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Giovan Francesco Barbieri, called il Guercino (Cento, 1591 - Ferrara, 1666)
Oil on canvas, 173 x 237 cm
Palazzo Rosso (inv. no. PR 16)
Maria Brignole - Sale De Ferrari Duchess of Galliera Collection, donation, 1874
This painting, in which Cleopatra is depicted in the act of taking her life, in order not to suffer the shame of defeat and imprisonment. The painting was executed by the master in the last phase of his activity, when he had moved to Bologna following the death of Guido Reni (1642), when he inherited the role of head of the school and underwent its influence, moving towards a classicist style, aimed at a greater idealization of the figures accompanied by a progressive reduction of the chromatic range and the frequent use of pastel colours.
The canvas is a fine example of this renewed stylistic direction, skilfully playing in only two tones: the white of the sheets and the complexion of Cleopatra and the purple of the cushions, the curtains of the alcove, arranged in a “wall”, as though in a theatrical performance, and the ruby-coloured blood drops that flow from the breast of the queen, who, by now near lifeless, lies languidly on the couch.
The painting is identifiable as that mentioned in Guercino’s account books as "painting of Cleopatra" paid 125 ducats "March 24, 1648 by the most illustrious Mons. Carlo Emanuele Durazzi", cousin of Stefano Durazzo. He, as was tradition for many Genoese cardinals, held the position of cardinal for the Emilia region, which was subject to the Papal State.
This link - if the legate was not Genoese, then the vicelegate probably was - explains the great wealth of seventeenth century Emilian painting in the collections of the Ligurian city.
By the mid-eighteenth century, through various hereditary passages, the painting passed from the Durazzo family into the collection of Gio. Francesco II Brignole - Sale, who placed it in the picture gallery on the second noble floor of Palazzo Rosso.