Bologna 1575 – 1642
Study for the Head of an Angel | Étude de tête d'ange
Black chalk, red chalk and pastel, with incised outline, over paper laid down on vellum
Inscribed Del Guido Reni at upper left
425 x 295 mm (16 3/4 x 11 5/8 in.)
The present fine study for the head of a young man is preparatory for the Annunciation painted by Guido Reni in 1620-21 for the church of San Pietro in Valle of Fano. The work described as “rather deteriorated”  in 1971 was restored in 1988. Reni had been a model pupil of Dyonisos Calvaert, then of the Carracci, and he finally started to work independently around 1598. In the early 1600s, his artistic creation, which gracefully combines the classicism deriving from his training period with Caravaggio’s realism, achieved immense success in Rome. Obtaining prestigious commissions from the pope, Guido Reni became the most esteemed painter whose fame extended far beyond the Eternal City.
Founded in 1610, the church of San Pietro in Valle at Fano, in the region of Marche, was built on the ruins of a Medieval church due to the efforts of father Girolamo Gabrielli. Art historians agree, on the basis of several archival documents, that it was San Filippo Neri’s direct disciple and the rector of the Congregation of the Oratory that commissioned the Annunciation to Guido Reni, as well as Christ Delivering the Keys to St. Peter,today in the Louvre museum. The artist had already worked for the Congregation, particularly between June and October 1614, executing the effigy of its founder in an altarpiece for the chapel of San-Filippo-Neri of the church of Santa Maria in Vallicella in Rome. The commission of the church of Fano was documented in published correspondence and studies on several occasions , which allows to establish the chronology of the creation of the paintings. The work on the Annunciation, intended to adorn the chapel of father Gabrielli’s family, started in 1620, and the painting was consigned in September 1621. In a letter dated 23 March 1622, Guido Reni, promised to start working on the second work, part of the same commission, “the other panel of the Saviour with St. Peter”.
Although the Annunciation has been admired and praised many times , particularly by Simone Cantarini who considered it as one of the most beautiful paintings of the world , it may have not fully satisfied his patron. In 1622, in fact, Guido Reni wrote to Gabrielli regarding the second commissioned painting in progress of execution that he hoped to “make a better thing than the first one”. Whether it was a sincere confession of his disappointment or false modesty of a courtier, Reni’s sentence brought about several interpretations and its true meaning will never be clearly understood. What is, however, certain is the novelty of the work on many levels. Stephen Pepper extensively commented on two of its most surprising aspects – light and iconography, both very innovative . Light, which Reni evoked in his correspondence regarding the painting, introduces a fascinating discussion on its role in a painting and its connection with the natural light outside the painting. As for iconography, it surprises by the artist’s choice of the moment to represent and the reaction of the Virgin. Generally, the scene of the Annunciation depicts the angel with its right arm raised to the sky delivering his message to the Virgin, whereas her reaction, according to the conventional codification, must express interrogatio, humiliatio and meritatio: with her head lowered, her hand on her heart, she must be pulling back from the messenger. Guido Reni did adopt this conventional iconography in all of his other Annunciations created before and after that of Fano. In the latter, the angel, pointing at the sky with its left hand, has just appeared before the Virgin. We would expect from her an expression of certain conturbatio and not the haughty and direct expression, about which Raffaella Morselli wrote that it rather belonged to an ancient statue than to a religious painting. The art historian also underlined the absence in the painting’s visual imagery of traditional accessories: the book, the basket, tiling, opening on a landscape, etc., which produces the effect of placing the scene in a surreal space and does not comply with the Counter-Reformation instructions. All this can certainly explain the mixed reaction of the patrons upon receiving the work.
The present Study for the Head of an Angel, incised, has been used to transfer the drawing on canvas. Possibly a detail cut from a larger cartoon, it has been laid down on vellum, which reveals the desire to preserve its beauty and the attribution of high value despite of its original status of a mere tool. The elegant unidentified handwritten words say Del Guido Reni. The e’s in them are typical of the period and are similar to those that Guido Reni used in his own signature. It is thus contemporary to the work. Like Raphael, Annibale Carracci, and his contemporary Domenichino, Guido Reni used many preparatory cartoons that he entrusted to his assistants and collaborators responsible for painting parts of his paintings. Only a small number of these cartoons have survived. There are two in the Galleria Estense in Modena, in black chalk, measuring about one square metre, preparatory for the putti in the dome of the Ravenna cathedral.
Unlike Domenichino, Reni almost always used colour in his head studies and combined black, red and white chalk. His studies in pastel are rather rare today, but ancient sales reveal several head studies executed at “life size” and “aux trois crayons and pastel”. This usage will later become a habit for certain Bolognese draughtsmen, for example, Canuti.
By its expressiveness and tense position of the figure’s head, the present study is reminiscent of preparatory drawings by Federico Barocci. Born in the region of Marche, Barocci had created one of his most masterly paintings for the church of Santa Croce in Senigallia, a few kilometres from Fano. Working on his paintings, Guido Reni must have had in mind the vicinity of their paintings and the comparison that it would invite. Several works produced by the master could be admired in Rome at the time, and his influence on Guido Reni has been mentioned repeatedly, particularly regarding Barocci’s Christ on the Cross executed for the duke of Urbino (today in the Prado, Madrid) which may have influenced Reni’s work on the same subject.
In any case, the subtleness of flesh and the feeling of light coming out from the angel’s figure reveal Guido Reni’s profound sensitivity. The present study of the head of an angel, executed at life-size and possessing extraordinary freshness, is the work by one of the greatest artists of the Seicento in preparation for one of his most beautiful paintings
 Cesare Garboli, Edi Baccheschi, L’opera completa di Guido Reni, Milan, Rizzoli, 1971, No. 108, illustrated.
 GS Scipioni, “La chiesa di S. Pietro in Valle a Fano”, Rassegna Bibliografica dell’Arte italiana, I, 11-12, 1898, p. 229-237; Sir Denis Mahon “Some suggestions for Reni’s chronology”, The Burlington Magazine, 99, 1957, p. 241; Rodolfo Battistini, “L’Annuciazione di Guido Reni e le lettere ritrovate”, Guido Reni. La Consegna delle chiavi. Un Capolavoro ritorna, catalogue d’exposition, Fano, 2013, p. 60-67.
 Carlo Cesare Malvasia, Felsina Pittrice : vite de’pittori bolognesi, 1678, ed. 1841, II, p. 382; Francesco Scannelli da Forli, Il Microcosmo della Pittura, Cesena, Peril Neri., 1657, p. 352. Luigi Scaramuccia, in his turn, confessed that “he would call it divine” and reminded Cantarini’s admiration in his Le finezze de pennelli italiani, Pavie, Giovanni Andrea Magri, 1674, p. 185.
 Malvasia reported this remark by Simone Cantarini – who also executed a painting for the church of San Pietro in Valle – in Felsina Pittrice, op.cit., II, p. 382.
 D. Stephen Pepper, La Pinacoteca Civica di Fano. Catalogo generale. Collezione Cassa di Risparmio di Fano, Milan, 1993, p. 265, No. 484.
 Andrea Emiliani, Anna Maria Ambrosini Massari, Marina Cellini, Raffaella Morselli, Simone Cantarini nelle Marche, exhibition catalogue, Venice, Marsilio, 1997, pp. 29-32.
 Nourri sale on 24 February 1785, for example, contained in lot 530: “two heads of angels, one in black pencil heightened with white, the other in pastel”, lot 531 “two heads of Old Man in pastel” and lot 534 “a head of Christ drawn aux trois crayons mixed with pastel”.