Earlier this month, Italian media reported (here, here, or here) that a stolen painting by Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) of the Madonna with Saints John the Evangelist and Gregory the Wonderworker had been recovered in Casablanca. The altarpiece disappeared from San Vincenzo in Modena in August 2014, prompting heavy criticism of security measures at the former Theatine church. San Vincenzo happens to be the home church of Guarino Guarini, where he first joined the Theatine order as a novice in November 1639, and to which he returned for his ordination and first years as a priest beginning in 1647.
The altarpiece had been commissioned by the d’Este family in Modena – perhaps during the brief reign of Duke Alfonso III d’Este in the late 1620s. The painting was completed and installed in the first chapel on the left, dedicated to St. Gregory, in 1630.
This thus makes it the earliest of three works by the painter from Cento commissioned for Theatine churches in the region. An altarpiece of The Vocation of Saint Aloysius (Luigi) Gonzaga, dated c. 1650, was originally located in the right transept of the Theatines’ Santa Maria del Castello in Guastalla, and is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It too was a prestigious ducal commission, in this case by by Duke Ferrante III Gonzaga. The unusual inclusion of a beatified Jesuit in a Theatine church can be explained by the duke’s desire to promote the cult of his distant relative, canonized only in 1726. Guarini would have seen the painting in December 1656, when he is recorded in Guastalla (Sandonnini 494-495).
The third altarpiece by Guercino (1591-1666) at a Theatine church in his native region is found in Santa Maria della Pietà in Ferrara. The painting depicting the Purification of the Virgin was commissioned by the lawyer Claudio Bertazzoli for his family chapel in the church in 1654, with the final payment recorded the following year. The painting remains in the church today, the third altar on the left.
Of course, the Theatines were not the only people or institution in what is now present-day Emilia-Romagna to commission works by the accomplished local artist. Much of the responsibility for the commissions mentioned here resided with their wealthy or aristocratic patrons. For instance, in 1649 the d’Este ordered another painting from the artist for the church of San Pietro Martire in Modena (today in the Louvre). This altarpiece depicts the Madonna and Child with the four patron saints of Modena: San Geminiano, San Giovanni Battista, San Giorgio, and San Pietro Martire.
The central years of Guercino’s career also happened to coincide with the construction and furnishing of these churches begun exactly four centuries ago: the one in Guastalla was founded in 1616, while those in Modena and Ferrara were both founded in 1617. Although a general overview of seventeenth-century Theatine artistic policies remains to be written, these three examples show the order readily welcomed works of the highest quality when appropriate donors provided the necessary financial backing.
One big question remains: where should the painting recovered in Morocco go when it returns to Modena? According to the Gazzetta di Modena, the church of San Vincenzo still lacks adequate security measures. Some have suggested displaying it in a local museum such as the Galleria Estense, at least temporarily. In the meantime, the diocese is exploring ways to improve security at all of its churches.
By the way, the exhibition Guercino a Piacenza opens 4 March 2017 and runs until 4 June at the Palazzo Farnese in Piacenza. It also offers the opportunity to climb the dome of the cathedral to view the artist’s frescoes there up close.
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Daniela Sinigalliesi, “La Madonna in trono con San Giovanni Evangelista e San Gregorio Taumaturgo di Giovanni Francesco Barbieri detto il Guercino,” in E. Corradini, E. Garzillo, G. Polidori, eds., La chiesa di San Vincenzo a Modena. Ecclesia Divi Vincentii, Modena: Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Modena, 2001, pp. 136-141.
William M. Griswold, “Guercino“: The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, v. 48, no. 4 (Spring, 1991): 38-40.
Barbara Ghelfi, “Il talento naturale e la ricerca dell’equilibrio. Il Guercino a Ferrara,” MuseoinVita.