His contemporaries called him il genio bizzaro, and in 17th century Italy, artist Guido Cagnacci’s reputation as an eccentric and socially unconventional character justly or unjustly contributed to allowing his work to slip into obscurity.
Still best known primarily by a small circle of curators, collectors and connoisseurs, New Yorkers are in for an unexpected treat. A trio of his most unsettling, erotic paintings are on exhibit in New York City in three venues: on loan from the Pinacoteca di Brera, Dying Cleopatra is on view at the Italian Cultural Institute through January 19, 2017; the Norton Simon Museum has exceptionally loaned to the Frick Collection Cagnacci’s Repentant Magdalene where it is on view through January 22, 2017, and at the Metropolitan Museum, from December 12, 2016, visitors can admire another version of Cagnacci’s Dying Cleopatra (Gallery 601). To date, only four of Cagnacci’s works are on view in American institutions. The first work by Cagnacci to reach the United States, David with the Head of Goliath, was acquired in 1962 by the Columbia Museum of Art in South Carolina.
The Dying Cleopatra at the Italian Cultural Institute, seems to have just been bitten by a small snake that is trapped between the arm of the chair and her fleshy arm, she is half slumped yet full frontal in a high-backed red velvet or leather chair, her head is thrown back, her eyes half-closed, her face is flushed, lips slightly swollen, as if daring the onlooker to determine whether she is a victim or a woman in a post-ecstatic, erotic state.
Almost 400 years after his death, Cagnacci’s work was rediscovered in Italy in the 1950s, when two exhibitions ―in Rimini, in 1952, and in Bologna, in 1959― introduced him to modern Italian art historians and writers. He remained little known outside of Italy, however, and the only exhibitions dedicated to him took place in Rimini, in 1993, and in Forlì, in 2008.
Besides his colorful personality, his contemporaries thought him “unreliable and of doubtful morality.” Xavier Saloman, noted scholar and the Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator of The Frick Collection, suggests that provinciality also added to the marginalization of Cagnacci as he worked outside large and significant cities of Rome, Bologna and Naples, working instead from San’Arcangelo Romagna near his home base of Rimini.
There is no doubt his personal life got all the attention. In 1628, he unlawfully eloped with Teodora Arianna Stivivi, an aristocratic widow, but avoided arrest by abandoning her and fleeing town. Later, he was often rumored to be living illegally with attractive young women, who were disguised as male apprentices. He succeeded in convincing one woman to bequeath him all of her property, and, on occasion, he was known to travel from city to city under a false name. In Venice, he seemed to have tried to create a new identity for himself, presumably to sever his romantic and legal entanglements in Romagna.
His pictorial style was influenced by some of the greatest Italian Baroque painters ―the Carracci, Guercino, and Guido Reni― his figurative language always remained individual and highly recognizable. Especially after the late 1630s, he developed a particularly distinctive style. Some say Cagnacci’s main achievement rests in his curious and somewhat inexplicable amalgamation of different styles, which resulted in a very specific and recognizable artistic language.
The unconventionality of his paintings also meant that during the 18th and 19th centuries he was almost entirely forgotten, if not in his native area.
According to Saloman’s research, in a letter written in 1663 just prior to Cagnacci’s death, Monsignor Giacomo Villani of Rimini praised his artistic accomplishments in Rimini and melancholically concluded that he had been “a painter of good talent, but of ill-fated fortune.”
Cagnacci left no followers or pupils to continue and promote his distinctive style, and this is probably one of the reasons that his work was consigned to the virtual obscurity it languished in until fairly recently. In the catalogue of the 1952 exhibition, the Italian art historian Cesare Gnudi wrote about two large canvases that Cagnacci had painted in 1642–44 for the Cathedral of Forlì. His lyrical description of these works could apply to most of Cagnacci’s paintings, “[they possess] a sensuous beauty, an exuberant life that expands into a spectacular vision, a magnificent and joyful ballet; a world that delights itself in an enchanted game of brilliant colors, of dazzling lights, of sounds, and at the same time discovers a reality which is closer and more earthly, a new, much abbreviated, relationship with nature: all of these, we have seen, are typical seventeenth-century notes, but expressed in such singular form that it can be easily said that they add a new accent to the history of Italian painting.”
And even the Egyptian Queen’s death, a controversial one among historians and Egyptologists is enigmatic. Christoph Schäfer, the German historian and author of a best-seller entitled Cleopatra, has extensively researched the death of Cleopatra caused by the snake. He discovered one report, written about 200 years after Cleopatra’s death, stating that Cleopatra died a quiet and peaceful death, and this is exactly how Cagnacci has portrayed the victim in both his paintings, which does not correlate with death by asp bite –a long, painful and disfiguring way to go.
Schäfer finally concluded that Cleopatra likely died of a different method as the Egyptians knew a great deal about poisons: that she likely died of a recipe of opium, wolfsbane and hemlock, which was known to induce a painless and peaceful death.
Finally, it will be up to the viewer to see what he or she sees before them in Cagnacci’s transfixing Dying Cleopatra.