Guido Reni's "Abduction of Helen": The Politics and Rhetoric of Painting in Seventeenth-Century Europe.
Guido Reni was among the most famous artists in seventeenth-century Europe, and in his own lifetime the appellation "divine" put him on a par with such earlier luminaries as Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo. Foremost a religious painter, Reni's Christian devotional subjects were long copied and imitated. In the late nineteenth century, however, appreciation of Reni's art plummeted; his religious works were often deemed vapid and his narratives insufficiently dramatic. Only recently - with the appearance of Stephen Pepper's catalogue raisonne of 1984 and subsequent international exhibitions - has Reni's star risen again. The books under review, by Anthony Colantuono and Richard Spear, offer the most sustained analyses to date of Reni and his art.
Richard Spear's exciting book is a psychologically based history in which patterns of behavior in Reni's life are interpreted to enhance understanding of the quite odd man, the distinctive paintings he created, and ways in which they have been received. Spear's primary guide to Reni's behavior is Carlo Cesare Malvasia, who knew Reni and whose Felsina pittrice (1678) contains the longest seventeenth-century biography of the painter. Spear begins part 1 with a consideration of Malvasia's biases and his own, and continues with chapters on Reni's character; his compulsive gambling; fear of witches; "atypical sexuality" (11); and his repeated depiction of martyrs, above all the female suicides Lucretia and Cleopatra.
A brief discussion of the chapter on sex must suffice to indicate the complexity of issues treated. Malvasia reported that Reni was thought to be a virgin, feared women and witchcraft, was regarded as physically angelic, and blushed frequently. In addition, Reni portrayed himself as a woman in St. Benedict Presented with Gifts by Farmers (1604). From such evidence, Spear concludes that Reni had homosexual proclivities. Spear then asks how Reni's sexuality affected his choice of subject matter and his eroticization of figures of both genders. He considers, for example, why and how Reni's depictions of St. Sebastian differ from those of his contemporaries, and how they have been received differently. Spear discusses Oscar Wilde's, Yukio Mishima's and F. Holland Day's responses to Reni's St. Sebastians, concluding that "The pattern of perception . . . merits notice, namely that three gay men . . . were enticed by the sexual masochism in Reni's representations of martyred men and that the images were effective in receiving their erotic projections. In Wolfgang Iser's terms of reception theory, this is their 'virtual dimension,' their 'coming together of text and imagination,' as Day, Wilde and Mishima 'actively provide the unwritten part of the text'" (7475). In part 2 Spear treats Reni as a painter of Catholic subjects, particularly the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Christ. Beginning with chapters on Guido's grace and God's grace - aesthetic and theological grace respectively - Spear argues that the charisma of Reni's Catholic images is due to the distinctive way in which aesthetic and spiritual grace are combined in them. This charisma operates only on receptive beholders, however, that is, on Roman Catholics, who are familiar with the paintings' culturally encoded signs.
Spear's treatment of the reception of Reni's art is occasionally unconvincing, particularly because he considers Roman Catholics a monolithic audience, failing to distinguish those viewers who are familiar with artistic tradition and aesthetics from those who are not. For instance, Spear claims that "For Catholic spectators, without chronological, educational or class restrictions, Reni's paintings should convey a message that is familiar from childhood and is thoroughly promising because they personify sanctifying grace. Their external form reveals an inner, spiritual truth" (122). Yet it is difficult to imagine that everyone learning about theological grace in parochial schools in contemporary America, for example, would be moved by Reni's images, recognizing in their sweetness a spiritual truth.
Part 3 of Spear's book contains chapters on Reni's marketing, studio practices, concepts of originality, and the artist's late style. Spear's insights into Reni's personality and behavior successfully illuminate the painter's popularization of given themes, and also the unusually difficult connoisseurship problems surrounding Reni and his large workshop. In short, Spear offers a remarkably stimulating picture of Reni and his art, one which is certain to be provocative.
Anthony Colantuono's book centers on The Abduction of Helen (1627-1629), which, despite Reni's fame as a religious artist, was his most celebrated composition in the seventeenth century. Its fame was due to both painted copies and an unprecedentedly large number of encomia dedicated to it. Malvasia indicated that Reni's relationships with Philip IV Habsburg, Pope Urban VIII and his nephew Cardinal Francesco Barberini, the papal legate Cardinal Bernardino Spada, and Marie de' Medici helped shape the Helen. Colantuono aims to understand what the Helen "might have meant to these extraordinarily powerful individuals, to investigate Malvasia's account of their actions and intentions regarding the artist and his work, and to consider how the artist's own intentions may have interacted with theirs to produce the phenomenon of pictorial meaning" (2).
Colantuono's first two chapters, which concern the early history of the Helen and its message for Madrid, bring us into the maelstrom of the Thirty Years' War. In 1626 Philip IV's legate to the Holy See commissioned the Helen from Reni, but lost control of its invenzione. Colantuono convincingly argues that the Barberini intervened to influence Reni's interpretation of the Helen; this allowed Urban VIII - who feared Spanish expansionism - to articulate by means of the painting ideas that were unutterable via normal diplomatic channels. The Helen conveyed Urban's position that Philip should not start a war on Italian soil, and that if he did, God would ultimately right the wrong. Colantuono employs subtle historical, philological, and iconographical analyses to show how Reni's painting served its diplomatic function.
Colantuono sheds considerable light on the Barberini's machinations to restore Reni's reputation and get their diplomatic point across after the new Spanish legate refused to accept the Helen at its completion in 1629. In a nutshell, the Barberini had Spada offer the painting to Marie de' Medici; she, however, was exiled before it reached her and it ended up in a Lyon merchant's hands. Meanwhile, copies of Reni's Helen were offered for sale to various statesmen via the Barberini network. The prime copy, executed by Giacinto Campana for Spada, arrived in Rome ca. 1632-1633, and its pro-papal message was exploited by displaying it in a religious procession before a Spanish audience in Rome. Remarkably, it was Campanas copy in Rome on which the numerous encomia were based.
In chapters 3 and 4, Colantuono demonstrates that the Barberini orchestrated the spate of panegyrics, largely through connections with the Bolognese Accademie dei Gelati and della Notte. These academies espoused literary Seicentismo. Colantuono argues that Reni's Helen spoke the same language due to the artist's own intentions and also because Urban VIII, who actively promoted Seicentismo as part of his cultural agenda, influenced the painting. Although Reni was not particularly learned, he was familiar with Seicentismo through his poet friend Cesare Rinaldi, and through the Carracci, who had developed a related pictorial language for the depiction of scenes from Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata - the same work whose lyrical conceits and vivid sentiments seicentesque poets amplified. In his Discorsi del poema eroico, Tasso had stated that the perfect heroic poem should mix poetic genres; Colantuono claims that Reni did this in the lyrically conceived Helen, hence its lack of dramatic legibility. Moreover, Reni utilized such sources as Colluthus's poem The Abduction of Helen, which Tasso himself had cited as a worthy example of an epic poem centering on love. In analyzing the genre and concetti of Reni's Helen, Colantuono thus maintains that Reni's persuasively beautiful lyrical style was conceived and received in the context of Seicentismo. Yet the Helen's especially erudite references indicate that the Barberini must have provided Reni with a scholarly advisor, perhaps Girolamo Aleandro the Younger, the official diplomatic "voice" of Urban's reign (107).
Colantuono's claim that Reni intentionally created a style closely related to literary Seicentismo is bound to meet with some dissenters. Indeed, in his book Spear agrees with Marc Fumaroli's assessment that Reni's paintings are "'spiritual visions that owe little to literary and erudite mediation'" (33) Here we enter a larger debate concerning the degree of literary interests among Seicento artists, a question beyond the scope of my review. In addressing this and other difficult issues, Colantuono's book, like Spear's, is stimulating and challenging, a welcome addition to the scholarship.
PAMELA M. JONES University of Massachusetts, Boston
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|Author:||Jones, Pamela M.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1999|
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