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Guido Cagnacci (Sant’Arcangelo di Romagna 1601-1663 Vienna)
These lots have been imported from outside the EU … Read more PROPERTY OF A EUROPEAN COLLECTOR (LOTS 37 & 38)
Guido Cagnacci (Sant’Arcangelo di Romagna 1601-1663 Vienna)

Allegory of human life

Guido Cagnacci (Sant’Arcangelo di Romagna 1601-1663 Vienna)
Allegory of human life
signed 'Guido Cagnacci' (lower left)
oil on canvas, unframed
46 ½ x 37 ½ in. (118.2 x 95.3 cm.)
with Steffanoni, Bergamo.
Art market, Milan, by 1976.
Private collection, London.
P. G. Pasini, Guido Cagnacci, Rimini, 1986, pp. 255-259, no. 55, illustrated.
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Sale Room Notice
Please note the additional provenance for this lot:
Private collection, Paris.
with Matthiesen Fine Art Ltd., London, from whom acquired in 1985.

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Lot Essay

In his art as in his life, Guido Cagnacci was not in the least conventional. In an itinerant career, he created compositions of magnetic appeal that singled him out as an artist of bewitching invention, while his personal life was a tale of roguish behaviour, illicit liaisons and unruly confrontation. Born in Sant’Arcangelo di Romagna, he moved to Bologna around 1616-17 to study as an artist, though his biographers offer different accounts of his early apprenticeship: Carlo Cesare Malvasia claimed he first trained with Guido Reni, but Francesco Scannelli suggested it was Ludovico Carracci. His first documented picture dates from 1627, when he was commissioned to decorate a chapel in Saludecio. He travelled to Rome in the 1620s, where he is known to have lived with Guercino in 1622, before being recorded in Rimini in 1631, and in 1642-3 in Forlì. In around 1650 he moved to Venice, where he would spend nearly a decade, opening a workshop. He was then invited to Vienna by Leopold I, where he died in 1663. Throughout these years, documented anecdotes of his private life tell stories of a man who could not avoid scandal: of how he eloped with a rich widow, Teodora Arianna Stivivi, before fleeing Rimini for fear of arrest; of how he was bequeathed property by another lover; of how he lived under a false name; of tirades against fellow artists.

The pictures for which he was most renowned, and for which he is now most commonly recognised, were overtly sensuous, beguiling and provocative. As with many of his successful compositions from the 1640s onwards, which demonstrate the influence of both Guido Reni’s idealism and Caravaggio’s naturalism, this painting has a female nude as its central motif. The subject has long been considered to be an allegory of life, with the woman surrounded by objects that symbolise mortality. The rose, the hourglass and the skull were frequently used in vanitas still lifes, each reminders of the transience of life. Above the figure’s head is a serpent that bites its own tail: at first glance it appears like a halo, perhaps an intentionally subversive gesture on the part of Cagnacci. This snake symbol is an ouroboros (or uroboros), representing the desire for immortality and eternity. It is a symbol with ancient roots, found on a shrine in the tomb of Tutankhamen from thirteenth century B.C. Egypt, a likely reference to the everlasting nature of time, but in Cagnacci’s lifetime it was better known as a key emblem in alchemy. It was found in important texts of the period, such as Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens, 1617. Cagnacci brings together the esoteric and the erotic to create a composition that clearly proved popular, with Pasini (op. cit.) noting that the composition gained early praise from Gian Piero Zanotti, who mentioned, in 1739, a work by Cagnacci showing La vita umana, calling it ‘una cosa divina’. Pasini himself lists three autograph versions, dating the composition to the 1640s, but suggests this picture is in his view the ‘best version […] and the most intensely expressive’ (ibid.).

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