Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Guercino's Rome, 17th century

Guercino
ceiling decoration in the Sala dell'Aurora
1621
Casino dell'Aurora, Villa Boncompagni-Ludovisi, Rome

During a long and productive career spanning much of the 17th century, Guercino spent only two years in Rome, from 1621 to 1623. There, he decorated ceilings in a large garden pavilion on the grounds of the Roman palazzo-complex belonging to the family of his countryman and patron Alessandro Ludovisi, recently enthroned as Pope Gregory XV.

Guercino
Portrait of Pope Gregory XV
1622-23
oil on canvas
Getty Museum, Los Angeles

In the long room with coved ceiling the artist and his collaborator Agostino Tassi conceived heavy, inward-curving trompe l'oeil architecture, with the vision of a chariot in the sky floating above. The choice of subject was immediately inspired by a ceiling fresco completed by Guido Reni (for the palazzo of a rival papal family) less than a decade earlier. This vast mural (below) had aroused great admiration. Guercino was hired to surpass it as the centerpiece and namesake of a structure intended by the new Pope as a social setting for official functions, "such as dinners for the College of Cardinals."

Guido Reni
Apollo in his chariot, led by Aurora
1615
ceiling fresco
Casino dell'Aurora, Palazzo Pallavicini, Rome

Guercino
preparatory drawing for ceiling fresco in the Sala dell'Aurora
ca. 1621
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Guercino
ceiling decoration in the Sala dell'Aurora
1621
Casino dell'Aurora, Villa Boncompagni-Ludovisi, Rome

Guercino
ceiling decoration in the Sala dell'Aurora
1621
Casino dell'Aurora, Villa Boncompagni-Ludovisi, Rome

Guercino
ceiling decoration in the Sala dell'Aurora
1621

Casino dell'Aurora, Villa Boncompagni-Ludovisi, Rome

The illusionistic architecture of receding cornices was painted by the quadratura specialist Agostino Tassi. He executed these looming baroque structures using conventional wet-plaster fresco methods. For sky-scape and figures, Guercino used tempera. This gave him a freedom to blend and refine that resembled his familiar oil technique, retaining a graceful informality that challenged and undercut the monumental seriousness of Guido Reni's prior version. As Diane De Grazia wrote in the 1992 catalog for the Guercino retrospective at Washington's National Gallery of Art  "Guercino's Aurora is the most startling of numerous depictions of the goddess in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italian art. Conceived in competition with Guido Reni's representation of the same subject in 1614 in the Palazzo Borghese (now Pallavicini Rospigliosi) and probably suggesting Gergory XV's competition with the previous pope, Paul V Borghese, Guercino's Aurora is one of the first fully developed baroque ceiling decorations. While Reni's Aurora, ethereal and majestically beautiful, is set within a picture frame transferred to the ceiling far above the floor, Guercino's earthly goddess appears to pass close above our heads. In fact, Guercino has capitalized on the proportions of the vault, which are much lower and broader than that of the Pallavicini Rospigliosi. Whereas Reni looked to Annibale Carracci in the Farnese Gallery for his idealization of the goddess and her removal from the spectator by means of the gilt frame, Guercino broke with the Carraccesque tradition to humanize her and her function of bringing on the daylight  and the everyday."

Anonymous fan-painter
Guercino's Aurora ceiling
19th century
painted vellum
private collection

Guercino
preparatory drawing of winged figure in chariot
1621
Courtauld Institute, London

Guercino
painted lunette representing Day in the Sala dell'Aurora
1621

Casino dell'Aurora, Villa Boncompagni-Ludovisi, Rome

Guercino
painted lunette representing Night in the Sala dell'Aurora
1621

Casino dell'Aurora, Villa Boncompagni-Ludovisi, Rome

Preceding Guercino's decorative work in the Casino dell'Aurora was the only existing example of a mural executed by Caravaggio. Just before the turn of the century this had been conceived for the same building as the ceiling of a small room (now part of a corridor) used by its then-owner Cardinal Dal Monte as a laboratory.  "On the vault, an 'alchemy' scene painted by Caravaggio depicted the various stages of the transformation of lead into gold and showed Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto above the elements of the universe."

Caravaggio
Jupiter Neptune & Pluto
1597-1600
ceiling mural in oil paint
Casino dell'Aurora, Villa Boncompagni-Ludovisi, Rome

Through Pope Gregory's influence Guercino was also granted a contract for an altarpiece to hang in St. Peter's at the Vatican. He painted an elaborately expressive epic called The Burial of St. Petronilla (below). This was by far the most prestigious commission Guercino  just turned thirty  had so far received. Its public presence effectively established and maintained his reputation in Rome. Yet after 1623 and the death of his patron Gregory XV, the artist never lived in Rome again. He preferred to remain in the Emilian territory of his birth, sending commissions back to Rome from that distance.

Guercino
Burial of St Petronilla 
oil on canvas
1623
Pinacoteca Capitolina, Rome

The pair of canvases below with episodes from the life of Christ also came into being during this short Roman sojourn. Both, by chance, now have homes in England. The Taking of Christ at Cambridge borrows numerous elements from Caravaggio's treatment of the same subject painted twenty years earlier. Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery in London, by contrast, breathes the hard-won harmonies (of pigment and lighting and psychology) that Guercino was assembling for himself.

Guercino
Taking of Christ
oil on canvas
1621
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Guercino
Christ with the Woman taken in Adultery
oil on canvas
ca. 1621
Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

Altogether, there are now believed to survive about four hundred easel-paintings left splendidly behind by.Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591-1666), Il Guercino.