Giovanni Francesco Barberi was nicknamed Guercino because he was guercio,or cross-eyed. Born in poverty in Cento, near Ferrara, he was largely self-taught, though he also served an apprenticeship. The glowing colorism and emotion of Lodovico Carracci's Holy Family with Saint Francisin Bologna influenced him profoundly, and Lodovico himself encouraged the young man. From 1614 to 1621, the year Pope Gregory XV summoned him to Rome, Guercino painted the altarpieces that are his most Baroque creations. With Lodovico's and Caravaggio's works pointing the way, Guercino brought the viewer into the painting's space, adding dramatic lights and darks and greater emotional intensity.
Throughout his career, Guercino's style underwent dramatic changes. In Rome he first felt pressured to paint in the popular classicizing style. Returning to Cento two years later, his dark shadows faded, strong movement disappeared, and details emerged distinctly in clear light. To "satisfy as well as he could most of the people, especially those who asked for paintings and had the money to pay for them, he had shown paintings in the lighter style," reported his first biographer. Guercino ran his Cento studio until 1642, when Guido Reni, who had loathed him, died. Guercino then moved to Bologna, taking over Reni's religious picture workshop and his role as the city's leading painter.