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Friday, August 26, 2016

Giovanni (Guercino) Barbieri

St. Luke Displaying a Painting of the Virgin, 1652-53, Guercino
One of the interesting, and very valuable research assets with which art historians have been blessed is the Guild of St. Luke. To the layman, this may seem a rather strange reference as they ponder what connection one of the followers of Jesus Christ has to do with painting. On the theory that a painting is worth a thousand words, take a look at the one above. It's titled, St Luke Displaying a Painting of the Virgin, painted around 1652-53, by an artist named Guercino (pronounced gwer-tee-no). Translated from Italian, the name means "the squinter." It was a nickname the artist picked up as a child in an age (he was born in 1591) when eyeglasses were an uncommon luxury, and highly unlikely in the case of a young child. His real name was Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, all of which may be somewhat interesting, but says nothing about the original question regarding the biblical physician, St. Luke.
Guercino was one of the most prolific painters of his time, turning out
during his lifetime some 106 altarpieces alone, plus another 144 other
paintings, not to mention a huge portfolio of pen and ink drawing's.
First of all, from medieval times on, all the major trades had their own guild, which was part fraternal organization, and in larger part, something akin to a labor union as we know them today. Insofar as art historians are concerned, their records provide a highly reliable chronicle of all the professional artists (and their students) working in a given city at a given time. For those researching the art and artists of the past, that's almost like owning a time machine. Now, inasmuch as Luke was a physician, all physicians in every major city belonged to the Guild of St. Luke. Artists, being the social climbers we all are, reasoned that since Luke was also a painter, they should be permitted to rub shoulders with members of what was undoubtedly the most elite guild of their time. It's more than a little doubtful just how artistic Luke may have been (if at all), though a church we once visited on the Island of Malta, in the medieval city of Medina, proudly displays a painting of the Virgin Mary and Jesus supposedly by St. Luke. I've seen it from a fair distance, though it wasn't much to see, so coated with centuries of filth as to be nearly black overall. The attribution is probably about as reliable as that of the guild's physicians, who claimed that Luke was Mary's obstetrician (which, if true, would likely have made him in his seventies by the time he traveled the high seas with Paul).
Though the church likely kept him too busy to paint portraits,
Guercino's self-portraits indicate he could have. The one on
the left suggests that he appears to have eaten quite well
from his painting efforts.
Giovanni Francesco Barbieri was born in the small Italian village of Cento, located about halfway between Bologna and Ferrara. There he seems to have pretty much taught himself to paint while also acquiring his nickname. (He was cross-eyed.) Records of the local Guild of St. Luke indicate that by the time Guercino was sixteen (about 1607) he was working as apprentice in the shop of Benedetto Gennari, a painter of the Bolognese School. By the time he was twenty-four, Guercino had, himself, moved to Bologna, while gathering the praise of no less a painting master than Ludovico Carracci. His paintings from this period have a stark naturalism characteristic of Caravaggio, though it's unlikely that Guercino saw any of the Roman artist's work first-hand. His style seem to vacillate between the typical Mannerist renderings of his day and the highly popular Baroque which was starting to gain favor about this time.

Guercino's secular subjects were as popular as his religious works.
Most large-scale paintings brought him around 300 gold ducats each
(roughly $25-thousand).
About 1618, Guercino painted one of his most famous works, The Arcadian Shepherds also called Et in Arcadia ego (below). Its dramatic composition is typical of Guercino's early works. He often claimed that his early style was influenced by Ludovico Carracci whose work he saw in the Capuchin church in Cento. His later works are closer to the style of his contemporary Guido Reni, and are painted with more lightness and clarity. The Latin title, Et in Arcadia ego, translates: "And I am in Arcadia" which doesn't help much. Some scholars add the word "even" in the middle as being understood but omitted. It helps some to know that Arcadia was the ancient Greek equivalent to paradise. The skull was, of course, the symbol of death, so in "reading" the painting next to its title, the context would suggest that there is death, "even" in the heavenly realm. Actually the title discourse goes much further than that, but my eyes glazed over before I ingested much more.

Et in Arcadia ego, 1618-22, Guercino (Giovanni Barbieri).
The title derives from the words carved beneath the skull.

The years 1621–23 found Guercino in Rome, where he was extremely productive. From this period come his frescoes Aurora at the casino of the Villa Ludovisi, the ceiling in San Crisogono (1622) of San Chrysogonus in Glory, the portrait of Pope Gregory XV, and The Burial of Saint Petronilla (sometimes called the St. Petronilla Altarpiece) for the Vatican. Following the death of Pope Gregory XV, Guercino returned to his hometown where he began his frescoes in the Duomo of Piacenza. Guercino's career after 1629 is well documented in an account book that Guercino and his brother, Paolo Antonio Barbieri, kept updated, and which has been preserved. In 1642, after the death of Guido Reni, Guercino moved his workshop to Bologna where he became the city's principal painter. The prices he received for his work would seem astounding, even today. In 1655, the Franciscan Order of Reggio paid him 300 gold ducats (about $25,000) for the altarpiece of Saint Luke Displaying a Painting of the Virgin and Child (top). In 1657 the Corsini family also paid him 300 ducats for the Flagellation of Christ(pictured above among the Life of Christ paintings).

Guercino also specialized in figures from the Old Testament
as well as those from the parables of Christ.
Although Guercino was remarkable for the extreme rapidity of his executions, he was also an excellent draftsman. His many drawings, usually in ink, washed ink, or red chalk, naturally include preparatory studies for his paintings, but also landscapes, genre subjects, and caricatures, apparently done simply for his own enjoyment (bottom). Guercino's drawings are best known for the fluency of his style in which rapid, calligraphic pen strokes combine with dots, dashes, and parallel hatching to shape his forms. Guercino continued to paint and teach until his death in 1666; and in the process amassed a considerable fortune. Since he never married, his estate went to his nephews (also his pupils), Benedetto Gennari II and Cesare Gennari. Both came to be outstanding Baroque artists.

Notice that only Guercino's early works, from around 1615, suggest the  influence of Caravaggio, while his later "mature" work, though definitely Baroque, tend toward a style all his own.

One of Guercino's more amusing


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