Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 24, 2013
Samuel Vitali Romulus in Bologna: Die Fresken der Caracci im Palazzo Magnani Römische Studien der Bibliotheca Hertziana, vol. 30.. Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 2012. 344 pp.; 16 color ills.; 216 b/w ills. Cloth €98.00 (9783777442914)

Between about 1591 and 1592, Annibale Carracci, his older brother Agostino, and their cousin Ludovico decorated the main room of the Palazzo Magnani in Bologna with a cycle of frescoes depicting the life of the mythical founder of Rome, Romulus. Since their unveiling, the frescoes have been recognized as among the seminal achievements of the Carracci. The seventeenth-century art critic Giovan Pietro Bellori was particularly fulsome with his praise, writing that the cycle “renders the name of the Carracci glorious in all aspects of painting, and principally in coloring, for it is believed that none better was produced by their brush or in our time” (Giovan Pietro Bellori, The Lives of the Modern Painters, Sculptors and Architects: A New Translation and Critical Edition, trans. Alice Sedgewick Wohl, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, 74). In the twentieth century, scholars have been no less admiring of the frescoes. Denis Mahon, in an article of 1953, claimed them to be “the Adam and Eve of Baroque decoration” (Denis Mahon, “Eclecticism and the Carracci: Further Reflections on the Validity of a Label,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 16 (1953): 341). Donald Posner, in his monograph on Annibale of 1971, also noted their revolutionary quality, although mostly limiting his remarks to an analysis of style and to which frescoes might be by which Carracci (Donald Posner, Annibale Carracci: A Study in the Reform of Italian Painting Around 1590, London: Phaidon, 1971). This has been the dominant approach to the frescoes in modern scholarship: to set them in relation to Annibale’s career and to treat them as stepping stones to his most famous work, his frescoes in the Palazzo Farnese in Rome. Topics such as patronage have gone largely unexplored. This changes with Samuel Vitali’s beautifully illustrated monograph on the cycle. Vitali analyzes the frescoes from all conceivable angles, and the result is a vastly clearer view of how they were conceived, produced, and of their place in Italian art.

After introducing the frescoes in chapter 1, Vitali sets the stage for the commission by providing a historical overview of Bologna in the late sixteenth century. This precedes one of the lengthiest and most important chapters in the book, on the patron of the frescoes, Lorenzo Magnani. Taking advantage of new archival discoveries, including portions of Magnani’s personal correspondence, Vitali reconstructs who Magnani was and explores how the frescoes reflect his patronage.

Magnani belonged to a noble family, although by no means the wealthiest or most prestigious in Bologna. He derived a comfortable income from real estate investments and served occasional ceremonial roles in the communal government. As Vitali demonstrates, however, what Magnani sought more than anything was a seat for his family in the all-powerful senate, then limited to forty members. In 1590, his wish came true when Pope Sixtus V selected him to be part of an expanded senate. Magnani had campaigned hard for the appointment, tapping his network in Rome, which included allies within the curia. Vitali is certainly right to conclude (as others had suspected but not fully demonstrated) that the frescoes must be seen in relation to Magnani’s senatorial appointment. First, they were part of a larger effort on Magnani’s part to assert his family’s nobility. His campaign of promotion included his lavish new palace, as well as two new altarpieces in San Giacomo Maggiore—all by fashionable artists. Second, the choice of subject for the frescoes, the founding of Rome, was clearly calculated to express Magnani’s gratitude to the papacy and the curia. In support of the theory, Vitali demonstrates convincingly (as he had also done in an earlier article) that the frescoes must date to after Magnani’s appointment, to between about 1591 and 1592. In the book’s sixth chapter, Vitali returns to Magnani and the message of the frescoes. Vitali surveys the history of Romulus cycles in the Renaissance (a full catalogue is provided in the appendix) and discusses how the frescoes cannot be divorced from contemporary politics in Bologna. As Vitali argues, Magnani cannot have chosen the subject without intending to communicate that he was tired of a Bologna that was quasi-anarchic. He wished for a city blessed with a stable government like that of Republican Rome. This is a more reasoned interpretation than that of Alfeo Giacomelli, who, in an essay of 2002, proposed that the friezes were republican in the sense that they were meant to decry Bologna’s lack of independence from the papacy (Alfeo Giacomelli, “Ut iucunda sic foecunda: Lorenzo Magnani, gli affreschi dei Carracci delle storie di Roma e la fissazione del patrimonio e della tradizione familiare,” in Giuliano Malvezzi Campeggi, ed., Magnani: Storia, genealogia e iconografia (Le famiglie senatorie di Bologna, 3), Bologna: Costa, 2002, 264–413).

Chapter 4 considers how the fourteen frescoes that compose the cycle were conceived. What role did Magnani play—if any? Vitali suggests that the conceptualization cannot be attributed solely to the patron. He focuses on the fact that three different editions of Plutarch’s Life of Romulus appear to have been consulted. Additionally, he notes that two of the scenes—Remus Battling the Cattle Thieves and the Lupercalia Festival (on the chimney)—were drawn from Ovid’s Fasti. To Vitali, this indicates that the Carracci had help from some learned advisor (and likely also Magnani) as they worked to devise the program. In addition to analyzing the textual sources for the frescoes, the chapter also considers the visual ones. In the case of Remus Battling the Cattle Thieves, Vitali points out that Remus adopts the traditional attributes of Hercules, which serves to underscore that Remus (like his twin) was possessed of heroic virtue. Vitali concludes the chapter by expanding on the notion that each fresco was designed to communicate a moralizing message. He characterizes the frescoes as emblems—or imprese—where the viewer is invited to consider each image in relation to the Latin motto beneath it. Appropriately, the culture of emblems had roots in sixteenth-century Bologna, and visitors to the Palazzo Magnani can be expected to have been able to “read” the frescoes and discern their instructions for virtuous living. Vitali makes the reasoned assumption that Magnani asked one of his humanist friends to supply the “emblems”—perhaps Ridolfo Campeggi, Astorre Sampieri, or Alessandro Bolognetti.

From the rhetorical structure of the frescoes, Vitali moves to a consideration of the decorative structure. In order to demonstrate the novelty of the scheme, he first traces the history of illusionistic wall decoration in sixteenth-century Italy, with particular emphasis on the tradition of the fregio dipinto, or painted frieze, in Bologna. His main conclusion is unsurprising: that the Carracci brought enormous restraint to their design, reacting against Mannerist excess. Vitali finds the Carracci’s solution unprecedentedly logical and clear and extols it for its powers of double illusion. He notes that the cycle marks the high point of the fregio dipinto in Bologna, and he also observes how the frescoes helped seed the demise of the fregio dipinto in the next century. As the Carracci and other artists plainly saw, frescoes could not grow any more monumental or make stronger claims on the viewer without breaking free of the frieze format and expanding to fill the walls and the ceiling of an entire space. Annibale moved decisively in that direction at the Palazzo Farnese, although Vitali is correct to point out that the first truly Baroque ceilings are to be credited to later artists such as Guercino and Giovanni Lanfranco. This leads him to observe that Mahon’s remark about the frescoes being “the Adam and Eve of Baroque decoration” deserves some qualification. Vitali prefers to see the frescoes as transitional rather than the start of something completely new, which seems a fair assessment. In his words, they represent “a traditional typology presented in a new formal dress” (274).

The last chapter centers on the artists and the question of attribution. As Carlo Cesare Malvasia famously reported, when the Carracci were asked who painted the cycle, they responded: “It’s by the Carracci; we all of us made it” (Anne Summerscale, Malvasia’s Life of the Carracci: Commentary and Translation, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000, 148). This has not stopped art historians from assuming that each fresco (in addition to the decorative groups between them) represents separate hands. Vitali begins his analysis with a convenient chart that presents the current state of the attributions according to general consensus. The chart helps elucidate the unlikelihood that Annibale was responsible for more than half the scenes on the first two walls, and that he was not responsible for any of the scenes on the last two walls. Sensibly, Vitali assumes that there should be a more even distribution—at least if the Carracci are to be taken at their word that they approached the cycle collaboratively. Vitali focuses his attention on the second of the narrative scenes, Remus Battling the Cattle Thieves, which he sees as being by a different hand than the third and the sixth scenes. To judge by the detailed photographs he provides, this does seem correct, with the artist of the second scene favoring a more graphic approach to shading and the definition of human form. Vitali is surely correct that this is Agostino (just as Malvasia reported), which is not to exclude that Annibale provided the design. Vitali proposes two other new attributions, of the ninth and the twelfth scenes, traditionally given to Agostino. He argues that Annibale is the author, which is likely true. The reader will also find a detailed analysis of the decorative frames, with several new attributions proposed.

The chapter has a principal weakness, however. In its focus on attributions, it simplifies what must have been a more highly complex creative process. Vitali admits as much and suggests how some of the scenes may reflect more than one hand. He also touches on the larger question of how the design process worked. Did the same Carracci who designed a scene also execute it, or were the designs produced collaboratively? Vitali believes that most of the time each Carracci worked from his own design. In the case of Ludovico, this is doubtless true, as his manner of composition stands out from his cousins’. But might Annibale and Agostino have been more prone to sharing designs or using ones formulated by Ludovico? A more rigorous analysis of the surviving preparatory drawings, which is admittedly limited but many of whose attributions are still debated, might yield a clearer picture. The preparatory material, mostly treated in earlier chapters, might have been brought to bear more effectively here.

Romulus in Bologna concludes with a brief discussion of how the frescoes represent a moment of perfect equilibrium between the many stylistic influences that had been working on the Carracci until then—from Correggio, to life study, to Venetian color, to Raphael. This is not a new take. Nor is it surprising that as soon as the Carracci disbanded, the delicate balance they had achieved at the Palazzo Magnani was broken. Working in collaboration, they were forced to temper their more extravagant tendencies and bring harmony to their art. This does suggest, however, that the frescoes can be seen as a defining moment in their careers, when they passed into their maturities. Vitali’s book is not the place to learn how each of the Carracci developed from there. It is the place to discover how one of the most attractive and innovative works of the sixteenth century came to be. Vitali is to be commended for his thoroughness and the light he shines on the complexities of the commission.

C. D. Dickerson III
Curator and Head of Department, Sculpture and Decorative Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC