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Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) (1591-1666)  
 
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Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591-1666), usually called Guercino, was one of the leading Italian painters of the seventeenth century. His nickname (literally, squinter) is supposed to have been devised by Marchese Enzo Bentivoglio, a prominent connoisseur and lifelong friend.

Guercino's earliest paintings are in an intensely dramatic Baroque style, but, by the mid-1620s, he had developed a classicizing manner. The transformation of his style was so profound that many commentators have noted that it would be difficult to believe that his early and late paintings were created by the same artist if they had not been so thoroughly documented. Nevertheless, all of Guercino's works reveal certain common qualities: psychologically profound facial expressions and gestures; rich, strong colors; and atmospheric handling of paint.

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Art historians consistently have overlooked the intensely sensual treatment of the male figure, which also characterizes paintings from all phases of Guercino's career. However, the fact that Guercino has been included in many recent lists of prominent figures of earlier historical periods suggests that many modern gay viewers have recognized the appeal of his work.

This intuitive response is validated by a careful analysis of his paintings. Guercino fused spirituality and homoerotic desire in many of his paintings of religious subjects. Although Guercino's professional career is much more thoroughly documented than that of virtually any other seventeenth-century European painter, little about his personal life is known with certainty, except for the fact that he never married. However, "reading between the lines" of contemporary biographical accounts, we gain glimpses of an alternative lifestyle, which support conjectures inspired by the homoerotic appeal of his work.

Guercino was born February 2, 1591 in Cento, a small town in the Italian region of Emilia, located about halfway between Bologna and Ferrara. Because there were no major painters active in Cento during Guercino's childhood and adolescence, he received formal instruction only in the technical aspects of his art; and he essentially taught himself how to paint through his independent study of major art works in the nearby cities of Bologna, Ferrara, and Modena.

Among contemporary artists, he seems to have most carefully examined the works of the Bolognese artist Ludovico Carracci (1555-1619), who created dynamic altarpieces in a proto-Baroque style. Ludovico identified Guercino as one of his most successful followers, even though he did not study with him.

However, Guercino seems to have been influenced most strongly by the earlier sixteenth-century artist Correggio (Antonio Allegri, about 1494-1534), whose paintings were widely dispersed throughout Emilia. In the context of a queer interpretation of Guercino, it is interesting to note that Correggio boldly transgressed restrictive gender and sexual conventions in his work and that his male figures are strongly homoerotic.

From Correggio, Guercino seems to have borrowed fluid handling of paint; rich, saturated colors; misty, atmospheric effects; and strong contrasts of light and shadow, among other features. Furthermore, Guercino seems to have imitated Correggio's exquisitely beautiful, male figures, as well as his interpretation of martyrdom as an ecstatic experience. In these respects, one can compare Guercino's Christ Crowned with Thorns (1622, Szépmüvészeti Múzeum, Budapest) with Correggio's Christ Presented to the People (about 1515, National Gallery, London).

In 1613, Padre Antono Mirandola, a prominent ecclesiastic and another lifelong friend, helped Guercino to secure his first major commission, the main altarpiece, depicting the Glorification of All Saints (now lost), for the church of Santo Spirito, Cento. Shortly thereafter, he decorated two private residences in Cento--Casa Provenzale (1614) and Casa Pannini (1615)--with frescoes of sensual nude male figures, holding attributes of various characters from classical mythology.

In 1615, Guercino opened an academy for drawing, organized in accord with the most advanced current ideas about the education of artists. Dissatisfied with this undertaking, he shut down the academy two years later, although it was financially successful.

Thereafter, Guercino organized his studio in accord with medieval and earlier Renaissance traditions. Most artists of the Baroque era made substantial income from students, who not only paid fees but also provided free labor. Although much sought as a teacher, Guercino preferred to maintain a "closed" workshop and to avoid the sort of frequent changes of personnel common in artistic practices that depended upon student workers.

Guercino and his assistants (who included two nephews) lived together in a large house in Cento, and, according to contemporary accounts, they formed a cohesive, tightly knit community. It is tempting to speculate that this household constituted an extended protogay family, but we have no information about the daily life of Guercino and his assistants. Whatever the dynamics of their association, Guercino's respect for his assistants is revealed by the fact that, in opposition to usual practice at the time, he did not appropriate any income that they earned from executing works independently.

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Two paintings by Guercino:
Top: The Ecstasy of Saint Francis.
Above: David with the Head of Goliath (ca 1650).

  
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