Guido Cagnacci was one of the most eccentric painters of seventeenth-century Italy. His art, mostly religious in subject, is known for its unabashed, often unsettling eroticism, and his life was equally and notoriously unconventional.
Born in 1601, in the small village of Santarcangelo, Cagnacci spent his early life in Romagna, a region in northeastern Italy between the Apennine Mountains and the Adriatic Sea. By 1618, he was studying painting in Bologna and in the early 1620s is documented as living in Rome. He was back in Romagna by the mid-1620s, producing idiosyncratic pictures for religious and aristocratic patrons in the principal cities of the region — Rimini, Forlì, and Faenza — and in smaller centers, such as Montegridolfo, Saludecio, and his birthplace of Santarcangelo. For almost ten years, in the 1650s, Cagnacci was based in Venice, before moving in 1658 to Vienna, the imperial capital, where he died in 1663.
Cagnacci was infamous in his day; most of the surviving documents that enable us to reconstruct his biography are legal and criminal records. In 1628, he unlawfully eloped with Teodora Arianna Stivivi, an aristocratic widow, but avoided arrest by abandoning her and fleeing from Rimini. He was later rumored to be living illegally with attractive young women who were disguised as male apprentices. He succeeded in convincing a woman to bequeath him all of her property, and, on occasion, he was known to travel from city to city under a false name.
While Cagnacci’s pictorial language was influenced by some of the greatest Italian Baroque painters — the Carracci, Guercino, and Guido Reni — his figurative style remained individual and highly recognizable, particularly after the late 1630s, with a distinctive manner influenced by Reni’s languid late works. In large part because of its originality, Cagnacci’s work was almost entirely forgotten during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The rediscovery of his oeuvre took place in Italy in the 1950s, but he remains little known outside of Italy.
In 1952, the Italian art historian Cesare Gnudi wrote about two of Cagnacci’s canvases that were made for the Cathedral of Forlì. Gnudi’s lyrical description could as well 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.
Guido Cagnacci, The Repentant Magdalene (detail), ca. 1660−63. Oil on canvas, 90 1/4 x 104 3/4 in. Norton Simon Art Foundation, Pasadena, California