Seventeenth-century Italian painting between Caravaggio and Reni

Guido Cagnacci : Protagonista del Seicento tra Caravaggio e Reni, Forlì, Musei San Domenico, 20 January - 22 June 2008.

Un’altra bellezza : Francesco Furini, Florence, Palazzo Pitti, Museo degli Argenti, 22 December 2007 - 27 April 2008.

1. Guido Cagnacci (1601-1663)
David with the Head of Goliath., c. 1655
Oil on canvas – 112.5 x 95 cm
Private collection

At a time when it appears there can never be too many exhibitions on Italian renaissance painting and Titian in particular (as noted e.g. by Christophe Brouard’s review of the Titian exhibition at Belluno elsewhere on La Tribune de l’Art), it is a pleasure to see monographic expositions being devoted to two Italian seventeenth-century artists that are undoubtedly lesser known, but that on the ground of artistic quality certainly merit both scholarly and wider public attention. Both the exhibition on Francesco Furini (1603-1646) in the artist’s native Florence and the one centred around Guido Cagnacci (1601-1663) in Forlì seek to affirm the importance (Cagnacci : protagonist) and individuality (Furini : a different beauty) of their respective subjects. The subtitle given to the Cagnacci exhibition, Between Caravaggio and Reni, could be applied with equal validity to Furini, who studied in Rome with the caravaggist Bartolomeo Manfredi, but whose female figures owe much to Guido Reni’s. The parallel between the two exhibitions is explicitly drawn by Mina Gregori in her brief essay in the Cagnacci catalogue that was prompted by the then recently opened Furini exhibition that she curated together with Rodolfo Maffeis [1]. In this sense the two events combine to give a wider view at the ways in which the legacies of Reni’s and Caravaggio’s aesthetics were fused by artists of the generation that followed them. The iconic example of this fusion, and a masterpiece in its own right, is Cagnacci’s David with the Head of Goliath from a private collection (Cagnacci, cat. 79, ill. 1) that serves as the exhibition’s signature picture.

2. Guido Cagnacci (1601-1663)
Cleopatra, c. 1660-1662
Oil on canvas – 120 x 158 cm
Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera

Forlì is no Florence. But although the town has little reputation as a tourist attraction compared to the Tuscan self-declared art-capitol, with the restoration and recuperation of its former Dominican convent over the last decade and its gradual transformation into the location for all of the town’s civic museums, Forlì now boasts a spacious and modern museum complex that more than merits a detour from the beaten tracks, especially since the pictures of the pinacoteca were transferred to this new location in 2006. The museum provides this collection, with its focus on local masters (notably Palmezzano and Francesco Menzocchi), with the presentation it deserves and has also the space and means to host art exhibitions of international allure. The Cagnacci exhibition, for instance, consists of no less than 88 paintings, half of which by Cagnacci himself, without appearing crowded.

3. Guido Cagnacci (1601-1663)
St. Agatha, c. 1635-1640
Oil on canvas - 121 x 97 cm
Modena, Banca Popolare dell’Emilia Romagna

The exhibition catalogue divides these works into eight sections that are neither fully chronological nor thematic, though the titles of these subdivisions suggest more of the latter than the former. Although there is hardly ever a solution that perfectly compartmentalises any painter’s oeuvre, the hybrid form chosen here does not work very well for Cagnacci, for whom chronology and interests in certain subject-matters or modes of pictorial expression do not coincide sufficiently to be linked in an exhibition. The penultimate section, for instance, entitled Il corpo e l’anima : un teatro interiore, presents mostly (but not only) female, (half-)nude, sacred subjects, often in multiple versions. This is where Cagnacci’s enticing Cleopatras (ill. 2) find their place (though one Cleopatra, cat. 44, is in the catalogue actually listed in the L’incontro con Guido Reni section), together with a Lucrezia and two nude female allegorical pictures, but with also the two versions of David with the Head of Goliath, a Virgin, a St. Jerome, and other works. Guercino’s and Reni’s Cleopatras (Cagnacci, cats. 38, 35), however, are part of other sections. Chronologically, the focus in this Il corpo e l’anima section is on works from the mid 1640’s to the end of Cagnacci’s life, but the earliest picture in this room is nonetheless from 1635-1640. Especially given the large number of (high quality) paintings in the exhibition and the fact that the sections as indicated in the catalogue do not always strictly correspond to their distribution over the rooms [2], a more rigorous chronological or thematic grouping of the paintings could have aided the viewer who is now confronted with an impressive but somewhat hard to grasp tour along more than eighty paintings.

The first, large room that contains the first three sections of the exhibition focuses on putting Cagnacci in relation to his examples and contemporaries, confronting his works with paintings by Emilian artists such as Reni, Ludovico Carracci, Lanfranco, Guercino, Cantarini, Tiarini, and Caravaggio and ‘tenebrists’ such as Serodine, the two Gentilischi, Borgianni, Vouet, and Van Honthorst. These ‘comparative’ works are of high quality themselves and they have been given due attention : besides three works by Cagnacci, also Van Honthorst’s Decapitation of St. John the Baptist (Cagnacci, cat. 13) from Santa Maria della Scala in Rome and Vouet’s Temptation of St. Francis from San Lorenzo in Lucina in Rome have been restored for the occasion. Some of these works have little to do directly with Cagnacci. Caravaggio’s Boy bitten by a Lizard (Cagnacci, cat. 7), for instance, with its protagonist’s frowned brow seems in fact rather to have been something of a model for Furini, who uses a similar expression so often that, seeing all of these works side by side, it becomes something of an easy topos. (cfr. Furini cats. 10, 13, 14, 15, 30, 35).

Other comparisons seem more to the point, such as Caravaggio’s Penitent Magdalene from the Pamphilj collection in Rome (Cagnacci, cat. 8) that with the subtle contrast in technique between the rendition of the saint’s body and the still-life precision of the discarded jewellery brings to the fore the similar approach taken by Cagnacci, for example in his voluptuous Mary Magdalene from palazzo Barberini (Cagnacci, cat. 20), where a similar contrast between the saint’s flesh and her penitential attributes is made. Moreover, as Benati points out, the composition of this work clearly recalls Caravaggio’s Magdalene in Ecstasy. Also some of the other confrontations are well chosen. Besides motivic relations (the best example of which is Cagnacci’s literal borrowing of Ludovico Carracci’s St. Sebastian, cats. 3, 4), the best examples are Guido Reni’s emblematic women that, brought together in one room with Cagnacci’s, bring into relief their importance for Cagnacci. Even as Cagnacci darkens the pastels and silvery tone of Reni’s late period under the influence of tenebrist influences, the indebtedness is obvious in works such as his St. Agatha (ill. 3). Other examples are two versions of a very Guercinesque Madonna with Child (Cagnacci, cats. 25, 26) hung next to a Madonna with Child by Guercino himself.

4. Francesco Furini (1603-1646)
St. Lucy
Oil on canvas - 66.2 x 50.3 cm
Rome, Galleria Spada

The exhibition on Furini at Palazzo Pitti is smaller in scale and scope than the one on Cagnacci. It is a strictly monographic show of 57 catalogued pieces, including two of the frescoes he painted in the rooms in Palazzo Pitti in which the exhibition is held, oil paintings, and a number of preparatory bozzetti and drawings. The rare opportunity to hold an exhibition of this kind in period rooms that were partly decorated by the artist himself has been recognised by the organisers, and it has determined the choice for some of the other works, allowing drawings and oil sketches to be seen directly underneath the frescoes for which they were a preparation. This variety and the inclusion of works that are directly related one to another, either as preparatory studies or in the case of the canvasses as variants/copies, combines well with the monographic nature of the exhibition, in which the sequence of only works by Furini himself highlights his particular compositional predilections, such as the already mentioned frowned brow, or the recurring device of showing figures from the back. He does this not only in multi-figure compositions (Furini, cats. 15, 16, 17, 24) but, and this is where the idea becomes particularly intriguing, also in single-figure devotional paintings. A case in point is the St. Lucy (Furini, cat. 21, ill. 4, cfr. also Faith, cat. 23), where the conceit is particularly apt. By hiding the saint’s face and having the eyes of the dish that identify her stare at the beholder, Furini alludes to the saint’s disfigurement as she was tortured (according to one legend her eyes were stuck out) precisely by not showing it, while at the same time playing with different gazes of the saint, her separate eyes, and the viewer. As in the case of Cagnacci, Furini too combines the lessons learned from Reni’s women with a darker palette, but often his compositions and the contrived dynamic positions in which he poses his figures, either enveloped in swaying cloth such as the beautiful Penitent Magdalene from Stuttgart (Furini, cat. 33), or the mentioned women-seen-from-the-back, the inspiration seems to come from mannerist examples and in particular Correggio (his Jupiter and Io comes to mind).

5. Francesco Furini (1603-1646)
Head of a Woman. Study for the Allegory
of Poetry
Black and red pencil, coloured pastels,
and white chalk on paper – 25.3 x 20.2 cm
Florence, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degl Uffizi

What strikes perhaps most at this exhibition is that Furini was an excellent draftsman. Some of the drawings that were chosen because of their relation to the frescoes in the rooms where the exhibition is held, are at the same time great examples of Furini’s skill in this medium. The beautiful example of a drawing in pencil and coloured pastels that served as one of these preparatory studies (Furini, cat. 44, ill. 6) is the most eloquent example of this : a delicately modern work, in retrospect suggesting an almost eighteenth-century French touch. Perhaps it is with this idea in mind that one also perceives the modernity of some of Furini’s oil paintings, or perhaps rather the fact that they appear to be an important part of the tradition to which we can trace the work of certain later painters. It is, for instance, hard not to think of Greuze on seeing one of Furini’s penitent Magdalenes (Furini, cat. 22, ill. 7). Similarly, the issue of the nineteenth-century reception of Cagnacci was given attention in a small oval room in the exhibition in Forlì that briefly touches on this question by showing a Ruth (Cagnacci, cat. 88) by Francesco Hayez (1791-1882), one of the few nineteenth-century Italian artists to explicitly draw on Cagnacci.

Francesco Furini (1603-1646)
The Penitent Magdalene
Oil on canvas – 69 x 59.5 cm
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

The staging of the exhibition in Forlì by the Parisian firm of Wilmotte & Associates is exemplary in its simplicity. The paintings are well lit against the quiet, blue background that appears to be derived from Cagnacci’s David mentioned above. The scenography of the Furini exhibition by Luigi Cupellini, on the other hand, is less of a success. That the exhibition is mounted in the frescoed rooms of Palazzo Pitti that Furini himself painted understandably adds to the technical difficulties of lighting each individual painting without damaging or hiding the frescoes, but Cupellini’s solution is far from perfect. It consists of off-white screens that in the lower corners turn into one or two curls (evidently conceived as the quintessence of ‘baroque’), in which spots illuminate the pictures from below. Luckily in combination with the ambient lighting, the result is not bad for all works, but in too many cases this superimposed ‘caravaggesque’ raking light distracts from the painting itself and mercilessly puts into relief the smallest imperfections in the canvas and the paintings’ surface.

The catalogues of the two exhibitions are on the other hand both well made. The one accompanying the Cagnacci exhibition was edited by the exhibition’s curators Daniele Benati, one of the major specialists of Emilian art, and Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums (See News Item 7/12/07) and some years ago also the curator of the first of the large old-master exhibitions at the Musei San Domenico, the one on Palmezzano. The essays focus on the role of Forlì in relation to Cagnacci (Franco Zaghini : Il Seicento a Forlì : Le istituzioni e il rinnovamento della città, and the republication of a 1954 article by Cesare Gnudi on Una fantasia interrotta. I “quadroni” del Cagnacci) and on collectionism (Giulia Palloni, Guido Cagnacci nel collezionismo forlivese ; Linda Borrean : Cagnacci e il collezionismo a Venezia tra Sei e Settecento). The essays in the Furini catalogue talk about a wider range of issues, making the book a valuable piece of scholarship on the painter, something that (compared to the Cagnacci catalogue) is also clear from the systematic information on provenance, previous exhibitions, and restorations in the catalogue entries, as well as from the extensive register and documentary appendices following the catalogue entries.

Guido Cagnacci : Protagonista del Seicento tra Caravaggio e Reni, ed. Daniele Benati and Antonio Paolucci, Milan, Silvana Editoriale, 2008, pp. 356, € 35, ISBN : 97888-3661031-0.

Un’altra bellezza : Francesco Furini, ed. Mina Gregori and Rodolfo Maffeis, Florence, Mandragora, 2007, pp. 318, € 40, ISBN : 978-88-7461-105-8

Visitor information :
Guido Cagnacci Forlì, Musei San Domenico, Piazza Guido da Montefeltro 12. Opened Tuesday through Friday 9.30-19.00, Saterday, Sunday, Holidays, 24 March and 2 June : 9.30-20.00, Monday closed. Full price € 9 (includes admission to the rest of the museum).

Website :

Francesco Furini Florence, Palazzo Pitti, Museo degl’Argenti, Piazza Pitti 1. Opened all days, 8.15-17.30 in March and 8.15-18.30 in April, closed on the first and last day of the month. Full price € 10 (includes admission to the Museo degl’Argenti, Boboli and Bardini gardens, and the Galleria del Costume of Palazzo Pitti). Website :

Huub van der Linden, mardi 1er avril 2008


[1] Mina Gregori, Sugli inizi di Guido Cagnacci, in Guido Cagnacci : Protagonista del Seicento tra Caravaggio e Reni, pp. 55-59.

[2] E.g. also cat. 29, The Magdalene in Meditation, is in the exhibition presented in the Il corpo e l’anima section, but in the catalogue grouped in section three Un sentimento religioso : “solenne, intimo e grave”.

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