In this moving contemplation on the passage of time and transitory nature of life, Guercino painted his only known still life: a decaying skull sits atop the Book of Life; beside it, the sands of time slip through an hourglass; to the left, a vase of French roses, traditional symbols of vita brevis; on the right, a vase of wallflowers, marigolds, pansies and daisies, all Christian symbols of humility.
The origins of this remarkable still life are unknown and the painting itself disappeared from sight around 1796, but since 1988, when Luigi Salerno published it, it has been universally accepted as the picture by Guercino that was recorded in the 18th century in the Church of the Santissima Trinita dei Cappuccini in Cento. A long inscription written in a 19th-century hand is attached to the reverse of the canvas and records much of what is known about the painting (fig. 1); it reads (in translation):
“As one reads in a note in the new edition of the Felsina pittrice on page 279, we must not omit mention of a small painting in the sacristy of the Capuchin church (at Cento) representing a skull with an hour-glass, much praised by Algarotti (Opere, ed. Palese, . VIII, p. 132), but in the time of the French invasion lost without anyone having known who took it – thus being remarked that in the present little painting there is the particular practical imprimatur of Guercino’s early works, and that the roses are very much the same as those scattered beside the sepulcher of the Blessed Virgin Assumed into Heaven, a famous work by Guercino in Casa Tanara. It is thus judged by the most intelligent critics that this little picture is that of which the note in Malvasia speaks, as does Algarotti in his letter of 27 September 1760 to Giampietro Zanotti, in addition to the remark under other circumstances and judgment already pronounced by Giuseppe Sedazzi.”
The inscription almost certainly dates to shortly after 1841, when the new edition of Carlo Cesare Malvasia’s Felsina pittrice (first published in 1678) appeared, as much of it paraphrases a footnote in that edition. As noted there, the painting is described in a number of 18th-century sources, and bares close comparison in handling and palette to other early works by Guercino. The canvas was first recorded in the sacristy of the Capuchin church in Cento, but that was already more than a century after Guercino’s death. Its style indicates a dating to around 1620, before the period covered by the artist’s surviving account book. According to Salerno, the painting may in the 19th century have been in the collection of the Bolognini-Amorini family of Bologna, one of whose ancestors was the art historian Marchese Antonio Bolognini –Amorini (1767-1845).
The present Vanitas is the only independent still life that is generally accepted as by Guercino, though highly naturalistic still life elements are often found in Guercino’s larger figural compositions: as noted in the inscription, the roses beside the skull are very similar to those included in the Casa Tanari Assunta of 1623 (State Hermitage, St. Petersburg); the skull itself recalls that in the foreground of Guercino's Magdalene of circa 1624 (fig. 2; Suida-Manning Collection at the Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas, Austin) and his Et in Arcadia Ego of circa 1618 (fig. 3; Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome). Several religious compositions by Guercino dating from around 1620 similarly juxtapose a skull with a book, including the versions of the Vision of St. Jerome in the Louvre, Paris and the Pushkin Museum, Moscow. As Guercino had moved to Rome in 1621 at the invitation of the Ludovisi Pope, Gregory XV – right around the moment this unusual still life was painted – it is also possible that Guercino’s Vanitas could have been inspired by Caravaggio’s famous depiction of Saint Jerome in his Study (c. 1605) in the Borghese collection, which includes a similarly haunting union of a skull and book (fig. 5). Perhaps because of its unique status in Guercino’s oeuvre, some scholars have suggested that the Vanitas began life as a sketch of a skull and book perhaps made as a study in preparation for a larger composition, and that the flowers were added later. However, this theory can be discounted – as Salerno and John Marciaro have noted – because the flowers are clearly integral to the overall composition and Guercino is not known to have produced other, comparable oil studies. The present Vanitas should be considered a finished work in its own right.
Guercino was probably aware of the developing genre of still life through the works of local painters of the previous generation, including Vincenzo Campi and Bartolomeo Passarotti, as well as Caravaggio and his followers, especially Tommaso Saline and Pietro Paolo Bonzi (il Gobbo dei Carracci), who experimented with still-life painting in the decades after 1600. However, there are few obvious sources for the Vanitas, and independent Vanitas still lifes are far more common in Northern European art than in Italian painting before and during Guercino’s time. Yet even Pieter Claesz's celebrated Vanitas Still Life in the Mauritshus, The Hague (fig. 4), dated 1630, was not executed until over a decade later than Guercino's skull. Likewise Philippe de Champaigne's Vanitas in the Musée de Tessé, Le Mans and his composition engraved by Jean Morin (fig. 6) date much later, to 1671. The most obvious precedent would be the Memento Mori depictions including skulls and books by Jacopo Ligozzi, several of which were executed on small copper plates. Nevertheless, as the constituent motifs appear regularly in Italian depictions of Saint Jerome and Saint Francis, and in Guercino’s own Et in Arcadia Ego and his other early meditations on the theme of death, it may be unnecessary to seek any further visual sources for his innovation. It is interesting to observe that Guercino’s younger brother, Paolo Antonio Barbieri, became a still-life specialist; it has been suggested that he might have added the roses to Guercino’s painting but, as he was only a teenager at the time and his known works are broader and flatter in style than found here, it is unlikely. Rather, it is the present painting – among the very first still lifes of its sort in the history of Italian painting – that likely inspired Paolo Antonio to himself pursue this as yet under-explored genre.