As noted above, a portrait of “frate Bigio” by Guercino is recorded in an anonymous printed catalogue of pictures in the gallery of Count Ulisse Aldrovandi in Bologna in 1827, and it is also mentioned as preserved in the Aldrovandi collection by Gaetano Atti in his biographical account of Guercino's work. Earlier references to a portrait of un frate in unpublished family inventories from the Archivio Aldrovandi Marescotti in the Archivio di Stato Bologna (Inventario del Conte Senatore Rainero Aldrovandi Marescotti, 8 February 1764; and Inventario . . . del conte Francesco Aldrovandi, 1 June 1782) may also refer to the same picture, but since the artist’s name is not given, the evidence is not conclusive. A much later and more detailed description of the Aldrovandi picture, published in an 1869 catalogue with an attribution to Guercino, provides the decisive link with the present picture, matching it in every respect.1
Fra’ Bonaventura Bisi (Bologna, 9 Oct. 1601 – Bologna, 5 Dec. 1659), called “Il Pittorino” or “Padre Pittorino,” a Franciscan friar from the convent of S. Francesco, Bologna, was well known as a practicing engraver and miniature painter (see S. Ticozzi, Dizionario degli Architetti, Scultori, Pittori, vol. I, 1830, pp. 166-7). He became a good friend of Guercino, who made a splendid caricature drawing of him, now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (see R. Galleni, “Bonaventura Bisi e il Guercino,” in Paragone, 307, September 1975, pp. 80-2, fig. 40). Guercino also painted for Bisi two canvases—probably as gifts—each representing a putto with symbols of the passion (see D. Mahon and N. Turner, The Drawings of Guercino in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen at Windsor Castle, 1989, p. 144-5, under no. 436; and N. Turner [ed.], Guercino, la scuola, la maniera: I disegni agli Uffizi, Florence, 2008, p. 87, no. 44).
As Mahon observed, the canvas, which probably dates from no earlier than 1658 when Alfonso became fourth Duke of Modena but before December 1659 when Bisi is known to have died, might also have been presented to the sitter by Guercino since it does not appear in the artist’s account book, the Libro dei conti.
Guercino’s warm and subtle portrait of his friend and fellow painter shows the aging friar as a much thinner and fragile man compared to the robust, corpulent individual lampooned in the Ashmolean sheet. The latter, based on style alone would seem to date to around 1635-45 rather than its traditional dating to the mid 1650s (though one should keep in mind how terribly difficult it is to date Guercino’s caricatures with any precision). The relative ages of the men pictured in these two works further suggests that a decade or so has intervened. Bisi, who in 1658 or 1659 now has white, wispy long hair, would die within a short span of time after being portrayed by Guercino in the painting.
The present canvas displays Guercino’s consummate technique in rendering the flesh tones and the moist eyes of Bisi. The deft abbreviation of strokes on the sitter’s right hand shows Guercino in top form, animating the surface and creating a subtle interplay of brighter flesh tones and darker browns (painted more smoothly) to mark the way light picks up the two fingers closest to the spectator. The virtuosity of Guercino’s representation of chalk drawings of different colors and varied supports is especially impressive. The trompe l’oeil bends, curls, and dimples of the red-chalk portrait of Bisi’s patron Alfonso IV d’Este is completely convincing. A painting reproducing a drawing is an instantly recognizable and delightful conceit. Guercino had recently painted a work focusing precisely on the paragone between painting and drawing in his La Pittura e il Disegno of 1656-57 in Dresden (L. Salerno, I Dipinti del Guercino, 1988, no. 321; D.M. Stone, Guercino: catalogo completi dei dipinti, 1991, no. 307).
The format of this important addition to Guercino’s roster of portraits recalls that used in circa 1626-28 for the handsome representation of a lawyer, now identified as Francesco Righetti, formerly in the collection of Edmund P. Pillsbury and now in a private collection (Salerno, 1988, no. 120 bis; Stone, 1991, no. 111). In the Righetti portrait, we find a similar bookcase full of large volumes with their titles inscribed on the top or bottom page edges used as a backdrop. Much closer in time to the Portrait of Fra Bonaventura Bisi is Guercino’s 1655 Self-Portrait before a Painting of “Amor Fedele” recently purchased by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (see F. Baldassari, “L’Amore Fedele ed Eterno del Guercino,” Nuovi Studi 11 [2004-2005], pp. 265-8, figs. 206-7, with previous bibliography). The handling of the face, hair, and hands in the self-portrait are echoed quite closely by Guercino in his softer, more intimate painting of Bisi produced some three or four years later.
1. When last sold at auction, Dr. Simonetta Stagni provided much of the archival information related to the picture.
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