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The Other Bolognese

Guido Cagnacci - The Death of Cleopatra - WGA03758
Death of Cleopatra, ca.1659

Born on January 19, 1601 near Rimini, Italy, Guido Cagnacci was a Baroque painter from the Forlì school and also the Bolognese School, whose contemporaries include Guido Reni, Domenichino, Guercino, and Lionello Spada among others. Considered odd and unreliable, it is unfortunate because his work represents a rare vision on the sensuality of women at a time when the Inquisition did not have an open mind about it. Cagnacci's work is unique from most of his contemporaries for this reason, and his women are unaffected and life-like in a way that is ahead of his time.

In Death of Cleopatra we clearly see the Baroque influence from Caravaggio but here Cagnacci heightens the soft flesh with transparent shadows and bright colored drapery. The asp coils loosely around her wrist and bites the forearm of Cleopatra yet her expression is one of surrender, if not pleasure. Cagnacci groups her closest servants on a horizontal plane yet creates a confined space by placing the three figures to the left overlapping each other while the three on the right nearly evenly spaced out. The chair Cagnacci uses bears a resemblance to the one used by the Pope himself. His drybrush skills reveal a remarkable control of the paint with very smooth blending and intuitive color sense. This is a beautiful painting.

Guido Cagnacci - Martha Rebuking Mary for her Vanity - WGA03760
Martha Rebuking Mary for her Vanity, ca.1660

Depicting Mary Magdalene, who lies topless on the floor with her jewelry and fancy clothing scattered beside her, is being lectured by her sister Martha, who points to the devil being driven out of the room by an angel. This idiosyncratic interpretation is a synthesis of fantasy and allegory with visual influences of Renaissance, Mannerism, and Baroque to create a surreal, dream-like work. Note the similarity in the soft light on Martha's face to Cleopatra above.

David with the Head of Goliath by Guido Cagnacci, Getty Center
David with the Head of Goliath, ca.1650

A rather stylish and bold interpretation of a well-known biblical theme, here David is androgynous and flamboyantly dressed, complete with feather in cap. Cagnacci uses color and costume to tell an age-old story, and here the blue and red create a visually compelling harmony against the cool grey background. In contrast to Martha Rebuking Mary for her Vanity, Cagnacci is suggesting that style and talent are the very thing that conquers brute strength and ignorance.

Allegory of Vanity and Penitence

Cagnacci seems preoccupied with this theme of vanity, and yet here there is a very different interpretation. The young model Cagnacci has chosen is stunningly beautiful and Classical, clutching a rose in one hand with a skull in the other. Her skin is luminous with transparent shadows...he paints her with confidence, unaffected by the judgements of others. The painting is surprisingly modern in its approach, and deserves merit for capturing a state of mind and for its strong sensuality.

Guido Cagnacci - Lucrezia

Cagnacci's interpretation of the suicide of Lucretia is sympathetic and without the dramatic chiaroscuro one would associate with this theme, which has been painted by countless artists. Her skin is remarkably cool and softly glowing, yet it is the drapery that Cagnacci paints with breathtaking realism. One could study those orange folds for hours and still learn something from them. Look closely and you can see subtle green midtones in certain areas. Cagnacci may have been odd or unusual, but he could definitely paint, and he painted women in a special way.


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