Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 1, 2000
Richard E. Spear The ‘Divine Guido’: Religion, Sex, Money and Art in the World of Guido Reni Yale University Press, 1998. $60.00 (0300070357)

Richard Spear’s much-anticipated book on Guido Reni promises a new approach that would seriously treat this important artist’s achievement conceptually and historically—in contrast to previous studies, which Spear contends are too narrowly focused on chronology and style. In this effort, Spear calls on insights from post-Foucauldian social history, feminism, and psychology in order to explain the artist’s personality and its relation to societal norms. While Spear bravely admits that his own endeavor may fail and only contribute more to an understanding of the painter’s life than his art, he is wrong. Indeed, though it is marked by unevenness and some conceptual difficulties, Spear’s book is a very valuable addition to the literature that all interested in seventeenth-century art should read.

The Divine Guido, in fact, is best approached as three separate treatments that employ entirely different methodologies to illuminate distinct aspects of Reni’s life and production. The first of these is an extended consideration of the artist’s bizarre and volatile personality—a discussion that is primarily informed by twentieth-century psychology. This is the most experimental but least successful part of the book (although it will certainly have the great merit of encouraging further serious consideration of subjects such as Reni’s sexuality). The second part treats themes in Reni’s oeuvre (e.g. the Virgin and the Magdalene), considered both as projections of the artist’s personality and also, more traditionally, as iconographic types informed by Reni’s intellectual and religious milieu, especially as defined by his ecclesiastical patrons. The third part of the book, by far the most traditional methodologically, very successfully considers many aspects of Reni’s style, working methods, and dissemination.

Reni’s personality is a fascinating enigma that has attracted the attention of many, from his own first biographer (and friend) Carlo Cesare Malvasia, to modern scholars of artistic personality such as the Wittkowers. His difficult behavior included not only erratic and grandiose dealings with patrons, but also excessive gambling, misogyny, and an extreme fear of witchcraft. Reni’s absolute abhorrence of women has also given rise to critical speculation that he was homosexual. Spear treats Reni’s work as powerfully motivated by, rather than passively mirroring, these personality traits. It is important to note that Spear’s analysis of Reni’s personality, as Spear himself admits, is informed by his own experience as the husband of a practicing artist and the brother of a homosexual (10-11).

Spear proceeds in an orderly fashion through each component of Reni’s personality. While his conclusions, based on contemporary psychology, are arguably anachronistic, Spear covers much contextual ground that will be of great value and interest to readers—particularly those with little in-depth knowledge of the byways of early modern social history (especially as examined by Carlo Ginzburg and his followers). An example of Spear’s method here is presented in Part 1, Chapter 2, “Character.” Spear most accurately and unequivocally describes Reni’s behavior as “anxiety-prone, mistrustful, and even paranoid” (20), but then problematically follows this by asserting that “this pattern of behavior in psychological terms, can be designated a difficulty in regulating self-esteem with hints of self-loathing” (22). Spear’s contemporary concern with self-esteem informs every aspect of his discussion of the artist’s personality. For example, Spear describes Reni’s polished, artificial style, with its laboriously produced finish, as the product of hard work—springing from Reni’s problem in “regulating self-esteem because it displaces the praise of the gifted individual to whom success supposedly comes easily” (37). Spear also interprets Reni’s gambling (which was so out of control that he lost in two nights what it took Guercino ten years to earn) as a self-defeating strategy springing from a failure oriented “shame-propensity” (42). Spear’s next discussions present Reni’s horror of witchcraft and his misogyny as the products of his individual psychology, a more general societal fear of magic, and a low opinion of women.

In the least convincing discussion in the book, “Sex,” Spear describes Reni’s “feminine disposition” as a characteristic identified societally with homosexuality. But here, Spear’s conflation of gender traits and sexual orientation presents many difficulties—for example many male artists who practiced same sex relations (whether homosexual, bisexual, or ambisexual), such as Caravaggio, Michelangelo, and Cellini, were more “masculine” than “feminine.” Spear insinuates (from instances of pictorial transvestitism, Reni’s personal angelic and sexless appearance, and his relationship with “rough trade” like his servant Marchino) that Reni was a “passive sodomite”—a definition of homosexuality taken mainly from persecution documents like the sodomy trials studied most recently in Michael Rocke’s Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence (New York and Oxford, 1996) that may or may not apply to Reni. In the end we do not and cannot know for certain whether Reni bedded men or boys actively or passively. However, it seems to me, from what we know of Reni’s distaste for physical contact, that the “Divine” Guido’s sexuality probably consisted more in “angelism” than homosexuality, and that his general fear of the sexual may explains his loathing of the highly sexualized milieu of Caravaggio and his circle.

More unfortunate is Spear’s further conflation of homosexuality with masochism—an equation he supports by the later appreciations and appropriations of Reni’s Saint Sebastians by Oscar Wilde, Yukio Mishima, and F. Holland Day. Finally, Spear extends his discussion of Reni’s masochistically inclined personality to his many depictions of female suicides and Christian martyrs. Following Laura Mulvey’s discussion of the “Gaze,” Spear contends that these possess a particular “psychosexual appeal to men” seasoned (in the case of female martyrs) with a frisson to be derived from viewing the erotic pleasure Martyrs experience at their deaths—which stems from a (masochistic) devotion to God (99).

In Part II, Spear’s analysis of those religious figures (Virgin Mary, Magdalene, Christ) repeatedly portrayed by Reni is informed both by the preceding psychological analyses of the artist and by wider theological concerns. Spear describes the predominant stylistic characteristic of Reni’s art—Grazia or Grace—as predominantly feminine in character (he arrives at this through a traditional philological analysis of the rhetorical and art critical tradition) and as possessing profound religious connotations. The confluence of the two, Spear contends, is what makes Reni’s art so powerfully appealing to the devout. In later chapters, Spear contends that the Virgin and the Magdalene were equally appealing to Reni as desexualized ideas of women (132): the Magdalene evidencing “sexuality practiced and then disavowed” (166). These chapters contain the book’s most subtle readings of individual paintings—and here Spear often notices shades of difference and nuance in these works all too often dismissed as being cut from the same cloth. Spear concludes this section of the book with a provocative discussion of Reni’s favorite iconographic type of Christ—the suffering, nearly dead “Cristo Vivo”—as a release from the flesh and its encumbrances, a type that embodies Victor and Victim in one, and hence (according to Spear) an androgynous figure.

The final part of the book bears little relation to the foregoing. Nevertheless it contains a much-needed analysis of Reni’s studio practices, techniques, and style. Spear discusses Reni’s marketing of his own works in terms of self-esteem—but this issue is not tied to Reni’s psychological character as analyzed before, but rather to the changing role of artist-patron relations in seventeenth-century Rome, in which all artists participated to a greater or lesser degree. Spear considers Reni’s large studio, covering much territory including Reni’s terrible relations with his students and assistants (who were not encouraged to develop their own manners) and the production of multiple versions in the studio. With regard to the latter problem of many repetitions, Spear reaches a definitive conclusion that in the case of multiple versions of the same composition, only those with significant differences from their precedents are likely to be “original.” The problem of originality is continued in the chapter “Di sua mano,” where the seventeenth-century clients’ desire for “authenticity” is matched by artists’ insistence that anything that leaves their studios with their approbation is “by” them: a difference of opinion that poses small comfort to modern connoisseurs and collectors. Spear, however, bravely and trenchantly tackles the concrete problems of attribution with the zeal and skill to be expected of one with such long experience in these matters (although it must be said that Spear’s apparent reliance for philological analysis on an English translation of Marco Boschini’s Breve istruzione, rather than the original Italian [264, n. 76], is surprising).

Most exciting is the final chapter in which (through traditional philology and connoisseurship) Spear expertly differentiates unfinished paintings from those finished paintings in Reni’s last manner that only have the appearance of being unfinished. This problem was exacerbated by the traditional appreciation for the unfinished remains of any great artist (such appreciation is described in Pliny), and as Spear rightly points out, even unfinished works by Reni were prized and installed in galleries and churches.

In the end, Reni’s sense of his own uniqueness and “divinity” not only affected how and what he produced but also may explain some of his aberrant behavior. His difficult personality was tolerated and even encouraged by patrons who (as Anthony Colantuono’s recent monograph on Reni’s Rape of Helen shows very well) were able to exploit otherwise intolerable behaviors to their advantage‹as when Reni’s capricious withholding of the Rape of Helen was freighted with political implications, as Pope Urban VIII decided to whom the favor of acquiring the painting would go.

In both his art and his life it seems fair to say that the “Divine” Guido was totally divorced from any mundane reality. Spear’s valuable and thought-provoking book brings the artist down to earth just long enough for us to consider the intersection of his world with ours. However, as in Spear’s final rhapsodic reading of Reni’s greatest masterpiece, the Divine Love, Reni inevitably escapes into a heaven of his own making.

Mitchell Merling
The John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art