Coming full circle is an opportunity to look back at the beginning. In the first room of the exhibition “GUIDO RENI. The Divine” has succeeded in bringing together all transportable versions of the “Assumption of Mary” in one place for the first time – a life theme of Reni, with which he repeatedly dealt with from his beginnings in Bologna through the Roman period to his late years. The impressive ensemble provides an insight into what constitutes the art of “divino” as if in fast motion.
At the beginning of that series is the small copper plate from the Städel Museum, the starting point of the exhibition. The artist was to return to this pictorial invention throughout his life – in constantly newly thought-out variations. This makes the painting, acquired for the Städel Museum in 2014, a key work. His journey into the collection is an exciting story that I remember fondly.
Love at first, second and third sight
Leafing through auction catalogs is part of the daily business of a curator who wants and needs to keep up to date with what’s new on the art market. This is usually less exciting than one might imagine, as museums collect the tip of the iceberg from the wealth of art production of the past, and with good reason. In the spring of 2013, an old master catalog from the Koller auction house in Zurich landed on my desk, and when I routinely looked through it, lot 3023 immediately caught my eye. The text was quickly scanned, and I was pleased to note the elegant and complete provenance. The picture itself couldn’t let me go, and so I spent half a morning looking at the large-format illustration in all its details over and over again.
In the evening at home, I rummaged through all the literature on Guido Reni I had on the shelf and found “my” picture listed there: “location unknown”. All Reni researchers were familiar with the 17th century sources Assumption of Mary so far only through an older black-and-white photograph; the extremely delicate, even captivating coloring of the panel was revealed for the first time in the color illustration in the auction catalogue. The detailed comparison with other works from Reni’s early years in Bologna, between his entry into the Academy of Carracci in 1595 and his departure to Rome in 1601, was revealing ascension Even Reni’s boldest and most groundbreaking, yes probably his best picture of this exciting early phase was to become clear to me later. At that time I was not yet working at the Städel Museum. So I followed the sale at the auction, but otherwise left it at that.
The chance: A Reni for Frankfurt
At the beginning of 2014, I took on the position of Italian curator at the Städel Museum and was commissioned by the then director Max Hollein to develop a major proposal for a purchase on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the museum that would not only supplement the collection but transform it. The greatest desideratum I had identified was closing the gap in the collection in the area of Italian painting from the early and high baroque, which was only selectively and unrepresentatively represented in the Städel. When combing through the range of relevant old master dealers, I made a surprising discovery: there she was again, Guido Renis Assumption of Mary, not on the supposed mantel of a private collector, but in the portfolio of the London dealer Jean-Luc Baroni it was for sale – a happy, completely unexpected déjà vu. And all of a sudden there was also a tangible chance to bring the image I was already familiar with to Frankfurt. The aimless scientific interest now turned into a fascinatingly real perspective, from which of course a high degree of responsibility for a momentous decision grew. This is how the process of thorough examination and research began: the key questions were attribution, provenance, quality, condition, price and the context of the collection. Having to put all these aspects on paper in detail in a purchase dossier sharpened the eye for detail even more.
After this phase of self-assurance and armed with said paper, it was now time to get the decision-makers on fire to a similar degree for the picture. The factual questions could be clarified without any problems, so that the argumentation was easy to carry out, but purchases are always directional decisions and never entirely free of individual taste. In the end, I think what was decisive was not only the awareness of the historicity, the art-historical rank of Guido Reni’s Preziose, but even more its timeless qualities, the virtuoso brilliance of the painting, the beauty, the touching poetry and imagination of that vision of heaven that Reni captured on the small table has devised.
After the first internal presentation and presentation of the purchase project at the Städelscher Museums-Verein and the support experienced there, perhaps the most important stage was still to come: examining the original. The TEFAF, which took place in Maastricht in March 2014 and is the largest art fair in the world, was ideal for this, at which the picture could be studied in detail. An exciting moment and the exciting question: does the original confirm the impression gained from the high-resolution images? It far surpassed this. The fine relief of the colors on the smooth copper plate, the radiance and subtlety of the colouring, the elegance of the brushwork – all of this became evident in a clearly enhanced form when examined closely with a magnifying glass. The extremely attractive interplay between the intimacy of the small format and the astonishing monumentality of the composition only made it possible to experience the encounter with the original in its actual dimensions of 58 x 44.4 cm.
A short time later, the fresh impressions from Maastricht were presented again to the board of the Städelscher Museums-Verein. Appraisals were prepared and the head of art technology and restoration at the Städel Museum, Stephan Knobloch, examined the panel’s state of preservation. A call for donations by the association provided an enormously important part for the eventual realization. The Städel Museum was able to count on the generous support of Fritz and Waltraud Mayer, I. Biermann, Dieter and Ingrid Seydler as well as numerous other large and small donations from association members and sponsoring institutions. What a moving moment for everyone when the now and forever Städel Assumption of Mary finally took her place in the large Italian hall!
So the picture – almost two years after I had become aware of it – found its right place, for the first time in its history in a public collection, here in the Städel Museum. A gift from the Städelscher Museum-Verein for everyone. Until March 5, 2023, the exhibition offers the unique opportunity to see the painting in the context of Guido Reni’s complete oeuvre before it is again presented in the collection.