Guercino was born in Cento, close to Ferrara, in 1591. Since his young days it was immediately clear that he was greatly talented for the arts.
He developed his artistic straw during the 17th century and was recognised as one of the great masters of the Baroque style. His strange nickname is probably due to his strabismus which is said may be the reason behind his way of disposing figures in space in his paintings.
He greatly used light and shadows, in opposition to most of his colleagues who favoured opacity. It is said that his first piece was made precisely in Cento, on the façade of the house where he lived and where he painted a copy of a print representing the Madonna.
His family supported him in his natural inclinations sending him first to Bertozzi’s and later to Bartolomeo Gennari’s workshop. In 1609, a young Guercino moved to Bologna and studied in different schools and workshops where he was able to admire first-hand masterpieces which decorated churches and buildings throughout the city.
He will later admit that he was particularly enthralled by the works of Carracci. He’d already seen the artwork of this Bolognese family in his younger days, as Cento hosted one of the pieces by Ludovico Carracci.
The second city to embrace his art was Ferrara, where he admired the colours and compositions of the great Venetian masters of the last centuries. Once he had achieved fame, he was called to Rome by Pope Gregorio XV, a Bolognese of the noble family of Ludovisi, in 1621.
One of his less-known works is preserved inside Palazzo Sampieri Talon that is open to the public thanks to the efforts of the “Amici del Guercino” association and to the willingness of the building’s owners to open the doors of their private home.
The fresco represents Hercules and Antaeus in a fierce battle and was painted by Guercino during his artistic maturity. Apparently, his fame was so well-established that the family gave him free reins in deciding the theme and the setting, reason why it may be one of his best frescoes.
Giant Antaeus was Poseidon’s and Mother Earth’s son and had been invincible until the arrival of Hercules. Hercules imagined where Antaeus’ strength came from, the earth, and lifted him from the ground; Antaeus immediately lost his power and was squashed by his enemy’s embrace. The scene displayed on the ceiling of the building is in fact Antaeus trying for a last desperate act of self-defence.