Air, Wind, Sun, Spirit

The Cosmology of Guido Reni’s Aurora

in Nuncius
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Guido Reni’s early critics described him as a painter of “celestial ideas,” and his artistic process has been characterized as one rooted in the fantasia and the Idea. From the seventeenth-century on, Reni’s figures were praised for the “airs of the heads,” a notion with astrological and medical connotations, while the papal physician and art critic Giulio Mancini described Reni’s manner as “spirited,” a term suggestive of the airy movement Reni so powerfully represented in his Aurora. The concept of “spirit” or “spirits” also retained important connotations in early modern medicine and natural philosophy. A reconsideration of Reni’s Aurora in the context of medical and natural philosophical investigations of generation, artistic creation and the nature of and relationship between celestial and terrestrial regions demonstrates the connections between early modern artistic reception, medicine and natural philosophy.


Journal of the Material and Visual History of Science (Formerly: Annali dell'Istituto e Museo di storia della scienza di Firenze)




Eileen Reeves, Painting the Heavens Art and Science in the Age of Galileo (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), pp. 4–5.


Ibid., p. 5. It is also important that the art critic Giovanni Battista Agucchi took an interest in these same discoveries, undertaking telescopic observations of the sunspots and Saturn in the years 1611–1613.


Mario Biagioli, Galileo’s Instruments of Credit: Telescopes, Images, Secrecy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), pp. 137–138, and see the discussion below.


Richard Spear, The ‘Divine’ Guido: Religion, Sex, Money and Art in the World of Guido Reni (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), p. 15; Reni’s biographers often praised the divine or angelic character of Reni’s art. See Giovan Pietro Bellori, Vite di Guido Reni, Andrea Sacchi e Carlo Maratti, trascritte dipl. dal manoscritto M.S. 2506 (Montbret 1717) della Biblioteca Municipale di Rouen, Vol. I of Le vite inedite del Bellori, edited by Michelangelo Piacentini, preface by Pietro Toesca (Roma: Biblioteca D’Arte Editrice, 1942), p. 13; Conte Carlo Cesare Malvasia, Felsina Pittrice: Vite de Pittori Bolognesi alla Maestà Christianissima di Ligi XIII Re di Francia e di Navarra, 2 vols.: Vol. II (Bologna: Erede di D. Barbieri, 1678), p. 25.


Ibid., pp. 19–20.


Ibid., p. 24.


Ibid., p. 20.


Ralph Ubl, “Guido Reni’s Aurora, Politische Funktion, Gattungspoetik und Selbstdarstellung der Malerei im Gartenkasino der Borghese auf dem Quirinal,” Jahrbuch des kunsthistorischen Museums Wien, 1999, 1:209–241, p. 238; see the discussion of this debate in Panofsky, “Galileo as a Critic of the Arts” (cit. note 1), pp. 4–5.


Vincenzo Giustiniani, “Discorso sopra la pittura,” in Discorsi sulle arti e sui mestieri, edited by Anna Banti (Firenze: Sansoni, 1981), pp. 41–45: 44.


Charles Colbert, “Thoreau’s Panoramic Vision and the Art of Guido Reni,” The Concord Saunterer, 1999, (new series) 7:218–235, pp. 219–220.


Ibid., p. 221.


Giambattista Marino, Dicerie sacre del Cavaliere Marino (Torino: Per Luigi Pizzamiglio, 1614), p. 13v, begins an extended metaphor of the sun as God. It is no surprise that there be such a close analogy between Reni and Marino’s works, given Scipione Borghese was the recipient of both and that they were produced in the arc of 1614–1615.


Ibid., p. 208.


Rüdiger Klessman, Adam Elsheimer 1578–1610 (Edinburgh: National Gallery of Scotland and Paul Holberton Publishing, 2006), p. 177.


Ibid., pp. 137–138.


Ibid., pp. 146–147.


Alessandro Nova, The Book of the Winds: The Representation of the Invisible (Montreal: McGill University Press, 2011), p. 73. Nova reveals how within the drawing Storm with Uprooted Trees, c. 1513 (Royal Collection, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II) by Leonardo – an artist about whom it is commonplace to remark on his observation of nature – Leonardo introduced a symbolic mode of representing the winds by means of blowing heads and he rendered the visual effects of wind. Another example which Nova discusses in which there is this double guise in pictorial modalities is in Palma Vecchio’s Gale in the Scuola di San Marco (p. 108).


Marsilio Ficino, Opera omnia (Comm. in Tim.) (Basle: ex officina Heinric Petrina, 1576), p. 1453, as quoted by Daniel P. Walker, Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella, 1st ed. 1958 (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), p. 9.


Richard Beresford, A Dance to the Music of Time by Nicolas Poussin (London: The Trustees of the Wallace Collection, 1995), p. 28.


David Bull, “Poussin and Nonnos,” Burlington Magazine, 1998, 140:724–738, p. 730 for discussion of the dance, p. 735 for the identification of the figure of poverty as Bacchus. As Bull notes, both Bellori and Félibien describe this as a dance of human life. This notion, as Mancini explains it, would have implied a Cosmic or Universal Dance, set in motion by the God or the heavens. Rosenberg, Prat, Nicolas Poussin (cit. note 47), p. 192, argue that this is a Universal Dance.


Dennis Danielson, Paradise Lost and the Cosmological Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 97–98. Danielson demonstrates as well that this notion was articulated by Francis Bacon and Johannes Kepler and that Copernicus’ student Rheticus urged astronomers to draw more heavily upon the notion of order and harmony in music when they went about characterizing the motions of the heavens.


Michele Camerota, Galileo Galilei e la cultura scientifica nell’età della Controriforma (Roma: Salerno Editore, 2004), p. 281. Giambattista Marino’s description of the sun in his Dicerie Sacre (cit. note 21), p. 14v, shares something of this mystical language: “Anima e mente del mondo […] vita et allegrezza degli huomini, rettore e regolatore del tempo.”


Pietro Redondi, “From Galileo to Augustine,” in The Cambridge Companion to Galileo, edited by Peter Machamer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 175–210: 175. Copernicus himself, Redondi argues, presented the sun in virtually physiological terms (p. 188). A related idea of sun as the soul of the world, based on an anatomical model of the heart communicating to the rest of the body, was articulated by Kepler. See Patrick Boner, Kepler’s Cosmological Synthesis: Astrology, Mechanism and the Soul (Leiden: Brill, 2013), p. 161. The physician Domenico Panaroli noted the well-known association between the sun and the heart. Panaroli argued that both are the home of radiation of cheerfulness and warmth, one within the world, the other within the body: “Il Sole, ed il Core quanto siano simili, non occorre ragionarne; poiche ambiduo son casa dell’irradiatione, allegrezza, e calore; l’uno di tutto il Mondo, e l’altro di tutto il corpo, cioè picciol Mondo.” Panaroli, Äerologia (cit. note 33), pp. 2–3.


Ibid., p. 207 n. 64, in which Redondi argues for a distinction between Galileo’s notion of spirit and Ficino’s. Nonetheless, Redondi’s description of the process whereby Galileo proposed that this spirit (which Redondi describes as thermo-luminous) is replaced by an anima nutritiva suggests a distinctly physiological conception.


Ibid., p. 108.


David Summers, The Judgment of Sense (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 117.


  • Figure 1

    Guido Reni, Aurora, 1612–1614. Ceiling fresco, ca. 7 × 2.8 meters.Casino dell’Aurora. Rome. Photo Credit: Nimtallah/Art Resource

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  • Figure 2

    Adam Elsheimer, Aurora (Morgenlandschaft), 1606. Oil on copper, 17 × 22.5 cm.Herzog Anton Ulrich-Musem, Braunschweig, Germany. © DeA Picture Library/ Art Resource, NY

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  • Figure 3

    Guido Reni, Preparatory drawing for Aurora, 1614. Brown ink over red chalk on white paper, 125 × 257 mm.Photo: Albertina, Vienna.

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  • Figure 4

    Nicolas Poussin, A Dance to the Music of Time, ca. 1634–1636. Oil on canvas, 82.5 × 104 cm.Wallace Collection, London. Photo Credit: By kind permission of the Trustees of the Wallace Collection, London/Art Resource, NY

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  • Figure 5

    Vincenzo Cartari, Apollo and the Hours, in Le imagini de i dei de gli antichi, 1556Reprint, Venice, 1609. fol. 408 r

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