Guido Reni

Books: Guido Reni, loved by the Victorians, despised by modernists and purists

Reni is in for a late twentieth-century treatment as political activist and secretly gay


Is it time for a Guido Reni revival? Although Italian baroque art has generally become more admired in recent years, there has been something of a resistance to the inclusion of Guido Reni. Ever since Berenson ridiculed his Victorian admirers and despite the pioneering efforts of Sir Denis Mahon and D. Stephen Pepper, English-speaking audiences have been somewhat alienated from the artist, his work being distorted by being viewed through the lens of the Catholic kitsch which developed after his prototypes. For the so-called “new art historians”, however, this very unpopularity (in an artist once the most admired throughout Europe) furnishes fertile material for imaginative approaches.

Two intense books written from very different perspectives present new readings of Guido’s life and work.

The more accessible (and better illustrated) is Richard Spear’s The “divine” Guido which will undoubtedly be guaranteed a wider audience simply by virtue of its very contemporary and, it must be said, questionable, “psychohis-torical” method.

Professor Spear focuses on the artist’s personality: he attempts to look at Guido from the “inside” and sees his life as a puzzle that must be assembled. And he starts with a bang. He interprets Guido’s biographer, Malvasia, to show evidence of the artist’s latent homosexuality which, in turn, is seen to have left “visible traces” in his paintings. Citing the “St Sebastian” (1615) as a source for the sadomasochistic, homo-erotic self-portrait photo of Yukio Mishima (1970), Professor Spear outlines the potential for a gay perspective on Guido’s male nudes, although he has the sense to acknowledge this as a contemporary projection or “reading in”.

If Guido’s male figures display sexual ambiguity, his females—the Virgins and St Mary Magdalenes—are held to show the artist (and his society) to have been misogynistic and unenlightened: Professor Spear maintains that Guido’s viewers were cast in the role of voyeurs and his women portrayed as subservient, suffering, powerless stereotypes.

Perhaps the most useful part of the book is the least sensational. In the final section Professor Spear deals with practical matters connected to the workshop and marketing of Guido’s pictures and the problem of his late style. A detailed study of inventories reveals which pictures were left unfinished, which worked on by assistants and which show the authentic loose handling of the late style

On the other hand, in Guido Reni’s “The abduction of Helen” Anthony Colantuono sets about explaining that “The artist ‘speaks’ not to express his own sentiments, but rather to support the ideology of his patron.” This dense but persuasively argued book directs us through a mass of apparently conflicting evidence about the origins, beauty, meaning and influence of a single picture seen in an international context.

Although commissioned by Philip IV of Spain, “The abduction of Helen” actually reflects the diplomatic efforts of Pope Urban VIII Barberini to avert the spread to Italy of the Thirty Years’ War between Spain and France. Implicit in Guido’s subject was the allusion to the Trojan War following Helen’s rape and the destruction that war caused, an allusion intended by the Pope as a cryptic, literary warning to Madrid. The picture’s style, however, was deliberately enigmatic—to the viewer unaware of the hidden, diplomatic message “at once supremely clear and supremely illegible”. Meanwhile, tactlessly, Guido managed to offend two successive Spanish ambassadors with protracted disputes over access to his studio (to view the work in progress), expired delivery dates and dramatic exits. The Helen was paraded, exhibited, replicated and praised in a campaign of encomia orchestrated by the Barberini, yet rejected by the Spanish ambassador, the Count of Monterey. Professor Spear takes Guido’s rudeness to the ambassador’s predecessor, the Count of Oñate, as the typical behaviour of “the narcissistically vulnerable individual” (and his reaction to criticism by escaping to his birthplace represents a search for “psychic refuge”). For Professor Colantuono, however, it is a manifestation of a widely held resentment against the Spanish presence in Italy, the result of their expansionist policies.

Professor Colantuono’s book is the more coherent and ambitious where Professor Spear’s is provocative, but perhaps the very diversity of their approaches will encourage new viewers to consider the merits of Guido Reni.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Loved by the Victorians, despised by modernists and purists'


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