Once known only from a black-and-white photograph buried in the archives of the London gallery Agnew’s, Annibale Carracci’s The Annunciation was rediscovered in 2013, revealing what Jonquil O’Reilly, specialist in the Old Master Paintings department, describes as a painting that is ‘at once both ethereal and tangible, injecting naturalism into the miraculous’.
Annunciations are, of course, a common subject among Old Master paintings. The scene in which the archangel Gabriel announces to the young Virgin Mary that she will give birth to the Son of God is central to both the Catholic faith and Christian art.
For many people, the definitive artist of the Baroque period is Caravaggio, with his dramatic use of light and radical naturalism in stark contrast to the idealised forms of Mannerist convention. However, O’Reilly describes Annibale’s work as being a ‘bridge between Mannerism [the style of the late Renaissance from about 1520 to the end of that century] and full-blown Baroque’, and he was displaying the same bold naturalism a decade earlier than Caravaggio.
The resulting style is exciting in its development and comes with a frisson of danger; ‘as much as it is revolutionary, it can also be seen as disrespectful,’ says O’Reilly. So strong was Annibale’s pushing of naturalism that it became known as the ‘Carracci Reform’.
Annibale Carracci developed this style as part of an art academy based in Bologna, the capital of Emilia-Romagna in Italy, that he set up with his older brother Agostino and his cousin Ludovico. Originally known as the Accademia dei Desiderosi, or the Academy of the Desirous, it is better known today as the ‘Carracci workshop’.
The Carracci family was so groundbreaking that they were known far beyond the city of Bologna — the workshop allowed them to take commissions from cities such as Venice and Rome.
According to O’Reilly, the three Carraccis worked very much together, ‘in a way that, at times, it can be difficult to discern the three separate hands but, at the same time, there are moments where their styles are so individual that you can, without any difficulty, differentiate between them.’
Annibale set out on a trip to Venice and Parma after the debut of his first major religious commission, a Crucifixion altarpiece, caused a scandal in Bologna. The naturalism with which he depicted Christ and the saints surrounding the cross was considered too crude a treatment for such divine figures.
The three Carraccis realised that if their workshop was to be a success then they would need to rein in their style. This pursuit of refinement is evident in The Annunciation.
While in Venice, Annibale studied the works of Titian, Correggio, Tintoretto and Veronese. The lessons that Annibale learned from these masters can be seen in his altarpieces and religious scenes. They are filled with what Keith Christiansen, retired Chairman of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum, calls ‘a northern Italian emphasis on colour, light, and the study of nature, but with a new focus on emotive communication.’
It is this combination of technique and emotion that led to Annibale being invited to work for the powerful Farnese family in Rome, cementing his importance in Baroque Italy — establishing the Carracci style as a powerful influence at the centre of Baroque art and paving the way for a new generation.
The workshop was set up, however, not only as a means of producing art and responding to commissions, but also with the aim of educating another generation of artists — and it became the incubator for many of the painters who would succeed in Rome.
It was the site of an exchange of influence, as the Carraccis both taught new artists and learned from them. Some of the great names who trained at the Carracci workshop include such luminaries as Guido Reni and Domenichino, whose Saint John the Evangelist was sold for a record price for the painter at Christie’s in 2009.
As Christiansen says: ‘Through the next generation of painters — Francesco Albani, Domenichino, Guido Reni, Giovanni Lanfranco and Guercino — Bolognese painting became the dominant force in 17th-century art.’
Yet Annibale’s influence and style, evident in The Annunciation, would stretch beyond the 17th century through some of the greatest artists in art history, such as Peter Paul Rubens, Nicolas Poussin and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who all studied and absorbed the lessons his religious scenes professed.