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Week 5: The Carracci Drawings & Engravings

February 21, 2011

Drawings were very important to the Carracci.  Drawings helped artists prepare for masterpieces.  Drawings were also fundamental to the students in the Carracci Academy.   They placed heavy emphasis on drawing and drawing from life in their Accademia degli Incomminati.  The Carracci sought to imitate nature while expressing truth.  The style that evolved from their thinking and the Academy can be thought of as a reform movement after the Tridentine decrees on religious painting (Serooskerken).

In an early ink and wash drawing by Ludovico Carracci, Allegory of Poetry Comfortning Painting*, examples of a dialogue between contemporary artists and past masters appears to have begun.  This particular ink drawing is an allegory composed of many different elements.  A Michelangelesque river god is in the foreground, indicated by his vase.  There is an obelisk in the center.  This shows the Carracci were not only drawing from life, but also from what was available to them in terms of previous masters’ work and other monumental structures.

This is not a finalized drawing.  One can see the quick gestures of the contours of the figures and the reworking of the composition.  The leg of the river god seems to be in more than one place, undecided perhaps.  Although this drawing appears to have been done quickly, it was obviously done with skill, attention, and care.  The chiaroscuro expressed via the ink and wash shows this was more than a gesture sketch.

C. van Tuyll van Serooskerken, et al. “Carracci.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. 21 Feb. 2011 <;.

Some drawings were done in chalk, such as the Young Artist at Work* by Annibale Carracci.  This appears to be a rather finished drawing of a young student of about 8-10 years old.  This is a successful drawing in that it was difficult to represent a person at such an age while using the most basic media at hand.



Portrait of Titian

Agostino Carracci 1587.

13 x 9” Copperplate engraving.

Staatliche Museen, Berlin

This engraving by Agostino Carracci is an example of the translation of colore onto a black and white image.  One of the Carracci’s chief aims in art was to express truth by using color and design.  Being that engraving is a medium that usually only renders monotone images, Agostino improvised to make this piece a true Carracci piece.

This is a self-portrait in which Titian used color to express the various textures of his costume.  When translated into an engraving, Agostino Carracci was very sensitive to these textures.  One can distinguish the fur of Titian’s overcoat, from the satin of his shirt, and the velvet of his hat.  His coarse hair tells of old age and wisdom as well as the wrinkles around his eyes.

Titian has presented himself (prior to Agostino’s engraving) not as a working class artist, but as a learned person.  In his self-portrait, he does not show himself holding a paintbrush or in dirty work clothes, but rather as a respectable man in attire that the upper class wore.  Agostino’s re-rendering of this portrait is a reassertion of the elevated status of the artist.  The Carracci Academy was not merely an art school in which young students apprentice older masters, but a place of learning.  This elevation of the art student to a learned person rather than a craftsman is echoed in this portrait, built on the foundations early masters such as Titian began to set.




Agostino Carracci 1579.


Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna, Austria

Like his Portrait of Titian, Agostino Carracci’s engraving of Michelangelo’s Pieta (1498-1499) shows a visual dialogue between artists of different time periods.  Although Michelangelo could not actively participate in the conversation among artists, he left behind a wealth of artwork for the Carracci to study and draw from.

Agostino Carracci’s Pieta engraving places the sculpture in a setting one would never see it in  – landscape.  By presenting a two dimensional image of this piece, Carracci has forced the viewer to look at it from a certain direction.  The point of view is fixed, no longer a sculpture in the round.  Christ’s foreshortened head removes that sense of mystery – is He dead or just sleeping?

Drawings and engravings were important to the Carracci.  It was still vogue to make many preliminary sketches before starting a painting during this time.  Drawing from life was heavily emphasized in the Carracci Academia degli Incomminati.  Some drawings found themselves in engravings by Agostino.  One of his special talents was taking the work of well known artists and turning into an entirely new piece just by copying it into an engraving.  Whatever the medium, the Carracci strove for verisimilitude in their work and the work of their pupils.

*Image currently unattainable.

Story of Jason

February 21, 2011


Story of Jason


The Carracci Family 1584.

Frescoed frieze cycle.

Palazzo Fava, Bologna.

The Story of Jason is a unified work by the Carracci family.  This fresco cycle in the Palazzo Fava consists of 18 narrative scenes with 22 fictive marble reliefs.  According to Carlo Cesare Malvasia, via Donald Posner, Ludovico was loosely associated with the execution of this work, but provided drawings for it.  However it is evident that they each had a hand in the frescoes (Posner 8).

Framing each scene in the story are fictive architectural elements such as frames and sculptures.  A figure between The Infant Jason Carried in a Coffin to Cheiron’s Cave and Three Episodes in the Youth of Jason resemble’s Michelangelo’s Bacchus (1497).  Even the characters in the scene have a Michelangelesque build to them.  Although their quotations may not be direct, the Carracci have transformed their quoted figures so as to be recognizable as a quote, yet encompass a unique Carracci style.

Not only did the Carracci indirectly quote artists they revered, but also combined many different styles from past masters.  From Raphael, they used his form, balance, and grazie. Michelangelo’s heroism, illusion, and territibilità can be seen in the cycle.  The Carracci were inspired by the sfumato of Correggio, Giorgione, and Leonard da Vinci.  They also revered Venetian artists such as Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese and took different elements of each artist’s style and applied them to their frescoes.  Details of the scene show the Carracci used a painterly brushstroke in creating their compositions.  Even hints of gesture drawing can be seen in contours.

Posner, Donald.  Annibale Carracci. New York: Phaidon.  1971.

Ludovico Carracci

February 21, 2011


Bargellini Madonna

Ludovico Carracci 1588.

12’ 3” x 6’ 2” Oil on canvas.

For the Buoncompagni Chapel of the Church of the Monache Convertite in Via Lame, now in Pinacoteca, Bologna.

According to Rudolf Wittkower, Ludovico Carracci painted in a Baroque manner in contrast to his cousin Annibale who painted in a classical manner (32).  Ludovico’s highest point in his Baroque career can be seen in his Madonna dei Bargellini altarpiece for the Buoncompagni Chapel.

Instead of Annibale’s stable pyramidal composition from the Renaissance, Ludovico has placed his figures in a diagonal pyramid, allowing for movement.  The Madonna is to the right of the center, throwing off the typical pyramid which she would have been at the top of.  Even though the Madonna is not in the center of the composition, her head is above all other figures, and all gestures point to her.  A break towards the center of the compositions allows for the viewer to enter into the multiple planes of the picture.  The eye is led in an S-shaped path through the crowd and up to the Madonna, again.  Serookskerken suggests this altarpiece was inspired by Titian and Veronese, great Venetian painters.

This scene is a sacra conversazione because the saints in the piece are from different time periods.  The scene takes place in the Bolognese landscape, in order to anchor this occurrence to an earthly realm.  The family of the Bargellini are also said to be represented within the composition as saints (

C. van Tuyll van Serooskerken, et al. “Carracci.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. 21 Feb. 2011 <;.

Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna.  21 Feb. 2011. <;

Wittkower, Rudolf.  Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750: Vol. I, Early Baroque. Yale University Press. 1958.

Vision of St. Francis

Ludovico Carracci 1583-1586.

40 x 40” Oil on canvas.

National Gallery, On loan from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

This daring composition splits the frame into three parts.  On the far left is the wilderness that St. Francis is said to have been followed into by a fellow friar.  The friar is a witness to this miracle.  St. Francis is positioned in front of a tree which separates the picture – earthly from spiritual.  He holds the glowing Christ child as the Madonna, in the far right portion, gazes off into the distance.  She is surrounded by light and color and is standing on a cloud, differentiating her from the rest of the painting.  These three portions of the picture together create a stable balance yet allow for a Baroque dynamism from own portion to the other.

Ludovico’s handling of color is very controlled in this piece.  Although part of the painting clearly has a different color scheme than the other (natural vs. supernatural), all colors in both portions contain the same strength of hues and saturation.  This gives the composition unity and harmony.

Ludovico Carracci used light to distinguish the heavenly beings in this painting. The Madonna is most obvious, surrounded in bright light that illuminates the forest behind her.  The Christ child has a glow around his head, contrasted by the dark world St. Francis occupies.  It also appears that St. Francis has a glow around his head as well.  This raises the question of whom is having the vision – St. Francis? Us? Or the friar in the background?  And what is the Madonna looking at?  It does not appear that her gaze is fixed upon anything in the picture, and so we wonder what else is going on in this scene?

Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo

February 21, 2011












Crucifixion of St. Peter

Caravaggio 1600-1601.

90 ½ x 70” Oil on canvas.

Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome.

The simplicity of this composition conveys a great deal of the message to the viewers.  There are merely three other figures besides St. Peter.  Two of the men have their backs to us and the other’s face is in shadow; they are completely anonymous.  Moir describes them as more machine like than human (84).  Caravaggio painted no witnesses to this martyrdom; we are alone with St. Peter as he is hoisted up, upside down on the cross.

St. Peter gazes off the frame, apparently at a crucifix in the church (Moir 84).  He is not engaged with the viewer.  There is nothing we can do but watch this event unfold.

The composition of figures creates a wheel shape.  The movement of this wheel is emphasized by the contrast of action – the men’s strain versus St. Peter’s complaisance.  Soon the movement will lose momentum and it will all be over, St. Peter will be crucified.

This lateral is to the left of Annibale Carracci’s altarpiece (see below).  The downward diagonal points toward the center of the chapel.  Although the composition is clear from photographs we have, this painting can only be seen on an angle because of the small size of the chapel.  Caravaggio no doubt took this into consideration when he decided St. Peter’s position on the cross.  From an angle, he appears to be trying to get up and perhaps jump out of the picture.

St. Peter is the only figure fully illuminated.  The rest of the light in the composition appears to be coming from him.  St. Peter is considered the “rock” on which the Church was built, and so the light symbolically radiates from him (Sgarbi 110).  Vittorio Sgarbi suggests the men lifting St. Peter up are servants, not executioners.  Because they are merely laborers and are in the dark, it shows St. Peter’s power over them, even though he is the one who dies.  The message of this painting is about faith’s triumph, according to Moir (84).

Moir, Alfred. Caravaggio. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1982.

Sgarbi, Vittorio.  Caravaggio. Milano: Skira Editore S.p.A. 2007.

Conversion of St. Paul

Caravaggio 1600-1601.

Oil on wood.

Cerasi Chapel, S. Maria del Popolo, Rome.

Caravaggio seemingly ushered in the Baroque with his Conversion of St. Paul in the Cerasi Chapel at Santa Maria del Popolo.  He put a new spin on the cast of characters that are usually associated with the subject matter: just Saul, his horse, and a groom (who is oblivious to what is happening, so he does little to directly heighten the drama at hand).

Caravaggio’s idea of the sacred supernatural is radiant light.  In this piece, the light comes from above right.  Its downward direction is further emphasized by the color of the horse’s mane and points to Saul.  This limited amount of subject material creates a different type of drama than that seen in the ZuccariConversion.  Saul’s outstretched hands jut into our space – a device Caravaggio used in many of his religious paintings to engage the worshipper (Wittkower 21).

Although Caravaggio’s early work consisted of excruciatingly naturalistic still life paintings, mostly of or including fruit, his scenes always acted as a memento mori.  Fruit is known to decay over time, and so Caravaggio froze this process and presented it as a reminder of the transience of life.  Caravaggio applied this idea to religious scenes, stressing the climax of the moment.

Wittkower, Rudolf.  Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750: Vol. I, Early Baroque. Yale University Press. 1958.










Assumption of the Virgin

Annibale Carracci 1600.

96 x 61” Oil on canvas.

Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome.

The altarpiece for the Cerasi Chapel is an Assumption of the Virgin by Annibale Carracci.  In addition to its contrasts within the composition, it is a juxtaposition of traditional Renaissance ideals against Caravaggio’s extreme naturalistic laterals.

Inspired by the work of Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, and others, Annibale Carracci came to Rome from Bologna.  With him, he brought traditional High Renaissance and Classical painting techniques.  In his Assumption, he presents the numerous figures in the classic pyramid shape made famous by Raphael’s countless Madonna and Child paintings.  The composition is very compact, so this triangular grouping is very efficient and economic.  There are more figures than in most typical Renaissance scenes that use pyramidal composition.  Carracci balanced out the chaos caused by so many characters by using diagonal foils.  This stabilizes the pyramid.

Carracci’s Assumption altarpiece appears to be a summary of the Late Renaissance into the Baroque.  He combined Venetian colore with Central Italian disegno using painterly brushstrokes (Wittkower 37).  The figures in this composition are monumental and pressed against the picture plane (Serooskerken).

Although compared to his contemporary, Caravaggio, Carracci may seem to have been behind his times, but it was still very early in the 17th century.  Carracci’s dynamic and vibrant altarpiece provides a colorful juxtaposition to Caravaggio’s less colorful palette.  Likewise, Carracci’s idealized classical figures contrasted the natural humanity of Carvaggio’s figures.  Since this was one of Annibale Carracci’s first pieces in Rome, it served him well to get his name out.

C. van Tuyll van Serooskerken, et al. “Carracci.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. 21 Feb. 2011 <;.

Wittkower, Rudolf.  Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750: Vol. I, Early Baroque. Yale University Press. 1958.

Judith & Holofernes

February 21, 2011








Judith Killing Holofernes

Caravaggio 1598.

56 3/4 x 76 3/4″

Oil on canvas.

For Ottavio Costa, now in the National Gallery of Rome.

Caravaggio’s violent life style may be revealed through this painting.  It shows Judith killing Holofernes literally mid-action, at the utmost peak.  This is also the first of Caravaggio’s paintings in which a dark ground is used in addition to a red curtain that makes an appearance in The Death of the Virgin, 1605 (Prose 63).

Violent tendencies aside, Caravaggio painted an allegory of triumph over tyranny (Moir 70).  It is characteristic of Caravaggio to depict the height of the drama in his middle to late paintings.  It just so happens that the climax of this episode involves the gruesome beheading of a tyrant.  Francine Prose argues that Caravaggio had been a witness to a particular (if not many) public execution of Beatrice Cenci.  She was cruelly beheaded in front of hundreds of people (61).

However dynamic in action and drama, this piece seems to only have a horizontal movement and slight diagonal.  It begins with a lesser character, the servant, who is in profile, facing the action, guiding the viewer.  Judith’s arms swoop toward the center of the action while she leans in the opposite direction, slowing down the movement to finally stop at the spurting blood of Holofernes’s neck.  He grips onto his bed as if to prevent the figurative and literal momentum, but it is too late.  It could be this horizontal movement that makes the composition appear panoramic.  According to Alfred Moir, Caravaggio had yet to master creating convincing depth with multiple figures, and so he spread them out over the surface.  He also suggests that perhaps the painting was intended to be seen from the right. (See Caravaggio’s Cerasi Chapel laterals).

Moir, Alfred. Caravaggio. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1982.

Prose, Francine. Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles. New York: Harper Collins. 2005.


February 21, 2011

The Entombment

Caravaggio 1602-1604.

118 ¼ x 80”

Oil on canvas.

For Chapel of Pietro Vittrice Santa Maria Vallicella, Rome.  Now in Vatican Museums.

Caravaggio’s Entombment for the Vittrice chapel in S.M. Vallicella is reminiscent of a pieta, to which the church is dedicated.  Caravaggio’s use of gestures in this composition conveys pathos during this momentary hesitation before Christ is placed in the tomb.

The group of figures stands on a slab of rock.  This slab mimics the shape and placement of the altar.  However, instead of being parallel to the picture plane, the slab is on an angle, the corner protruding toward us.  Christ’s burial shroud spills over the edge, into our space.  Caravaggio did not paint the abyss that is the tomb, but leaves it for us to decide where it is – is it off to the side? If so, a horizontal swoop is detected in the movement of the figures.  Or will Christ tumble into our laps?

Detail of Caravaggio's Entombment, 1602-1604.Moir describes the group of figures as motionless (96).  Although each is engaged in individual mourning and emotion, they are frozen in time.  Those carrying Christ’s body are straining, but one cannot imagine this being an easy task.  They seem to struggle a bit, but while trying to hold reverence, slowly lower Him into his supposedly final resting place.

The two men carrying Christ are Nicodemus and Saint John.  Their gestures towards the dead Christ add to the emotion of this composition (Moir 96).  Nicodemus appears as if he is not ready to let Christ go; he is clinging to his legs.  Saint John feels Christ’s wound as he carries him, perhaps in disbelief.  Christ’s hanging arm appears to imitate that of Michelangelo’s Pieta and Raphael’s Entombment (Sgarbi 124).  It hangs languid, yet the veins make it seem full of life.

Mary Cleophas, the woman in the back with her arms outstretched, is one of two figures in the composition whose face is illuminated.  Moir suggests she is seeking divine guidance.  Divine guidance can be found, presumably, in the only other figure who is facing the Light, Jesus Christ (96).

Moir, Alfred. Caravaggio. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1982.

Sgarbi, Vittorio.  Caravaggio. Milano: Skira Editore S.p.A. 2007.

Madonna di Loreto

February 21, 2011









The Madonna of Loreto

Caravaggio 1603-1604.

104 1/2 x 60″

Oil on canvas.

Cavalletti Chapel, Church of Sant’Agostino, Rome.

This is a devotional piece for the family chapel of the Cavalletti, commissioned by Ermete Cavalletti in 1603.  It is also known as The Madonna of the Pilgrims.

Caravaggio’s extremely naturalistic approach serves an important purpose here.  He represents the Madonna and Child as very human, not to mention the pilgrims as well.  This type of painting speaks directly to ordinary worshippers, bringing the Blessed onto a more human level.  It is a meshing of two realms.  The Madonna stands in a classical doorway that represents the Gate of Heaven or more closely related to the church’s shrine, the entrance to the Holy House.  The peasants are illuminated with light from this House.

Although each figure convincingly occupies its respective space, the Madonna appears to be levitating, standing prominently on mere tip-toes.  The Loreto chapel is a shrine to the Holy House in which Christ was supposedly born.  Its transport of the house from Palestine to Loreto includes the iconography of a floating Virgin.  A statue within this shrine also depicts the Virgin as looking down (perhaps because she is floating above?) in this fashion.  Caravaggio used these iconographies in his painting as if bringing the statue to life and the miracle to believability (Moir 98).  It is a message to pilgrims to have a little faith.

Moir, Alfred. Caravaggio. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1982.