Discarding the artificiality of Mannerism and recovering the classicizing tradition of the High Renaissance with an emphasis on naturalism, rich color, an appeal to the emotions and heroic idealism, the Bolognese artist, Annibale Carracci, is acclaimed as one of the most influential Italian Baroque painters of the late 16th and early 17th century.
A vital force in pioneering the style of “idealized realism”, Carracci was born in Bologna on November 3, 1560 into a humble, working class family. The sons of a tailor, Annibale and his older brother Agostino were at first guided by their older cousin Lodovico, a painter who persuaded them to follow him in his profession. Young Annibale studied art both with his cousin and with a local, successful painter named Bartolomeo Passerotti.
During these early years, Carracci developed an astonishing new style completely different from the elegant deformations and exaggerations of Mannerism currently in Vogue. Turning to nature and reality as his principal inspirations, he developed the style based on naturalism. In the 1580s, his precocious talents developed in a tour of northern Italy. While in Venice, he said to have lodged with the painter Jacopo Bassano, whose style of painting influenced him for a time.
After returning to Bologna, Annibale joined Agostino and Lodovico in founding a school for artists, the Carracci Academy, known officially as the “School of the Desirous.” Their aim was to practice and teach their new, “eclectic” style of art, melding life study, intense realism, and Renaissance classicism. However, Annibale was unable to stay with his Academy for long because in 1595 the wealthy and powerful Cardinal Farnese called him to Rome to decorate the famous and sumptuous Palazzo Farnese.
In Rome, Annibale turned eagerly to the study of Michelangelo, Raphael, and ancient Greek and Roman art to adapt the style he had formed in the artistic centres of northern Italy to his new surroundings. Having decorated the Camerino (study) in the Palazzo Farnese, he was joined by his brother Agostino in painting the frescoes of the coved ceiling of the Galleria (1597-1604) with love fables from Ovid.
These decorations, which interweave various illusions of reality in a way that was more complex even than Raphael’s famous paintings in the Vatican loggia, were a triumph of classicism tempered with humanity. The powerfully modeled figures in these frescoes are set in a highly complex composition whose illusionistic devices represent an imaginative response to Michelangelo’s frescoes on the Sistine ceiling. Despite their elaborative organization, the frescoes are capable of direct appeal owing to their rich colors and the vigour and dynamism of their entire approach. The Galleria Farnese became a rich feeding ground for the Baroque imaginations of Peter Paul Rubens and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, among others.
Annibale's long and intense labours in the Palazzo Farnese had been dismally underpaid by Cardinal Farnese, and the painter never fully recovered from the ingratitude of his patron. A taciturn, melancholy man by nature, this symbolic slap in the face sent him into a tailspin of depression. He virtually stopped painting altogether, especially after suffering a stroke. His students completed his commissions for him, and he only contenting himself with sketching the designs for the final paintings.
After several years of melancholic sickness and intermittent production, Annibale Carracci finally died in Rome on July 15, 1609.