Francesco Barbieri, known as Guercino, was born in Cento in 1591. After his initial training with local painters, his father decided to indulge his talent by having him move to Bologna in 1609. Initially, the young painter’s style was based on a marked naturalism, also due to his study of Dosso Dossi’s Ferrarese painting.
A “miracle to amaze anyone who sees his works”
Ludovico Carracci, who wrote about him in a letter reported by Cesare Malvasia, “he is a great draughtsman and a felicitous colourist: he is a monster of nature and a miracle to amaze those who see his works”, has the merit of supporting Guercino’s naturalism, adapting it to Bolognese culture through the introduction of a marked pictorialism that in him is translated above all into the use of suggestive light effects. These effects can be seen in his early production of Madonnas with Child, in which he proceeds by skilful tonal gradations, clearly evident, for example, in the Madonna of the pappa in Stockholm.
After his stay in Venice in 1618, Guercino’s chromaticism became even more complex and became the key to understanding his poetics. Not only luministic and chiaroscuro effects, but also the use of an intense and full range of colours are fully manifested in some works such as Saint Sebastian being cared for by Irene, kept in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna.
Painted in 1619, it was executed for Cardinal Serra and certainly does not conceal the painter’s debt to Ludovico Carracci, whom he observed from an early age in the Capuchin church in Cento, where the Sacred Family with St. Francis and the Donors was kept, affectionately nicknamed by Guercino his “Carraccina”. Naturalism and luminism merge into an enveloping and loose effect that was to be completed when he moved to Rome in the early 1620s.
Between Naturalism and Baroque: Aurora
Called by Cardinal Ludovisi, nephew of Gregory XV, during the Roman period Guercino was able to reach maturity in the management of chromatic and compositional arrangements, combining them with Baroque illusionism and a skilful overall dynamism. In the decoration of the Casino Ludovisi, he collaborated with the quadraturist Agostino Tassi: in the Aurora that drives away the Night of the vault, Guercino’s figures are inserted between Tassi’s dizzy architectures in perspective.
The breakthrough, the luminosity and the penumbra created also by the white clouds furrowing the sky together with the chariot are the baroque answer to the classicism of the Aurora painted by Guido Reni in Palazzo Rospigliosi Pallavicini.
He returned to Cento in 1623 and continued to work incessantly, creating masterpieces such as The Return of the Prodigal Son, now in the Galleria Borghese. After 1630 was the time of the late Mannerism, in which the painter returned to a classicism of muted chiaroscuro and immediate, lively drawing, thus to a mediation that saw the emergence of Reni’s influence.