1902 Encyclopedia > Guido Reni

Guido Reni
Prominent Italian painter of high-Baroque style
(1575-1642)




GUIDO RENI (1575-1642), a prime master in the Bolognese school of painting, and one of the most admired artists of the period of incipient decadence in Italy, was born at Calvenzano near Bologna on 4th November 1575. He is most usually named Guido. His father was a. musician of repute, a player on the flageolet; he wished to bring the lad up to perform on the harpsichord. At a very childish age, however, Guido displayed a determined bent towards the art of form, scribbling some attempt at a drawing here, there, and everywhere. He was only nine years of age when Denis Calvart took notice of him, received him into his academy of design by the father's-permission, and rapidly brought him forward, so that by the age of thirteen Guido had already attained marked proficiency. Albani and Domenichino became soon after-wards pupils in the same academy. With Albani Guido was very intimate up to the earlier period of manhood, but they afterwards became rivals, both as painters and as heads of ateliers, with a good deal of asperity on Albani's part; Domenichino was also pitted against Reni by the policy of Annibale Caracci. Guido was still in the academy of Calvart when he began frequenting the opposi-tion school kept by Lodovico Caracci, whose style, far in advance of that of the Flemish painter, he dallied with. This exasperated Calvart. Him Guido, not yet twenty years of age, cheerfully quitted, transferring himself openly to the Caracci academy, in which he soon became prominent, being equally skilful and ambitious. He had not been a year with the Caracci when a work of his excited the wonder of Agostino and the jealousy of Annibale. Lodovico cherished him, and frequently painted him as an angel, for the youthful Reni was extremely handsome. After a while, however, Lodovico also felt himself nettled, and he patronized the competing talents of Guercino. On one occasion Guido had made a copy of Annibale's Descent from the Cross; Annibale was asked to retouch it, and, finding nothing to do, exclaimed pettishly, "He knows more than enough " ("Costui ne sa troppo"). On another occasion Lodovico, consulted as umpire, lowered a price which Reni asked for an early picture. This slight determined the young man to be a pupil no more. He left the Caracci, and started on his own account as a competitor in the race for patronage and fame. A renowned work, the story of Callisto and Diana, had been completed before he left.

Guido was faithful to the eclectic principle of the Bolognese school of painting. He had appropriated something from Calvart, much more from Lodovico Caracci; "he studied with much zest after Albert Dtirer ; he adopted the massive, sombre, and partly uncouth manner of Caravaggio. One day Annibale Caracci made the remark that a style might be formed reversing that of Caravaggio in such matters as the ponderous shadows and the gross common forms; this observation germinated in Guido's mind, and he endeavoured after some such style, aiming constantly at suavity. Towards 1602 he went to Eome with Albani, and Rome remained his headquarters for twenty years. Here, in the pontificate of Paul V. (Borghese), he was greatly noted and distinguished. In the garden-house of the Rospigliosi Palace he painted the vast fresco which is justly regarded as his masterpiece— Phoebus and the Hours preceded by Aurora. This exhibits his second manner, in which he had deviated far indeed from the promptings of Caravaggio. He founded now chiefly upon the antique, more especially the Niobe group and the Venus de' Medici, modified by suggestions from Raphael, Correggio, Parmigiano, and Paul Veronese. Of this last painter, although on the whole he did not get much from him, Guido was a particular admirer; he used to say that he would rather have been Paul Veronese than any other master—Paul was more nature than art. The Aurora is beyond doubt a work of pre-eminent beauty and attainment; it is stamped with pleasurable dignity, and, without being effeminate, has a more uniform aim after graceful selectness than can readily be traced in previous painters, greatly superior though some of them had been in impulse and personal fervour of genius. The pontifical chapel of Montecavallo was assigned to Reni to paint; but, being straitened in payments by the ministers, the artist made off to Bologna. He was fetched back by Paul V. with ceremonious eclat, and lodging, living, and equipage were supplied to him. At another time he migrated from Borne to Naples, having received a commis-sion to paint the chapel of S. Gennaro. The notorious cabal of three painters resident in Naples—Corenzio, Caracciolo, and Ribera—offered, however, as stiff an opposition to Guido as to some other interlopers who preceded and succeeded him. They gave his servant a beating by the hands of two unknown bullies, and sent by him a message to his master to depart or prepare for death ; Guido waited for no second warning, and departed. He now returned to Borne; but he finally left that city abruptly, in the pontificate of Urban VIII., in consequence of an offensive reprimand administered to him by Cardinal Spinola. He had received an advance of 400 scudi on account of an altarpiece for St Peter's, but after some lapse of years had made no beginning with the work. A broad reminder from the cardinal put Beni on his mettle ; he re-turned the 400 scudi, quitted Rome within a few days, and steadily resisted all attempts at recall. He now resettled in Bologna. He had taught as well as painted in Rome, and he left pupils behind him; but on the whole he did not stamp any great mark upon the Roman school of painting, apart from his own numerous works in the papal city.





In Bologna Guido lived in great splendour, and established a celebrated school, numbering more than two hundred scholars. He himself drew in it, even down to his latest years. On first returning to this city, he charged about £21 for a full-length figure (mere portraits are not here in question), half this sum for a half-length, and £5 for a head. These prices must be regarded as handsome, when we consider that Domenichino about the same time received only £10, 10s. for his very large and celebrated picture, the Last Communion of St Jerome. But Guido's reputation was still on the increase, and in process of time he quintupled his prices. He now left Bologna hardly at all; in one instance, however, he went off to Ravenna, and, along with three pupils, he painted the chapel in the cathedral with his admired picture of the Israelites Gathering Manna. His shining prosperity was not to last till the end. Guido was dissipated, generously but indiscriminately profuse, and an inveterate gambler. The gambling propensity had been his from youth, but until he became elderly it did not noticeably damage his fortunes. It grew upon him, and in a couple of evenings he lost the enormous sum of 14,400 scudi. The vice told still more ruinously on his art than on his character. In his decline he sold his time at so much per hour to certain picture dealers ; one of them, the Shylock of his craft, would stand by, watch in hand, and see him work. Half-heartedness, half-performance, blighted his product : self-repetition and mere mannerism, with affectation for sentiment and vapidity for beauty, became the art of Guido. Some of these trade-works, heads or half-figures, were turned out in three hours or even less. It is said that, tardily wise, Reni left off gambling for nearly two years ; at last he relapsed, and his relapse was followed not long afterwards by his death, caused by malignant fever. This event took place in Bologna on 18th August 1642 ; he died in debt, but was buried with great pomp in the church of S. Domenico.

Guido was personally modest, although he valued himself on his position in the art, and would tolerate no slight in that relation ; he was extremely upright, temperate in diet, nice in his person and his dress. He was fond of stately houses, but could feel also the charm of solitude. In his temper there was a large amount of suspiciousness ; and the jealousy which his abilities and his successes excited, now from the Caracci, now from Albani, now from the monopolizing league of Neapolitan painters, may naturally have kept this feeling in active exercise. Of his numerous scholars, Simone Contarini, named II Pesarese, counts as the most distinguished ; he painted an admirable head of Reni, now in the Bolognese Gallery. The portrait in the Uffìzi Gallery of Florence is from Reni's own hand. Two other good scholars were Giacomo Semenza and Francesco Gessi.

The character of Guido's art is so well known as hardly to call for detailed analysis, beyond what we have already intimated. His most characteristic style exhibits a prepense ideal, of form rather than character, with a slight mode of handling, and silvery, some-what cold, colour. In working from the nude he aimed at perfection of form, especially marked in the hands and feet. But he was far from always going to choice nature for his model ; he trans-muted ad libitum, and painted, it is averred, a Magdalene of demonstrative charms from a vulgar-looking colour-grinder. His best works have beauty, great amenity, artistic feeling, and high accomplishment of manner, all alloyed by a certain core of common-place ; in the worst pictures the commonplace swamps everything, and Guido has flooded European galleries with trashy and empty pretentiousness, all the more noxious in that its apparent grace of sentiment and form misleads the unwary into approval, and the dilettante dabbler into cheap raptures. Both in Rome and where-ever else he worked he introduced increased softness of style, which was then designated as the modern method. His pictures are mostly Scriptural or mythologic in subject, and between two and three hundred of them are to be found in various European collections—more than a hundred of these containing life-sized figures. The portraits which he executed are few,—those of Sixtus V., Cardinal Spada, and the so-called Beatrice Cenci being among the most noticeable. The identity of the last-named portrait is very dubious ; it certainly cannot have been painted direct from Beatrice, who had been executed in Rome before Guido ever resided there. Many etchings are attributed to him—some from his own works, and some after other masters ; they are spirited, but rather negligent.

Of other works not already noticed, the following should be named :—in Rome (the Vatican), the Crucifixion of St Peter, an example of the painter's earlier manner ; in Forlì, the Conception; in Bologna, the Alms of St Roch (early), the Massacre of the Innocents, and the Pietà, or Lament over the Body of Christ (in the church of the Mendicanti), which is by many regarded as Guido's prime executive work ; in the Dresden Gallery, an Ecce Homo ; in Milan (Brera Gallery), Saints Peter and Paul ; in Genoa (church of S. Ambrogio), the Assumption of the Virgin ; in the Berlin Gallery, St Paul the Hermit and St Anthony in the "Wilderness. The celebrated picture of Fortune (in the Capitol) is one of Reni's finest treatments of female form ; as a specimen of male form, the Samson Drinking from the Jawbone of an Ass (Turin Gallery) might be named beside it. One of his latest works of mark is the Ariadne, which used to be in the Gallery of the Capitol. The Louvre contains twenty of his pictures, the National Gallery of London seven, and others were once there, now removed to other public collections. The most interesting of the seven is the small Coronation of the Virgin, painted on copper, an elegantly finished work, more pretty than beautiful. It was probably painted before the master quitted Bologna for Rome.

For the life and works of Reni, see Passeri, Vite de' Pittori, and Malvasia, Felsina JPittrice ; also Lanzi, Storia Pittorica. (W. M. R.)






The above article was written by: W. M. Rossetti, author of Live of Famous Poets.



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