Annibale Carracci - Biography and Legacy
Italian Painter and Engraver
Biography of Annibale Carracci
Brothers Annibale and Agostino Carracci was raised in Bologna in an area now known as Via Augusto Righi. Like Caravaggio's Milan, Carracci's Bologna, a papal state since 1506, was in the midst of an intense religious and scientific upheaval. By the end of the century, the city had undergone significant reconstruction; emerging as a center of academic and scientific learning. However, the Bologna region was also in the grips of an economic crisis brought on by plague and famine and the city streets in which Annibale grew up became home to hordes of peasants.
Annibale did not come from an artistic background. His father, Antonio, was a humble tailor, and his uncle, Vincenzo, worked as a butcher. Due to limited funds, Annibale was only able to attend school until the age of 11. Yet despite his limited schooling (or, perhaps, because of it) it has been suggested by several historians that Annibale was a natural draftsman, with various anecdotes confirming his innate talent. The most well-known of these was told by Carracci's biographer, Bellori, who recounted a tale from the artist's early childhood. The story goes that one day Annibale was accompanying his father to Cremona where he (his father) was to sell off a small plot of land. On their journey back to Bologna, a group of peasants accosted and robbed Antonio. Having arrived at the police station to report the crime, little Annibale drew a portrait of the robbers with such speed and accuracy the police were able to immediately apprehend the criminals and return Antonio's money.
Early Training and Work
Annibale started his working career as an apprentice goldsmith. In Bellori'a account, part of his training involved learning to draw which he did with his cousin, Ludovico Carracci. Annibale's talent was formally recognized leading to him to being (re)apprenticed to the successful local artist, and prominent Mannerist, Bartolomeo Passerotti. Indeed, in the 1570s, painting in Italy was dominated by a Mannerist tendency that exaggerated the proportions of figural depictions to create elegant imagery conjured from the artists' own imaginations. It is likely, however, that Annibale's formative years exposed him to other influences, including his immediate surroundings. It is evident that Carracci followed in the style of Passarotti, but his individualistic approach indicates that he would have been self-taught given that it remains unlikely (not to mention undocumented) that he could have served under a second Master.
Annibale, like Agostino, started his professional career as an engraver, working on large prints from about the age of 21. It is thought that his first altarpiece painting, the Crucifixion (1583), was produced two years later. His figures, which were construed according to natural, rather than elongated, human proportions, suggests that Carracci was already showing his independent spirit by rebelling against the Mannerist style. Indeed, Crucifixion was not at all well received. Deemed naïve, Crucifixion meant it was initially difficult for Carracci to establish himself as a serious artist.
Undeterred by the criticism, Carracci travelled throughout Italy where he absorbed a variety of influences including Raphael and Pellegrino Tibaldi. Initially, however, it was Antonio da Correggio who exercised most influential over Carracci. Correggio had such an influence on Annibale in fact that in a letter dated in 1580, he stated that he was financing a trip to Parma by creating and selling copies of Correggio's work. Carracci studied Correggio so closely it often proved difficult to discern which artist had painted what work.
In the same year as his trip to Parma, Annibale travelled on to Venice where he was reunited with his brother. Agostino had been in Venice for some time having trained under the renowned Dutch engraver and draughtsman Cornelis Cort. From 1574, he worked as a reproductive engraver charged with copying works of 16th century masters including Veronese, Federico Barocci, Antonio Campi, and Correggio. He also produced a small number of original etchings of some renown. Once reunited, however, the brothers would study the works of Titian, Giorgione and Tintoretto from whom they learned of the Venetians' mastery of color and light. Annibale's opinions of other artists were made evident in annotations he left in a copy of Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists (1550); a tome he was apt to criticize for the author's unabashed preference for Florentine artists. In his annotations Annibale emphasised that Titian was divine and that Venetian art was instrumental in his artistic formation. Bolognese art was also significant to Annibale who visited Jacopo Bassano's studio during his early years, remarking favourably on his ability to create striking illusion within his compositions.
Having resettled in Bologna, a city now in the grips of a religious reformation, Annibale, Agostino and Ludovico, established their Academy in 1582. It is not known how the Academy fared initially, but by the late 1580s it had become a teaching institution known as the Accademia dei Desiderosi ("desirous of fame"). All three men were opposed to what they saw as the obscure and false fantasies of Mannerism and used the Academy to promote the idea that art should draw directly on nature for its influences. The Carracci taught life study, proportion, anatomy, perspective and architecture and young Bolognaise artists rushed to study there.
The city's art establishment was however enraged at the audacity of three young upstarts who saw fit to open an academy long before they had established themselves individually. As a collective, however, the Carracci had been given their first opportunity to collaborate on a commission for the Palazzo Fava in 1583. The frescoes, which depicted the stories of Jason and Ludovico, were thought to have been directed by Agostino as he was at that time the most established of the family. Indeed, Annibale, cast in the shadow of his brother and cousin, was struggling to secure religious commissions independently of the family.
It was outside Bologna that Annibale was finally able to obtain religious patronage, fulfilling commissions in Parma, Reggio nell' Emilia, and completing altarpieces for the church of San Prospero. Indeed, Carracci's "anti-mannerist" style sat well with the campaign of the Catholic Counter Reformation Act and his religious commissions led in fact to his religious treatments being in very high demand.
Over the years, the Carracci Academy established itself within the arts circle and was attended by many students, including painters such as Guido Reni and Domenichino. Students and contemporaries of the Academy began to adopt a more naturalistic style. In 1589, the name of the Academy was changed, probably at the request of Agostino, to Academia degli Incamminati ("Academy of the Progressives") to emphasize the intellectual aspect of the school. As part of the curriculum, emphasis was placed on the practice of drawing with Annibale stressing the importance of taking from real life. The idea of creative "Invenzione" (invention) has often been associated with the Carracci and as an indicator of its progressive practice, that were credited with the invention of the caricature and proponents of pictorial riddles.
Other creative practices within the Academy involved attempting to finish a drawing without lifting the pen from the paper in an attempt to produce the most fluid composition. Although the Carracci took the education of art seriously, it has been argued that they still had time to prank their fellow students. A stunt involving the brothers scaring Pietro Faccini by secretly moving the skeleton that he was studying has been cited as exemplary of their love of practical jokes. However, it has been suggested by art historian Clare Robertson that working at the Academy may have exacerbated differences between Annibale's and Agostino's practice. Annibale is thought to have become so bored with Agostino's theoretical ramblings that he once jibed "those of us who are painters have to do talking with our hands".
The Carracci were given a further opportunity to fulfil a collaborative project when they worked on a commission for the main salone at Palazzo Magnani. The Carracci's style was so consistent that many observers wondered which artist was responsible for which paintings. Annibale responded in fact by saying "It is the Carracci: we all of us did it". Between 1591-2, the trio worked on Palazzo Sampieri, which turned out to be their last collaborative project. They had by now achieved enough success as a family that they started to explore their art individually, emerging in fact as rivals. This became evident through their artistic influences, when in 1592 Ludovico spoke of favouring Tintoretto while Annibale and Agostino's preference was for Titian and Veronese. It is thought that the artistic division between the Carracci became so pronounced that their rivalry started to show within the workshop, with one group following the teachings of Ludovico and another following Annibale and Agostino.
By 1594 Carracci had garnered a considerable personal reputation and he caught the attention of one Cardinal Farnese, a wealthy and influential patron of the arts who wanted a new talent to execute frescoes for his Palazzo Farnese in Rome. But Annibale's new project merely triggered further tensions within the Carracci. Ludovico was happy at the Academy in Bologna and did not want to move to an area where he would have to re-establish himself. Agostino did join his brother in Rome three years later (in 1597) but the time delay suggests that there was a growing distance between them. The brothers did collaborate on a small number of cycles but they argued frequently, with Annibale lambasting his brother for his "intolerable pretentiousness".
Cardinal Farnese engaged Carracci on a contract of meals and lodgings and a stipend of 10 scudi per month. The artist worked on the Farnese frescoes for six years, producing works that would represent the very summit of his oeuvre and a landmark in the history of Italian art.
The Palazzo Farnese frescoes were a monumental personal achievement for Carracci, not least because he remained all-but cut-off from the outside art world for some six years. It was a truly difficult time for Carracci given that the Cardinal treated him with little respect and publicly ridiculing him for his untidy clothes and unassuming manner. Carracci was further burdened with menial responsibilities (for an artist of his undeniable talents) such as designing dishes and silverware and even making decorative panels to be sewn onto the Cardinal's clothes.
The finished frescoes were lauded all over Rome when they were revealed in 1601. But the Cardinal delivered a crushing humiliation on Carracci when he calculated the cost of the artist's total food intake and subtracted it from his fee, leaving him with the meagre sum of 500 scudi. A crestfallen Carracci took the payment without complaint but the artist succumbed to a deep depression vowing never to paint again. Shortly after the Farnese debacle, Carracci suffered a stroke which robbed him temporarily of speech. He suffering was compounded the following year by the death of Agostino, and the death of his mother soon thereafter. He did manage to execute a few more works, most with the help of apprentices, before he succumbed to a fatal fever.
Carracci died in 1609 with the words: "This time, my dear doctor, the workings of the clock are broken, you need not concern yourself with them further, they are beyond repair". Carracci was buried with the great of pomp and ceremony, achieving at last the recognition he never fully received in his lifetime. His body was placed on a catafalque and mourned by the Academy of Saint Luke (the painter's association in Rome) and buried, in accordance with the artist's wishes, next to his idol Raphael.
The Legacy of Annibale Carracci
Carracci is hailed as one of the founding fathers of what would become recognized as the Baroque period, and, though his career was relatively short (he died aged just 49), he left a legacy of bold experimentation that effectively dethroned Mannerism as the elite artistic practice.
Like other legendary artists, Carracci possessed the will and imagination to resist the prevailing stylistic tendencies. Though a meek and introverted figure, he fought hard against the extravagances of Mannerism but without succumbing to the raw realism of Caravaggio. His emphasis on the importance of drawing from life, in combination with the application of an air of classicism and naturalistic backgrounds, invigorated pupils who acted as a prominent link within the evolution of Italian art. Indeed, the city of Bologna became home to the so-called Bolognese School which overtook the Parma School of painting and, through the efforts of pupils such as Francesco Albani, Domenico Zampieri, Giovanni Lanfranco, Guercino and Guido Reni, spread the influence of Baroque painting throughout Italy via Florence, Rome, and Naples.
The Baroque period infused art with new values that informed the oeuvres of future generations of painters too. Indeed, the Baroque style was carried forward by such luminaries as Nicolas Poussin and Peter Paul Rubens, whose illuminated rendering of the flesh and delicate naturalist backgrounds, fully merit their comparisons to Carracci.