BY VAL CASTRONOVO
Guido Cagnacci (1601-63), the Italian Baroque master, is having a New York moment. Three of his paintings can be seen at three institutions on the Upper East Side — The Met Fifth Avenue, The Frick Collection and, most recently, the Italian Cultural Institute of New York, an arm of the Italian government located on Park Avenue.
Cagnacci is little known to Americans and was only rediscovered in Italy in the 1950s, when exhibits including his paintings were held in Rimini (1952) and Bologna (1959). His unconventional artistic and personal style partly account for his obscurity, as does the absence of followers to carry on the master’s work. Earlier this year, The Met purchased Cagnacci’s “The Death of Cleopatra” (ca. 1645-55), which the museum’s website pronounces “utterly singular in its open sensuality.” The Egyptian queen’s suicide via an asp bite was a popular subject in Baroque art, which prized drama and tension. Another, quite erotic iteration (ca. 1660-63), with a half-naked queen, was unveiled at the Italian Cultural Institute earlier this month and will be on exhibit until Jan. 19.
But as the Frick’s chief curator, Xavier F. Salomon, noted at a recent lecture, Cagnacci’s “Repentant Magdalene” (ca. 1660-63) — a theatrical rendering of Mary Magdalene renouncing her sinful ways — is “one of the most astonishing masterpieces of Italian 17th century art.” It’s a bravura work by the provincial painter from Romagna that now hangs in the East Gallery of the Frick alongside the van Dycks.
Descriptions of Cagnacci and his oeuvre are riddled with code words such as “eccentric” and “idiosyncratic.” The man was, as the saying goes, a complicated person. He was born in the village of Santarcangelo di Romagna in northeastern Italy to a town crier, Matteo Cagnacci, and his wife, Livia Serra. When he was 17, he left to study art in Bologna and Rome, returning five years later to the Romagna region to paint mostly in its main cities, Rimini, Forli and Faenza. He produced a string of altarpieces and other devotional works during this period, but was better known for his romantic adventures.
As his biographer Xavier Salomon writes in “The Art of Guido Cagnacci” (2016), the painter began a liaison with a wealthy aristocratic widow, Teodora Arianna Stivivi, in the late 1620s and, when her family frowned on marriage, the couple eloped, “which without her family’s consent was illegal.” Teodora wound up doing penance in a convent, and Guido avoided the consequences by fleeing Rimini, though in 1632 “he was still officially demanding Teodora’s dowry from her family, but it was never granted.”
This caper was followed by other colorful episodes. Cagnacci charmed one woman into signing a document leaving him all her property, and he is believed to have lived illegally for more than 10 years with another, who traveled with him disguised as a man and likely served as a model for his art. The painter is also known to have assumed false identities, notably in the 1650s in Venice, where he worked for almost 10 years and used a fictitious name to avoid association with his scandalous past.
But then there was the work. “The Repentant Magdalene,” on view through Jan. 22, was painted for Emperor Leopold I in Vienna, where Cagnacci resided after leaving Venice. Critics there insinuated he could only paint single “half-figure” nude women, no feet.
This painting, with multiple full-length figures, proves otherwise. Based on a religious play and a 16th century collection of biblical tales, it presents a less-familiar moment in the story of Mary Magdalene, who renounces the life of a courtesan and converts to Christianity after a meeting with Christ in the temple.
The canvas is at once a brilliant still life and allegorical work, set in an aristocratic residence, with Eastern carpet, damask cushions and servants. Cagnacci limns an emotional scene. In the foreground, Mary Magdalene is lying on the floor, having “cast her earthly possessions aside,” Salomon said, referring to the luxurious dress, shoes and jewelry strewn on the tiled floor.
Mary has ripped off a strand of pearls; the individual beads are scattered across the tiles, making for “an astonishing still life” at ground level, the curator said. The penitent, who is mostly naked and is being consoled by her virtuous sister, Martha, holds a gold chain like a rosary.
Another drama unfolds in the background. An angel with large white wings (“Virtue”) is driving out a red-tinged airborne devil, complete with horns and tail (“Vice”). “They are locked in combat for Mary’s conversion,” said Salomon, who writes, “The combination of the Magdalene’s conversion with the allegorical figures of Virtue and Vice is altogether new.” A strong breeze wafts through the room, giving chase to the forces of darkness.