new trends in the young artist from Cento, through whose art he relived a kind of continuity of his own. The familiar intense blue of the sky is renewed with an entirely new vigour in Guercino’s work. Certain effects in his representations of thunderstorms had never been achieved previously, and were already evident in the early Mystic wedding of Saint Catherine in the presence of Saint Carlo Borromeo, of 1614-15, and in the later canvas Madonna of Ghiara with St Peter, St Carlo Borromeo, an angel and a donor and in Saint Bernard of Siena and Saint Francis of Assisi with the Madonna of Loreto, both executed in 1618 and held in The Municipal Art Gallery of Cento.
After an intense beginning in his native homeland, between 1621-1623 the artist was called to work in Rome under the patronage of the bolognese pope Gregory XV Ludovisi, and his nephew, cardinal Ludovisi. The decorations of Casino Ludovisi, a building and gardens in the vicinity of the Pincio, were probably the first works executed by Guercino in Rome. Here the artist painted the Aurora on the ceiling of the main room on the ground floor, which has been defined as the most surprising of the many versions of this subject in Italian painting. In the corresponding room on the main floor he produced Fame, Honour and Virtue.
The monumental altar-piece, The Burial of Santa Petronilla, is the absolute masterpiece of his roman period. It is housed today in the Capitoline Gallery and a smaller sized version is present in the exhibition. Mahon rightly underlined the importance of this work as a watershed moment between his youthful and more mature works. It represents a change in style which was clearly due to the importance of the commission, the first of a series for St. Peter’s Basilica, which appeared to have urged the artist to switch to a more classical style.
The sudden death of the pope in 1623 and the realisation that he had lost his principal patron and protector were the main reason for Geurcino’s return to Cento. A reflection of the profound change to a more classical and monumental sensibility in the successive works during his roman period are perceptible in St. Luke and in St. Matthew (National Gallery of Ancient Art) from the Barberini collection, which are part of a series of paintings depicting The Four Evangelists.
After his return to Cento, the painter executed paintings requested by distinguished roman buyers, which are still held today in the papal city, and are ascribable to the period of transition (1623-1634) that followed his return to Emilia. This particular stylistic period is well represented by Return of the Prodigal Son (Borghese Gallery), completed around 1627-1628, and by Portrait of Cardinal Bernardino Spada (Rome, Spada Gallery) completed in 1631.

King Saul tries to kill David with a spear (1646), oil on canvas, cm. 147x200 Rome, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica di Palazzo Barberini

uercino’s mature years are characterized by a renewed attention to a more classical manner – particularly after the death of Guido Reni in 1642. This was especially the so with regard to the chromatic spectrum used, which became soft and delicate, and a refined formal elegance and simplicity that brought him to an increased clarity of composition. Expressions of this tendency are seen in Cleopatra before Ottaviano Augusto from the Capitoline Gallery, and the splendid Saul against David, from Palazzo Barberini.