Born in Bologna in 1560, to a family of
Lombard origin, brother of Agostino and cousin of Ludovico, Annibale Carracci
was the most outstanding and innovative of the group. Painting from life and
studying the great sixteenth century masters they founded an academy in the
early ‘eighties known as “Dei Desiderosi”. After 1590 it was called the
“Accademia degli Incamminati.” The Carracci’s “reform” consisted of a stylistic
and ideological reaction to late Mannerism in the name of a return to nature and
a recovery of classicality in form. However, between the devotional Ludovico and
the theoretical Agostino, it was mainly Annibale who revealed a true innovative
talent that would influence all seventeenth century painting. From his early
paintings in Bologna – such as the Crucifixion (1583) or the genre scenes
from 1583 – 1585 like The Butcher’s Shop or The Bean-Eater,
Annibale quickly proved his talents as a colorist and draftsman and demonstrated
his experimental curiosity about the various artistic genres that were
developing in that period. The first, large collective project of the Carracci
Academy was the frescoing (around 1584) of some rooms in the Bologna palazzo of
Count Filippo Fava with the Story of Jason. After several prestigious
commissions such as the Baptism of Christ (1585) for the friars of the
church of San Gregorio in Bologna, or Pietà and Saints (1585) for the
Capuchin church in Parma that is reminiscent of Correggio and sixteenth century
Emilian painting, Annibale made a trip to Venice around 1587. There he was
awestruck by the works of Titian and Veronese and a direct result of this
encounter was the splendid Virgin Enthroned with St. Matthew (1588) for
the church of San Prospero in Reggio Emilia. The altarpiece with St Roch
Giving Alms for the church of San Rocco in the same city (now in Dresden)
also dates from the that period. In this early phase the most important work
undertaken by the Carracci school was the decoration of the great salon in
Palazzo Magnani, in Bologna (1590 circa) where for the first time, in these
frescoes depicting the Story of Romulus, Annibale took control of the
group from the elder Ludovico. Annibale reached full maturity of expression with
his move to Rome where, together with Agostino and Ludovico he had been summoned
by Cardinal Odoardo Farnese in 1595 to decorate the Camerino (study) (with
frescoes dedicated to Stories of Hercules) in the Palazzo Farnese. On the
ceiling was Hercules at the Crossroads (now in Naples, Museo di
Capodimonte) that was emblematic in Annibale’s individual development as he
began to separate from his brother, Agostino with whom the misunderstandings
would become irreconcilable when they were decorating the Galleria in Palazzo
Farnese. In these magnificent frescoes (1598-1601) with the outstanding ceiling
scene of the Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne Annibale reached the apex of
his creative imagination. Turning to classical and Renaissance culture he
succeeded in surpassing the limits of the real, of nature and of history, laying
the foundations for the great Baroque decorations. In Rome Annibale received
other prized commissions, such as the altarpiece with the Assumption of the
Virgin (1601) for the Cerasi chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo (the lateral
parts were done by Caravaggio), the frescoes in the Herrera chapel (1602-1607)
in San Giacomo degli Spagnoli and the lunettes in the chapel of the Aldobrandini
Palazzo (painted in together with his pupils around 1603). In 1605 disappointed
by the way he was dismally underpaid by Cardinal Farnese for his work in the
Galleria, he began to notice the first symptoms of the mental illness that would
kill him within a few years – upon his return from a brief trip to Naples – on
15 July 1609 in the Eternal City where, more than anyplace else, he received
glory and honors.
Crucifixion with Saints
This painting was originally in the Machiavelli Chapel in the church of San Niccolò di San Felice; it was moved to the church of Santa Maria della Carità in Bologna after the 1956 restorations. Sources acknowledge this altarpiece as Annibale’s first work dated 1583 and therefore painted when he was only twenty-three. Annibale combined his own formal and coloristic ideas of Veneto-Lombard inspiration with the simple and direct formal structure to contrast with the complicated Mannerist schemes that were in vogue at the time. The saints at the foot of the Cross, with St. Petronius in bishop’s clothing, are monumental but they also have that chromatic power and infallible sense of formal synthesis that would gradually become dominant in Annibale’s art. His personal inventive abilities, that are already recognizable in this painting, would mature quickly through his direct studies of Correggio and the great Venetian masters that he also became acquainted with from his brother Agostino’s engravings. The atmosphere of the scene is inspired and typical of the Counterreformation. The year 1582 marked the publication of the famous book Discorso delle immagini sacre e profane [Discourse on sacred and profane images] by Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti of Bologna. The book was a fundamental text for the radical religious renewal of painting and was held in great esteem by the Accademia degli Incamminati that had been recently founded by the Carracci.
There are those who have identified the peasant eating his beans as Zanni of the Commedia dell’Arte since beans are traditionally considered the food of fools. Beyond these uncertain hypotheses concerning the subject the painting must definitely be related to The Butcher’s Shop of Oxford because of the style, genre and the same common-folk spirit they share. The basis for this naturalistic creation, of the man caught unawares while he is eating can be traced to characters painted by Vincenzo Campi and Bartolomeo Passarroti – often portrayed “live” as if frozen in an action shot. Within the context of Carracci eclecticism, in this picture Annibale reveals his undeniable skill in matching the style to the subject, with an anti-academic, “humble” subject and free, vigorous painting. This would remain a constant feature of the Accademia dei Carracci in harmony with the culture of the period and an old Bolognese-Po Valley matrix: the alternation of the classical composure of the religious paintings with the fresh – even caricature-like or grotesque – nature of other figurative experiments. Here the painting has soft chromatic effects as we see in the bluish-gray light filters through the window and then ennobles and transforms the food and simple objects into elegant, decorative elements on the white tablecloth.
The Butcher’s Shop
This canvas, which is in Oxford, arrived in England when the Gonzaga gallery was taken over by Charles I of England in 1627-1628. Earlier critics had attributed it to the Bolognese artist Barolomeo Passarotti who painted interesting genre scenes. The reference to Annibale, found in the Gonzaga inventory of 1627, dates from 1956, the year of the first great exhibit of Carracci paintings held in Bologna. The style is typical of the artist’s early period that was actually precociously mature and innovative – like the Crucifixion in Santa Maria della Carità or the Baptism of Christ in San Gregorio. The composition is only apparently a genre scene in the style of Vincenzo Campi of Cremona or Passarotti. Actually it seems to be based on the artist’s daily experiences, as if it were a scene he had actually witnessed. The details of the butcher shop are particularly descriptive and precise, with the carcasses hanging from hooks and the tight space crowded with men, tools and animals, like the dog under the table or the sheep ready for slaughter. It is a scene of common folk, human and decidedly realistic where the facial expressions of the butchers, the boys, the old woman and the halberdier seem like life-portraits painted with utmost freedom. The playful and ironic touches fit perfectly with the typically seventeenth century spirit of alternating poetic, classic and moralistic sentiments, with a grotesque, sensual and realistic subject. This alternation of styles and contents, that the Accademia dei Carracci would cultivate to a great extent, would lead to the development of the “genres” of seventeenth century art.
Virgin Enthroned with St. Matthew
In a certain sense, this painting seems to conclude Annibale’s first phase as a master: it is the apex. By this time, he had had many commissions, and formative experiences and was spending his time between Parma, Reggio Emilia and Venice. In this altarpiece, painted for the Mercanti Chapel in the church of San Prospero in Reggio Emilia (signed and dated 1588) we see a convergence of all the artistic knowledge that Annibale had acquired in these years, from the delicate tonality of Correggio to the glorious radiance of Veronese and the grandiose structures of Titian. However, the entire composition possesses a full and natural breadth, a solemnity and rhythmic harmony that make it a totally original masterpiece that seems to anticipate the Baroque combination of sensuality and decorum. The sense of formal and luministic completeness is given by the landscape that opens on the right with extreme naturalness creating a precious background behind the vibrant figure of St. John the Baptist who invites us to observe the scene. Saint Matthew and Saint Francis enraptured by the religious sentiment that may be damped by the easy-going the pose of the Evangelist’s angel at the foot of the throne (he seems to be a blend of Raphael’s putti and the impish angels of Parmigianino) who forms the base of the entire pyramidal composition. The canvas became part of the gallery of the duke of Modena and then was moved to Dresden in 1746 when most of the famous collection was sold.
San Ludovico Altarpiece
This painting was done for the high altar of the Franciscan church of Santi Ludovico e Alessio in Bologna. The orthodox iconography reflects its original home: on the left, slightly in front of St. Francis and St. Clare (protectors of the order) is St. Louis of Anjou, bishop of Toulouse who entered the Franciscan Order in 1296. On the right are St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. John the Baptist and St. Alexis, whose cult was enjoying great success, as it were, during the Counterreformation as a model of chastity and poverty. The saints, kneeling on a marble step, are contemplating a neo-Raphaelesque Virgin in a close relationship between heaven and earth. The arrangement is monumental and symmetrical, like the paintings of Fra’ Bartolomeo and is a blend of archaisms and innovation, Renaissance elements (like the mitre in the foreground) and other, already Baroque touches (such as the landscape we see wedged between the robes of St. Francis and St. John the Baptist). The luminous, vibrant brushstrokes, of Venetian matrix, would lead to dating this canvas just after the Virgin Enthroned with St. Matthew (1588) in which the Venetian and Correggio-like chromatic components are already evident. There are four known preparatory studies for this stupendous altarpiece including a beautiful drawing of hands for St. Alexis.
Venus with a Satyr and Cupids
This painting, that was already part of the Medici collection in 1620, is famous for the anecdote by Malvasia: to paint Venus’ back, Ludovico Carracci, known as “chubby” posed for his cousin Annibale. The tone is playful and exuberant, anticipatory of that cheerful carnality of mythological themes that Annibale would celebrate in the Palazzo Farnese frescoes in Rome. The Venus is quite evidently based on Titian’s seated nymph in Diana and Callisto, in Edinburgh, one of the mythological paintings that Titian had dedicated to Philip II. Annibale reinterpreted the Titianesque rendering of the sensual and Arcadian classicism in the light of the mannerist deformation that is still present in this scene built on diagonals and chiaroscuro contrasts. The pale skin of the reclining Venus, heightened by the white cloth that partially covers her, contrasts with the darkness of the satyr who emerges from the shadows to offer her a bowl filled with grapes. Because of the audacious pose of the female figure, that was considered scandalous, and the clearly erotic allusion on the face of one of the two cupids the painting was covered with an allegorical death scene by C. Sacconi in the eighteenth century; it was removed in 1812).
The Virgin Appears to St. Luke and St. Catherine
This large altarpiece, that is signed and dated on the pedestal St. Catherine is leaning on, “Annibal Caractius F. MDXCII” was commissioned for the Chapel of the Notaries in the cathedral of Reggio Emilia (today it is in the Louvre). The 1589 contract clearly stated that the painting was to be done entirely by the master’s hand and delivered promptly. Carracci, however, did not meet the terms of the contract as we can see from the date (1592) and from the lack of organicity proving that others did indeed work on it. The upper portion has a chromatic structure and a compositional and formal confidence that are lacking in the two saints who are out of proportion and rigid in their rhetorical gestures as if they had been painted in a hurry. Even the landscape seems simplified in quick brushstrokes and reduced to a mere chromatic background by almost overwhelming and gigantic St. Luke. The pyramid of figures is static and enlivened by few body movements: the torsion of St. Catherine and the devotional pose of St. Luke seem to direct our gaze towards the celestial grouping of the Virgin and Child with the four Evangelists amidst the clouds. The general arrangement of the painting and in particular the group with the Virgin and child could recall the Madonna and Child with St. Francis, St. Joseph and Donors by Ludovico Carracci (1591), in the Pinacoteca Civica e Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Cento.
Hercules at the Crossroads
At the end of the 1595 (or early in 1596) Annibale was definitely in Rome and the first commission he received was from Cardinal Odoardo Farnese to decorate the ceiling of the small Camerino (study) in his palace. This was sort of a trial for the major undertaking – the gallery frescoes – that Annibale was to begin shortly thereafter. The canvas Hercules at the Crossroads was placed in the middle of the ceiling, among the frescoed Stories of Hercules also painted by Annibale. In 1662 the canvas was removed and sent to the ducal residence in Parma and was replaced with a poor copy that is still in situ. The painting is extraordinary for its balance and structural invention. It reveals Annibale’s true artistic personality that was increasingly knowledgeable and independent of his brother Agostino with whom the relationship would gradually deteriorate to the point of a complete break while they working on the Galleria. The vigorous, lifelike Hercules is directly relatable to ancient statuary, such as the Laocoon but mainly the Farnese Hercules of which it seems to be a living reformulation while the figures of Virtue on the left and Vice on the right are spatial hiatuses of classical harmony, like neo-Raphaelesque presences of statuary composure. Annibale’s harmony is never abstract or intellectualized: it has its roots in natural beauty. This poetic ideal that was resolved in his contacts with classical Roman works and the Vatican frescoes is already evident in this balanced and serene composition.
Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne
This is the central part of the ceiling in the Farnese palace gallery in Rome. It is the major and most radiant of works by Annibale Carracci who had just completed the decorations in the Camerino (study) in the same palace. The frescoes were commissioned by Cardinal Odoardo Farnese who had initially wanted to commemorate his father, Alessandro the great condottiere. The plans were changed and the basic theme became that of Love in all its forms and of famous mythological couples. This Bacchus and Ariadne is a triumphant procession with, satyrs, nymphs and bacchants together with tigers, tamed by wine and billy-goats destined for sacrifice pulling the two chariots. The scene develops in festive motion from left to right, in a tumultuous tangle of bodies and a variety of expressions and poses that carry the viewer into a mythical age of gold where love and beauty triumph. The entire scene takes place in a mock insert within the illusory space of a grandiose frame, inside a false architectural structure, partly open to the sky and partly filled with sculptures hermae and painted medallions. The cultural references Annibale used – and he did most of the frescoes without the help of Agostino – are quite clear: the reliefs on the ancient sarcophagi, Raphael’s frescoes in the Farnesina and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo. The emotional and poetic charge, however, is original to Carracci: according to Raphael’s Renaissance principles painting becomes pure poetry. With its fantasy, sensuality and freedom of expression it seems to anticipate Pietro da Cortona’ Baroque decorations.
This painting is a replica of the St. Catherine Annibale painted in The Virgin Appears to St. Luke and St. Catherine of 1592 that is now in the Louvre. This painting was commissioned by Gabriele Bomasi, tutor of Odoardo Farnese who had been elevated to cardinal and had him summoned to Rome from Parma around 1596. Seventeenth century sources express doubts as to whether this painting is indeed by Carracci; they believe it was done by his pupil, Lucio Massari, as a copy of the St. Catherine. Retouched by the master, the figure was adapted to the new iconographical requirements and the attribute of the wheel was replaced by the dragon. Recent hypotheses, however, confirm that it was indeed painted by Carracci’s hand as he certainly would not have entrusted such a prestigious commission to a pupil. The high quality of the painting is also evident especially with respect to the crowning with the Coronation of the Virgin that is of poorer quality and has a layout reminiscent of Correggio: perhaps it was painted by Agostino. The figure of the saint, admired even by Caravaggio (according to Albani) is beautiful because of the Veronese-like lavish robes, and elegant coiffure that harmonize with the splendid landscape. Her hand, gesturing towards heaven is enhanced by the words “SURSUM CORDA” engraved on the altar, is typical of Annibale’s expressive and gestural dynamics, just as the feeling of universal harmony that emanates from the entire composition is clearly Carracci’s.Iconography
Assumption of the Virgin
The history of this altarpiece painted for the chapel of Tiberio Cerasi, a high official of the Pontifical Curia , in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, is in some way related to the two paintings Caravaggio was commissioned to do for the sides of the same chapel The Martyrdom of St. Peter and the Conversion of St. Paul. The ante quem date for all three paintings is 3 May 1601, the date of the patron’s death. According to documentary sources he was still alive while his private chapel was being decorated. The post quem date is when the chapel was granted to Cerasi, and that is July 1600. We do not know of any relationship between the two artists, but it is certain that during his trial in 1603 Caravaggio did mention Annibale Carracci as one of the good painters in Rome and expressed his esteem for him. Caravaggio’s naturalism, however, is quite distance from this altarpiece by Annibale: the painting is moved by an ideal life in which human passions are seeking moderation or tend towards the heroic and sublime. Here reality is evoked by the relationships between the volumes of the figures who move through space via their gestures. The apostles, crowded into the earthly portion of the scene and the celestial figure of the Virgin Mary seem like living statues frozen into theatrical and slightly rhetorical poses. The style and technique, however, recall the visual delight of the Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne in the Farnese palace.Iconography
Flight into Egypt
This exquisite painting is one of the six Aldobrandini lunettes painted by Annibale and his followers (including Albani, Lanfranco and Domenichino) to decorate the Palazzo Aldobrandini on the Corso in Rome (now the Palazzo Doria Pamphili). It is evident that the religious iconography of the Flight into Egypt was the pretext for painting a splendid landscape which, according to all sources, was the work of Annibale’s hand as he had reached the apex of fame. It is an important and famous painting, one of the Carracci’s greatest contributions to the development of the classical style of the ideal landscape that was to be perfected primarily by Domenichino and Poussin. The composition slopes from left to right, from the foreground towards the horizon. It reaches from the tree that is the backdrop, across the river to the hill where another tree closes the scene letting us glimpse the distant mountains. The small figures of the Holy Family with the donkey in the foreground are moving in the opposite direction and are highlighted by the fortress behind them. There are other elements in the scene but they comprise a whole with the surrounding natural setting: the shepherd, the boatman, the sheep and the birds flying above the water to create luminous traces. The airy, luminous and pastoral landscape becomes prevalent in a religious scene with a secular encounter that reveals extraordinary creative freedom aimed at moving beyond the doctrinal religiousness that the Carracci Academy had pursued in harmony with the dictates of Cardinal Paleotti of Bologna.Iconography