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Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) (1591-1666)  
 
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However, before leaving Rome in the fall of 1623, Guercino finished a monumental altarpiece for Saint Peter's, Burial and Reception in Heaven of Saint Petronilla (Palazzo Capitoleno i Pinacoteca, Rome, 723 x 423 cm.). Guercino spent two years working on this immense painting.

His numerous preparatory drawings for it reveal the transformation of his style while in Rome. The initial sketches suggest that Guercino planned a diagonal composition, filled with numerous dynamically twisted figures, illuminated sporadically with flickering light. However, the figures in the final painting do not "break out" from the picture surface, and the composition is largely organized in terms of horizontals and verticals. In addition, Guercino has developed a balanced distribution of light and shade, so that the contours of figures are clearly revealed. He also has moved away from his earlier naturalism and characterized figures in a more idealized way. Expressions and gestures are less theatrical than previously, but the emotions of the figures, nevertheless, are revealed eloquently.

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The motivations for the notable shift in Guercino's style are uncertain. However, it seems likely that Guercino--an artist who recently moved from a small provincial town to a major European cultural and intellectual center--may have been insecure about his artistic direction. Thus, he may have felt compelled to modify his style to accord with classicism, the predominant artistic trend at the time. Among the earliest and most vocal advocates of classicism was Monsignor Giovanni Battista Agucchi (1570-1632), an art theorist who lived in the Ludovisi household during Gregory's pontificate and who helped to shape the artistic taste of all members of the Pope's family. By changing his style, Guercino probably hoped to secure future papal commissions.

Agucchi was one of many classical theorists who, throughout the seventeenth century, strongly criticized certain aspects of Guercino's style--the supposed disorder of his compositions and, especially, the naturalism of his figures. Agucchi and other writers maintained that Guercino shared Caravaggio's fascination with deformed and "vile" nature.

The connections made between Guercino and Caravaggio and other "accusations" about Guercino's work are puzzling for a number of reasons. These negative comments about Guercino's work persist throughout his career, long after he had transformed his style in accord with classical principles. Furthermore, although the naturalism of his figures and the strong light and dark contrasts in his early paintings might recall Caravaggio to a casual viewer, the styles of these artists differed in many respects. For instance, Guercino's coloristic and atmospheric effects strongly differentiate even his early paintings from works by Caravaggio, who employed a limited range of colors and carefully defined forms.

It seems possible that classical theorists did not explicitly identify the factors that they found most troubling in Guercino's work. These writers may have been disconcerted by the fusion of spirituality and homoerotic desire, achieved by both Caravaggio and Guercino. In terms of the predominant morality of the era, same-sex desire certainly would have been regarded as a manifestation of deformed and vile nature. Significantly, however, despite the many changes that he made in his work, Guercino never modified this fundamental aspect of his art.

Although they did not explicitly mention same-sex desire, at least some seventeenth-century viewers did indicate that they were disturbed by the physicality and eroticism of Guercino's depictions of Christ and male saints. In his account of Guercino's life (1678), Carlo Cesari Malvasia, a generally reliable historian, claimed that Pope Innocent X (reigned 1644-55) was deeply troubled by one of Guercino's paintings of Christ, which he described as "too nude." After unsuccessfully trying to persuade other artists to paint over the figure, the Pope is supposed to have ordered the image destroyed because of its moral decadence. Even if this story is apocryphal, it does suggest the dilemma that Guercino's paintings posed for some viewers.

Published comments by Guercino's supporters also suggest their need to counter accusations of "deviance," though they never acknowledged such charges. While pointing out the notable transformation of his style, his advocates dwelled at greater length on his moral purity. Why would such defense of personal behavior be necessary if his life were assumed to be exemplary?

From remarks that he made later in his life to Malvasia and other biographers, it is clear that Guercino was offended by the diatribes published against his work. Moreover, in Rome, he also felt pressured to conform to uncongenial dominant styles. Thus, it is not surprising that he returned to his native Cento almost immediately after the death of Gregory XV.

However, Guercino continued to attract the attention of such major patrons as Marie de' Medicis, Queen Mother of France, and Charles I, King of England, who both tried to lure him to their courts with promises of substantial salaries and other inducements. Although he refused these offers, Guercino enjoyed great financial success as he executed numerous commissions for prominent individuals throughout Europe. The esteem in which he was held by other artists is suggested by the visit made to his studio in 1629 by the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez (1599-1666).

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