Giovanni Francesco Barbieri was born in Cento near Ferrara in the region of Emilia. From an early age he was known as Guercino, meaning one who squints. He received some basic lessons in drawing in Cento but was essentially self-taught. At the age of sixteen, Guercino entered the workshop of the local painter Benedetto Gennari the Elder as an apprentice, working there until Gennari’s death in 1610. His early works reveal the influence of Ferrarese and Bolognese art, particularly the work of Scarsellino, Carlo Bononi and the Carracci. In 1613 and through the mediation of his friend and protector, the priest Antonio Mirandola, Guercino obtained his first major public commission, to paint a Glory of All Saints for the altar of the church of Santo Spirito in Cento. This was followed by other significant private commissions such as those for frescoes in the Provenzale and Panini residences in his native city. Among Guercino’s clients were some of the most important art patrons in Italy including Cosimo II, Duke of Tuscany, Cardinal Alessandro Ludovisi, Cardinal Jacopo Serra, and Ferdinando Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua.
In 1621, when Ludovosi became Pope Gregory XV, Guercino moved to Rome where he painted The Burial of Saint Petronilla for one of the altars in Saint Peter’s, as well as other religious and secular works for the Ludovisi family. Despite only remaining in Rome for two years during the brief reign of Gregory XV, Guercino’s style underwent a significant transformation as he abandoned his naturalist approach and adopted a classicising idiom based on form, as well as a lighter palette influenced by Guido Reni. Guercino returned to Cento where he remained until 1642, then moved to Bologna. During the last phase of his career the artist enjoyed great renown and international fame, and in 1655 he was visited by Queen Christina of Sweden. Works from this period include the celebrated Atlas (Museo Bardini, Florence), painted for Lorenzo dei’Medici, and Saint Thomas Aquinas in the church of San Domenico, Bologna.