Guido Reni (1575–1642) – a gambler with subtle manners

Guido Reni, Guido Reni, portrait of Cardinal Bernardino Spada, fragment, Galleria Spada

Guido Reni, Guido Reni, portrait of Cardinal Bernardino Spada, fragment, Galleria Spada

He was the one „….who as a noble eagle soared into flight towards distant spheres and taking from heavenly ideas, he brought to earth a part of paradise”, claimed his contemporary Cesare Malvasia. This Bolognese chronicler also told us, that the artist was not an educated man, feared women and magic, while he exhibited a great weakness to gambling – he could play all night and lose all that he earned, being permanently in debt.

Guido Reni, Guido Reni, portrait of Cardinal Bernardino Spada, fragment, Galleria Spada
Guido Reni, The Martyrdom of St. Cecilia, Basilica of Santa Cecilia
Guido Reni, the fresco Aurora, Casino dell'Aurora
Guido Reni, St. Michael the Archangel, Church of Santa Maria della Conzcezione
Guido Reni, The Crucifixion, main altar of the Church of San Lorenzo in Lucina
Guido Reni, Cleopatra, Pinacoteca Capitolina, Musei Capitolini
Guido Reni, The Martyrdom of St. Andrew, Sant’Andrea Oratory
Guido Reni, Angelic concert, Santa Silvia Oratory
Guido Reni, altar of the Holy Trinity, Church of Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini
Guido Reni, The Crucifixion of St. Peter, Musei Vaticani, Pinacoteca Vaticana
Guido Reni, Mary Magdalene, Museo Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini
Guido Reni, Salome with the Head of St. John the Baptist, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Palazzo Corsini
Guido Reni, St. Jerome, Galleria Spada
Guido Reni, The Allegory of Luck, Accademia di San Luca
Guido Reni, figures of St. Peter and St. Paul, Sant’Andrea Oratory

He was the one „….who as a noble eagle soared into flight towards distant spheres and taking from heavenly ideas, he brought to earth a part of paradise”, claimed his contemporary Cesare Malvasia. This Bolognese chronicler also told us, that the artist was not an educated man, feared women and magic, while he exhibited a great weakness to gambling – he could play all night and lose all that he earned, being permanently in debt.

 

He began his career in Bologna, where he was part of a circle of painters from the Bolognese school (Domenichino, Giovanni Lanfranco, Francesco Albani, and others), preferring and idealist way of painting in the image of the art of Raphael. These artists came from a school established in the city by Annibale Carracci. It was with him that Guido Reni later competed in Rome, however at the beginning, after coming to the city on the Tiber around the year 1600, he helped him in managing an ambitious commission, the completion of frescoes in the Palazzo Farnese. Immediately he became the protégé of Cardinal Paolo Sfondrati and it was for him that he completed paintings designated for the Church of Santa Cecilia on the Trastevere, which brought him the recognition of Roman art enthusiasts, including the most important ones – Pope Paul V and his nephew Cardinal Scipione Borghese. In time Reni became the court painter of the pope, praised for the beauty and shining colors and well as the classicist grace of his works. He completed numerous paintings and wall decorations for the pope, including frescoes in the apartments of the Apostolic Palace on the Vatican, as well as in the Palazzo Quirinale, which at that time served as the papal summer residence.

Confrontation with the painting of the valued at that time by art collectors Caravaggio, altered the way Reni painted until then. Strong chiaroscuro, a certain dose of naturalism and darkness appeared in his paintings, which irritated Caravaggio, claiming that Reni is imitating his style, It should come as no surprise, as at that time the two painters developed a rivalry in acquiring commissions. However, as opposed to, the impulsive Caravaggio, Reni was a calm man, of almost womanly charm, and besides that – as Malvasia wrote – “he was always friendly and kind, pleasant and generous and courtly and on top of that always well and appropriately dressed”.

 

Travelling between Bologna and Rome, he continued to improve his painting style. He acquired true renown after creating the fresco Aurora (1614), which constituted the principal decoration of the garden pavilion of Scipione Borghese. After completing this work, he could have proudly wielded the scepter Rome’s greatest painter, however a conflict with the papal Curia, most likely regarding a payment, caused Reni to leave for Bologna and settle there for good. He came back to the city on the Tiber in 1625 and 1636 to complete further commissions. The last one, created for the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione, was to bring him popularity for ages. His The Archangel Michael Defeating Satan became a true Catholic icon, which is known by every child raised in the Roman Catholic faith from Catechism, while by every adult from devotional books and altars all around the globe. Two years later, in another Roman church (San Lorenzo in Lucina) one of the most bizarre Crucifixions known to us appeared. Christ, bereft of any signs of suffering, seems to be floating up into the heavens in this representation.

At the end of his life, Reni’s way of painting became rapid, schematic and superficial. According to Malvasia the reason for this was hurriedness, which appeared as a consequence of gambling and constant financial problems. Some historians also see him going through a depression during the last years of his life. Anyway we would look at it, it is a fact, that in his latter works there  was not only hurriedness but also repetitive “commercial” motifs, especially of religious nature, completed more by his workshop than by the artist himself.

The artistic fame of Rani, in contradiction to Caravaggio lasted for many centuries. It was not until the XX century that his work started to be identified with sentimentalism, artificiality and only then his star shone less brightly. In Rome itself there are over 150 of his works (including drawings and sketches), some of them in private collections.

 

Some of the painter’s works in Rome:

  •       Basilica of Santa Cecilia on the Trastevere

Martyrdom of St. Cecilia

Tondo depicting the scene of the mystical wedding of Cecilia and Valerian

  • Sant’Andrea Oratory (at the Church of San Gregorio Magno)

Martyrdom of St. Andrew, figures of two apostles – Peter and Paul, 1608

  •       Santa Silvia Oratory (at the Church of San Gregorio Magno)

Concert of Angels at the top of the apse

  • Palazzo del Quirinale

Decorations in the papal chapel – Cappella Paolina dell’Annunziata, 1609

The Annunciation, 1610

Birth of the Virgin, 1610

  • Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore

Frescoes in the papal chapel – Cappella Paolina,1612

  • Church of Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini

Main altar of the Holy Trinity, 1625

 
  •       Church of Santa Maria della Concezione

St. Michael the Archangel, approx. 1636

  •       Church of San Lorenzo in Lucina

Main altar depicting Christ on the Cross, approx. 1638

  •       Complex of the Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella

Madonna Appearing to St. Philip of Neri

  Aurora  fresco in the garden pavilion, 1614

  •       Musei Vaticani

The Crucifixion of St. Peter (1605) for the Church of San Paolo alle Tre Fontane

Our Lady with SS. Jerome and Thomas, 1635

St. Matthew and the Angel, 1640

  •       Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini

The Penitent Magdalene, 1633

  •       Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Palazzo Corsini

Salome with the head of John the Baptist

  •       Galleria Spada

Portrait of Cardinal Bernardino Spada, 1631

St. Jerome