Guido Reni

Guido Reni
Guido Reni

This month’s essay details the life and work of one of the most important Baroque artists. He was noted for the classical idealism of his renderings of mythological and religious subjects. He was active in Rome, Naples and in his native Bologna, and he became the dominant figure in the Bolognese School that emerged under the influence of the Carracci. (N.B. His oeuvre is far more extensive than can be covered in this essay; I have chosen the most important to detail and also mentioned some of his other works that are significant.)

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ASSOCIATIONS: Religious and Mythological Painting
Lived (1575-1642) 16th

Guido Reni was born November 4, 1575 in Bologna, at the time part of the Papal States. He was the only child of Daniele Reni and Ginevra Pozzi. Daniele was an established singer and instrumentalist who worked for the local Signoria. At the age of nine, Guido was apprenticed to the Bolognese studio of the Flemish-born artist, Denis Calvaert, and he was soon joined in that studio by Francesco Albani and Domenichino (Domenico Zampieri) who both became important Baroque artists as well. His father had approved the apprenticeship, even though his main desire had been to have Guido follow in his musical pursuits. This move to Calvaert’s studio meant that Guido gave up his formal studies at the Scuola di Grammatica (Grammar School) in Bologna. Thus, Reni had little “book learning”—biographers have commented on the fact that he studied little and disliked reading. This hampered him in his painting career when patrons wanted art depicting mythological characters.

Ten years after enrolling in Calvaert’s studio, Daniele died and this released Guido from his obligation to Calvaert. Guido quickly moved, with Albani and Domenichino, to the rising rival studio, Accademia degli Incamminati (Academy of the “newly embarked” or “progressives”), led by brothers Annibale and Agostino Carracci along with their cousin Ludovico Carracci. (Guido Reni, Albani, and Domenichino went on to form the nucleus of a prolific and successful school of Bolognese painters). The main focus of the Accademia was to oppose and challenge Mannerist artistic practices and principles in order to create a renewed art of naturalism and expressive persuasion. The school importantly defined the parameters of Baroque art in Rome, Venice and Naples during the period 1590-1630.

Like all the members of the Carracci Accademia, Reni absorbed the classical tradition of meticulous, firm drawing, and though he experimented a bit with the new naturalism of Caravaggio, the main influence on his graceful style were Greek sculpture and the frescoes of Raphael. Reni completed commissions for his first altarpieces while he was in the Carracci Accademia. He left the Accademia by 1598, after an argument with Ludovico Carracci over unpaid work. Around this time he also made his first prints, a series commemorating Pope Clement VIII’s visit to Bologna in 1598.

In 1599 Reni was received into the guild of painters, and after 1601 he divided his time between his studios in Bologna and in Rome, to where he and Albani had moved in order to work with teams led by Annibale Carracci that were working on fresco decorations for the Farnese Palace. As he was gaining prominence, Reni surrounded himself with helpers—such as Giovanni Lanfranco, Francesco Albani, and Antonio Carracci—who were fascinated by his noble if somewhat tyrannical personality.

Guido Reni 1608, Madonna del Velo. Collection: Palace Museum in Willow.

During 1601–1604 his main patron was Cardinal Paolo Emilio Sfondrati, who commissioned several paintings by Reni, among them a portrait of the Cardinal and the Madonna del Velo, in which the Cardinal is prominently displayed. In 1604–05 he received an independent commission from Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini for an altarpiece of the Crocifissione di San Pietro (Crucifixion of St. Peter) for the Church of San Paolo alle Tre Fontane (St. Paul at the Three Fountains). Reni was powerfully attracted to Caravaggio at this time, and this altarpiece shows influences of Caravaggio on him. However, this attraction was a brief digression; following the completion of the altarpiece and other works at the time, Reni emerged as a mature artist convinced that his path was precisely the opposite of the one taken by Caravaggio. Going beyond the naturalism of Caravaggio, who was admired for his luminescence and pictorial values, Reni affirmed his own personal vision of painting as representation that is purged of all ugliness and vulgarity.

After returning briefly to Bologna, he went back to Rome to become one of the premier painters during the papacy of Pope Paul V (Camillo Borghese). During 1607-1614 he became one of the painters most patronized by the pope and other members of the Borghese family, especially the pope’s nephew, Scipione Cardinal Borghese. During these years, he painted numerous frescoes in chapels for these and other important patrons.

From this time, Reni’s uncertainty as an artist vanished, and he began to develop his own artistic expression and style. He perfected an expressive language using classical linear rhythms and translucent, exquisitely delicate tone-values that resulted in a flow of beautiful masterpieces. In his religious and mythological paintings, he developed a style that tempered Baroque exuberance and complexity with classical restraint. The Martyrdom of St Andrew, for the Church of San Gregorio al Cielo, Rome (1608), is a large fresco painting where the influence of Raphael blends perfectly with Reni’s very contemporary feel to the landscape background. Samson Victorious and The Massacre of the Innocents, oil on canvas paintings completed in 1611, are major landmarks in 17th-century classicism, and are admirably constructed, with their juxtaposition of color and rhythmical accentuation. Reni alternately painted in different styles, but displayed less-eclectic tastes than many of Carracci’s trainees. His Samson Victorious formulates stylized poses, as in those characteristic of Mannerism. The Massacre of the Innocents, commissioned for Bologna’s Basilica of San Domenico, is painted in a manner reminiscent of a late Raphael. It later became an important reference for the French Neoclassic style, as well as a model for details in Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937).

Also painted at this time was Scenes from the Life of the Virgin, in the Chapel of the Annunciation in the Quirinal (1611) that is notable for its charming intimacy and striking colors. This was commissioned by Pope Paul V to decorate a reserved chapel in his private apartments. The actual painting took a total of seven months; however, payments to Reni stretched out over two years, until 1612, which infuriated him.

Interactive View: The Chapel of Guido Reni; A Hidden Artistic Jewel

The large lunettes are filled with frescoes illustrating three aspects of the Virgin’s life; ultimately leading up to the Annunciation that is a large painting above the altar. The first story depicts the angel announcing to Joachim that he is to be Mary’s father. The second story is the birth of Mary. The third depicts the presentation of Mary in the Temple. The central theme of the iconographic series is brought together in the painting by Reni of the Annunciation. In this painting, a ray of light, representing the Holy Spirit, breaks through the clouds and illuminates Mary’s face while she kneels and embraces Gabriel’s divine message with her arms folded. Gabriel is pictured moving a white lily, a symbol of purity, towards her while pointing to the heavens that are filled with the choir of angels.

Accompanying the Annunciation is a painting in the cupola-like vault of the choir showing God the Father with arms outstretched, surrounded by angels singing the Virgin’s praises. The nude figure of Adam in the niche to the left of the altar alludes to original sin, which has been overcome thanks to Mary’s contribution to human salvation. The only narrative wall painting in the choir, on the left wall, is striking because of its unusual and rarely depicted domestic subject matter. Mary, wearing a red dress and with her hair falling loosely across her shoulders, is sewing a small white garment. She is framed by two adult angels while above her hover two putti with inscription ribbons alluding to her predestined role as mother of God. The final piece of the pictorial cycle is found in the light-filled cupola of the chapel. It is a fresco depicting God the Father blessing and welcoming Mary into glory, surrounded by choirs of angels.

Guido Reni 1614, Aurora
Guido Reni 1614, Aurora

In 1614, Reni completed what is often considered to be his fresco masterpiece. Aurora, painted on the ceiling of the large central hall of the Casino dell’ Aurora, which is located on the grounds of the Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi in Rome. Originally the building had been a pavilion commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, and it is he who commissioned this magnificent work by Reni. The massive fresco depicts Apollo in his chariot, preceded by Aurora (Dawn) who is bringing the light of day to the world. The work is a contemporary evocation of Raphael’s classicism that had been created a century before Reni. It is both restrained in that classicism, and it copies various poses from Roman sarcophagi. Reni pays little attention to perspective in the work, and the vibrantly colored style is antithetical to the tenebrism (i.e., the use of chiaroscuro, where there are violent contrasts of light and dark, and where darkness becomes a dominating feature of the image) of Caravaggio and his followers.

In 1614, at the height of his success, Reni finally returned and settled in Bologna. This decision may have been forced on him as the result of some disagreements with the Papal Curia, or it might have stemmed from a need for greater independence, which was easier to find in the provinces than in Rome. With this return to his birthplace, Reni was able to establish a successful and prolific studio, with numerous commissions and with considerable enrichment of his art. He was commissioned to decorate the cupola of the chapel of Saint Dominic in Bologna’s Basilica of San Domenico which resulted in the radiant fresco masterpiece, Saint Dominic in Glory (1614). He also contributed to the decoration of the Rosary Chapel in the same church with a Resurrection.

That same year he also painted The Israelites Gathering Manna for a chapel in the cathedral of Ravenna. He shows small groups with numerous differing reactions to the occasion. Those seated close to Moses are praying and looking up to heaven as if they are still waiting for more manna to appear. Three people to the right of those are talking to one another, and a woman in green is pointing, leading our gaze down to a young man gathering manna near Moses’ left foot. Behind them is a group of older men, their hands raised up in appreciation of the falling manna. The actions/reactions and colors are typical of Reni’s style at this time.

Reni left Bologna briefly in 1618, traveling to Naples to complete a commission to paint a ceiling in a chapel of the cathedral of San Gennaro. However, in Naples, since prominent local painters were vehemently resistant to competitors, and according to rumor, conspired to poison or otherwise harm Reni, he chose not to outstay his welcome and left immediately after finishing the commission. (Reni had a great fear of being poisoned, and also a fear of witchcraft).

He returned to Bologna and continued to receive profitable commissions, and his paintings were popularly received and commanded wide appreciation. In 1625 Prince Sigismund, III Vasa of Poland visited Reni’s workshop in Bologna during his visit to Western Europe. The close rapport that developed between the painter and the Polish prince resulted in the acquisition of numerous drawings and paintings that spread Reni’s influence into Eastern Europe.


Guido Reni 1618-19, Atalanta
Guido Reni 1618-19, Atalanta

In 1618-19, Reni painted an oil-on-canvas painting, Atalanta and Hippomenes. Later, he worked on a second version of the same theme, from 1620-25. These paintings show his preference for gracefully posed figures that mirrored ancient Greek ideals. In addition, they, like the Crucifixion of St. Peter, depict dramatic diagonal movement coupled with the effects of light and shade that portray the more Baroque influence of Caravaggio without his predominance of strong shadow.

During 1600-1625, in addition to the works already mentioned, Reni completed other works among the most important being: Self-portrait, c. 1602, Saint Cecilia, 1606, Saint Sebastian, c. 1615, David and Abigail, c. 1615, Bacchus and Ariadne, c. 1619–1620, and The Baptism of Christ, c. 1622–1623.

Beginning around 1630 and continuing to his death, Reni changed his style somewhat to a looser approach that incorporated lighter tones, softer colors, and extremely free brushstrokes. In 1630, along with other northern Italian cities, Bologna was hit with the plague, lasting approximately 8-9 months in Bologna. Reni was commissioned by Bologna’s Senate, to produce the official banner to be carried in the civic votive procession that celebrated the end of the plague. He produced the Pallione del Voto, which included painted images of Saints Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier. While it was traditional in composition, the work’s imagery differs from other contemporary plague paintings and was shaped by civic concerns that were particular to Bologna.

Reni was a compulsive gambler, which meant that he was often in financial straits despite the steady demand for his paintings. This was especially true as the end of his life approached. According to one of his biographers, Carlo Cesare Malvasia, his need to recoup gambling losses resulted in rushed execution and multiple copies of his works produced by his workshop. The paintings of his last years included many unfinished works.

During this late period of his life, Reni produced other works, the most important being The Penitent Magdalene, c. 1635, St Matthew and the Angel, c. 1635–1640, St Michael Archangel, 1636, St John the Baptist in the Wilderness, 1636–1637, Saint James the Greater, c. 1636–1638, The Rape of Europa 1637-39, Saint Joseph and the Christ Child, 1640, and Lucretia, 1640–1642.

Guido Reni died in Bologna on August 18, 1642, after a short illness. He was buried in the Rosary Chapel of the Basilica of San Domenico which he had so beautifully decorated with impressive frescoes.

Guido Reni’s Legacy

Reni strove toward a classical harmony in which reality is presented in idealized proportions. The mood of his paintings is calm and serene, as are the studied softness of color and form.

His reputation as an important exponent of classical Baroque painting endured for more than two centuries, until the 19th century when it declined as a result of changing taste. This was epitomized by the censorious judgment of John Ruskin (1819-1900) that his work was sentimental and insincere.

However, Reni did leave an important legacy to Western art. He was the most famous Italian artist of his generation, whose fame spread across Western and Eastern Europe. Through his many pupils, he had a wide-ranging influence on later Baroque art. In the center of Bologna, he established two studios, teeming with nearly 200 students. His most distinguished pupil was the artist Simone Cantarini, known as Il Pesarese because he was born and raised in Pesaro, who painted the portrait of his master that now hangs in the Bolognese Gallery.

Beyond Italy, Reni’s influence was important in the style of many Spanish Baroque artists, especially Jusepe de Ribera and Murillo. But his work was particularly appreciated in France, where he influenced generations of French artists as well as the later French Neoclassic painters.

In the latter half of the 20th century, interest in Reni’s work reemerged, beginning with an important retrospective exhibition of his work that was mounted in Bologna in 1954, and continues to the present.

Adapted by James J. Boitano, PhD from:
Encyclopedia Britannica website;
Spear, Richard B. The “Divine” Guido: Religion, Sex, Money, and Art in the World of Guido Reni. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997;
Visual-arts-cork website;
Williamson, George. “Guido Reni.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911.


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