Rome's Guercino Exhibition Returns the Obscure Baroque Master to His Rightful Place in Art History

Guercino's "San Carlo Borromeo in orazione," 1613-14 (detail)
(Courtesy Collegiata di San Biagio)

Guercino: Masterpieces from Cento and Rome
Palazzo Barberini, Rome
December 16, 2011-April 29, 2012

Although he is probably the most famous cross-eyed painter in the history of art ("Guercino," his nickname, means just this), Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591-1666) is recognized only by avid fans of Baroque painting. Ask a man on the street, and they’ll likely guess that Guercino is a brand of Italian salami, before recognizing him as one of the leading painters of 17th century Italy. His reputation, like those of his associates who worked, or studied, in the circle of the Carracci Academy in Bologna (the leading painting school in Italy at the time), is overshadowed by the two “big guns” of the Italian Baroque: Caravaggio and Bernini. For many, Caravaggio is the only Baroque painter they could name, just like Bernini is the only Baroque sculptor and architect. Sure, some might mention Ribera or Velazquez (especially if you ask a Spaniard), while true architecture aficionados tend to prefer Borromini over Bernini. But Guercino? He gets stuck in the same obscure basket as Domenichino, Lanfranco, all of the Carracci family painters (Annibale, Agostino, and Ludovico), and even Guido Reni, who enjoyed popularity in the 19th century but no longer maintains the same caché. Poussin and Claude Lorrain would round out the list of mega-stars of the Italian Baroque (though neither was Italian), but only scholars and art buffs will know them.

All of the artists I mentioned worked in a more academic tradition than that firebrand of sex and violence, Caravaggio. All of them also lived longer, and therefore theoretically could have had more of a lasting influence, but they did not. They came from a pool of artists who idolized Raphael, and sought to continue his tradition of painting, the sort taught in the earliest painting academies, of which the Carracci Academy was the 17th century standout. They could not, however, ignore what Caravaggio brought to the table. The balanced, bright, harmonious, peaceful geometry, cleanliness, and idealization of Raphael was smashed to bits by Caravaggio’s realistic, dirty-soled peasants who modeled as holy figures, his drama, blood, movement, play of light emerging from darkness (chiaroscuro), and intentional imbalance. When I teach students in Rome, I ask them to imagine a Caravaggio painting as if it were a film on “pause.” What would happen if they “unpaused” it? In most cases, people and objects would fall or fly — in "Supper at Emmaus" a bowl of fruit is about to topple off the table and out of the picture plane; in "Saint Matthew and the Angel," the saint himself has been so startled by his angelic visitor that he has climbed onto a stool that is about to tip over and launch the saint onto the altar beneath the painting. Unpause a Raphael and nothing happens — everything is still, the figures posed in a tableau-vivant that one can imagine models were asked to maintain for hours while they were sketched.

Guercino and the academic Baroque painters of Italy noted Caravaggio’s fame — how all of Rome eagerly awaited the unveiling his every work — and sought to introduce some of his magic into their art. But they essentially made Raphael-esque compostions darker, more brooding, adding chiaroscuro and less idealism, but otherwise not really updating things. Half of Raphael and half of Caravaggio did not make an especially intriguing new whole. And so artists like Guercino, while important during their time and to the history of art, never had the influence of a Caravaggio, and certainly do not resonate with contemporary viewers, a fact only partly explained by their less dramatic biographies. While Caravaggio murdered, ran in gangs, and grew enraged about over-cooked artichokes, the most memorable characteristic of Guercino is his nickname, “cross-eyed.”

But I am one of those art history nerds who not only gets excited about a Guercino exhibit, but actually studied him, along with Caravaggio, Bernini, and the Carracci gang. And there is a lot to admire about Guercino. Which is why I was pleased to see the recent exhibit at the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. It did not disappoint, at least in terms of the art on display.

This privately-run exhibition brings together the majority of Guercino works from Rome and his hometown of Cento. I had never been to Cento, and therefore never saw the extensive Guercino collection housed there. With the exception of some of his works from the National Gallery in London and the giant "Burial of Saint Petronilla" (which is across town in the Capitoline Museum), most of the major Guercino works are here. The exhibition is tastefully mounted, with handsome painted walls and elegant surroundings — it makes for a nice double-bill to see this temporary exhibit and then pop across the hall to visit Palazzo Barberini’s staggeringly good permanent collection, which is infrequently visited by tourists. There you can see some real rock star paintings — like Raphael’s "La Fornarina," Caravaggio’s "Judith Beheading Holofernes," Bernini’s "Portrait Bust of Pope Urban VIII," Bronzino’s "Portrait of Stefano IV Colonna," Hans Holbein’s "Henry VIII," to name a few — and draw nice comparisons that are not made in the temporary exhibit. To see Raphael, then to see Caravaggio, is to better understand what the academic Baroque painters of Rome were trying to do, in balancing the two. Works in the permanent collection by Guido Reni, the Carracci, Lanfranco, and even French Caravaggisti (those emulating more directly Caravaggio’s style), like Simon Vouet, are far more instructive than the assembly of Guercino works alone.

The Guercino exhibit is a success if one also visits the permanent collection, and yet the two are not linked in the didactic information. The wall text is strangely unhelpful, and stranger still, almost every piece of information available in English is poorly translated to the point of being nearly unintelligible. One could chalk this up to “Italy being Italy,” but surely one of the dozens of accomplished individuals listed in the exhibition credits could speak English well enough to translate the small amount of wall text correctly. Instead the wall copy reads like Google Translate, and gives an otherwise beautiful exhibit an amateur feel.

I came away from the exhibit thinking that Guercino was a better artist than he allowed himself to be. I often found his main protagonists to be awkwardly painted, whereas details on the periphery were wonderful and far more elegant. The angel in the sky is better than the main figures in "San Pietro che riceve la Chiavi di Christo" (1618). The shadowy horse, nostrils flared in fear, on the far side of "Diana the Huntress" is the best thing about the painting. In the famous "Et in Arcadia Ego," the shepherds look stoned, and the skull at which they stare numbly is awkwardly handled, particularly when compared to contemporaraneous Dutch painters, whose still-life vanitas paintings reveled in the accuracy of their painted skulls. But "Et in Arcadia Ego" does have nice details that I could only see in person: a rat coils around the skull, and a beautifully-rendered fly rests upon it. Guercino’s renowned blue, a color he seems to have invented and which is recognizable from across the room (a combination of purple, blue, and slate), is a theme throughout, and his colors certainly impressed me more than his lines.

My favorite piece was the little-known "Miracle of San Carlo Borromeo" (1614). In it, a divine presence is felt first by a house cat, who glances around the room, suddenly aware that something is wrong — a stranger is approaching — long before the humans have noticed anything. This sort of detail is smart and rings true. Perhaps Guercino over-thought his central figures and allowed himself more freedom, with richer results, in the incidental details that show glimpses of genius.

Noah Charney is the best-selling author of Stealing the Mystic Lamb: the True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece. He teaches art history and art crime for Brown University and on the ARCA Masters Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection Studies.