A small temporary exhibition will be on view until May 22 at Rome’s Borghese Gallery. “Guido Reni and Rome: Nature and Devotion” is the first exhibition dedicated to Reni in the last 30 years.
Like the artworks of the Borghese Gallery’s several other temporary exhibitions since 2007, the present 30 works-of-art are displayed interspersed among the Gallery’s permanent masterpieces: sculptures by Canova and Bernini and paintings by Titian, Cranach, Domenichino and Caravaggio. Sixteen of the 30 are paintings by Guido Reni. Best known for his mythological, allegorical, and religious subjects, Reni was born in Bologna in 1575. After a financial squabble in 1601 he left Bologna for Rome, where he lived until 1614.
The exhibition’s other fourteen works-of-art are by the Flemish landscapist Paul Bril–who introduced Reni to landscape painting and became his mentor in Rome–and other colleagues Nicolò dell’Abate, Agostino Carracci, Carlo Saraceni, Francesco Albani, and Domenichino. All (except for Saraceni) were, like Reni, natives of Bologna or nearby.
The exhibition’s itinerary starts on the ground floor, in the large entranceway, with four monumental altarpieces, all painted by Reni in Rome: The Crucifixion of Saint Peter (1604-5), on loan from the Vatican Museums; the Trinity with the Madonna of Loreto and the Patron, Cardinal Antonio Gallo (1603-4), on loan from the parish Santissima Trinità in Osimo near Ancona in the Marche; The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria (c. 1606), on loan from the Diocesan Museum in Albenga near Savona; and the Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia (1601), on loan from her namesake church in Trastevere.
Besides Cardinal Gallo–portrayed with the Madonna of Loreto–Reni’s other early patrons in Rome were Cardinal Paolo Emilio Sfondrati, banker and art collector Ottavio Costa, and Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini. Then, from 1604 to 1614, when Reni returned to Bologna more or less permanently, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V, already the patron of Bernini and Caravaggio, and the founder of the Borghese Gallery for his extensive personal art collection, commissioned works from Reni. Of special note, the frescoes of the Chapel of the Annunciation in the Quirinal Palace (1609-10) and the fresco of Aurora in the Casino (garden house) dell’Aurora Pallavicini Rospigliosi (1613-14). Usually closed, these magnificent frescoes will be open to the public for the duration of the exhibition: the chapel on Fridays and Saturdays. For the Casino’s hours, click on www.casinoaurorapallavicini.it.
Speaking of Caravaggio, an acquaintance of Reni while they were both in Rome, Reni’s Crucifixion of St. Peter, painted for the Abbazia delle Tre Fontane, first built in the 7th century on the site where St. Paul was decapitated and today the only Trappist monastery in Rome, clearly shows the influence of Caravaggio’s painting (1601) of the same subject in the Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo in Piazza del Popolo. Not to omit that Caravaggio had undoubtedly been influenced himself by Michelangelo’s fresco of St. Peter’s crucifixion (1545-50) in the Pauline Chapel in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace. This is the first time Reni’s canvas has left the Vatican Museums since Canova returned it there in 1816 from Paris after it had been looted by Napoleon in 1797.
In the adjacent rooms, the paintings also mostly depict religious subjects: The Massacre of the Innocents (1611), on loan from Bologna’s National Picture Gallery, and Saint Paul Reproaches the Penitent Saint Peter (c. 1609), on loan from Milan’s Brera Picture Gallery. Like the paintings in the entranceway, these too show a strong influence of ancient Roman sculpture as well as that of Bernini’s statues for their bodies’ twisted positions and the three-dimensional concreteness of their gestures–not to mention that their facial expressions are similar to those of Caravaggio’s subjects.
Other Reni canvases on the Gallery’s ground floor include: The Standard of the Confraternity of the Sacred Stigmata (1610-1612), on loan from the Museo di Roma near Piazza Navona; Lot and His Daughters on loan from London’s National Gallery, and David with the Head of Goliath, on loan from the Uffizi. Reni painted the latter two after his return to Bologna, as he did Atalanta and Hippomenes on loan from the Capodimonte Museum in Naples, the only Reni canvas exhibited here with a mythological subject.
Paul Bril, born in Antwerp in 1554 into a family of painters, moved to Rome in 1574, so nearly 30 years before Reni. An engraver, a “cabinet painter”, he painted frescoes, but most importantly, he was one of the first landscapists in Rome. Three and maybe four of his works, all of which have always belonged to the Borghese Gallery, are displayed on the second floor of the exhibition next to several small paintings by Reni. These, like Reni’s works on the floor below, also depict religious subjects, but with landscapes in their backgrounds. Also on display here is Reni’s only totally landscape painting, The Country Dance, the raison-d’être and centerpiece of the exhibition.
Reni painted The Country Dance between 1601-2. Carefully recorded in the inventories and descriptions of Scipione Borghese’s collection from the beginning of the seventeenth century, it remained in the collection until the end of the nineteenth century, when it was probably sold.
It reappeared at auction in London in 2008 with an attribution to an anonymous Bolognese artist, but scholars immediately recognized it as a work by Guido Reni, formerly belonging to the Borghese Collection. After its exhibition at the TEFAF in March 2020 at Bologna’s Fondantico Gallery, the Borghese Gallery purchased it, thus achieving the exceptional recovery of its long-lost painting and its definitive return to Italy.
Guido Reni and Rome: Nature and Devotion, where the canvas is on display for the first time in over a century, celebrates its return.
We know that Scipione Borghese wanted to appoint Reni his court painter, so he probably owned many Reni canvases. Today the Gallery still owns only one other major work by Reni, although it’s completely different in genre and subject: the Moses with the Tablets of the Law, from the artist’s mature period.
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