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Italian Baroque masterworks are on display at the Ringling Museum

Painting of a Franciscan friar holding a picture.
Courtesy of Ringling Museum of Art
Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), Italian, 1591 – 1666, Portrait of Fra Bonaventura Bisi, ca. 1658 – 1659, Oil on canvas.

The show includes works from 17th century Italy that are making their American debut in Sarasota.

Nearly eight years ago, the Ringling Museum acquired a portrait by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, better known by his nickname, Il Guercino, who is considered one of the masters of his era. 

"Friar with a Gold Earring" is a portrait of Fra Bonaventura Bisi, a Franciscan friar and art dealer whose patrons included European royalty and the Catholic Church. 

A friend of the artist, Bisi is the subject of a new Ringling exhibition centered around the portrait. 

Fra Bisi was a sought-after art advisor for some of the most important collectors of the 17th century. 

“During this time, there was an artistic revolution in Bologna, Italy, at the hands of the Carracci,” said the Ringling’s chief curator, Sarah Cartwright.

“This is two brothers and a cousin who formed a new artistic academy which embraced new ideals for painting,” she continued.

“In particular, they sought a return to classical naturalism and clear depictions of stories. This method was very much in line with the goals of the Catholic Church in the Counter-Reformation, telling clear religious narratives through visual language. Most of the art of this period, as most people who visit the Ringling know, is religious art commissioned in one way or another for religious purposes for the Catholic Church."

Painting of a man with easel. Dog and cherub holding bow and arrow in background.
National Gallery of Art, Washington.
Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), Italian, 1591 – 1666, Self-Portrait before a Painting of "Amor Fedele", 1655, Oil on canvas.

The Ringling Museum in Sarasota holds one of America's most important collections of Italian Baroque art. 

Between 1927 and 1929, John Ringling amassed the bulk of his collection, buying hundreds of artworks at auction. 

"This exhibition, I'd like to think, is one that John would have enjoyed and understood,” said Cartwright. “A big part of this show is about the history of collecting. Because of those collectors, we still have these works preserved and can be studied and viewed and enjoyed by the public." 

Other sections of the exhibition explore Bisi’s early artistic formation in Bologna. 

The friar was also an artist and Cartwright says he was known for his miniature paintings. 

Painting of an angel approaching bearded man wearing red cloth and writing in a book.
Courtesy of the Ministry of Culture - Photographic Archive of the Gallerie Estensi, Italy.
Fra Bonaventura Bisi, Bolognese, 1601–1659, Angel Appearing to St. Jerome, 1625 – 1659, Tempera on parchment, Galleria Estense, Modena, Italy.

“This is a special type of painting, not oil on canvas, which we're much more familiar with, but tempera, which is an egg-based medium on parchment. And they're not widely held by American museums,” said Cartwright. 

"These are rare jewels that are not likely to be seen again for a long time,” she said. “They illustrate his amazing technique, which was painted with thousands of tiny dots of color. You can get up close to them and really see the level of detail and understand why these were valuable commodities." 

The friar's miniatures have never before traveled outside of Italy.

Guercino's Friar with a Gold Earring: Fra Bonaventura Bisi, Painter and Art Dealer is on display at the Ringling Museum through Jan. 7, 2024.

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