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Caravaggio has a lot to answer for. So overwhelming was his talent and so violent the shock he produced in the Roman art world of the late 16th and early 17th century that “minor” painters among his contemporaries, such as Annibale Carracci, have been all but forgotten.
If the towering presence of Caravaggio did much to diminish Carracci’s later reputation, even during his lifetime he had to struggle to establish his own distinctive style. He worked in the family “factory” in Bologna, alongside his elder brother Agostino and cousin Ludo-vico: a talented group known as “the Carracci”, considered synonymous with a slightly pedantic classical style.
An added difficulty for Annibale was that much of his best work consisted of frescoed cycles in private palazzi: both in Bologna, with his brother and cousin, and on his own in Rome – none of which is of easy access.
One such is Annibale’s masterpiece: the frescoed ceiling of the great gallery of Cardinal Odoardo Farnese’s Roman palazzo, done between 1597 and 1602. The subject, the all-conquering power of love (a surprising one for a prince of the church), is taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and shows Bacchus and Ariadne triumphant in the central panel, surrounded by the various surprising and unlikely couplings of the pagan gods and goddesses.
Now a new exhibition in Bologna – the first ever to be devoted entirely to the youngest and best of a talented family – attempts to redress the balance. Like Caravaggio, Annibale was irritated by the affectations of mannerism and convinced that good art came from looking squarely at reality. Both men took great pleasure in describing its grubbier aspects.
Annibale’s early “genre” paintings are fascinating. These are never patronising, but serious and detailed renderings of butcher’s shops,
or shabbily dressed but dignified customers eating tavern meals with huge relish (“Il Mangiatore di Fagioli”, 1584/85), or the skilled account of a young waiter drinking heel-taps: his foreshortened features are seen through the upturned glass.
One of this group, the portrait of a clown (“Il Buffone”, 1585), wearing a comical hat and a particularly unsettling leer, is so similar in feeling to the work of the younger artist, Caravaggio, that it was listed in the owner’s inventories as his until 1833.
Annibale Carracci is a complex figure, part of the classical tradition and yet – by his injection of vigour and movement into a rigid style – rightly credited with opening the way for the baroque that took over Rome in the
decades following his death in 1609, a year before
The latter, never a flatterer, thought highly of Annibale, mentioning him, during his trial for brawling in 1603, as a valenthuomo (a good guy), who knew how to paint and imitar bene le cose naturali. Annibale returned the compliment, handing over to Caravaggio work he was unable to complete in Santa Maria del Popolo. Annibale went to Venice in 1587 and saw works by Titian, Bassano and Veronese. The latter’s influence in the highly sensual “Venus and Satyr” (1589) is palpable, and is seen again in Annibale’s use of colour and light in the Prado “Assumption of the Virgin” (1590).
His religious works, apart from the three large Pietà, are lively and decorative rather than profound: the tiny Madonna Montalto (c 1596) is a case in point. The most impressive works are the self-portraits. The melancholy disillusion of “Self-
portrait with a Black Hat” (1593) could have been painted by Manet: even the rough cloak and the floppy hat are more pertinent to the self-conscious 19th-century artist than to the practical artisan of the 16th.