97 x 79 cm
Oil on canvas
1654


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Expertise

Dying Sophonisba

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called Guercino

The subject
The subject of this canvas by Guercino is the “Death of Sophonisba”, a theme that is not often used in the history of painting. This tragedy has been told in many literary works including those by Trissino and Vittorio Alfieri: the daughter of Hasdrubal, king of the Carthaginians, and wife of Syphax, king of Numidia, Sophonisba was forced to marry Massinissa and then sent to Scipio. To avoid becoming a war trophy, she proudly chose death by her own hand. And this is the moment depicted here: the moment in which the queen, after having voluntarily drunk the poison given to her by Massinissa, put the bowl down.


The painting

Denis Mahon attributes this work to Guercino’s most mature period (written communication on 29 July 1996) as is also demonstrated in a letter in his “Account Book” where the painter, on 3 October 1654, recorded a payment received for two paintings, one of which was a Sophonisba for a Venetian client, Giovanni Donato Correggio.

The dimensions of this work are slightly smaller than those normally used for other half-length portraits produced by the master from Cento. This was due to the fact that the canvas appears to have been cut in the lower right corner, as pointed out by Mahon. The queen appears richly dressed in 17th century garb and her gaze reveals the raw sadness of one who has seen her destiny and resigned herself to death by her own hand. It is an image consistent with the developments Guercino’s style: in fact, over the years, he became increasingly skilled in expressing the intimacy of emotion and the mystery of history. Sophonisba thus appears to be a meditative and magnificent woman in her suffering and the piece clearly shows that dimension of epic simplicity that Guercino tended to use in his later years, working with love and dedication on the theme of the isolated half figure in which an entire universe of sensations and emotions is concentrated.