The Virgin in Prayer is a previously unknown, newly discovered painting by Annibale Carracci and a major addition to the corpus of one of the supreme masters of the Italian Baroque. Its beauty, delicacy and refinement make it among the loveliest and gentlest paintings of the artist’s early maturity. Prof. Daniele Benati, Nicholas Turner and Keith Christiansen have confirmed the attribution to Annibale after examining the painting in the original, and have dated it to the1580s. Benati specifically places it at 1584-1585, when Annibale introduced a more graceful style in his work that reflected his admiration for Correggio, and Christiansen dates it slightly earlier, c. 1582-1584, the moment when the style of Annibale and Ludovico Carracci's work most frequently overlaps.
The painting is striking and original in the intimacy and humanity of Annibale’s rendering of the mother of Christ. 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’ – to its farthest limits. His 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’s Church, Oxford, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and a private collection), were inspired by the low-life genre paintings of his probable teacher, Bartolommeo Passarotti. However, Annibale introduced to these humble subjects an unprecedented directness and sympathy, an intensity of naturalistic observation (born of relentless study of 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. 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.
Furthermore, as was noted by Annibale’s biographer Carlo Cesare Malvasia, Ludovico also came in for criticism for allowing his young cousin to stray too far from the path of decorum. 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 c. 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 for 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 present Virgin at Prayer represents Annibale’s response to the attacks he endured over the Crucifixion. Its composition does not overturn the acceptable canon for depicting the Virgin, and the painting displays a respectful sense of decorum toward its subject. The Virgin, kneeling at a prie-dieu, clasps her hands in reverent contemplation of the open prayer book from which she reads. She is appropriately beautiful, reticent and full of humility, and the dry, chalky paint, the poetry of light enveloping her figure, the delicacy and tenderness of feeling conveyed by the fleet brushwork all signal that The Virgin at Prayer comes soon after Annibale visited Venice and discovered Titian; that is, around 1582/5, when the three Carracci embarked on the collective frieze decorations for the Palazzo Fava. The painting is in a beautiful state of preservation, enabling the viewer to fully appreciate the presence of the artist’s variety of touch and dexterity of brushwork, inspired by Titian, and the wide range of paint textures, iridescent glazes and dense white impasto in the veil and pages of the open book. The composition of The Virgin at Prayer is close to that of the Madonna from the Martello Collection in Florence (see D. Benati in M. Boskovits, ed., The Martello Collection, Further Paintings, drawings and Miniatures, 13th-18th Century, Florence, 1992, p. 116, cat. 42), although that painting is slightly earlier in date and displays the rougher manner of the Crucifixion of 1583.
The present painting bears marked similarities, however, to the larger, ambitious Annunciation, another recent rediscovery of a major, previously unknown work by Annibale, which was sold in these rooms (fig. 1); indeed the disposition of the Virgin, kneeling in prayer with the downward cast of her head, is remarkably close to the Virgin of The Annunciation, as is the chalky paint handling and slightly otherworldly illumination. To a greater degree than is found in The Annunciation, the prominently arched eyebrows and rounded eyelids of the Virgin in the present painting reflect the idealized physiognomic types found in Correggio’s early ‘Leonardesque’ Madonnas, seen through the lens of Ludovico Carracci and Federico Barocci; Annibale employs a similar facial type for the Virgin in his Holy Family in the Egerton Collection, Taton Park (fig. 2). Indeed, the parallels in physiognomies and handling establish beyond doubt that all three paintings were executed in quick succession, almost certainly not later than 1585.
Nothing is known of the painting’s earliest history, but it is first recorded in the mid-19th century hanging in the Palazzo Gnudi Scagliarini, a 16th-century Renaissance palace at 77, via Riva Reno in Bologna that was much altered and enlarged over the subsequent centuries.
Our thanks to Prof. Daniele Benati, Nicholas Turner and Keith Christiansen for examining the painting in person and confirming its attribution to Annibale Carracci.