CAIRO, Francesco del
(b. 1607, Milano, d. 1665, Milano)


Italian painter. He is known for his highly personal, if somewhat neurotic, portrayals of swooning female saints and heroines.

He was born, in Varese, around 1598; recent scholarship has confirmed that he was baptized in the church of Santo Stefano in Broglio in 1607. It is not known where he obtained his early training, but he certainly was influenced by Giovanni Battista Crespi, Tanzio da Varallo, Guido Reni, and Bernardo Strozzi. Established as court painter for Vittorio Amadeo I of Turin in 1633, the twenty seven year old Cairo was made Knight in the Order of Sts. Laurazo and Maurizio in 1634. By 1635 he had been awarded one thousand gold scudi as an annual stipend. In 1637-38, Cairo travelled to Rome, where he encountered the works of Pietro da Cortona, Guido Reni and of the Caravaggisti.

In 1641 and 1642 Cairo was in Varese, while 1643 and 1644 saw him in Milan, evidently estranged from his patrons. Thereafter he returned to Turin, where he was ennobled in 1646 and given a castle, By 1650 he had settled in Milan. There he spent his time fulfilling commissions from churches as far flung as Venice and Piacenza for altarpieces. In the best of these, Cairo's imaginative portrayal of saintly visions and ecstasies rank him as a first rate painter.

Among the finest of Cairo's extant altarpieces is The Virgin and Child Appearing to St. Anthony of Padua dated 1650, Piacenza, Chiesa Parrochiale di Santa Teresa e Sant'Alessandro. Its molten light, beautifully painted flesh, and economical composition are all indications that at his best Cairo was a painter of exceptional talent. Closest in spirit to his melodramatic heroines are his several versions of Christ on the Mount of Olives. It was during his years in Turin that Cairo perfected the kind of swooning quasi erotic heroine upon which his present fame rests. These seductive visions later become a specialty of Guido Cagnacci, at the Austrian court.