Previously known only from a decades-old black and white photograph, the Annunciation has been widely published since 1984, but unseen until the present time. Although writers have recognized the picture's importance and quality, even from the faded reproduction -- describing it as 'atmospheric' and 'luxurious' (Feigenbaum 1984); 'splendid' and 'beautiful' (Brogi 2001) -- only now, with the opportunity to experience it in person, can the full measure of its rich and sensuous coloristic effects, virtuoso paint handling, spirituality and humanity be fully appreciated. Its rediscovery constitutes a major addition to the corpus of Annibale Carracci's early career.
The subject of the Annunciation is of paramount doctrinal importance to the Catholic Church and among the most often painted in Christian art. The visit of the angel Gabriel to the home of a young girl in Galilee to announce that she will give birth to the son of God is recounted in the Gospel of Luke (I:26-38): "The angel went in and said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary, for God has been gracious to you; you shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall give him the name Jesus. He will be great; he will bear the title 'Son of the Most High'; the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David, and he will be king over Israel forever; his reign shall never end'. 'How can this be' said Mary; 'I am still a virgin.' The angel answered, 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy child to be born will be called 'Son of God'. 'Here am I,' said Mary; 'I am the Lord's servant; as you have spoken, so be it.' Then the angel left her."
Annibale's painting is iconographically conventional, and includes all of the symbolical elements included in depictions of the subject since the Middle Ages: a demurely attired Mary kneels at a prie-dieu, quietly reading in her chamber. According to St. Bernard, she reads the prophesy of Isaiah, 'A young woman is with child.' A basket of knitting is at her side, alluding to the legend of the Virgin's upbringing in the Temple at Jerusalem where she would spin and weave the priests' vestments. The archangel, winged and wearing a white robe trimmed in gold braid, kneels on a bank of clouds as he approaches the Virgin; he holds a lily, one of his attributes, but also a symbol of Mary's purity. Missing only is the dove of the Holy Spirit descending toward the Virgin on a ray of light; it seems likely that this dove once appeared at the top of the painting, and that Gabriel was depicted pointing toward it. An examination of the unframed canvas indicates that the painting was cropped along the top edge and also along the left side; it seems unlikely that more than a few inches of canvas were removed, and the original bottom edge and right side of the canvas are intact. However, the emanation of light from beyond the top of the composition, the gesture of the angel toward an unseen presence, and the somewhat abrupt abbreviation of the floating cherubim at the upper edge of the picture confirm that the work was reduced at the top at some point.
Where this Annunciation is strikingly original is in the intimacy and humanity of Annibale's rendering of the subject. More than a decade before Caravaggio's artistic debut in Rome, Annibale, his elder brother Agostino (1557-1602) and their older cousin Ludovico (1555-1619) championed an art that extolled a new naturalism and communicated deep emotions through the rigorous and unblinking observation of the world around them. Of the three, Annibale would push this naturalism -- the so-called 'Carracci Reform' of painting -- to its farthest limits. Even when taking on an event he could not have witnessed -- such as the meeting of a levitating angel with the future mother of the Lord -- he would ground his depiction in fluently described details from life: the way an ear looks when covered by a transparent veil; the play of light across the folds in a velvet cloth; how a light muslin sleeve folds and wrinkles as it falls down an upraised arm; the precise shape and color of a lily's stem, petals and stamen. Moreover, Annibale could convey the humility of a shy and cloistered young girl about to receive profound news, and the expression -- alert, joyous, tenderly amused -- of the messenger about to deliver it, capturing the communion between them in a remarkable moment.
Annibale's first mature paintings, made when he was in his early 20s, thoroughly rejected the desiccated Mannerist conventions that prevailed in Bolognese painting at the time. The Bean-Eater (Galleria Colonna, Rome), The Butcher Shop (versions in Christ's Church, Oxford and the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth), and the Boy Drinking (versions in Christ Church, Oxford and the Cleveland Museum of Art; fig. 1) were inspired by the low-life genre paintings of his probable teacher, Bartolomeo Passarotti. However, Annibale introduced to these humble subjects an unprecedented directness and sympathy, an intensity of naturalistic observation (born of relentless study from live models), and a keen interest in the meticulous rendering of the optical effects of light in nature. When he transposed this same bold naturalism from genre scenes to his first major religious work, the Crucifixion with Saints (1583; S. Maria della Carita, Bologna), there ensued a public scandal. This powerful work is without elegance or artifice; if a few of the figures are awkward -- Annibale was just 23-years-old when he painted it -- the whole is powerful and deeply felt. The young artist's decision to paint the central image of Christian contemplation -- Christ's sacrifice -- with the rough simplicity that he had applied to the depiction of bean-eating peasants and to do so in an altarpiece destined for a public location, deeply offended the local art establishment and subjected the artist to vehement attack. According to his biographer Carlo Cesare Malvasia, so great was the outrage against Annibale that Ludovico sent him and Agostino on a study trip to Venice and Parma in order to get him out of town.
Furthermore, noted Malvasia, Ludovico had also come in for criticism from the art establishment for allowing his young cousin (and pupil) to stray so far from the path of decorum: "It was all the more astonishing to those critics that Ludovico -- who by dint of long experience was following a much more promising path, tempering the roughness of nature with a little more elegance and embellishment -- could tolerate his cousin's careless and slapdash ways." It may be that Ludovico subsequently decided to rein in Annibale, or that Annibale, his brother, and cousin all realized that if their newly established joint enterprise, the Accademia dei Desiderosi (popularly known as the 'Carracci Academy,' founded circa 1582) was to succeed in attracting pupils they would have to moderate their collective challenge to the established artistic orthodoxy. In any event, Annibale pulled back somewhat from the harsh naturalism of his first paintings, as Keith Christiansen has observed, introducing a sweetness and sfumato that reflected his admiration of Correggio and a brilliant, rich palette that he had discovered in the paintings of Titian and Veronese.
It seems likely that the greater refinement and warmth of the Annunciation represents Annibale's response to the attacks he endured over the Crucifixion. Its composition does not overturn the acceptable canon for depictions of the event, and the painting displays a respectful sense of decorum toward its subject. The Virgin is appropriately beautiful, reticent and full of humility in the face of the great gift and burden that is being foretold; Gabriel gazes upon her with both joy and respect; the pretty faces and graceful poses of both figures seem to 'tame and correct nature,' qualities seen by Annibale's critics as essential to art and lacking in his earlier works.
It is generally agreed that the Annunciation dates from the 1580s. For Keith Christiansen, it comes soon after Annibale visited Venice and discovered Titian, around the moment when the three Carracci embarked on the collaborative frieze decorations for the Palazzo Fava; that is, around 1582/5 (verbal and written communication). For Alessandro Brogi and David Steel, it looks like Annibale around 1587/8, after the artist's second Venetian visit; they compare it to the Assumption of the Virgin in Dresden (1587) and the paired panels depicting Gabriel and the Virgin Annunciate in Bologna (1588; Pinacoteca, Bologna; figs. 2 and 3).
There has been less unanimity about the attribution of the painting, which few authorities have yet to have seen in person. David Steel recognized the picture as Carracci in the 1970s, when he saw it in a photograph. However, it was Gail Feigenbaum who first published it in 1984, and again in 1990, attributing it to Ludovico Carracci, and comparing it favorably to the Holy Family with Saints and Donors, Ludovico's famous altarpiece in Cento of 1591. Benati sees Ludovico's enameled and 'closed' handling in the face and mantle of the Madonna, a milkiness he associates with Ludovico's manner, a slight irregularity in the features of the angel, and an abbreviation in the drapery of the Virgin that to his eye are more characteristic of Ludovico in 1587/8 than of Annibale; he compares it to Ludovico's Conversion of Paul (Pinacoteca, Bologna) and Bargellini Madonna (signed and dated 1588; Pinacoteca, Bologna). Steel, on the other hand, today regards it as the work of Annibale (written communication). Alessandro Brogi was the first to publish the picture as Annibale in 1994 and again in 2001, placing it immediately after the artist's 1587/8 trip to Venice and citing its "profound and enthusiastic assimilation of the Venetian pictorial language" and noting especially its debt to Tintoretto as well as Titian. For Brogi, the picture must be attributed to Annibale "without a shadow of doubt" (1994), a sentiment he has reconfirmed: "in my opinion there is, and I continue to see, an exuberance of form, of sentiment, of brushwork and of color, though restrained [trattenuta], that I can only explain as Annibale" (written communication). Christiansen, who has examined the Annunciation in person, acknowledges the similarities between aspects of the painting and works by Ludovico ("most particularly the boneless hands and facial types"), but goes on to note that "as soon as one passes to the treatment of light and the various ways it plays over surfaces, or the beautiful movement of the drapery, or -- most importantly -- the expressive character, which is all bloom and delicacy and a flush of innocent colloquy, one is in the world of Annibale." In addition to Christiansen, Xavier Salomon and Andrea Bayer have examined the painting in person and both endorse an attribution to Annibale.
It was, of course, in the nature of the Carracci Academy in its early years that the three Carracci were teaching their radical new approach to painting, while working together and often interchangeably on projects, a period when, as Christiansen observes, "the impetus often comes from Ludovico." As titular head of the studio, commissions passed to Ludovico and he assigned them to whoever was then available and best suited to the project. Sometimes, as in the Fava frescoes, the three Carracci worked together, making it difficult to confidently distinguish their individual hands. Unfortunately, nothing thus far has turned up to document the attribution of the Annunciation: we do not know its earliest provenance or genesis, and no drawings for it seem to have survived. Nothing indicates with certainty its status as a gallery picture or a small altarpiece for domestic use; no records of missing versions of the subject by Annibale (or Ludovico) correspond to this particular composition. As a consequence, there is little to guide us in determining the attribution beyond connoisseurship. Here, however, the weight of evidence (and opinion) favors Annibale. The poetry of light enveloping the scene, the delicacy and tenderness of feeling conveyed by its fleet brushwork seem hallmarks of the young cousin. With the arrival of the Annunciation on public exhibition, this splendid painting can now be recognized as one of Annibale Carracci's earliest and most moving masterpieces.
Our gratitude to Keith Christiansen, Xavier Salomon and Andrea Bayer for examining the painting in person and confirming the attribution to Annibale Carracci; and to Alessandro Brogi, Daniele Benati and David Steel for studying the painting in photographs and sharing with us their views.