By Livia Lupi

Italian painter Giovanni Francesco Barbieri was born in Cento near Ferrara on 31 January 1591. He was largely self-taught, earning the nickname Guercino (cross-eyed) due to his pronounced squint. His early work was heavily influenced by Bolognese painter Lodovico Carracci, but also by Caravaggio. He nonetheless added his personal touch to a Caravaggesque chiaroscuro by softening contours and using brighter hues.

Guercino’s main rival was Guido Reni, the most successful painter in Bologna. Reni loathed Guercino, and managed to keep most of the Bolognese market for himself at the expense of his rival. But Guercino’s work did not go unnoticed. According to writer and painter Carlo Cesare Malvasia, by 1617 Guercino’s workshop in Cento was so well-known that he had as many as twenty-three pupils, some of whom came from France. His propensity for teaching also found expression in a manual illustrating the principles of drawing (Primi elementi per introdurre i giovani al disegno), published in 1619 and dedicated to Francesco Gonzaga, the Duke of Mantua. 

After a visit to Venice in 1618, where he studied Titian’s work and showed the manuscript of Primi elementi to Palma il Giovane, Pope Gregory XV asked him to come to Rome in 1621. There he worked on numerous commissions, including a portrait of the pope and various frescoes in Villa Ludovisi, the villa of the pope’s family. The frescoes include the famous painting of Aurora, located in one of the ground floor rooms.

After the pope’s death, Guercino went back to his hometown Cento, where he remained in spite of prestigious offers from Charles I King of England, Louis XIII King of France and the Estensi in Modena. In 1642, shortly after Guido Reni died, Guercino moved to Bologna, where he took Reni’s role as the city’s most important painter. He died there in 1666.

Reference: Dwight C. Miller, “Barbieri, Giovanni Francesco detto il Guercino.” Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, Enciclopedia Treccani.

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

Investiture of St William of Aquitaine, 1620, oil on canvas. Pinacoteca, Bologna.

Aurora’s Chariot, 1622, fresco. Villa Ludovisi, Rome.

Samian Sybil with a Putto, 1651, oil on canvas. National Gallery, London.

Christ Mourned by two Angels, 1620, oil on copper. National Gallery, London.

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