The Art of Guido Cagnacci

A sensuous beauty, an exuberant life

Guido Cagnacci, "The Repentant Magdalene", ca.  1660 – 63. Oil on canvas, 90 ¼ x 10 ¾ in. (229.2 x 266.1 cm). Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena
Guido Cagnacci, "The Repentant Magdalene", ca. 1660 – 63. Oil on canvas, 90 ¼ x 10 ¾ in. (229.2 x 266.1 cm). Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena
24 DEC 2016

The early 1960s saw the rediscovery in Italy of Cagnacci, a painter who had long languished on the lists of provincial artists and appeared only sporadically in art history texts. A first selection of his paintings (twelve attributed to him, all from Rimini and surrounding towns) was shown in Mostra della Pittura del ’600 a Rimini, an exhibition presented at the Palazzo dell’Arengo in Rimini between August and October 1952. This exhibition, curated by Francesco Arcangeli, marked the first time that a substantial number of works by Cagnacci was displayed together. The 1952 exhibition was an optimistic beacon for culture in an area of Italy ravaged by conflict. The heavy bombing of Rimini during World War II had destroyed most of the city, and its reconstruction began with an exhibition celebrating the city’s artistic achievements. Seven years later, in 1959, the exhibition in Bologna featured ten works by Cagnacci, among them, foreign loans from Vienna and Lyon. The presence of the two paintings of Cleopatra (now in Milan and Vienna) was the catalyst for Saibene’s purchase of the first and Arbasino’s description of the second.

For those familiar with Cagnacci’s work, the images that first come to mind are probably his Cleopatras, Lucretias, and Magdalenes, “late works,” as Luisa Vertova writes, “in which soft and somewhat disturbing female nudes gave evidence of Cagnacci’s idiosyncratic combination of academic classicism and delicate naturalism.” At the height of Cagnacci’s artistic powers, Vertova claims, “this uncultivated painter succeeds in creating forceful images that are hard to forget.” Nevertheless, Cagnacci remains little known and little understood. Those scholars who have published substantial material on him are invariably Italian; it is almost impossible to find recent material in English on the painter. The most important monograph is a 1986 volume (published in Italian and English) by Pier Giorgio Pasini, who, since his first articles on the painter in the late 1960s, has been the principal expert on the artist.

Two major exhibitions have been devoted to Cagnacci in Italy, one at the Museo della Città in Rimini in 1993 and another, more recently, at the Musei San Domenico in Forlì in 2008. Both projects, curated by Daniele Benati (one with Marco Bona Castellotti and the other with Antonio Paolucci), have been extraordinary opportunities to study a large selection of works by Cagnacci, and the two exhibition catalogues provide a wealth of new material. No exhibition has, however, been organized outside of Italy. The Age of Correggio and the Carracci: Emilian Painting of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries—an exhibition held at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1986—included three paintings by Cagnacci, which represented the largest number of the painter’s works ever seen together outside of Italy.

The 2008 exhibition in Forlì, which displayed the artist’s oeuvre in the context of paintings by his contemporaries, did little to dispel the elusiveness of this deeply individual artist. The present book—published in conjunction with the exceptional loan of Cagnacci’s masterpiece, the Repentant Magdalene, from the Norton Simon Museum—is neither a comprehensive monograph on the painter nor an examination of all of his paintings but simply an introduction to an artist who deserves to be better known by an international audience. So much of our conception of Italian seventeenth-century art is based on what happened in Bologna, Rome, and Naples and does not take into account the complex developments on the rest of the Italian peninsula. Cagnacci is often viewed as provincial and therefore minor. It is, however, the very flavor of these provinces—not only areas such as the Romagna but also Liguria, the Marche, Piedmont, and Sicily, among many—that must be taken in to understand fully the Italian artistic scene.

Cagnacci trained and was active in Bologna and Rome, two of the key artistic centers of the time, but spent most of his career producing works for towns like Rimini, Forlì, and Faenza and villages such as his birthplace, Santarcangelo di Romagna, and also Saludecio and Monte gridolfo. In this book, I look again at Cagnacci’s life, described most recently by Daniele Benati as “restless and dissolute, unruly and even disjointed.”15 For all the adventurous and disorderly events attested in documentary sources, the art remains as a powerful and astonishing outcome of Cagnacci’s existence. Writing about the quadroni—the two large canvases painted for the Cathedral of Forlì—which were exhibited in Rimini in 1952, Cesare Gnudi concludes his essay with a lyrical description that could apply to most of Cagnacci’s art: "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 that 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".

Text by Xavier F. Salomon

The Art of Guido Cagnacci, published in conjunction with the exhibition Cagnacci’s ‘Repentant Magdalene’: An Italian Baroque Masterpiece from the Norton Simon Museum, organised by The Frick Collection and on view at the Frick from October 25, 2016, to January 22, 2017.
Published by The Frick Collection in association with Scala Publishers Ltd.