Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 6, 2002
Charles Dempsey Annibale Carracci and the Beginnings of Baroque Style Fiesole: Edizioni Cadmo in association with Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, 2000. 114 pp.; 12 color ills. Cloth (8879232053)

Twenty-five years ago, Charles Dempsey’s Annibale Carracci and the Beginnings of Baroque Style—a small, brilliant, idiosyncratic book—was born as an attempt to review Donald Posner’s large, definitive, and indispensable monograph and catalogue raisonné, Annibale Carracci: A Study in the Reform of Painting around 1590, which had been published in 1971 (London: Phaidon). The present volume is a second edition of Dempsey’s book from 1977, to which the author has added a brief Introduction looking back over the developments in Carracci scholarship during the past quarter century. A select bibliography has also been appended, but the original body of the text and footnotes are essentially unchanged.

The passionate voice and episodic structure of the book conjure a verbal argument carried out with gusto as the author’s admiration and exasperation erupt amidst meticulous reasoning, disputation, and learned asides. In most of this volume Dempsey is as much addressing what other scholars have said—and where they have gone wrong—as he is talking about Annibale Carracci’s art; if you are mainly convinced of his position, as many scholars now are, you might share his sense of urgency that the errors of fact, perspective, and philosophy be cleared up so that we can see the Carracci’s achievement more accurately. The importance of this achievement, as Dempsey reminds us, was such that Luigi Lanzi, writing in the late eighteenth century, could equate the story of the Carracci and their followers with the story of painting in all of Italy in the ensuing centuries.

The book takes up three crucial issues in Carracci studies. The first is an analysis of how the Carracci achieved the integration of hue and chiaroscuro, and in so doing, brought about a rapprochement of colore and disegno, qualities conceived as irreconcilable in Renaissance practice and theory. Dempsey demonstrates this with a precise deployment of terms and concepts drawn from contemporary art theory, which he applies to the art the Carracci studied. He gives particular attention to the Carracci’s interest in Barocci’s painting in this regard. Annibale’s advances were formulated “through an analysis and quantification of the physical behavior of light and color in nature…expressed in quantified relations of value, disposed along proportionally related scales” (35). Dempsey argues that it is “the systematization and coordination of these scales which distinguishes Annibale’s art from anything that came before, and which laid the foundation for the evolution of Baroque style” (35). He demonstrates how Annibale came to this achievement through scientific research, specifically through a knowledge of optics and the artificial schemata developed for representing nature as experienced. Dempsey insists on the primacy of theory and knowledge, disciplined investigation, and synthetic thought, which he sets up in opposition to Posner’s picture of an artist who responded spontaneously to art and to ideas “in the air” and whose methods of response were “almost craftsmanlike” (Posner 1971, viii-ix). When his book was first published, Dempsey’s exacting treatment of technique compelled us to look closely and anew at Annibale’s paintings. He might have made his job easier had he mined the extensive passages on the Carracci’s innovative use of color and chiaroscuro found in Francesco Scannelli’s Il microcosmo della pittura of 1657. The original edition of Dempsey’s book had only one illustration (curiously, it was of a painting by Agostino Carracci); the new edition adds twelve color plates, but they are of such poor quality that they do little to illustrate the author’s exacting and nuanced analysis.

The second major issue Dempsey addresses is the reception of the foremost biographers of the Carracci, the Roman Giovan Pietro Bellori, and, especially, the Bolognese Carlo Cesare Malvasia. For much of this century Malvasia was maligned as a falsifier of facts and forger of documents whose campanilismo led him to credit Ludovico as the leader and best of the Carracci family of painters. To call into question the veracity of his documentary evidence was to deny Malvasia his methodological innovation, which lay precisely in the incorporation of documentary evidence into his biographies of artists.

Dempsey was an important pioneer in the rehabilitation of Malvasia as a rich and informative source. He was not, however, the first. That honor goes to Walter Friedlaender, who defended the integrity of Annibale’s early letters from Parma that Malvasia published and that Hermann Voss had declared forgeries (see Friedlaender’s review of Heinrich Bodmer, by Lodovico Carracci, The Art Bulletin 24: 192-93). Voss had adduced no evidence that Malvasia had fabricated the letters, but the letters undermined Voss’s view (which he shared with Bellori) of Annibale’s precedence in introducing Correggio’s colore to Bologna, a crucial first stage in the so-called reform of painting accomplished by the Carracci. Friedlaender believed the letters were authentic and pointed out that their fresh and rather rustic language was an unlikely product of Malvasia’s elegant pen. Friedlaender’s caution was ignored for the next thirty-five years, and so it was crucial that Dempsey’s call to reassess the early biographies in terms of their rhetorical construction be heeded. This process of reconsideration, which has taken a parallel track to such studies devoted to Vasari and other Renaissance writers, has been of the utmost consequence for seicento studies. It has led to a comprehensive examination of these sources in Dempsey’s own later writing and in the work of Giovanna Perini, and has culminated in Anne Summerscale’s magisterial translation and notes to Malvasia’s Lives of the Carracci, which is a gift to all students of Italian Baroque art. These contributions have been complemented by the remarkable work on Bellori by Elizabeth Cropper and others. Taken in aggregate such studies have changed the way that scholars proceed in their research. Art historians have not only been put on notice that the early biographies can no longer be combed naively for “facts” and “information,” but they have also been given guidance in how such texts operate as species of rhetoric. In the case of the Carracci, the burden of proof has now shifted so that it cannot be assumed that documents Malvasia incorporated into his writings are forgeries, or that his facts are fictive. The interdisciplinary approach has yielded the fruits of expert philological and rhetorical analysis that allows the art historian to receive the invaluable transmissions of these early sources with far less distortion than before.

Dempsey’s third major topic, adumbrated in the first section of the book on Annibale’s approach to the colore problem, is the relationship of the working artist in this period to theory. The author is specifically concerned with the Carracci’s “regrounding of theory in experience and fresh observation, a method which was conceived as a return to the principles which had animated the art of the great masters of the past” (Dempsey 2000, 52-53). A resistance to seeing Annibale as an artist who was knowledgeable about theory and engaged with its principles had been manifest in the highly influential scholarship of Denis Mahon, as well as by Donald Posner, among others. In 1977, Dempsey grabbed this issue by the throat and delivered what would seem to be a knockout punch to the image of an Annibale motivated by “relatively narrow professional concerns; uncomplicated desire for success; or an almost craftsmanlike urge” (Posner 1971, viii-ix) to perfect his art. Dempsey insists on the nobility of the Carracci Academy as a “kind of institute of higher education for the profession of painting even as it had been portrayed by Malvasia” (Dempsey 2000, 44). It was a place in which art was conceived as an intellectual discipline. Philosophers, poets, and theoreticians were read and taken seriously in the Academy so that the conjoined training of artists and the practice of art were founded on such study. Whether or not he persuaded all of his colleagues, the fact is that nobody has mounted a coherent argument to the contrary since the initial publication of Dempsey’s book. So much subsequent scholarship has borne out Dempsey’s views that the “default” position for scholars must now be something close to his.

One cannot, perhaps, help but wish that Dempsey had undertaken an entirely new study, instead of allowing the publication of this second edition of his twenty-five-year-old book with an introduction that only glances at the rich and copious scholarship that has come in its wake. But the three issues he took up with such moral purpose, intellectual rigor, and intensity have so determined the shape of modern Carracci studies, and his analysis of them has been so influential, that this book remains indispensable reading for all students in the field.

Gail Feigenbaum
Associate Director, Getty Research Institute