Soon recognized as a prodigy, Guercino came to Bologna from his native Cento, a provincial Aemilian town, when still a very young man. Inevitably gravitating to the Carracci studio, he nonetheless was unable to collaborate with Agostino once Annibale and Lodovico had moved to Rome.
Guercino himself followed them to the Eternal City in May 1621, shortly after the election of his Bolognese patron, Alessandro Ludovisi, as Pope Gregory XV. During this pope’s brief reign (9 February 1621 – 8 July 1623), Guercino enjoyed the confidence of the Ludovisi family and competed successfully for great Roman commissions – a fact made all the more remarkable given the artist’s youthfulness and provincial training. These commissions included the altarpiece for S. Peter’s (The Burial of St. Petronilla, Rome, Pinacoteca Capitolina) and the Aurora fresco in the Casino of the Villa Ludovisi.
Not long after the pope’s death the, now celebrated, artist returned to Bologna to carry on a successful career catering to a host of important ecclesiastical and noble patrons, predominantly in north-central Italy. By the 1630’s, Guercino’s youthful style of bold, innovative compositions and dramatically-lit, almost nocturnal, effects, slowly evolved towards a more studied, ‘classical’ manner, possibly influenced by his compatriot, Reni. Despite this, Guercino was never to lose his interest in portraying more truthfully the world around him. His later paintings are characterized by a more even distribution of light, balanced frieze-like figural arrangements and a softer, warmer palette. Not surprisingly, however, the earlier works (dating ca. 1618-1623) have traditionally been more highly prized by collectors and connoisseurs.
Guercino was also an enormously gifted and prolific draftsman. Many of his drawings were engraved and found wide distribution throughout Europe.