Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 16, 2010
Daniel M. Unger Guercino’s Paintings and His Patrons’ Politics in Early Modern Italy Visual Culture in Early Modernity. Ed. Allison Levy.. Burlington: Ashgate, 2010. 208 pp.; 8 color ills.; 54 b/w ills. Cloth $99.95 (9780754669098)

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known as Il Guercino (“the squinter”), was born in 1591 in Cento, a small town between Ferrara and Bologna, and died in Bologna in 1666. Born a generation after the Carracci, whose works influenced him, Guercino soon developed a personal style noteworthy for combining naturalism with dramatic chiaroscuro effects. From Cento, he produced paintings for such patrons as Cardinal Jacopo Serra, papal legate to Ferrara; Ferdinando Gonzaga, duke of Mantua; and Cosimo II de’ Medici, grand duke of Tuscany. Guercino was enticed away from Cento only when his patron Cardinal Alessandro Ludovisi was elected Pope Gregory XV in 1621 and summoned him to Rome. At Gregory’s death in 1623, Guercino returned to Cento, where he remained until 1642; there he received a steady stream of commissions from patrons on and beyond the Italian peninsula. The reclusive Guercino, who rarely traveled and never married, ultimately left Cento, which was close to the battlegrounds of the War of Castro, and moved to Bologna in 1642 at the death of his artistic competitor, Guido Reni.

During his long career from ca. 1613 to 1666, Guercino produced approximately 350 paintings and over 1,000 drawings. The daunting enterprise of attributing and dating these works and analyzing Guercino’s artistic choices, begun by Denis Mahon in the 1930s (culminating in a catalogue raisonné of the paintings written by Luigi Salerno and Mahon in 1988), has been significantly advanced in recent years by David Stone and Nicholas Turner. The pronounced change in Guercino’s style, which Mahon placed in the Roman period, has been reinterpreted by both Stone and Sybille Ebert-Schifferer (Denis Mahon, Studies in Seicento Art and Theory, London: Warburg Institute, 1947; David Stone, Master Draftsman: Works from North American Collections, Cambridge, MA: Arthur M. Sackler Museum, 1991; and Sybille Ebert-Schifferer, ed., Giovanni Francesco Barbieri: Il Guercino 1591–1666, Frankfurt, 1991). Individual works by Guercino have been the subject of iconographical and patronage studies, yet there are still relatively few interpretative studies of Guercino’s work, especially book-length works.

In Guercino’s Paintings and His Patrons’ Politics in Early Modern Europe, Daniel M. Unger aims to fill part of this gap by writing “a case study of [Guercino as] a ‘political painter’” (1). He states “that Guercino can be considered a political painter because of his ability to respond to his patrons’ needs and convey a political idea according to the patron’s political agenda” (2). The specific context for their agendas, according to Unger, is the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48).

Focusing on eight paintings that Guercino executed between ca. 1617 and 1645, Unger argues that each one concerns a political issue directly related to the Thirty Years’ War. He divides his book into two parts, corresponding to two phases of the war. Part 1 examines four paintings commissioned toward the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War, when Catholics believed it was still possible to win back Protestant “heretics” to the fold. Part 2 is devoted to four paintings produced during the subsequent phase, which Unger terms “disillusionment,” when the nationalistic concerns of individual Catholic powers increasingly took precedence over the papacy’s goal of a unified crusade against Protestant heresy.

The artist’s own politics are of great import to Unger, who writes, “it seems to me inconceivable that someone like Guercino, who executed paintings conveying a political message for the most illustrious leaders of his times, never tried to articulate his own political ideas in his work. Guercino was an intensely religious person at a time when Europe was torn by religious conflicts; he lived all his life in the papal state [sic] and, as we shall see, expressed mainstream political views of both popes and cardinals on the main issue of the day—that the Protestants should be coerced back into the Catholic fold by all possible means” (5; my emphases). Unger then discusses three comments by Guercino’s biographer, Count Carlo Cesare Malvasia, in his book Felsina Pittrice (1678), which he uses as evidence that Guercino was a political painter. Let it suffice here to examine only one of Malvasia’s stories. In 1624 King Charles I asked Guercino to come to England to be his court painter; Malvasia explained that Guercino did not go to England because he did not want to associate with heretics. Unger concludes: “to decline a king’s invitation because he is a heretic is a totally political act” (6).

Regrettably, some of Unger’s arguments are based on conjectures, not only in forming his overarching thesis, but also in interpreting individual paintings. There is no surviving evidence that Guercino was an “intensely religious person.” Malvasia was not particularly well-informed about Guercino, but even if Guercino did, in fact, call Charles I a heretic, the refusal of an artist well-documented as a recluse to move to a foreign court does not necessarily constitute “a totally political act.”

Malvasia’s statements about Guercino need to be analyzed in relation to remarks made by coeval biographers, and also in the context of Seicento rhetorical conventions. In his Notizie de’ professori del disegno da Cimabue in qua (1681), Filippo Baldinucci told a remarkably similar story about the Roman painter, Angelo Caroselli, whom an English gentleman tried to convince to serve as Charles I’s court painter. Baldinucci wrote: “because of [Caroselli’s] scruples in taking his family to a non-Catholic region, he excused himself, and in his place Orazio Gentileschi was sent instead’” (as quoted by R. Ward Bissell, Orazio Gentileschi and the Poetic Tradition in Caravaggesque Painting, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1981, 51). No one has called Caroselli a political artist simply on the basis of Baldinucci’s comment. Based on this evidence, it is possible to argue that because Malvasia and Baldinucci are documented as having been pious Catholics, the comments about Charles I’s Protestant faith are likely to express their own agendas.

The literary topos of an artist being sought out by a great ruler also plays a role in these biographical accounts. Malvasia used it to emphasize the international renown of Bolognese artists, men from his own native region, here represented by Guercino. Similarly, the Florentine Baldinucci aimed to show that Gentileschi, a fellow Tuscan, became an important court painter.

Unger also endeavors to show that Guercino’s paintings convey specific political messages on behalf of his patrons. The strength of this aspect of the book is Unger’s careful attention to telling iconographic details and figural gestures. For example, in chapter 2 he demonstrates clearly that Guercino’s St. Jerome Sealing a Letter (1617–18), a unique pictorial theme, concerns the relationship between the saint and Pope Damasus I, whose name is inscribed on the letter in the painting. Damasus successfully defended papal primacy, which would have made this theme appealing to Catholics at the start of the Thirty Years’ War.

Unfortunately, when Unger attempts to connect this painting with a specific patron and a particular political use, his argument becomes more tenuous. St. Jerome Sealing a Letter is first listed in Patrizi family inventories in the 1650s. Unger reasons that Monsignor Costanzo Patrizi may have been the patron since Patrizi’s family later owned the painting. Because Patrizi was busy as the pope’s treasurer, and Guercino had not yet been to Rome, Unger proposes that there was a middleman and that Cardinal Jacopo Serra played that part. Despite admitting that this is conjecture (40), Unger focuses in detail on Serra’s presumed political agenda. According to Unger, “Cardinal Serra’s position as the one in charge of ensuring the safety of Ferrara would certainly explain a scene such as St. Jerome Sealing a Letter for the purpose of giving it to the pope’s treasurer. . . . If indeed it was Cardinal Serra who presented Monsignor Patrizi with Guercino’s St. Jerome Sealing a Letter, then we may understand his intention as an attempt to ingratiate himself with Monsignor Patrizi and coax him into granting the funds needed to fortify Ferrara” (41). Yet the fact is we do not know if Serra served as a middleman (although he may have done so on other occasions for Guercino) nor do we know if the recipient of the painting was Patrizi.

If Unger found documentary evidence to shed light on the paintings by Guercino on which his book centers, he does not present this archival research to the reader. Instead, he relies almost exclusively on secondary scholarship together with the kind of reasoning synopsized above. As a result, his book does not significantly enhance understanding of the eight paintings as vehicles for conveying the specific political ideas of individual patrons. He does, however, serve the field by drawing attention to major works by Guercino and to a range of questions that merit further research.

Pamela M. Jones
Field Editor for Early Modern Southern European Art,; Professor of Art, College of Liberal Arts, University of Massachusetts Boston

Please send comments about this review to