The Art of Guido Cagnacci: Xavier Salomon

★★★★

Guido Cagnacci is probably an unfamiliar name even to many seasoned gallery-goers. He’s an Italian Baroque artist whom I’ve always liked, despite feeling that I probably shouldn’t. Shouldn’t my inner feminist revolt at the sight of his damp-eyed saints and tragic heroines, with their tumbling auburn hair and exposed breasts? But, despite all that, the man actually did paint some pretty fabulous pictures. In this monograph, written to celebrate the loan in 2017 of Cagnacci’s Repentent Magdalen, from the Norton Simon Museum to the Frick Collection and the National Gallery in London, Xavier Salomon fleshes out the life of this little-known artist. It’s only a short introduction, but it tantalises with its tale of a passionate, innovative and unconventional painter. Come join me – and enjoy a veritable bevy of lovely pictures.

Cagnacci was born in 1601 in the Romagna, that region on the eastern edge of Italy between the mountains and the sea, not far from Rimini, where he would make his name as a mature painter. His father was an affluent town-crier, who was able to pay for his son’s training, first in Bologna and then in Rome. In later life, Cagnacci would describe himself as a Bolognese painter, nodding to the importance of his formation in the world of the supremely influential Carracci family. However, Rome must have been an equally overwhelming experience. When he was studying there, in the last years of the 1610s, it was a thrilling place: a real melting pot of styles and ideas. On the one hand you had the followers of Caravaggio with their shadowy, violent genre scenes and fierce, naturalistic religious pictures. Then there were the foreigners, the Frenchman Simon Vouet among them. And there were artists whose works flirted with the kind of androgynous beauty that would become Cagnacci’s hallmark – Guercino, for example, with whom he was actually lodging on Easter Day 1622 (archives are wonderful things).

We’re used to narratives of artistic genius: the young painter being catapulted into success and brilliance. But Salomon points out that this doesn’t actually apply to Cagnacci. His earliest works are awkward assemblies of figures that seem to have been planned individually and jumbled together. In fact, looking at the excellent colour illustrations that accompany the text, I would say that he didn’t really hit his stride until the late 1630s or even as late as 1640. He was comfortably middle-aged (by the standards of the time) before he found his metier. And by that point his unorthodox personal life had caused problems. He’d fallen in love with an aristocrat in Rimini, Teodora Stivivi; they’d eloped, but her family tracked them down and Teodora was forced into a convent (later being obliged to marry her nephew, to keep her fortune in the family) and Cagnacci into exile. He would never marry, but there were rumours that he travelled around with a pretty girl who dressed as a servant boy and served as the model for his saints, queens and heroines. This scandal disappointed Cagnacci’s father, who’d funded his son’s training only to be repaid by what was turning out to be a rather dissolute lifestyle. Matteo Cagnacci left Guido as little as possible in his will.

With all of this behind him, it’s doubly strange that something clicked with Cagnacci in around 1640. Salomon wonders whether it was his stay in Bologna at this time, when he would have come into contact with Guido Reni’s late works. But from this point on we see a shift in his pictures towards striking half-lengths, usually of single figures, set against plain backgrounds that throw the characters into monumental relief. Yes, many of these half-lengths do show famous women from history and, yes, Cagnacci has a tendency to go for a kind of soft eroticism that reminded me of Kenny Everett’s character Cupid Stunt (‘And then all my clothes fell off; but it was all in the best possible taste’). Here is a half-naked woman sitting in a red velvet chair with her head thrown back: only the tiny snake on the arm of the chair identifies her as Cleopatra (c.1660-1663; Brera, Milan). Here is Cleopatra again, surrounded by maidservants in varying degrees of dishabille, her head drooping over the asp which encircles her wrist (c.1660-1662; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). And again, in an earlier form, proud and upright, pulling her gown open to offer the snake a place to strike, and conveniently revealing one soft white breast (c.1645; Metropolitan Museum, New York).

These works I knew; but I wasn’t familiar with pictures from smaller or less accessible collections. At times Cagnacci’s religious pictures (which are better behaved) seem to be channelling Raphael, Correggio or Parmigianino: take a look at the Madonna della Rosa (1647; Private collection), with its wonderful still-life of a basket in the lower left corner, or The Virgin Reading (c.1655; Vittorio Ducrot Collection, Rome), which could simply be a pretty, modest girl if it weren’t for the hairline streak of gold to indicate her halo. These are beautiful things. But, to be honest with you, Cagnacci is more fun when he’s being slightly naughty.

Take his Rape of Europa, which struck me with its vivid blue and its almost cinematic close-up of the nude girl perched on the bull’s back, but apparently more worried about controlling her hair (c.1650; Molinari Pradelli Collection, Marano di Castenaso, Bologna). His mythological ‘excuse’ for female nudity is dismissed entirely in two overtly erotic allegories of Human Life, one of which focuses attention on the nude girl’s tilted head, lips parted (c.1655; Nelson and Leona Shanks Collection, Andalusia, Pennsylvania), the other centring much more frankly on the model’s blushing nipples (c.1655; Fondazione Cavallini Sgarbi, Ferrara). These are striking and disturbing works precisely because they are well-painted. Cagnacci has managed to suggest the texture and softness in flesh in a way that more famous painters don’t ever really manage (I think of Guido Reni, whose sexless saints have always left me cold).

But Cagnacci didn’t just paint pretty nude girls. He did a good line in pretty boys as well, though the interest seems to have been purely painterly. I’ve posted two different versions of his David on my Instagram account in recent months: it’s a composition he returned to three times, and I’d been tantalised by discovering one version clothed in vibrant blue, off-setting the boy’s red hair (c.1655; Getty Museum, Los Angeles) and another half-nude, in which David’s tender flesh is juxtaposed with the roughness of an animal skin (c.1655; Columbia Museum of Art). What I didn’t know was that there was a third version in a private collection, more beautiful still and probably the prime version, in which David wears a doublet of blue-and-grey stripes, and his auburn curls tumble in even greater definition (c.1655). It’s great to see them all illustrated together.

And finally, Salomon introduced me to other works by Cagnacci which show him as a painter of much more complex compositions – one, in fact, wasn’t an introduction but a reminder: Jacob Peeling the Rods (c.1655; Royal Collection), which I saw in the remarkable Art of Italy show at the Queen’s Gallery years ago. This uses the same sort of close-up depiction of the main figure – Jacob himself – with an almost contre jour effect to make the figures pop against the blue sky in the background. It’s as if Cagnacci didn’t quite know what to do with a background, other than make it a pure backdrop. Compare this to the two amazing quadroni (‘great pictures’) he painted for the chapel of the Madonna del Fuoco in Forli Cathedral – the shrine, incidentally, of a miracle-working print which is still venerated today.

These were meant to complement two rather staid, conservative banners by Francesco Albani and Andrea Sacchi; but instead Cagnacci turned out a couple of daring, precipitous, amazingly modern pieces. In The Glory of St Valeriano (1642-44; Pinacoteca Civica, Forli), nude male musicians cavort in the clouds and the pretty, soft-featured male saints are set against a dense blue sky. The clouds don’t even pretend to be real: they look like stage machinery. Salomon points out that someone must have had words with Cagnacci before he painted the second, The Glory of St Mercuriale (same date and location as above). Here the airborne figures are clearly angels, although there are the same suspiciously pretty acolytes below. It’s rather amusing to find out that Cagnacci was being paid by the figure, which might explain why he’d crammed so many into the Valeriano. He was obviously persuaded to be more restrained in the Mercuriale. They’re dynamic, inventive and somehow irreverent. You get the feeling that maybe Cagnacci wasn’t all that good with authority. And yet, ironically, he passed his final years in Vienna, called there by Emperor Leopold I, a man who not even all the graces of Italy could render beautiful in a picture, but a man nonetheless who appreciated good art.

It was in Vienna that Cagnacci painted The Repentent Magadalene, the picture which sparked off the whole book (c.1660-1663; Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena). I wouldn’t necessarily go as far in praising it as Salomon does, but it is a striking picture. If I were being critical, I’d say that the angel and devil in the background look as if Cagnacci was back to his old tricks, bringing together figures who don’t really seem to belong together. But the foreground is beautiful. Sublime, even, from the still-life of scattered pearls and those amazing abandoned blue-and-gold shoes, to the soft illumination of Martha’s face as she comforts her prodigal sister. Note how Martha’s features are in full light; the Magdalene, who is only just coming to truth, is outlined with the very faintest line of light along her profile. Writing to a friend at the time it was commissioned, Cagnacci sarcastically wrote that it would astonish people ‘because I cannot paint feet’ (he was renowned as a painter of half-lengths, remember). And yet, as Salomon points out, the feet are excellent and the whole picture is a tour-de-force of narrative power.

I’m really pleased to have finally read this. It’s straightforward, elegantly-written and very accessible; and, what’s more, I thoroughly enjoyed it. (I should point out that I don’t know Salomon personally, lest you think I’m letting friendship turn into flattery.) I’m always drawn towards Cagnacci in galleries, thanks to the softness of his shadows and the presentation of his figures like actors on a stage. And yet I knew so little of the man before. There’s hardly anything about Cagnacci in English and so this introduction – while not pretending to be anything other than a small, initial contribution – is a genuinely important and enjoyable book, leavened with Salomon’s ironic humour and bringing together a valuable collection of illustrations. Incidentally, I have to finish with an appreciative nod to Salomon’s foreword, in which he recommends a soundtrack for the book: ‘Nicolò Paganini’s Concerto No. 4 in D Minor, recorded by Massimo Quarta with Paganini’s own violin – the so-called “Cannone”.’ Good man.

Certainly something for the general reader as well as the hardened art historian. To read a review of the exhibition at the National Gallery, as well as some further thoughts on Cagnacci – and a fascinating link between The Repentant Magdalene and a pastel by Rosalba Carriera – take a look at Neil Jeffares’s post here.

Buy the book

Cagnacci: The Repentent Magdalene

Guido Cagnacci, The Repentent Magdalene, c.1660-1663, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena

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