On the roof of the summer-house of the Palazzo Rospigliosi, is painted the celebrated fresco of Guido's Aurora. Its colouring is clear, harmonious, airy, brilliant—unfaded by time; and the enthusiastic admirer of Guido's genius may be permitted to hope that this, his noblest work, will be immortal as his fame.
Morghen's fine engraving may give you some idea of the design and composition of this beautiful painting; but it cannot convey the soft harmony of the tints, the living touches, the brilliant forms, the realized dream of the imagination, that bursts, with all its magic, upon your enraptured sight in the matchless original. It is embodied poetry. The Hours, that hand-in-hand encircle the car of Phœbus, advance with rapid pace. The paler, milder forms of those gentler sisters who rule over declining day, and the glowing glance of those who bask in the meridian blaze, resplendent in the hues of heaven,—are of no mortal grace and beauty; but they are eclipsed by Aurora herself, who sails on the golden clouds before them, shedding "showers of shadowing roses" on the rejoicing earth; her celestial presence diffusing gladness, and light, and beauty around. Above the heads of the heavenly coursers, hovers the morning star, in the form of a youthful cherub, bearing his flaming torch. Nothing is more admirable in this beautiful composition, than the motion given to the whole. The smooth and rapid step of the circling Hours as they tread on the fleecy clouds; the fiery steeds; the whirling wheels of the car; the torch of Lucifer, blown back by the velocity of his advance; and the form of Aurora, borne through the ambient air, till you almost fear she should float from your sight; all realize the illusion. You seem admitted into the world of fancy, and revel in its brightest creations.
In the midst of such youth and loveliness, the dusky figure of Phœbus appears to great disadvantage. It is not happily conceived. Yet his air is noble and godlike, and his free commanding action, and conscious ease, as he carelessly guides, with one hand, the fiery steeds that are harnessed to his flaming car, may, perhaps, compensate in some degree for his want of beauty; for he certainly is not handsome; and I looked in vain for the youthful majesty of the god of day, and thought on Apollo Belvedere. Had Guido thought of it too, he never could have made this head, which is, I think, the great and only defect of this exquisite painting; and what makes it of more importance, is, that Apollo, not Aurora, is the principal figure—the first that catches the eye, and which, in spite of our dissatisfaction, we are to the last obliged to contemplate. The defects of his Apollo are a new proof of what I have very frequently observed, that Guido succeeded far better in feminine than in masculine beauty. His female forms, in their loveliness, their delicacy, their grace and sweetness are faultless; and the beauty and innocence of his infants have seldom been equalled; but he rarely gave to manly beauty and vigour a character that was noble.
From the Aurora of Guido, we must turn to the rival Aurora of Guercino, in the Villa Ludovisi. In spite of Guido's bad head of Apollo, and in spite of Guercino's magic chiaroscuro, I confess myself disposed to give the preference to Guido. In the first place, there is not the same unity of composition in Guercino's. It is very fine in all its parts; but still it is in parts. It is not so fine a whole, nor is it so perfect a composition, nor has it the same charm as Guido's. Neither is there the same ideal beauty in the Aurora. Guercino's is a mortal—Guido's a truly ethereal being. Guercino's Aurora is in her car, drawn by two heavenly steeds, and the shades of night seem to dissipate at her approach. Old Tithonus, whom she has left behind her seems half awake; and the morning star, under the figure of a winged genius bearing his kindled torch, follows her course. In a separate compartment, Night, in the form of a woman, is sitting musing, or slumbering, over a book. She has much of the character of a Sibyl. Her dark cave is broken open, and the blue sky and the coming light break beautifully in upon her and her companions, the sullen owl and flapping bat, which shrink from its unwelcome ray. The Hours are represented under the figure of children, fluttering about before the goddess, and extinguishing the stars of night—a beautiful idea; but one, perhaps, better adapted to poetry than painting. The Hours of Guercino are, however, infinitely less poetic and less beautiful than the bright female forms which encircle the car of day in Guido's Aurora. Yet it is a masterpiece of painting; and but for the Aurora of Guido, we could have conceived nothing beyond the Aurora of Guercino.
Rome in the Nineteenth Century (5th edition, London, 1852).
Although no distinct landscape is known by the hand of Guido, yet in a history of this particular branch it may not be improper to notice its immense importance as an accessory in his picture of Aurora. It is the finest instance I know of the beauty of natural landscape brought to aid a mythological story, and to be sensible of its value we have only to imagine a plain background in its stead. But though Guido has placed us in the heavens, we are looking towards the earth, where seas and mountain-tops are receiving the first beams of the morning sun. The chariot of Apollo is borne on the clouds, attended by the Hours and preceded by Aurora, who scatters flowers, and the landscape, instead of diminishing the illusion, is the chief means of producing it, and is indeed most essential to the story.
Guido Reni Paintings