La Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna
Russell Degnan

My mother tells a story about my first trip to the Louvre when I was 6, and how I raced through each room well ahead of my parents before coming back to tell them which painting I liked in each room, one by one. Nothing much has changed. I still saunter through galleries at a reasonable pace, looking for works that grab my attention, and ignoring the ones I don't. However, because many of these visits may in fact be my only visit I like to do a second trip, to acknowledge each work in the gallery to make sure I have seen it, pausing again on the works that I really liked. Finally, when there is time, I do a third run through, to take one last look at the ones that I like. Sometimes they are famous, sometimes they are not.

This new series [1] is about those works.

Needless to say, this technique works better in small regional galleries (and exhibitions) than large, impressive ones. Doing a quick run around the Louvre is an exercise in masochism, particularly given the quality. And so my first post is dedicated to one of the outstanding examples of regionalism: La Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna.

This is a good gallery by any standards really. It is quite old, dating to the late 18th century, and having no works past that date, but many good ones from the four centuries preceding it. But it is still a regional one, with a strong emphasis on Bolognese art and no pretensions about its attraction to international tourists -- at least that's why I think none of the ushers spoke English.

Almost hidden amongst all the large and impressive works however, was this one:

Madonna del passero

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri detto il Guercino, 1615

It is not a large painting at only 58cm wide; is strangely weighted to the left in the triangle between the two sets of eyes and the object of their attention. But the realism and themes make up for any other flaws.

The mother and child are common enough in Italian art; the sparrow is rarer. Normally representative of God's love for small creatures and therefore the meek and humble; here it seems to serve merely as a convenient object of attention. But a beautifully rendered one, perched on the madonna's equally well drawn fingers.

She on the other hand, is clearly from the post Caravaggian era of real people. Instead of the beatific mother of the Lord her dishevelled hair and tired, but young, face gives the impression that the mother of the Lord was up all night listening to him cry.

There is no doubt what the best aspect of the painting is though. The contemporary mannerist child was a bloated god-creature, ugly and unrealistic. Il Guercino's child is the perfect emodiment of humanist ideals. His little hand grasps at his mother's clothing for balance and protection, the other arm tensed and looking to reach out. The face of the child is focused and curious, seeking knowledge; not to be lauded as a innocent, but to learn and to be taught. His mother's actions show the parental role, protecting him from falling with one hand and guiding with the other.

If the mother looks like she is occasionally harried, this painting captures a moment of serentity; of peace. The religious symbolism gives way to the simplicity of a mother's love and a child's curiosity. I don't think I've ever seen a painting express the sentiment better.

[1] New readers of this blog might note that a fair proportion of my posts are made up of unfinished and neglected posting series. I will get to them... eventually.

Days Spent Away 6th October, 2005 17:42:11   [#] 


I particularly like the softness of this painting. The child looks plump and soft. The mother's hair is soft and whimsically tied back with a scarf. The fluffy sparrow also looks soft. The lighting is soft. Delightful and indeed memorable.
Art-gallery-goer  10th October, 2005 10:09:32  

points of difference
Damn straight, Russ: Guercino paints a fine picture. You're lucky to have been able to see the original. I disagree with a couple of points in the analysis, though - mainly to do with the type of influence exerted by Caravaggio. Certainly an admiration of the latter artist's technique is evident, but I believe the similarites end there. Realism is not the opposite of idealisation, nor slight deshabille of beatitude; despite the attention to photo-realistic detail (and I particularly love the foreshortening on the bird-bearing hand), Guercino's mother and child both retain the preternatural beauty traditionally ascribed to the Holy Family under the dictates of the seicento Ideal (compare for instance this piece to the face of Caravaggio's 'Madonna of Loreto', or the form of the creepy 'Sleeping Cupid'). This isn't a depiction of nature as it is, it's still nature as it *should* be.

I would argue a closer alignment with the work of the Carracci, particularly (beyond any figurative elevation of the subjects) as regards sentiment, which as you rightly said anchors Guercino's Madonna. I don't think Caravaggio ever understood emotion in such a fashion, or if he did, he eschewed it in his work. Passion by the armful, no question there, but there's an appreciable distinction between the that and sentmentality (I don't use the term in a perjorative sense here. As Nabokov pointed out, those who despise sentiment are usually incapable of true feeling).

Possibly the composition goes further in lending weight to such a reading. The closed pyramid formed by the Madonna's hands and the tip of her ear, echoed in the movement of the lines of vision, was a structural trope popular in painting from the early Renaissance onwards, and ment to indicate the presence of the Trinity. This suggests a portrayal of divine love as much as an exploration of familial affection and child-like delight. Its the ability to make the painting work on both levels that proves Guercino a master.

Like I said, one fine mother of a picture.
jon  12th October, 2005 02:44:32  

Guercino and the Ideal
I was hoping I could troll you into responding Jon.

I'll defer to your knowledge with regards to the influences underlying the work; and I agree with you regarding the composition. Taking the hands and ear of the Madonna, as the elements of he trinity is interesting as it centres the work. As I mentioned, the triad I saw was their eyes and the sparrow; which not only moves the focus to the left, but makes the Holy Father a small bird.

Where I am less inclined to agree is that it depicts the Ideal. It is quite an odd thing. One of the aspects of that ideal is that the baby Jesus is wise, and hence blessed. You can see it within Guercino's other works where the child is true to that idealism (compare for example two others from a similar period: 'A Donor Presented to the Virgin' or 'St William of Aquitaine Receiving the Cowl'). But in this painting I don't see the wise, beatific child. Despite the religious subject matter and composition, it is a painting of a child doing what a child does, rather than as the son of christ does.

As an aside, in the fabulous Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski proposes the idea that western society made advances because the child is conceived as capable of curiosity and learning instead of as merely young adults. He then cited the paiinting of the Madonna and Child as showing the importance the child has in the west. Although I broadly agree with his thesis, I do disagree with him on the latter, because the child depicted is generally wise and holy, if innocent, instead of as a curious little sinner.

I think my great love of Guercino's work is probably because I like children to be curious little sinners.
Russ  12th October, 2005 18:27:07  

Wacky, ugly, holy babies
On further thought, I think you're right Russ. The divine sprog is a ridiculously handsome example, but a fairly naturalistic one, for all that. I still wouldn't say the work was completely divorced from the Ideal, though... as Bellori dictated whenever anyone would listen (and more especially whenever they wouldn't), the purpose of contemporary art was to distill nature in order to depict something resembling, if not actually achieving, its Platonic Form; Guercino's Madonna conforms to this notion rather well, I suspect.

The Caravaggisti rebelling against idealisation tended to do so with much more vehemence than Guercino perhaps manages, and did it slightly later, but yes - the influence is definitely present.

Other Mannerist examples did rather tend towards conflating preternatural wisdom with preternatural size and preternatural ugliness in their portrayal of the Christ-child, didn't they? Reubens always struck me as being exceptionally guilty in this regard. Blech (if I may be allowed to reduce works of genius to a single phlegmy monosyllable, that is).
jon  13th October, 2005 01:37:44