Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 19, 2007
Daniele Benati and Eugenio Riccòmini Annibale Carracci Exh. cat. Mondadori Electa, 2006. 500 pp.; 148 color ills.; 122 b/w ills. Paper Euros 40.00 (883704349X)
Exhibition schedule: Museo Civico Archeologico, Bologna, September 21, 2006–January 7, 2007; Chiostro del Bramante, Rome, January 26–June 5, 2007
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Annibale Carracci. Pietà (ca. 1604). Oil on canvas. 92.8 x 103.2 cm. National Gallery, London.

Annibale Carracci spent most of the twentieth century in relative obscurity, his reputation overshadowed by that of other artists from his era. Though he was acknowledged by Caravaggio as a fellow “true painter” (Bellori) and served as inspiration to an awestruck adolescent Bernini (Baldinucci), Annibale’s fame has steadily dwindled since the nineteenth century, when illustrious visitors on the Grand Tour waxed rhapsodic over his work and made pilgrimages to Bologna and Parma to admire his altarpieces.

Despite Dennis Mahon’s Herculean efforts to bring Annibale and his academy back into the spotlight and Charles Dempsey’s explorations of the technical and academic advances of the Bologna School, Annibale continues to be known more for his relation to the famous names of his contemporaries than for his personal contribution to art.

As the new millennium begins, however, the tide of appreciation may be changing. Daniele Benati of the University of Bologna and Eugenio Riccòmini from the University of Milan have gathered 120 works from almost as many different collections for the first monographic show on Annibale Carracci. The exhibit enjoyed record attendance when it premiered in Bologna, the fertile soil that produced the great artist.

In January, the show moved to Rome, with the aim of displaying Annibale’s prowess in a more cosmopolitan setting. Unfortunately, the exhibit suffered from the geographic shift. The Roman version of the show was somewhat depleted of works and uncomfortably housed in the cramped quarters of the Bramante cloisters of Santa Maria della Pace. Despite these setbacks, the exhibit still provides an important showcase for Annibale’s works.

The Bologna version opened on the fiftieth anniversary of the last show on the Carracci family, which featured Annibale, his brother Agostino, and their cousin Ludovico. While the 1956 show gave a marked predominance to the work of Ludovico at the expense of that of Annibale, the absence of any example of Ludovico’s more Baroque leanings deprives those who attend the current show the opportunity to witness how the two cousins together led both the classicizing and the painterly tendencies of seventeenth-century art.

The Annibale exhibit begins with a series of self-portraits, offering a glimpse of the person behind the art. Although his dramatic foreshortening and surprising sotto in su views seem to hint at an aggressive and extroverted personality, Annibale remains elusive as both an individual and a theoretician. “We painters speak with our hands,” Annibale famously remarked to his brother, who was discoursing learnedly on art; and so it seems that Annibale’s finest treatises remain his drawings and paintings. Lacking the fiery temper of Caravaggio or the dramatic flair of Bernini, Annibale’s melancholy character renders him less intriguing to the modern public, for whom the personality of the artist often takes precedence over art.

Born in Bologna in 1560, Annibale was the youngest of the three Carracci. His tremendously successful career was truncated in 1604 when the artist began to succumb to “melancholia,” painting less and less before he died in 1609 at the age of 49. That the tiny self-portrait from the Uffizi bears the date “April 17, 1593” in the upper-left corner implies that the image held some importance for the artist. From the shadowy brown of the canvas, Annibale’s direct stare startles the viewer with its intensity. In the same room, a hasty sketch from the Windsor Castle Royal Library for Self-Portrait on an Easel demonstrates that even as he captured the here and now, Annibale’s mind also dwelled on the past. A dog, recognizing his master, barks at the painting—a reference to the realism of Zeusis and Apelles—as Michelangelo, drawn in profile, looks on.

The exhibition section titled the “Laboratory of Life” reveals the revolutionary aspects of Annibale’s work, which freed him from the artifices of mannerism as he searched for a more natural representation. Several Leonardo-inspired type-heads positioned next to spontaneous expressions of giggles or rage display a delicate balance between academic study and naturalism. Unfortunately this section suffered the most from the transfer from Bologna to Rome—the Fort Worth Butcher Shop (1582–3) and the Bean Eater (1584–85) from the Colonna gallery in Rome are both gone, along with what must be considered one of art history’s most treasured relics, Annibale’s personal annotated and underlined copy of Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. The Zurich version of Boy Drinking (1583–84) remains as the finest work, exemplifying how his studious draftsmanship and careful composition lent a new dignity to genre scenes.

The loss of the Butcher Shop is particularly felt since it served as a foil to Bartolomeo Passerotti’s grotesque version of the same subject displayed in the next room. As it stands, the Passerotti painting creates a jarring interruption to the flow of Annibale’s development. Annibale’s masterful representation of one butcher proudly displaying the fruit of his efforts as the other gracefully re-sheathes his carving knife had softened the transition, which now makes little sense.

In his “Life of Michelangelo” Vasari wrote that the great sculptor, after seeing Titian’s Danae (1552–53), remarked that it was a shame that Venetians were not taught to draw as well as they could color. Annibale sought to rectify this lacuna, and his marriage of Florentine line to Venetian color is best seen in the Venus with Satyr and Cupids (1589–90) from the Uffizi. The only major mythological work in the show, Venus was chosen for billboards advertising the exhibition, demonstrating that the golden-skinned nude of Junoesque proportions can still compete with the willowy Nordic beauties of modern advertisements.

Although Annibale’s admiration of Titian was well known, it was not without reserve. When pressed to declare his preferred painter, the Bolognese commented, “Titian’s works were painted to inspire delight, and those of Raphael were painted to inspire wonder” (Bellori). And indeed most of the works in the exhibit reflect the influence of Raphael’s art rather than that of Titian. The St. Margaret (1599) from Santa Caterina dei Funari reveals Annibale’s unique interpretation of Raphael’s St. Cecilia (1513–1516) in Bologna and the St. Catherine of Alexandria (1507) now in the London National Gallery. Where Raphael stretches the elegant torsion of his female saints heavenward, Annibale extends St. Margaret toward the viewer. This altarpiece, famously admired by Caravaggio, begins a comparison between the two painters that will culminate in the Roman church of Santa Maria del Popolo, where Caravaggio and Annibale both produced paintings for the Cerasi Chapel.

Several oil-on-copper paintings shine as true treasures among the works, particularly the Holy Family with St. John the Baptist from 1595, which only recently resurfaced at a Sotheby’s auction where it was purchased by the National Gallery in London to accompany their Temptations of St. Anthony (1598–1600), also on loan to the exhibition. These exquisite examples of Annibale’s masterful composition in a quintessentially Northern technique are among the exhibit’s delights.

Another treat is provided by the numerous drawings from the grand project of the Farnese gallery and a grouping of drawings of simple portraits and sketches. The delicate strokes defining a child’s profile next to the clever foreshortening of two sleeping babies followed by the bold preparatory designs for the muscular figures of the Farnese vault dazzle visitors with the breathtaking virtuosity of Annibale’s hand.

The exhibit is organized in terms of before and after the patronage of the Farnese family, first in Parma and later in Rome. While it is true that Prince Rannuccio and Cardinal Odoardo Farnese were responsible for Annibale’s propulsion to stardom in 1600, this arrangement diminishes the opportunity to see the transformations in Annibale’s art as he searches for the perfect blend of line and color. The cangiantismo of Barocci and Veronese are barely glimpsed, and Annibale’s momentous encounter with the art of Correggio in Parma is reduced to a single work—the 1585 Pietà with Saints Francis, Claire and Mary Magdalene (Parma, Galleria Nazionale), hung in a cramped corridor where visitors must press themselves against a wall to see it.

The organizers faced a complicated hurdle as Annibale’s most renowned works are the fresco cycles for private palaces in Bologna and Rome. His paintings for the Palazzo Fava and Palazzo Magnani and, especially, the Loves of the Gods painted from 1598 to 1601 for Ranuccio Farnese in the grand gallery of the Farnese palace each represent milestones in the advancement of fresco painting. Thanks to a long and beautifully filmed video presentation narrated by Riccòmini, visitors to the show can see the innovation of the quadro riportato in the Farnese vault as well as experience the changes wrought in Annibale’s work after seeing the colossal Farnese statue of Hercules, discovered only shortly before his arrival in Rome.

In lieu of the Farnese frescos, the organizers brought a series of astonishingly well-preserved drawings from the Louvre, opening a curtain that allows viewers to witness the creative process.

The show closes on a high note with the Pietà commissioned by Cardinal Odoardo Farnese in 1598 from the National Gallery of Capodimonte in Naples flanked by the London Pietà (ca. 1604) and the St. Petersburg Three Marys at the Tomb (1600). In these masterpieces, the artistic legacy that Annibale bequeathed to art through the Bologna school proceeds from the rich Venetian palettes and eloquent gestures knit together in elegant compositions. This is particularly evident in the Naples Pietà, where the cold blue tones and restrained yet graceful gestures herald the greatest works of Guido Reni, while the invenzione of the angel pricking his finger on the crown of thorns prepares the way for the work of Domenichino. Clearly inspired by Michelangelo’s Roman Pietà (1497–1500), especially in the monumentality of Mary, the work is also caressed by the luminous softness of Correggio in the body of Christ as an ideal example of the best of Annibale’s “eclectic painting.” The varied selection of works presented in the exhibit reflect, albeit fleetingly, the numerous influences and sources in the art of Annibale. They also amply support the principal thesis of Riccòmini’s essay in the exhaustive catalogue: “The grand summary of every excellent painter of his century, from Raphael to Veronese, and that which is called eclecticism . . . passes through the filter of drawing from nature; and the resulting language bears no trace of its original accents. It is . . . a new Italian language of painting” (48; author’s translation).

Elizabeth Lev
Adjunct Professor, Duquense University

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