Progression of Art
The Butcher's Shop
Classified as a genre painting, The Butcher's Shop, in which Carracci depicts butchers preparing their wares for sale, holds up a window to everyday Italian life during the late 1500s. The butcher in the center foreground is shown preparing a lamb for slaughter, while his assistants are seen hooking up carcasses for display. Bringing a dash of humor to the scenario, a customer wearing an oversized feather hat in the left corner is seen fumbling for money to make his purchase. Based on the known fact that Carracci's uncle worked as a butcher, historians have speculated that Carracci may have represented his own family members in this painting.
In late-sixteenth century Bologna, artisans and shopkeepers occupied the bottom rungs of the social ladder. This group lived under the constant threat of job loss due to economic instability and a weakened guild system. Since the milieu in which he was painting reflected his own humble beginnings, one finds in this image clear evidence of Carracci's commitment to "painting from real life". This is apparent too in his preference for broken brushwork which brings added authenticity to the humanistic element of the work (shown thematically in the way the butchers are represented as humble masters of their trade). At the same time, Carracci shows a light-hearted touch through the inclusion of the humorous caricature of the paying customer.
Like the Butcher's Shop, The Beaneater is a naturalistic genre painting representing a scene of everyday Italian life. It shows a man eating a simple meal of beans, onions, bread and wine. In order to infuses the painting with an authentic rustic feel, Carracci used broken brush work; a technique that went against the flat polished finish that fine artists strived for during the late 16th century.
Carracci's composition combines portraiture and still life and offers thus a clear example of his ability to bring together different components in a single painting. Depicted in a manner that appears candid, this approach would have been seen as markedly different during a time when painting was drawn towards monumental depictions of biblical figures and posed portraits of prominent society members. The lack of composure and level perspective creates a similar compositional result that is akin to a photograph taken from the opposite side of the table. The beaneater is captured in a spontaneous moment evident in his direct engagement, blushed cheeks, and gaping mouth. Despite this somewhat unflattering portrayal, the level perspective does not belittle the subject but, rather, places the spectator at social plateau with the sitter. Carracci captures a simple daily routine of the working class with sympathy, representing the man in a manner that is ultimately human; a strategy which would have been deemed innovative during the 16th century when wealthy commissions dominated portraiture.
Oil on canvas - Palazzo Colonna, Rome
Venus, Adonis and Cupid
Venus, Adonis and Cupid focusses on a story associated most famously with the Roman poet Ovid. In this painting, Carracci depicts the moment before Venus is about to be struck by Cupid's arrow allowing her to fall in love with Adonis (who is shown with hounds that will accompany him when he proceeds to embark on an ill-fated hunt with a wild boar). In the foreground we see a pair of doves that represent love. The figures are backed by an intricate landscape comprising of ancient ruins and chaotic skies, infusing a sense of drama into the narrative.
Venus, Adonis, and Cupid is demonstrable of the wide range of influences that Carracci undertook, exhibiting aspects of Veronese, Titian and Greco-Roman sculptures. Both Veronese and Titian painted this fable, and similarities can be drawn between the compositional approach of all three artists in which the interaction between Venus and Adonis is played out in front of a naturalistic landscape. Carracci's special skill as a naturalist painter is in evidence here while his sculptural formation of the figure's bodies, and the use of light to illuminate the smooth texture of their skin produces a subtle realism that would have placed it in stark contrast to the preferences of the Mannerists. Carracci's ability to play with light in this way is further evidenced in the cloth materials, most notably in the wonderful iridescent sheen of Adonis's robe.
Oil on canvas - Museo del Prado, Madrid
With his brother Agostino, and cousin Lodovico, Annibale undertook several excursions into the Bolognese countryside to sketch. From these sketches, Carracci would make up his splendid landscape paintings in his studio. With its emphasis on contrasts in color, its fine attention to detail, and its sense of grandeur and movement, paintings like River Landscape effectively "invented" the landscape as a legitimate genre for Italian Baroque painting.
Here, Carracci produces a fine balancing of forms throughout his canvas. A river wends its way among fields in its journey from the middle distance towards the foreground. Trees and foliage act almost as signposts for the river's rhythmic passage; its rippled waters dappled with reflections of sunlight. The huge dark tree trunks that dominate the near foreground, meanwhile, effectively stop the spectator from becoming lost in the pastel skies and mountainous range of the far horizon. We see too a human presence in the shape of the boating party, with the boatman himself distinguished from his surroundings through his brightly colored red and white clothing. On the rivers horizon we also see other man-made marks in the shapes of what look like buildings. As the founding father of the Baroque movement Carracci's River Landscape can be viewed as a harbinger of things to come, anticipating the soft landscapes of Jean-Honore Fragonard and Anthony Van Dyck.
Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
One of his later works, Carracci was working on Pietà whilst undertaking his project at the Farnese Gallery in Rome, both of which were commissioned by Cardinal Farnese, a wealthy and powerful patron of the arts who had an eye for rising talent. In Pietà, Carracci presents the moment in which the Virgin Mary holds her crucified son, who lay lifeless on her lap. To the right of the composition, angels are depicted in the act of mourning Christ's passing.
The artist's rendering of the subjects is an obvious nod to Michelangelo's sculpture Pietà (c. 1498-9) in which similarities can be drawn between the triangular composition resulting from the elevation created by the steps and the sculpted quality of the depicted figures. In combination with these elements, Carracci furthers the realist treatment of the drama by applying a number of other techniques. For instance, chiaroscuro tones are present within the painting, illuminating Christ's body and emphasizing his holiness. A shadow casts itself over the Virgin Mary's face, extenuating the sorrow in her expression. An angel gestures to Christ's wounded feet to suggest the sacrifice that he has endured. Overall, Pietà can be considered a demonstration of Carracci's adeptness at transferring the monumentality of sculpture into painting, and infusing the imagery with a palpable figurative dynamism that was thought hitherto to be the sole privilege of sculpture.
Oil on canvas - National Museum of Capodimonte, Naples
The Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne
In 1597, Carracci was commissioned by Cardinal Odoardo Farnese (Pope Paul III's nephew) to decorate the gallery on the main floor of his Roman palace, considered one of the most important examples in Renaissance architecture (it currently houses the French embassy in Italy). The result was, by almost universal consensus, an achievement to rank alongside the greatest of all monumental fresco paintings, namely Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel and the equally famous Rafael Rooms. Carracci's work represented a complete break with Mannerism and introduced the Baroque style which would dominate during the seventeenth century.
Displayed as the centrepiece for the vault fresco cycle, Loves of the Gods, The Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne focusses on the wedding ceremony of Bacchus and Ariadne, in which the couple are seen riding on a chariot that is drawn by tigers and goats. Ariadne is crowned with stars from cupid as they are cheered on by the crowd, evoking a celebratory atmosphere. Silenus is seen to the right of the composition, riding a donkey into the distance. What is extraordinary about the frescoes is the fact that, unlike Michelangelo's Genesis and Last Judgement frescoes, or Raphael's frescoes for the Vatican apartments, which were all religious, Carracci's frescoes were - unlike the crucifixion scenario of Pietà - mythological, a highly unexpected choice of subject matter given that Rome was at the very center of the Catholic Counter Reformation.
Its thematic emphasis aside, the fresco shows Carracci's ability to convey a diverse range of emotions and personalities. Despite the many individual figures, each one carries their own unique expression. Bacchus holds a cluster of grapes in a heroic fashion that accentuates his muscular physique, gazing off gallantly into the distance. Ariadne looks over her shoulder, expressing a passiveness that contrasts with Bacchus. A drunken Silenus is seen lending all of his weight onto another figure, who appears to almost suffocate from his overbearing grasp. Carracci's rendering of the flesh is so noteworthy for every shadow that forms and each muscle that is captured (suggestive of an artist such as Rubens).
Fresco - Palazzo Farnese, Rome