by Roderick Conway Morris

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Uffizi, Florence
Venus and Satyr with Two Cupids by Annibale Carracci

The particular genius of Annibale Carracci

By Roderick Conway Morris
BOLOGNA 1 December 2006


When Ludovico, Agostino and Annibale Carracci were asked which one of them had painted the frescoed frieze of a palazzo here, they replied: 'It is by the Carracci: all of us did it.'

They established their own academy in this their native city in 1582, and achieved a remarkably homogeneous style. But they later went their separate ways, Annibale in due course distinguishing himself as the most inspired, innovative, skillful and influential of the trio. Yet history has tended to continue to treat Annibale, his brother Agostino and his cousin Ludovico as a family firm, which has seriously obscured Annibale's achievements.

It is now half a century since the last major exhibition devoted to the three principal Carracci (other members of the family were also painters, but minor ones).

Astonishingly, Annibale has never been the subject of a solo retrospective. This omission is being remedied by a superb exhibition, 'Annibale Carracci,' at the Museo Civico Archeologico which, finally, does justice to the sheer originality and variety - from realist scenes of butchers' shops, luscious nudes and landscapes, to captivating drawings of a host of subjects, caricatures, portraits and monumental dramas, Christian and pagan - of this profoundly humane artist. The show continues until Jan. 7 before going on to the Chiostro del Bramante in Rome, from Jan. 25 until May 6.

The Carracci were of humble origins: Ludovico's father was a butcher, and Agostino's and Annibale's a tailor. Their academy had revolutionary artistic aims. They rejected what they had come to see as the repetitive, soulless emptiness of Mannerism, and sought to breathe new life into the art of painting by a return to nature and reality: rigorously painting from life, whether the nude or draped figure, landscapes or the minute details of everyday life. At the same time, they made trips to study the painters they most admired, notably Correggio and Parmigianino in Parma, and Titian and Veronese in Venice.

On show here is Annibale's copy of a volume of Vasari's 'Lives of the Painters, Artists and Architects' of 1568. The Bolognese, indubitably a finer draughtsman and painter than Vasari, whose work he regarded as irredeemably second-rate, was infuriated by much of what he read, recording his reactions in marginal notes in forthright language. He decried Vasari's prejudices in favor of all things Florentine and his failure to understand and appreciate non- Tuscan art, especially that of Venice. But, above all, these notes bear witness to Annibale's passionate and thoughtful commitment to his calling.

This is just about the only written document to have survived in Annibale's own hand. It is also an exemplary case of the misattributions that have undermined Annibale's posthumous reputation. It became conventional wisdom as long ago as the 17th century that the Vasari annotations were by his brother Agostino, on the spurious grounds that he was the 'intellectual' of the group. It is only during the last 20 years or so that recognition of Annibale's authorship has been restored.

Other egregious cases of misassignment punctuate the exhibition. Annibale's 'River Landscape,' an intriguing, groundbreaking rustic view, on loan from the National Gallery of Washington, was until recently attributed to Velázquez. Likewise, Annibale's arresting informal portrait of his close friend and main champion Monsignor Giovan Battista Agucchi (also a firm supporter of Caravaggio), was long deemed, even in the face of clear documentary evidence, to have been by Domenichino (who otherwise never painted anything like it). This work - one of the most outstanding in the history of portraiture - has only been again ascribed to Annibale since the mid-1990s.

Annibale's misfortunes during his lifetime were even more striking. The Carracci fame had spread far and wide, and Annibale and Agostino went to Rome in 1595 at the invitation of Cardinal Odoardo Farnese to become resident artists at his magnificent palazzo in the center of the city. There Annibale carried out his grandest undertaking (initially with Agostino, but soon alone after his brother left Rome): a series of riotous and diverting frescoes on mythological themes, framed by amazing trompe l'oeil statuary and decorative architecture.

Yet these stunning paintings were seen then only by a tiny elite, and even now are rarely on view, to limited numbers of the public. Palazzo Farnese is now the French Embassy, and it can only be hoped that its owners will do what they can to make it possible for visitors to see the frescoes during the Rome exhibition.

Poorly paid and treated with scant respect by the cardinal, Annibale found himself loaded with numerous additional tasks, from executing canvases to designing tableware and providing painted panels to be sewn into his patron's vestments. Indeed, he came to feel himself to be in state of servitude, and his health began to deteriorate.

Of the relatively few outside commissions Annibale was able to complete, one of the most challenging was the altarpiece of the Cerasi chapel of the Santa Maria del Popolo church, for which he produced a highly theatrical 'Assumption of the Virgin.' Annibale obviously felt impelled to come up with something eye-catching given that his composition was to stand between 'The Conversion of St. Paul' and 'The Crucifixion of St. Peter' by Caravaggio.

This was the only occasion when the two greatest painters then operating in Rome were to work on the same project. Caravaggio, who was not given to praising other painters, is recorded as expressing his approval of Annibale's altarpiece of St. Margherita at the Santa Caterina dei Funari church. Caravaggio again spoke of Annibale as an artist in flattering terms when giving testimony in court.

Regrettably, we have no idea what Annibale thought of Caravaggio's works - although he made some subtle borrowings from his fellow northerner in one or two of his later pictures. One such example can be found in the chiaroscuro lighting of a 'Pietà' now in Vienna. But here, too, Annibale also pays tribute to Correggio, his Venetian masters and the ancient sculptures he encountered in Rome. This is one of Annibale's most moving compositions - a chilling image of death and desolation, that comes perilously close to suggesting the mortal sin of despairing of God's mercy. Only the glimmer of light over the lovely landscape glimpsed through the opening of the tomb seems distantly to herald the new dawn of hope and salvation.

In 1603, Annibale descended into a state of 'melancholy,' or depression, and afterward was able to work only intermittently. He managed to keep a studio going with the help of a stream of pupils from the Carracci academy in Bologna, among them some who would become famous in their own right, including Domenichino and Lanfranco. His generosity to his students, despite his own parlous mental and physical health, was never to be forgotten.

He fell ill in July 1609 with a fatal fever, and as Monsignor Agucchi relates, he told the physician summoned to treat him: 'This time, my dear doctor, the workings of the clock are broken, you need not concern yourself with them further, they are beyond repair, the hours have run out.' Later that month he received a public display of recognition the like of which he had never enjoyed in life, when he was buried with princely pomp close to Raphael in Rome's Pantheon.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024