Guido Reni
Biography of Italian Baroque Painter, Bolognese School of Painting.

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David with the Head of Goliath
(1605) Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Guido Reni (1575-1642)


Training and Early Works
Influenced by Caravaggio in Rome
Mature Style
Fame in Bologna
Lyrical Style of Painting
Classicism and Naturalism in Italian 17th Century Painting.

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One of the great lyrical Old Masters of the 17th century, Guido Reni was one of the best-known members of the Bolognese school of painting, which - led by Annibale Carracci and his brother Agostino Carracci (1557-1602) - did so much to define Baroque art in Rome, Venice and Naples, during the period 1590-1630. Other participants included Domenichino (1581-1641), Guercino (1591-1666) and Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647). Like all the members of the Carracci academy, Reni absorbed the classical tradition of meticulous, firm drawing, and though he experimented with the new naturalism of Caravaggio, the main influence on his graceful style were Greek sculpture and Raphael (1483-1520) - as can be seen in Aurora (1614), his captivating ceiling fresco for Cardinal Scipio Borghese (1576-1633), in the Casino dell' Aurora, Palazzo Rospiglioso-Pallavacini, Rome. Immaculately dressed, often accompanied by servants, Reni earned huge sums from his painting in Bologna - where he became the city's leading artist after the death of Ludovico Carracci in 1619 - but his addiction to gambling ensured that he was rarely out of debt. In addition to the Aurora fresco, his best Baroque paintings include: David with the Head of Goliath (1605, Uffizi); Atalanta and Hippomenes (1615-20, Capodimonte Museum, Naples); and Suicide of Cleopatra (1639, Pitti Palace). Reni's reputation as an important exponent of classical Baroque painting endured for more than two centuries, until the art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) dismissed him as insincere and sentimental.



Training and Early Works

Together with Domenichino and Francesco Albani (1578-1660), Reni studied oil painting with the Fleming Denys Calvaert (1540-1619). He then turned to the Carraccis, who had opened a new school about 1595, and in so doing determined the course of his future development. From the start, however, he went his own way in the new climate of naturalism, foreshadowed by the Carraccis, in reaction against Mannerism and Mannerist painting at the end of the 16th century.

Of an intransigent and aristocratic disposition, Reni did not look to nature for his models, as had Annibale and Lodovico Carracci, but chose instead to follow the cult of beauty and grace originating in the work of Raphael, during the High Renaissance in Rome. Reni, in fact, had been enthralled by Raphael's St Cecilia in the Church of S. Giovanni in Monte at Bologna, and had been inspired by it to execute his first important altarpiece, The Coronation of the Virgin (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna). He also made an exact copy of it, which later found its way to Rome, to the Church of S. Luigi dei Francesi. Slow and retiring by nature, Reni was a long time in freeing himself of the influences that stood in the way of his full development as an artist. The frescoes for the Oratory of S. Colombano, in which he collaborated with other pupils of the Carraccis, still show a certain formal restraint.

Influenced by Caravaggio in Rome

In 1602 Reni travelled to Rome to study the works of Raphael as well as Greek sculpture. He encountered, too, the work of Caravaggio, and this proved significant in that it led him to experiment with Caravaggism without abandoning his own conventional ideals. The Crucifixion of St Peter (1603), painted for the Church of S. Paolo alle Quattro Fontane (Vatican), was his first important work. Going beyond the naturalism of Caravaggio, admired for his luminescence and pictorial values, Reni affirmed his personal vision of painting as representation purged of all ugliness and vulgarity.



Mature Style

From this time, his uncertainty vanished and he became successful in both Bologna and Rome, spending his time in each city in turn. Freed now of all outside influence, he perfected an expressive language using classical linear rhythms and translucent, exquisitely delicate tone values that resulted in a flow of masterpieces. The Martyrdom of St Andrew for the Church of S. Gregorio al Cielo, Rome (1608), is a large fresco painting where the influence of Raphael blends perfectly with a very contemporary feel to the landscape background. The Scenes from the Life of the Virgin, in the Chapel of the Annunciation in the Quirinal (1611), are notable for their art of charming intimacy. Samson Victorious and The Massacre of the Innocents (1611, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna) are major landmarks in 17th-century classicism, and are admirably constructed, with their juxtaposition of colour and rhythmical accentuation. Aurora, the decorative fresco on the ceiling of the Casino Rospigliosi in Rome (1614), is a most touching evocation of Raphael's classicism, created a century earlier.

Fame in Bologna

In 1614, at the height of his success, Reni finally settled in Bologna. This decision may have been forced on him as the result of some disagreement with the Papal Curia, or it might have stemmed from a need for greater independence, which was easier to find in the provinces. This return to his birthplace coincided with a considerable enrichment of his art.

The great and severe altarpiece of the Mendicants (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna), constructed in two parts (the Pieta and the Patron Saints of Bologna) like a quattrocento painting, bears witness to a spiritual crisis resolved poetically. From his Crucifixion for the Capuchin church (1616, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna) to The Labours of Hercules (Louvre), from the Annunciation (Genoa, Church of S. Ambrogio) to Atalanta and Hippomenes (Capodimonte Museum, Naples), the tension increased to such a degree that it became difficult to sustain within the limits of the classical balance that Reni had set himself. In fact, after 1620, he allowed himself moments of grace and elegance, and of theatrical sentimentality, which alternated with works of great spiritual intensity. Thus his pictures of famous women (Cleopatra, Lucretia, Semiramis, Salome, Judith) all display the amorous langour for which he became famous, but which was also his greatest weakness. For his painting in Naples during the 1620s, see the Neapolitan School of Painting (1600-56).

Lyrical Style of Painting

At the same time he produced many religious canvases of excessive piety. While working on this religious art, he conceived new images whose unearthly beauty gave birth to a light which seemed increasingly unreal. Gradually his palette lightened, acquiring iridescent reflections (The Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels and Patron Saints of Bologna (1631-2, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna). This degree of poetic exaltation led to the use of increasingly clear and silvery colours, which, however, were allied to a feeling of unease. The intense spirituality of some of his works led his contemporaries to mistake them for preparatory drafts; St Sebastian (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna); St John the Baptist (Dulwich College Art Gallery, London); Madonna and Child with St John (Longhi Foundation, Florence); Lucretia, Young Girl with a Corona and Cleopatra (all Capitoline Gallery, Rome) and a Flagellation (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna). Through these beautiful compositions, for so long misunderstood, Reni freed himself from the uniformity of the classical painters of the 17th century and established himself among the greatest Italian Baroque artists and one of the most purely lyrical artists of his age.

Paintings by Guido Reni can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world.

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