Monday, March 16, 2015

Pompeii No.47: Tragic Annibale Carracci

Annibale Carracci, from a self-portrait
As I mentioned at the beginning of this series, my version of Pompeii includes details that the Pompeians themselves would have recognized, but it also incorporates later interpretations of Pompeii. I think that my version of Pompeii has an eighteenth-century feel, with a nod to the Renaissance artists who were celebrating antiquity long before Pompeii was uncovered in 1748.

The living room portion of my Pompeii will have what I call the template of the original Pompeii Room (the columns and background panels that are the bones of the mural), but otherwise will have the look of the Renaissance. For the small living room wall, I'm incorporating the work of the master Annibale Carracci, shown above.  |
On the left, above, is a pastel portrait of Carracci, and on the right is Carracci's Portrait of a Lute Player, c. 1593-94, doubtlessly a self-portrait.

Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) was born in Bologna to a working class family and at a young age he was apprenticed to a goldsmith. He was forever drawing, and before long he was studying art with Barolomeo Passerotti, a successful Bolognese artist of the day.

Annibale was a great admirer of Michelangelo and Raphael, but also studied the works of northern Italian and Venetian masters. His subject matter ran the gamut ...
... from mythology and classical antiquity ...
... to religious works ...
... to landscapes ...
... to genre art.

Carracci developed a style of naturalism, or realism, that he blended very successfully with classical art, and it was a revolutionary and popular direction for his time. In the 1580s he and other family members founded the Carracci Academy, where his "idealized realism" was taught.
In 1595, the very powerful Cardinal Odoardo Farnese called Carracci to Rome, to decorate the Palazzo Farnese, shown above.

click to enlarge   |
First Carracci painted the Cardinal's private study, then several years later, the ceiling of the famous Farnese Gallery, shown above. It was the Cardinal's idea to portray the gods of Olympus and all their loves.

Carracci, much influenced by Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, painted the ceiling to look like a combination of framed paintings and supporting sculptures, though it is all fresco work.
Carracci, for all his brilliance, was a timid soul. He dressed poorly, was shy and prone to stuttering. If you look up Cardinal Farnese on a site like Wikipedia, he'll be credited for having been a patron of the arts. That is true, but he was also a cruel taskmaster who enjoyed mocking Annibale's handicaps at every turn.
When the glorious ceiling was finished, the cardinal paid Carracci only 500 scudi for his years of work which, by my research into 1600's currency, was probably a lot less than minimum wage — a huge, vile insult.

Another personality — a Michelangelo, say — would have sought recourse, and probably exacted revenge, too. But Carracci was humble, and Farnese, descended from a pope and royal houses, was very, very powerful.

Carracci reacted by falling into a deep depression from which he never recovered. He suffered a stroke, quit painting altogether, and soon died.

The Farnese Gallery itself was a huge triumph and a standard for all other artists for many years thereafter.

Carracci by Carlo Maratti | pinterest, beardbriarandrose

Annibale Carracci's contemporaries realized that he had forged a new direction in Italian art, and buried him in the Pantheon next to his hero Raphael. Today, Carracci's work is considered a bridge between the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

I'll be borrowing elements from the Farnese Gallery for my living room wall, so I hope you check back for upcoming posts!


  1. Dear Mark - As you probably gathered I am most familiar with Annibale Carracci's The Butcher's Shop, which is owned by Christ Church Gallery, Oxford University. Apparently the painting has great historical significance as it was the first time that an artist used a modest genre-subject to create a painting on a monumental scale.
    It was very interesting to read all about Annibale Carracci, and have more 'flesh on the bones'!

    1. Dear Rosemary,

      One author I consulted made the point that Annibale Carracci's fame faded considerably in the centuries after his death because his personal life was not as dramatic or even torrid as someone like Carravagio. But he is being reassessed today for having changed the direction of the Italian art of his time.

  2. Oh my goodness, Mark, this is such a poignant story about Carracci. I am stunned by the beauty of his work and equally disgusted with his treatment by Cardinal Farnese, horrid. The only saving grace is his burial next to Raphael and of course his art.

    The Arts by Karena

    1. Dear Karena,

      Yes, poignant is the right word. Carracci's story shines a light on the fact that many church leaders of the Renaissance age were handed their positions almost as a hereditary right, and that they could be the antithesis of godliness. It was the Farneses of the world who inspired a great reformation.

  3. Hello Mark, The Renaissance is the perfect complement to your Pompeian endeavors, and the two rooms side by side will form an interestingly complex metaphor in time and artistic traditions.

    I am further intrigued by your adoption of Annibale Carracci. Carracci first came to my notice when the Cleveland Museum of Art acquired his odd and enigmatic painting "Boy Drinking" and sponsored lectures on Carracci's works and on that specific painting, which features looking through glass and liquid, (as does the bean-eater painting you illustrate above).


    1. Hello, Jim,

      I had trouble using the link you generously forwarded, but found the Cleveland image here:,_1582-83.JPG

      Carracci would seem like an odd choice if one were to just look at his genre art, of which the "Boy Drinking" is an fine example, but I was originally drawn to Carracci through his work on the ceiling of the Farnese Gallery, which is his masterpiece and the culmination of his knowledge.

      I've always been attracted to Renaissance allusions to antiquity, and I think the Farnese Gallery is one of the handsomest examples to be found. It's a wonderful blend of idealized antiquity, mythology, and pure decoration.

  4. I look forward to seeing what you do, Mark! And many thanks for this feature on Annibale Carracci. Cheers

    1. Thanks, Loi! I look forward to hearing more about the progress of your house-hunting!

  5. Karena summed it up alright...very poignant. Thank you for giving him a little more importance... he was ahead of his times.

    1. Hi, Theresa,

      I read the story of Annibale and started feeling all the emotions that must have welled up within him. But in his time, the cards were stacked against him . . .

  6. Dear Mark,
    Ultimately Carracci won out by being buried next to Raphael. Cardinal Farnese may have been a patron of the arts But Carracci left behind, for all of us to admire, a masterpiece, the Farnese ceiling.

  7. Dear Gina,

    You are right, and more than that, Carracci is experiencing a resurgence of appreciation and a reevaluation of his contributions to art. You may want to turn the music down, but have a look at this beautiful Italian volume that recently came out on the Farnese Gallery:

  8. Hello Mark, I will eagerly be awaiting how you bring elements of the Farnese gallery into your living room. I've been studying the images on-line and can't wait to see which you choose for Villa Ruffnerius!

    1. Hello, Barbara,

      I will be modifying several elements, using Carracci's versions primarily as inspiration and starting points, and then I will borrow another element amd copy it faithfully.

  9. Such an interesting post, Mark. Most especially since I seem not to have known anything about Carracci or his work. Sad story though. But at least he left magnificent work to be admired through the ages. Popes have a lot to answer for. I hope they eventually did - if you get my meaning. But at the same time, without them as patrons of the arts, would we have all the splendid art we still have today? It's a conundrum.

    1. Dear Yvette,

      As one who freelanced art to the advertising world, I occasionally had difficulty collecting what I was due, so I empathized very much with Annibale Carracci.

      I came to know about him through a very small but very rich volume entitled "Annibale Carracci: The Farnese Gallery, Rome," by Charles Dempsey and published by George Braziller, Inc. I came upon the book in a wonderful bookstore in Ashville, named Battery Park Book Exchange, and I knew immediately that I would somehow incorporate the art into my mural.