You can be forgiven if you’d never heard of Guido Cagnacci before going to see the tiny but brilliant exhibit of three of his works at the Cincinnati Art Museum. You won’t find him in your Janson, or, for that matter, in many more weighty volumes devoted to Italian painters of the 17th century. Like that other archetypal Baroque Italian bad boy, Caravaggio (who was a generation older, but whose work and disciples Cagnacci almost certainly encountered in Rome), Cagnacci led a life divided into periods of support and acclaim punctuated by periods of unemployment and being on the run from scandal. The CAM label speaks of “his unsanctioned marriage” and “other personal entanglements”; another museum writes of his “combative and adventurous personality,” while a recent biographer sees him as “restless and dissolute, unruly and even disjointed.” After a successful career as a church-supported painter in the towns of Italy’s Emilia region (which includes Bologna, Parma, and Rimini), Cagnacci left the area for a successful stay in Venice, where a painter could thrive by sales to individual collectors. He ended his career in some relationship or other to the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold in Vienna. He must have found the northern winters shocking.
Cagnacci’s reputation has been on the rise over the last half century, with more inclusions in historical exhibitions, single work shows, and more paintings entering public collections. A 1986 show of Emilian artists at The Met and The National Gallery featured three by Cagnacci, including another version of “The Death of Cleopatra.” Like a great many 17th century painters, Cagnacci often did multiple versions of popular subject matter, though Cagnacci’s revisiting of familiar materials often lead to paintings strikingly different from each other. The CAM show has three Cagnaccis as well, chosen at approximately decade intervals: a pre-banishment work, a picture from the Venice years, and the exhibition’s centerpiece, a “Death of Cleopatra” from his final years in Vienna.
Starting in the chronological middle is “David Holding Goliath’s Head” (1650). A red-headed youth, his chest only partially covered by some loose woolen drapery, averts his gaze from both his trophy and his audience. Cagnacci was drawn to paintings of religious and secular persons who could be portrayed partly or entirely unclothed: Magdalenes at many stages of her life, St. Sebastian, Susannah and her ogling elders, the little-known St. Mustiola stretched out nude on the floor in her martyrdom, Lucretia with her knife aimed at her breast, and of course Cleopatra. He painted sleeping nudes and dead nudes, and nudes where you have trouble telling the difference between the two. His David is hardly of heroic dimensions, though in many versions of David’s greatest battle, that is part of the measurement of his heroism. He seems lost in a private world in the aftermath of his famous fight, unable to relinquish the giant’s head but equally unable to look at it, hold it up for the crowd’s inspection, or even to hold it out for divine approval. In the Museum’s own version of the same scene by Bernardo Strozzi, which is also in the show, David seems to exult and praise the divine source of his victory; Cagnacci’s David seems to be finding his triumph deeply troubling.
He is alone with his thoughts and moods—and his hat. David is wearing a bright red hat with a long swirling feather attached to the front by a jewel of some sort. It is, of course, incongruous. It speaks, in some ways, against the pensive privacy of his face. In another Cagnacci version of an otherwise similar David scene, the young hero is fully dandied up in silks and slashed sleeves, with a blue hat this time, and a dark upright feather. As that picture is sometimes explained, we are told in the Bible that after slaying Goliath, David was triumphantly clothed by his admirers. But the clothes he wears far exceed the occasion; they are, explicitly, theatrical clothing, and help remind us that part of the complexity and genius of the 17th century was its combination of interiority and display, of psychological subtlety and bravura performance. Hamlet’s soliloquies come to mind as another example.
The Museum has been able to secure for the exhibit the loan of an earlier version of “The Death of Cleopatra” (1645-55) to let us compare how Cagnacci reconsidered his ideas and subject matter over time. The earlier version features a different model, naturally, and also a significantly different pose, though you can’t have the death of Cleopatra without a snake and a bared breast. The breast is practically gratuitous: this Cleopatra pulls down the top of her dress to reveal her left breast while the snake, pinched tightly at its neck, is biting her right one. I think it also imagines the scene as belonging to a different genre. Cleopatra is gazing upward, as if to heaven; at the very least, there is an echo of a saint in devotion or martyrdom, though the implication might well be that this is the saint of sexuality. Her skin is both fleshy and cloudlike. The wall label helpfully points to her earrings and her clothes as typical of contemporary luxury goods; in more than one way, we might associate this Cleopatra with the repentant Magdalene, redeemed at the end. As the exhibit argues elsewhere in the show, “It is at once a warning against the pleasures of the flesh and an enticement to them.”
The centerpiece of the show is a later version of “The Death of Cleopatra,” this one painted in Vienna around 1660-62, near the end of Cagnacci’s life, on loan to the CAM from the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan. Cleopatra sits on a red leather armchair with dozens of brass rivets. She leans back, exhausted or relieved. Her right arm rests on the snake, trapping it there. Her head is tilted away from the snake, but through her almost closed eyes, she seems to be looking down in the snake’s direction. She has lowered her garments so that she is nude from the waist up. This is not the portrait of a saint.
But aside from that, it is hard to say exactly what it is. As the wall label astutely points out, we are unsure just what moment of Cleopatra’s story we are witnessing: “Has the snake, largely hidden in shadow by her right arm, already delivered its poison, leaving Cleopatra to take her last breaths, or is she relaxed, resigned to her impending fate?” Is she looking at the snake, or is she looking way beyond the snake, to her death? Where is she in regards to her own mortality? There are at least two very different spiritual dramas that might be represented here. In one, she confronts the impending agent of her own death with what seems like philosophical distance. In the other, she already carries her death inside her and in her extreme moment, is alone with the consequences of her decision to have taken her life. It’s neck and neck between the eros and the thanatos.
Study of related works won’t really help us. In another version of Cleopatra’s death, Cagnacci has painted the same model, sitting in the same chair, slumped over, clearly dead. But in some ways, that Cleopatra lives on, the center of her court still: still wearing her crown, she is surrounded by a half dozen of her ladies-in-waiting (some of whom are also inexplicably bare-breasted) showing attitudes of surprise or mourning. In still another version, Cagnacci has the same model sitting in a similar chair, keeled over backwards held up only by the backrest. Her lifeless eyes and mouth are wide open. It is a shocking picture of death with the sort of clinical interest in the unromantic details of mortality that we might expect to see in Gericault rather than the 17th century. These other versions remind us that it is also distinctly possible that the Museum’s Cleopatra might be dead already, at peace at last.
Perhaps this is another way that the show serves to remind us of the remarkable modernity of the Baroque. The first time I saw a reproduction of the Cleopatra painting in a mailer from the CAM, with its frank revelation of naked flesh, I thought the Museum was bringing in a Balthus show. There is a psychological modernity to her as well. Though Cagnacci has imagined her in other ways in other paintings, in this version Cleopatra is denied access to her rank or any other aspect of her public identity. Her death (and life) may be a trope in western culture’s cavalcade of women who perform dramas about love, passion, marriage, cunning, and sex, but this Cleopatra seems to have had enough of all that. Like Cagnacci’s David, she is averting her gaze from us and creating a private moment. It is as if she is thinking that she’s played the role that was expected of her to the hilt. Now can’t she have a moment to herself?
Take away the snake and the painting’s title, and the work as a whole would be profoundly enigmatic indeed. We could be intruding on a napping woman—or one who, in a moment of coy eroticism, is hoping to seduce the viewers by not paying any attention to them. Perhaps we shouldn’t be here—or perhaps we are the essential part of what she’s doing? Or it could be a painting of a woman dying without any of her support system—her rank, her attendants, her glory have all been stripped away. This is a woman dying alone in a chair.
This is what 17th century tragedy does; it is a drama of denudation that isolates its central figures. Hamlet dies refusing to explain to his best friend what he now knows of life and death: “The rest is silence.” But tragedy is a consumable art form too, and tragic figures may argue for privacy, but we’re still looking right at them. The painting cannot avoid its theatricality: this is Cagnacci’s depiction of his model performing the last moments of Cleopatra. Her identification as Cleopatra invokes a life, and a death, that she cannot help but share. Even her nudity is both her own and not her own—just as the head of Goliath is David’s own and not his own. The CAM has brought to us with this small but very effective exhibit a remarkable way to get a feel for the painterly, psychological, and emotional richness of the mid-17th century.