(Francesco Cairo)


1607 Milan — Milan 1665

Francesco Cairo was born in Milan on 26 September 1607 and baptized three days later in the church of Santo Stefano in Broglio. Very little is known about his early training, but it is clear that he was greatly influenced by the work of earlier Lombard artists, especially Giovanni Battista Crespi called Cerano (c. 1565—1632) and Pier Francesco Morazzone (1573—1626). His macabre lighting and somber sensuality owe much to the latter’s dramatic nocturnal scenes and it is sometimes suggested that he studied with him, although there is no conclusive proof that he did so. Certainly his earliest secure work, The Vision of Saint Teresa (Sagrestia Nuova, Certosa di Pavia) in which the saint’s isolated figure mystically emerges from the surrounding darkness, is indebted to Morazzone. Cairo must have completed this altarpiece in the late 1620s, shortly after the elder artist’s death. According to a local legend, around this same time Cairo committed a serious crime and sought refuge in a Capuchin convent near Varese, where he decorated a chapel for the friars. Modern scholars have greatly exaggerated this unsubstantiated story, going so far as to attribute Cairo’s penchant for blood-soaked themes to his violent temperament and claiming that like Caravaggio, his homicidal nature forced him to flee Lombardy for Turin. In fact, he was summoned there in 1633 as court painter to Vittorio Amedeo I, Duke of Savoy. He was given a stipend of 200 ducats, a number of commissions and within a year made a knight in the order of Santi Maurizio e Lazzaro.
Psychoanalytic interpretations aside, Cairo’s work from this period does show a morbid fascination with death. His tragic heroines, whether drawn from Christian sources (Herodias, Judith and Agnes) or Roman history (Sophonisba and Lucretia), ambiguously combine sexual rapture with sadistic pleasure. Works such as Herodias with the Head of the Baptist (Galleria Sabauda, Turin), Lucretia (Fig. 4) or Judith with the Head of Holofernes (Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota) are small-scaled canvases in which the figures are pushed close to the picture plane. Their muted colours and Leonardesque sfumatura are often pierced by sharp white highlights or the glittering sparkle of jewels. In 1637-1639, while still employed by the Savoy court, Cairo traveled to Rome. Although no works from his Roman years have been identified, his travels throughout Italy were to have a decisive impact on his later development, leading him towards a more generic, if not prosaic, baroque style. Following the example of Roman and Genoese artists such as Pietro da Cortona, Anthony van Dyck and Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione his art from the early 1640s is less idiosyncratic, his colours more luminous and his chiaroscuro less dramatic. His pigments become thinner, his brushwork more open and his compositions are given greater spatial amplitude. The interwoven figures and tender lyricism of The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine (Musée des Augustins, Toulouse) also reveal Cairo’s increased reliance on sixteenth-century masters such as Correggio.
Following his sojourn Cairo returned to Varese, where on 19 November 1639 he married Ludovica Piossasca di Scalenghe. He worked in Varese and Milan until 1644 when Christina of France, the widow of the Duke of Savoy, ordered his return to Turin. In Turin he once again took up the morbid themes that had dominated his earlier career, although now his tragic heroines, such as Lucretia (Fig. 8) and Cleopatra (Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow), did not simply swoon but reeled backwards in melodramatic angst. Such theatricality as well as the figures’ languid voluptuousness suggests the direct influence of Guido Reni. In 1646 Cairo was granted the title Conte di Peglia and given a castle, which he later sold. Within two years he had permanently returned to Milan, where he spent the last seventeen years of his life. His later work exhibits a steady decline of artistic power and a penchant for parodying Titian and Veronese. The inventory of some 400 paintings and ‘abozzi’ compiled after his death on 26 July 1665 includes an impressive number of works attributed to Van Dyck, Rubens, Titian, Veronese, and Reni among others. It seems clear that at the end of his life Cairo was both producing and marketing copies of other artists’ work. It should not be surprising that the artists whose work he dealt in were the same ones who exerted the greatest influence on his own style.


My body or my soul, which was the dearer,
When the one pure, the other made divine?
Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece

The eyes of Francesco Cairo’s enigmatic beauty turn wistfully upwards in quiet resolve (Fig 1). She is not overtly sexual, although her vulnerability gives her a sensual allure. Her firmly rounded breasts and unblemished flesh are caressed by a soft, defuse light as if her image has been filtered through the smoky haze of a gauze veil. Superficially she recalls any number of Christian martyrs or tragic heroines painted by Cairo, although her expression is more subdued. Both her identity and actions remain a mystery and part her seductive charm lies in this very ambiguity.
When the picture first appeared in 2002 at an exhibition held in Canberra and Melbourne and later Turin, Laura Lanzeni suggested that it depicted Cleopatra. Although there is no indication of the asp whose bite caused her death, Lanzeni assumed that the figure’s bare breasts alluded to the Egyptian queen’s fatal end. However, the same might also be said of Saint Agnes or Lucretia. The following year a similar painting attributed to Francesco Cairo, which clearly depicts Lucretia, appeared at Sotheby’s in London (Fig. 2). Although this painting is of rather modest quality and may not be autograph, its composition is an extended version of the London picture. In it Lucretia is shown holding a dagger in her left hand while gently touching her heart with the other. Her head, shoulders and breasts as well as the colour of her dress and the particulars of her jewels are virtually identical to those in the London picture, making it possible to connect it also with the story of Lucretia.
The death of Lucretia was one of the most popular secular subjects in seventeenth-century Italy, perhaps because it was seen as a paradigm of wifely virtue and partly, no doubt, because it appealed to the erotic fantasies of male viewers. The story of Lucretia was first recounted by Livy (I:57-59), who told how Tarquinius Collatinus boasted that the virtue of his wife Lucretia exceeded that of all others and challenged his companions to return to Rome that very instant to see how their wives were occupied. Lucretia was found to be busy spinning wool while all the other women were enjoying themselves at a luxurious banquet. Sextus Tarquinius, a kinsman of Lucretia’s husband, was so aroused by her chastity and beauty that he decided to take her by force. Later he slipped into her bedroom and threatened to kill her with a sword if she did not succumb to his advances. When the pain of death failed to move her, he went further, threatening that after her death he would place her nude body next to that of his servant and claim that they had been slain in adultery. Faced with such disgrace, Lucretia allowed Tarquinius to violate her. But the next day she summoned her father, husband and other witnesses and asked them to avenge her rape. She swore that she would not become a model for unchaste women and pulling a knife from her gown plunged it into her heart. One of those present was Brutus, who avowed to drive all such evil men from power. In Lucretia’s name he evoked the populace to rise against the tyranny of the ruling Tarquins, paving the way for the establishment of the first republic. Thus, Lucretia’s rape was seen as the moral catalyst for the birth of modern Rome.
Lucretia was canonized for dying rather than living as a defiled woman. She became a metaphor for chastity and her beauty a recognizable attribute of her moral purity. Her virtues were extolled by Ovid, Giovanni Boccaccio, Dante, and Petrarch among others, but she was not without her critics. Saint Augustine asked, “If she was adulterous, why praise her? If chaste, why slay her?” Although there are relatively few early illustrations of Lucretia, by the fifteenth century her story had became a popular theme for cassone panels. Within the context of marriage, Lucretia’s fate served as an exemplar for both husband and wife, underlining a man’s responsibility to defend the honour of his family and state while emphasizing a woman’s need for stoic fortitude.
By the sixteenth century, Lucretia was commonly shown about to commit suicide. Frequently depicted alone and semi-nude, her only attribute was a knife whose sexual symbolism recalled her rape as well as signifying her impending death. Although such images ignored the classical texts, they had a high currency both north and south of the Alps. In particular, Lucas Cranach the Elder’s earliest half-length Lucretia (Fig. 3) helped to establish a new type of heroine, who oscillated somewhere between morality and sexual temptation. Her pale breasts seem all the more enticing because they are framed between the lush darkness of her fur-lined cloak and dazzling opulence of her intricately crafted jewels. Although Cranach’s Lucretia may still have been considered a chaste and heroic wife, her image was being exploited for its erotic potential. In the following century, artists such as Guido Reni, Guido Cagnacci and Guercino would push this exploitation one step further. While Cranach’s Lucretia had stared directly out at the viewer with stoic resolve, theirs whither in pain. Their upturned eyes and ecstatic rapture transform Lucretia’s death into a pleasurable reenactment of her rape.
If the London picture was meant to depict Lucretia, then Francesco Cairo’s image falls somewhere between Cranach’s sexual complaisance and Reni’s carnal theatricality. Like Cranach, Cairo offers an eroticized experience of death. His heroine is beautiful and seductive and considerable emphasis has been placed on the tactile opulence of her jewels and flesh. Her low-cut bodice tittilatingly grazes one nipple. Yet, like Reni’s women she does not return the viewer’s gaze, rather she seems lost in a dreamlike trance. Unlike Reni’s women, however, she does not appear to suffer. Nevertheless, her barely parted lips and upturned eyes hint at an elevated state of ecstatic rapture. The subtlety with which Cairo depicts her heightened emotional state is unique in his oeuvre. His religious and historical heroines, painted during the 1630s for the court of Savoy, are generally more exaggerated in their reactions. Herodias tips precariously backwards, gasping for breath, as she faints at the sight of the Baptist’s severed head. Sophonisba grasps her stomach as the poison potion she has sipped takes effect and the Penitent Magdalen wrings her hands in despair, glancing teary-eyed towards heaven.
Perhaps the most telling comparison, however, can be made with Cairo’s own Lucretia (Fig. 4), which appears in Vittorio Amedeo I’s 1635 inventory and is still in Turin. Lucretia is about to pierce her heart. She rolls her eyes upward in search of guidance and although the blade has not yet penetrated her flesh, she swoons in agonized pain. The emphasis is placed on the impending tragedy rather than her ecstatic rapture. She is not even bare breasted, but dressed in an all-concealing blue and gold brocade gown. A correlation has been made between Cairo’s Turin Lucretia and Guido Reni’s famous images of the heroine from the early 1620s. Reni’s Lucretia of c.1622 (Fig. 5), in which the heroine plunges a knife into her breast, was frequently repeated by members of his studio. His slightly later version of the theme shows Lucretia just after she has pulled the knife from the wound (Fig. 6). Reni also produced a full-length Lucretia (Fig. 7), in which the heroine holds a sword at arm’s length. Although Cairo’s Turin Lucretia seems fraught, the picture has none of Reni’s sexual provocation. It is only after 1640 that Cairo’s nude depictions of Lucretia (Fig. 8) and Cleopatra (Fig. 9) take on the overt melodramatic eroticism associated with Reni’s work.
Lanzeni first suggested that the London picture dated from the mid-1640s when the artist had returned to Turin for the second time. During this period, Cairo’s work took on a new spontaneity and freshness that has been dubbed his ‘seconda maniera’. His brushwork became looser, at times almost wispy, and his palette richer and more luminous. In the late 1640s Cairo painted a series of female heads, whose dimensions are only slightly smaller than those of the London picture. However, their broad, juicy strokes and informality are considerably different from the more precise handling of the London picture. The minute attention, which Cairo paid to the glistening pearls, gold pendant and delicate white edging of the London figure’s undergarment, has nothing in common with these female heads. Thus it is apparent that the London painting should be dated at least a decade earlier, during Cairo’s first stay in Turin. Its composition and handling are closely linked to the work of the preceding generation of Milanese artists. Its muted palette and soft modeling fall within the Leonardesque tradition, which by the beginning of the seventeenth century had not yet completely subsided in Milan. The almost supernatural way in which the figure emerges from the surrounding darkness, however, is equally indebted to Morazzone and Cerano’s more modern use of dramatic tenebrous lighting. The suggestive phallic angle at which Lucretia holds the dagger and her stiff, unbent arm in the picture sold at Sotheby’s, recall Fede Galizia’s Judith with the Head of Holofrenes (Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota) of 1596. This latter painting, which is recorded in Vittorio Amedeo I’s 1635 inventory, not only sets a precedent for Cairo’s own images of feminine fortitude, but underscores his patron’s predilection for paintings of tragic heroines. Although the execution of the half-length Lucretia is not comparable to the high quality of the London picture, it does help to establish an earlier dating for the composition.
The relationship between the London picture and the half-length Lucretia, which appeared at auction, is complex. Sotheby’s catalogue suggested that both recorded a Cairo invention, implying that there might be other similar paintings. An obvious conclusion would be to suggest that the London picture had been cut from a larger canvas, in the same way that Guercino’s bust-length Lucretia (Credito Romangnolo, Bologna) had been. In the Guercino, Lucretia’s right hand and sword were cut from the canvas so that the gruesome subject was no longer identifiable. As in the London picture, one is left with the head and shoulders of a very beautiful and tantalizing female without any attributes to suggest a narrative context. However, three independent technical examinations of the London picture did not reveal any evidence to suggest that Cairo’s canvas had been cut down in a similar manner.
Although the London picture has most likely lost a few millimeters on all sides, the original imprint made by the narrow stretcher in the fresh pigment is still visible. A few traces of the tacking edge remain at the bottom right hand of the canvas. The pattern of the craquelure and the placement of the figure within the frame also confirm that the picture’s original dimensions have been retained. The x-radiographs (Fig. 10) reveal that the present female figure has been painted over what appears to be a portrait, whose head is further to the right and less inclined towards the left. There are indications of a large, high collar of the type found in Guido Reni’s Portrait of His Mother (Galleria Nazionale, Bologna) or Cairo’s own Self-portrait (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). This suggests that Cairo either reused the canvas or radically changed the type picture he was painting.
Cairo is not noted as a portraitist. As far as we know, he produced only a handful of male portraits in the style of Van Dyke and none of women, although he may have painted two portraits of Christina of France, which are no longer identifiable. Among the 294 pictures recorded in his studio at his death, there were only four male portraits by his hand and one of a woman in Spanish dress, which was listed without an attribution. Of the 129 ‘abozzi’ or unfinished works there were three male and three female portraits. It is very doubtful, however, if these unfinished works were by Cairo or even of his design, since at this point his shop seems to have specialized in turning out copies other artist’s work, including portraits by Titian
The close compositional relationship between the London picture and the half-length Lucretia sold at Sotheby’s makes it highly improbable that Cairo suddenly decided to change a sitter’s costume in midcourse so that she would become a seductive femme fatale. There is little historical evidence to suggest that even a courtesan would have been portrayed in such a revealing costume. What were once called portraits of courtesans are now more appropriately considered to be ideal representations of feminine beauty. In Cairo’s case, it seems likely that he reused a canvas to paint a female head of the type listed in his inventory as ‘testa di femina’ or ‘testa di Donna’.
He painted a few, albeit it less erotically charged pictures of this type, but none of them share the subtlits or careful brushwork of the London picture nor can they be dated so early. His starting point for the London picture was probably a lost Lucretia, which must have been very similar, if not identical, to the composition sold at Sotheby’s. The Sotheby’s picture may well be a copy by another hand of a lost Cairo original, whereas the London picture is likely to be a reduced autograph version, specifically excluding the references to Lucretia.
Throughout his career Cairo made autograph replicas of his own work, generally, but not always, varying the costumes and other details. Using a cartoon or a tracing taken from a finished work, he would transfer the outlines of a figure to the canvas as a starting point for his new work. For example, Herodias with the Head of the Baptist (Museo Civico, Vicenza) is a more flamboyant reworking of picture painted for Vittorio Amedeo I (Galleria Sabauda, Turin). Three versions of Cairo’s Poet are known. There are also two bust-length images of Lucretia (Figs. 11-12) datable to the late 1630s. These latter two pictures are derived from the Herodias type, but a stab wound, placed just above the figure’s breasts, changes the subject to Lucretia. The only difference between the two pictures is that the Liechtenstein version has a slightly more revealing costume. Their dimensions are nearly identical to those of the London picture and like it they have an intensely focused sensuality. During his early years in Turin, Cairo must have found a ready market for these poetic, yet sexually charged, pictures. Even at the end of his life a small image of Lucretia is recorded in his stock. Why Cairo chose to conceal the subject of the London picture remains a mystery. Perhaps a client requested him to do so or perhaps he made the decision himself. In either case, this unique version remains one of the most beguiling and subtly nuanced of all Cairo’s work.



Francesco Cairo
Lucretia (?), c. 1635
Oil on canvas, 57 x 49 cm
The Matthiesen Gallery, London
(Fig. 1)

Provenance: Private collection, Florence.

Literature: Canberra 2002, 120-121; Grishin 2002 (ill. on cover); Turin 2002, 90-91.

The picture is in excellent condition. Although it appears to be a smaller version of a more complete composition depicting Lucretia, there is no indication that it has been cut down. The picture may have lost a few millimeters on all sides when it was relined, but traces of the original tracking edges and white ground are still visible at the lower right of the canvas. The pattern of the craquelure and the imprint of the narrow stretcher also indicate that the dimensions are very close to the original ones. The picture was painted on a very unusual heavy-weave canvas with a diamond and cross pattern. The orientation of this pattern is completely straight, once again indicating that the canvas was not cut at an angle. There is one small paint lose at the bottom of the canvas where the edge of figure’s white undergarment touches the frame. This is the same area in which Lucretia’s finger appears in a larger composition sold at Sotheby’s (see below and Fig. 2). However, there is no indication that the canvas was reduced in such a way that the remains of a finger would have had to have been painted out. There is also no underdrawing in this area to suggest that there might have been a finger.
The x-radiographs (Fig. 10) reveal that the figure was painted over what appears to have been a portrait. The head is placed further towards the right and is not tilted in the same way. There are also indications of a high, wide collar. There is no reason, however, to believe that the present picture was ever conceived as a portrait. It is more likely that Cairo simply reused the canvas.

57 x 49 cm
Oil on canvas

Private Collection, Florence


S. Grishin, ‘Titian to Tiepolo: Three Centuries of Italian Art,’ The World of Antiques and Art, (July-December 2002), pp. 65-69.

Virtuous Virgins: Classical Heroines, Passion and the Art of Suicide, London, The Matthiesen Gallery, 2004.


Canberra, National Gallery of Australia and Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, Titian to Tiepolo: Three Centuries of Italian Art, 2002, no. 35, pp. 120-121, illus.

 Turin, Palazzina di Caccia di Stupinigi, Da Tiziano e Caravaggio a Tiepolo: Capolavori di tre secoli di arte italiana, 2002, no. 90-91.

Historical Period
Baroque - 1600-1720
Historical events
Italian - Lombard
Price band
$350,000 - $500,000