Annibale o Agostino ? Il ‘caso’ della “Venere dormiente” di Chantilly (english text)


The Sleeping Venus

As I have argued, Agostino is behind the idea of the four pairs of cupids Eros and Anteros  who for Bellori were the key to the subject-matter of the Galleria: the drawing in Chicago on the back of Annibale’s study of the Tazza Farnese is clearly by the elder brother.

Chicago, Art InstituteTwo Cupids wrestling
verso of drawing with Drunken Silenus (Annibale) and a decorative border (Agostino)
Pen and brown ink 282 by 175 mm

Agostino seems to have had almost an obsession with cupids in his latter years, both in the frescoes in Parma but also in the Roman drawings and prints, where there are numerous supporters to coats of arms as well as the central figure of the 1599 print Omnia vincit amor. The cupids Agostino painted on Fulvio Orsini’s spinet are today split into two sections of the instrument cover in the National Gallery. Both the cupids and the Silenus there relate closely to the designs for the Tazza Farnese, and the idea of the weaving branches of the vine extend the intertwined stems of the border he invented for the silver dish. The drawing in Frankfurt for Two Satyr Children however is in three pieces, stuck together for a different effect, and although this might seem to be the product of a later association, and the opportunity to make a more complete study out of a couple of decorative putti, the landscape in between has every indication of being in the same hand, and is consistent with the background of landscapes like that of Agostino’s painting of Diana and Callisto at Merton. It is as though this was an extension of the composition to allow for another invention, and indeed this is the Sleeping Venus now at Chantilly, where there is a range of as many as twenty-eight cupids, all of them reminiscent of Agostino’s figures that are familiar from his drawings and prints.

Agostino Carracci Cupid bearing a Sword
Pen and brown ink on cream paper
206 by 144 mm
Agostino Carracci Cupid gathering Grapes; oil of panel (fragment) 36,1 by 19 cm London national Gallery
Agostino Carracci, Two satyrs gathering Grapes
Pen and brown ink and black ink over red chalk, three joined pieces of paper.
Frankfurt, Stadel Museum

The cupids in Venus’s bower have climbed higher but they are from the same inventive mind as those of the Tazza and Fulvio Orsini’s spinet. Whether sharpening an arrow or admiring himself in a mirror, the cupid beneath Venus is clearly of the same invention as the one on the left of the Parma ceiling of the Palazzo del Giardino, or the drawing for it in the Metropolitan Museum (detail) and the pair ‘making a marriage’ in Richard Symonds’s words[1] on the right of the Chantilly composition are closely related to the kind of cupids Agostino did in the 1600 Epithelium for the Aldondrandini / Farnese marriage in 1600, discovered recently by Stefano Colonna, or the single drawing of a Cupid bearing a Sword in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, or indeed the better known drawing at Windsor Castle of Venus, Vulcan and Cupid[2], which has her also reclining on a bed with a curtain behind.

Agostino Carracci, Venus Vulcan and Cupid Windsor Castle, Royal Collection
Pen and brown ink, brown was, real paper,
175 by 275 mm

The painting was actually executed by the most active of the assistants in the Carracci studio (and the one who was closest to Annibale)  at the turn of the century, Innocenzo Tacconi, and although it was celebrated early on by Agucchi’s encomium, published in full by Malvasia years later, it was not done by Annibale nor mainly invented by him. It does look as though the painting was the context of the disagreement between the two brothers, that if it started with some of the vivid and free brushwork that characterised his hand, it was for Annibale stifled by the affirmative classicism that his brother insisted upon now that he had shown that he could compete with him as a painter as well as an inventor.

Sleeping Venus, Chantilly, Musée Condé, oil on canvas, 190 by 328 cm

The Sleeping Venus [3] was a commission undertaken by the Carracci in Rome, and while it has always been difficult to distinguish separate contributions in their projects, it turns out to be a rather revealing collaboration. The learning and compositional framework, as well as the insistence on a range of cupids in every attitude, looks to be by Agostino, the formal invention of the main figure could have originated with Annibale, but actually seems to be a direct classical quotation, while the execution is almost wholly by Innocenzo Tacconi. The colouring of Annibale’s limbs with overlay of Greek form, sometimes rather harsh and lacking in subtlety, should give cause to think not only how much his character impacted on work in the Farnese Gallery, where it is much less easy to demonstrate who did what, and the extent to which this amanuensis is responsible for giving the impression of idealism to the late work of a master whose energies were by no means as charged as they had been in Bologna.

However much posterity has written off this evidently flawed personality, Innocenzo was patently valued by Annibale during the very period he undertook the most demanding  project of his life, and we must assume that his modus operandi was such as to be able to work with this assistant, almost hand in glove, while he was still physically able to meet the challenge, and collaborate in this most fruitful way with his brother and the other members of the Carracci team. It is only towards the end of this joint operation that the tensions really come to the surface: the impatience of the younger brother with the superior knowledge of the elder one, the growing presumption of the latter because he had finally won confidence to paint his own contributions to the great task where he had hitherto left Annibale to to the main courses, and gained wide admiration, and an increasing domination by the assistant that revealed his formulaic and somewhat facile ways of coping with the scale of the tasks the studio was supposed to fulfil.

Agostino Carracci Detail from the Frontispiece of Epithelium for the marriage of
Margherita Aldobrandini and Ranuccio Farnese, 1600

Annibale was depressive, and his mood after the completion of the Farnese ceiling made it difficult to work, even before the complete breakdown at the end of 1604. Odoardo had made his insulting payment, deducting the cost of the painters’ years-long stay in the attics of his palazzo, probably in 1601, when at least the ceiling had been completed. Baglione recounts  how after the completion of the work in the Farnese gallery Annibalesi avvilì, e diede in una grandissima malinconia, che poco mancò che no’l portasse a l’altra vita ...”

Carracci Studio Tobias Healing his Father’s Blindness
Oil on panel, 52.8 by 66.5 cm
Kassel, Staatliche Museen, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister

It is probably around this time Annibale took refuge with the Dutch merchant Balthasar Coymans, a very wealthy collector for whom Annibale provided a series of paintings of the Seven Acts of Mercy, of which the surviving Tobias healing his Father’s Blindness in Kassel seems to be painted entirely by an artist from his studio[4].

It was a time of great change: learning of the death of Agostino (March 22 1602) Annibale made his way to Bologna to take charge of his young nephew Antonio, returning with Ludovico as well. Although Malvasia’s claim that the latter retouched the whole of the Galleria on this visit is manifestly wrong, it has not so far been suggested that Odoardo may have looked to Ludovico to manage some of the projects that were now being thrust upon Annibale, but this idea could make sense.  Tacconi left for Bologna with Ludovico in the summer of 1602, and although he came back later, it was not to work for the new studio team that looked after Annibale.The much-repeated anecdote of Odoardo’s miserly payment for the labours of the Galleria is not accompanied by a real understanding of the events that could have led to his parsimonious recompense, but it must surely have something to do with the fact that Annibale was unable to complete the job, or was otherwise uncooperative so much so that both Giuseppe Cesari and the Alberti brothers seem to have been asked to provide designs for the walls, or complete what was originally planned. Fulvio Orsini might have been a continuing  source of literary and archaeological information, but he died in May 1600. The two main scenes that Agostino had done in the Galleria were in some quarters seen as eclipsing the rest, and Malvasia wrote [5] that it was said at court that the engraver had done much better than the painter. “Per esser Annibale di natura malinconico, et apprensivo molto, si aggravò tanto nel pensiero della sua disgratia, e cadde in humore di non più dipingere’.[6] Agostino also had “poca salute e indispositioni continue” (Bellori 112), was overweight, suffered from poor sight so that he had to wear glasses, for the physician Mancini said that he ‘pativa di asma o difficoltà di respirare et il lavorare a fresco gl’era inimicissimo’. Annibale’s health had obviously deteriorated even before he came to Rome, but the completion of the Galleria vault was a crisis from which he never recovered fully.  One of the assistants, Innocenzo Tacconi, on whom Annibale evidently depended,  had exacerbated the tensions between the brothers, and was perceived  (by the new arrivals from Bologna, Lanfranco, Guido Reni, Domenichino) as having an undue influence on his work. Malvasia relates  that  Annibale  “left alone without his learned brother, who directed the work and reduced his workload by half, lost his head and as a result shortened his life” [7]. Agostino’s health too was broken, and he left to a continuing decline ending after less than two years. This was a personal tragedy for both of them, Annibale was left in a state of extreme melancholy clearly even before the final breakdown of his health at the end of 1604 and spent the remaining years in Rome almost speechless and  unable to work, mesmerised by the extraordinary achievements that their collaboration had pushed him to. He was obsessed, according to Mancini, with claiming all the merit for the Farnese Galleryvoleva la gloria di quell’opera per se” and the good doctor underlined this in a later annotation “tutta la gloria” ; even though he was unable to complete it, or to repeat it. Whether or not his troubles were associated with amorous adventures – the disordini amorosi that Bellori speaks of (1672, p. 77), he was evidently depressive.

But one of the characteristics of the workshop that bore his name is that it failed to make public how much he had participated in a given commission: it was not revealed to clients how much of their paintings were actually painted by the man himself, even when he was quite unable to hold a brush. Altarpieces were painted and delivered without acknowledging that Annibale had not touched them.

Studio of Annibale Carracci, c. 1600 Madonna and Child with Saints Francis, Anthony and Dorothy canvas, 365 by 212 cm Duomo, Spoleto

During the period of the Galleria Tacconi seems to have played an ever more significant role in the work done for destinations outside Palazzo Farnese.He was deputed to do work in the Bombasi chapel (1599/1600), where Annibale’s altarpiece was only a copy made in Bologna by Lucio Massari of a part of a painting he had done a decade earlier for Reggio Emilia. The altarpiece supplied in 1598/99 for the Duomo in Spoleto, the Madonna and Child with Saints Francis, Anthony and Dorothy [8] was evidently almost entirely painted by the young assistant. The Cerasi Chapel Assunta was probably ordered at the same time as Caravaggio’s paintings in the autumn of 1600,  but was not yet in place in June 1601 (so after Tiberio Cerasi had died 6 May)  and perhaps not completed until 1602[9]; although Tacconi is usually credited with just the paintings surrounding the altarpiece, it is reasonable to suppose that he must have helped with the main picture too. All of the projects that Annibale undertook during this  period of the Farnese Gallery  were in some way compromised, as with the  major altarpiece of the Mass of St Gregory [10]  commissioned by Cardinal Salviati (who died in April 1602) for S. Gregorio al Celio and painted likely after the return from Bologna in 1602. Mancini reports this was done “con suo disegno e ritocco” and at least some of the drawings  were by Antonio Carracci.

Studio of Annibale Carracci, Madonna di Loreto,
San Onofio al Gianicolo Rome
Canvas, 250 by 150, c. 1604/05

The same was the case with the Pietà [11] in San Francesco a Ripa (now in the Louvre) that Albani says he (Annibale) ruined it as he was finishing it. This was installed in Fabio Mattei’s family chapel at Easter 1603; it was evidently a favour for Odoardo’ s courtier, and perhaps a votive gift in memory of his Farnese wife Faustina, who had died in 1594[12].  He really did need his brother to manage his work schedule. Malvasia says Tacco”i  had ‘troppo dominio sopra Annibale in Roma, onde lo reggesse, divoltasse, e faceva fare a suo modo[13], but the effect of this stylistic incursion has not really been measured. He needed someone to manage the commissions that the Carracci received, so Albani was employed to run the Herrera Chapel project (begun in 1602) where Annibale seems not to have contributed a single brushstroke, and also the lunettes for the Aldobrandini Chapel in the Corso, which were under way only by 1605. The same happened with the altarpiece of the Madonna di Loreto  for the Madruzzo Chapel in Sant’ Onofrio[14], which was completed in 1605 without any participation of the master himself.  In a way the garish colours, that characterised even the lost Mass of St Gregory, came to replace the brilliance of Annibale’s freer brushwork, which had always been an obstacle for some of the connoisseurs who admired Carracci productions.

Studio of Annibale Carracci. c. 1602 Mass of St Gregory, canvas 265 by 152 cm
Formerly London, Bridgewater House (destroyed in WW II)

In reality although Tacconi is usually perceived as an unimportant artistic personality following the bad press he got, his collaboration with the Carracci was a high point in his own career, and we should recognise the results as being quite out of the league of his own personal creations, as we know them from work done subsequently. Few have discussed the contribution he made to the Galleria, but he is an important presence during the entire period it was painted, and had an increasing part in the work Annibale had outside it. The stepson of Ludovico’s sister Prudenzia, he is first recorded in Rome in 1598, when work on the ceiling began, and the connection with Ludovico might even indicate an attempt to provide a useful hand from the Carracci firm in Bologna to work productively with Annibale, resulting in the work on the Farnese Galleria getting going – finally. It cannot have been a wholly negative partnership if it resulted in such industry.The period of his influence was rather crucial: his presence coincided with the beginning of work on the Galleria, and his dominating collaboration with Annibale continued at least until 1600/01; he accompanied the master in a trip to Caprarola in May 1601 to work with him on a Pietà, and probably until 1602. So he must have been involved closely in the Galleria itself although there perhaps the proximity of Annibale himself means that it has so far been impossible to see where his handiwork lies. He evidently felt that he knew his master and became increasingly overbearing in his interpretation of his designs, making him inaccessible to others. Since there had always been a measure of ‘correction’ to his work, Annibale was used to interference; here was an instance of someone who understood his shorthand and built his drawings, which tended to be for single figures, into meaningful compositions.  It is worth considering the impact of this personality because it is obvious he got on well with Annibale and this was the most productive period in the latter’s entire career. The level of his actual participation was actually very relevant, because his brushwork rather than design was so important; but this was always left ambiguous at best and completely indistinguishable in the majority of the work. There is a certain stylistic continuity over the four years of their work together, and we could even deduce that there was an increasing efficiency in his use of his designs, but towards a less sensitive interpretation of the almost impressionistic brushwork that had been the hallmark of his success. It is obvious that there was a major interruption in service, as it were, when Annibale returned from Bologna with Antonio: the disaffection, we can only imagine, was probably brought about by the news of Agostino’s death in March 1602, an event that had a finality that he took badly.  We know that Annibale was profoundly depressed well before his health gave way completely, and it must have been traumatic to realise the effect of Tacconi’s intrigues towards his brother and that he was now on his own, facing the cumulative demands of the Farnese household.

But one of the most interesting works that came out of this collaboration is perhaps one of the least studied, the Sleeping Venus now at Chantilly, Musée Condé which has long been regarded as executed by Innocenzo[15].  The terms of the Duc d’Aumale’s bequest in 1884 meant that the painting cannot be lent, as so it has not been seen in the context of the post-war exhibitions.  It is well-known that it was hanging in the Palazzetto Farnese as early as 1644, but in reality we do not know if that was its original location although this has always been assumed to be the case. The Palazzetto, a  pavilion on the other side of the Via Giulia, was built for Odoardo Farnese from mid-1602: the bridge that joins the main building to the other side on the road was planned in 1602, but not actually constructed until 1604. The main decorations of the open loggia on the ground floor, the three frescoes Domenichino did of Venus and Adonis, Apollo and Hyacinth and Narcissus, would not be done until 1604/05, so the rooms upstairs on the first floor were probably done after that period too. The decorations that we know from the inventories, particularly that of 1644[16], and Richard Symonds’s description around 1650, that were done by the scolari di Annibale, correspond with some of the paintings described in the later 1662 Farnese inventory[17].  These included the nineteen landscapes around a central figure of Apollo in the main room, the allegorical figures of Night and Day now at Chantilly with the Sleeping Venus. But the other paintings on the walls, including Agostino’s Arrigo peloso, Amon motto, Pietro matto, the little painting also by him of Europa and the Bull  (private collection, on loan to the National Galleries of Scotland) and the Brussels Diana and Actaeon  that I have suggested should be restored to Agostino’s authorship, must predate the decorative scheme for the walls, which also were hung with a series of earlier portraits of the royal family of Portugal. It does look as though the real decorations of the walls had already been dispersed before 1644, and indeed even the little chapel there on the first floor by that date was evidently reduced to a toilet.

Landscape with Diana and Callisto Mertoun, Duke of Sutherland collection

The presence in the 1662 inventory, among the paintings apparently coming from the scola dei Carracci, of what was evidently a version of the Bologna Toilet of Venus [18] suggests that this was where it and perhaps its companion, the Mertoun Landscape with Diana and Callisto hung, and gives the impression that this suite of rooms was indeed the setting of the most important series of Carraccesque landscapes, but not the original location of the paintings hanging on the walls. These paintings seem to represent an overflow from other locations in the Palazzo Farnese itself, without any common denominator or even reference to the ceiling paintings that were, in contrast, evidently designed for that location, in a period when Annibale’s health had collapsed. The Sleeping Venus was by far the most imposing picture in these small rooms, and its scale relates more to that of the paintings in the Galleria, the subject to the loves of the Gods celebrated there, its elaborate literary  background to the intellectual input of Agostino,

Sleeping Venus Chantilly, Musée Condé
oil on canvas, 190 by 328 cm

who was not only famous for his representation of Venus, but also seems to have been obsessed, in his later years, with cupids, of which the Chantilly painting shows no less than twenty-eight. It was not just that these ball boys and girls were so useful as supporters to the engravings that Agostino had made for coats of arms, title pages of epithelia and the taming of Pan in the Omnia vincit amor theme (in Bologna as well as in the 1599 engraving) that in many ways epitomises the Galleria subject-matter, they had been a running theme with variations among the supporting figures that punctuated the various interiors the Carracci had done. As quadratura, this was what Carraccesque decoration was about, and in designing the surround to the Tazza Farnese, he had found further employment for these cupids climbing the vines, as a kind of parenthesis for the central figure group with the Drunken Silenus that Annibale had invented with his usual facility. For Fulvio Orsini Agostino had extended their territory to the spinet cover, now in the National Gallery, and he pasted together their antics with a landscape prospect in the drawing in Frankfurt Two Satyr Children Picking Grapes , (illustrated above) emblazoned on the cover of the 2000 exhibition catalogue in Washington, DC, dedicated to the drawings of Annibale Carracci. But as has become clear, this draughtsmanship is typical of Agostino, and it is characteristic of the happy collaboration of the two brothers that Agucchi describes, that this should be the origin of the framing design of the large Sleeping Venus. The drawing in Frankfurt is in three pieces, stuck together for a different effect, and although this might seem to be the product of a later association, and the opportunity to make a more complete study out of a couple of decorative putti,  the landscape in between has every indication of being in the same hand, and is consistent with the background of landscapes like that of the Diana and Callisto at Mertoun.

So the design of the Sleeping Venus is in reality more closely connected with Agostino’s work in Rome than that of his brother.

It is no accident that the arbor that he invented for the Tazza Farnese is developed into its elaborate framing motif, and the vine in the drawing in Frankfurt used for the cupids on the Orsini spinet cover obviously anticipates Venus’s shady nook. In a way, Agostino’s managerial concern with quadratura  or the layout of the ceiling, which was I think vital for that project, extends into this painting  as part of the invention itself – even though in this case he did not paint it. It is a surround subject, and the content full of the learning that he wanted to introduce into the idiom of modern painting. And the level of preparation, to judge from the drawings, was exacting, to the extent that they have in the past been mistaken for copies after the finished work. The landscape, leading up to the distant scolloped hillside, follows the pattern of other Agostino designs, with the solid feature of the tree trunks and simple bands of light and dark towards the horizon.  No coincidence either that the frieze-like impression of the figures is closely related to the two principal scenes Agostino painted in the Galleria, where he also uses the weightless forms of flying cupids to give the impression of a painted equivalent of a classical relief. If Annibale had started the painting, in the spirit of collaboration that according to Agucchi had worked sweetly in the Galleria, he baulked at continuing and left it to his assistant to complete even as the author of the design gave up and left him to struggle on in Rome on his own.

The Venus is the subject of Agucchi’s lengthy Descrizione that was secured by Malvasia and published by him in the Felsina Pittrice. It is an exceptional document, and an advertisement for the kind of classicism that would be associated – by people like Bellori and the French academic movement – with Annibale’s role in energising the revival of painting with a lot of intellectual input, from the Antique and celebrating the Renaissance masters who were seen as his direct predecessors. How much of Agucchi’s account is just a literary exercise, descriptive of but not evocative of what he saw ? It is a rhetorical essay full of praise, but even though he claims to have taken away a drawing after the painting it is singular how it does not capture its spirit. And there are a number of interesting inconsistencies in Agucchi’s account, almost suggesting that it was a different painting that he saw. For he saw a painting on panel[19],  (referring three times to tavola) and although the dimensions are quite consistent with the work now at Chantilly, his account of the fluent brushwork is belied by the very tight appearance of the painting today, usually explained by the idea that it was completed by the assistant who had Annibale’s ear in the quarrel with Agostino, Innocenzo Tacconi. Agucchi also mentions that Annibale worked entirely without drawings, “con somma celerità e senza che disegno alcuno preceda“, while the handful of surviving drawings are actually unusually close to the final design.

Sleeping Venus, Frankfurt, Stadel Museum
279 by 379 mm pen and brown ink over black chalk heighten ed with white

Both the pose of Venus herself in the drawing in Frankfurt, and the twenty-one cupids in the Windsor study of the left hand half of the composition, anticipate the final design in a way unprecedented in all the preparatory drawings for the Farnese Gallery – except the cartoons that Agostino did for his two scenes either side the of the Triumph of BacchusAgucchi, perhaps surprisingly, does not refer to the inspiration taken from the antique – the Vatican Sleeping Ariadne that is a convincing source for the Venus, for the painting is usually regarded as one of the key works in Annibale’s conversion to a new classicism, with which the writer of the Descrizione is closely associated. And it is a paradox that Agucchi apparently admired the extraordinary freshness and naturalism of Annibale’s familiar manner, which is so signally absent in the finished painting, where it is  actually really hard to find passages that are stylistically characteristic of his brushwork.

Vatican Museums, Galleria delle Statue Sleeping Minerva (‘’Ariadne Sleeping’) Roman copy of a Hellenistic original

If Agucchi was not privy to the creative mind behind the invention, it must indicate how secretive the Carracci studio was in revealing who did what in their decorations. We should also consider that although Agucchi says that the painting was unfinished, “non intieramente da lui stato a perfezione ridotto” it was all but “era nondimeno a cotale termine di finimento arrivato, che poco pareva, che desiderare gli si potesse“, and indeed the sheer amount of detail that he describes leaves us in little doubt that it was mainly as we see it today at Chantilly. Is it really contemporary with the Galleria and one of those paintings that the intellectual Agostino projected ? there is no reference in the Descrizione of any verbal exchange with Annibale himself, as if he was not present to explain, and it looks as though this work was unfinished when his brother left in the summer of 1600.

Silvia Ginzburg, among others, has already suggested that the presence of the Sleeping Venus in the Palazzetto Farnese should not be regarded as evidence that it was painted at the late date of the construction of the building: Agucchi’s famous description, published by Malvasia, is referred to by the author himself in a  letter of April 1603, but while it has generally been assumed that the autumn referred to in the text is that of the previous year, the interior in which the Sleeping Venus eventually hung was almost certainly not yet built at the time, and the painting must be a piece done for one of the other camerini that in fact Agucchi refers to in his brief account of the work done at Palazzo Farnese[20].  It certainly must have been inspired by Titian’s Garden of Venus that had arrived in Rome in 1598 as part of Pietro Aldobrandini’s booty from Lucrezia d”Este’s inheritance, but its literary source in Philostratus’s Imagines and the more recondite Epithelium of Palladias and Celerina by Claudian[21] suggest that it was Agostino’s learning that led to the elaborate and demanding narrative that the painter was supposed to follow, and the research that led him to echo the Vatican Sleeping Minerva in the pose of Venus herself.  He was also doubtless the source for the Farnese impresa illustrated by the  cupids shooting arrows at the target in the background [22], that Anne Brookes has shown is borrowed from Odoardo’s late uncle, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. Tacconi’s material execution of the canvas has been argued consistently since Tietze over a century ago, and seems to make sense in terms of his stylistic characteristics – when his work was closely monitored by the Carracci. The painting singularly is missing that colorito soave of the neo-Correggiesque paintings done for Bombasi around the turn of the century, and the rich and oily impasto  that seems the natural continuation of Annibale’s bravura. The collaboration between them was evidently pretty successful, and it may be that it is the origin of the ‘classicising’ element in Annibale’s late work, or instead the domination of his brother’s artistic idealism.

It has already been suggested (by Ann S. Harris[23]) that the ink contours of the Frankfurt drawing, and the alternative pose of Venus sketched there, are not by Annibale, but an addition (one could almost say edition) by another hand, possibly Tacconi’s. And the articulation in the ink of the knuckles is indeed rather similar to those attributed to Tacconi in the Windsor drawing identified by Brogi in his article [24] on Annibale’s right-hand man [25] .The need to arrive at the outlines, to choose the final contours of figures planned for execution by others in paintings, is a regular feature of many Carraccesque studies, and the consideration that these studies for the Venus have such a finality, that they correspond so closely with the finished painting,  should alert us to this reality. They are at an advanced stage of production, but represent a more emphatic interpretation of the original charcoal study, with a more pronounced ‘Greek’ profile that inevitably colours the original idea. When we remove some of the ‘hard’ pen and ink outlines, we can see that the charcoal underdrawing is by no means as definitive, and the additional pen and ink studies left and right are attempts to make a practical design for Venus’s pose in the painting, by the hand responsible for her outlines. The foundation of the design represented by the charcoal underdrawing is by no means as affirmative, for it is much slighter and as rather different  from the vigorous pencil studies, with much emphasis and re-statements of Annibale’s authentic drawings for example for the fresco Tacconi painted for the top of the Coronation of the Virgin in the Bombasi chapel, and other late works like those for the recurring Pietà theme. There are few pen and ink studies by Annibale (it was not his preferred medium), like that associated with the Chantilly Archangel Gabriel, or the rapid sketch for a Danae that was to be painted (the work that was at Bridgewater House in London was destroyed in the War) in fact by the studio, perhaps Albani. Annibale’s way with even with a pen too  was mostly much more undisciplined, not to say impatient, while his usual medium of pencil / charcoal gave him much more freedom to explore nuances of light. By contrast the penned outline of Venus’s back turns out to give her a less sensuous profile than for instance of Venus in the Prado Venus and Adonis  (1588/90) or the Uffizi Venus, a Satyr and Two Cupids (1588) even though there Annibale was said to have used Ludovico’s backside as his model.  Instead these drawings we do know for the Venus, the one in Frankfurt, another in Windsor[26] and a third in Paris, Louvre [27] represent the challenge faced by Annibale in fulfilling the increasingly articulated detailed demands to follow a precise design.

Cupids Windsor, Royal Library Pen and brown ink over black chalk 233 by 265 mm

And so accurately do the Cupids in the Windsor drawing for the left half correspond to the finished painting that they have even been mistaken for copies after it. Their heavily inked contours are characteristic of Tacconi’s  hand. These are the Amori that we recognise from many Agostino designs,  “tutti per lo più alla misura  d’un fanciullino  ben formato, non s’impediscono dagli uni le operationi degli altri[28]. They are the successors not only of the Cupids in designs like the Last Communion of St Jerome (finished just before he came to Rome) the Amor vincit omnia print of 1599, but also of a career supplying endlessly varied poses in the supporting ball-boys and girls of Palazzo Magnani and Fava, which he would continue to coin in variations in the design for the Tazza Farnese and afterwards in Parma.

Agostino Carracci Amor vincit omnia
Etching, 1599

Two have echoes of Michelangelo, like the boy raising himself up the bank with one leg lifted, which Agostino had already quoted in his tempera landscape in the Pitti (and also in the medallion of Hero and Leander in the Farnese Gallery). The drawings started evidently, as Martin perceived, with light charcoal forms, later heavily outlined in ink, to make the transition to a cartoon. This commission was effectively the battleground of Annibale’s fight with his brother, the pelo nell’ovo that he had to insist on, for the classical sources that he was so attached to, when his brother dispensed even with the formality of preparatory studies. The painting is thus yet another of the instances where Annibale’s original vital creativity was cramped by the doubtless patronising perception of his colleagues that it needed to be tamed and tightened up, something that even happened with the San Francesco a Ripa Pietà that Albani complained was spoiled by late modifications, where Tacconi (or Panico) may yet again have intervened to reduce the painterliness that Agucchi also had seen in that painting, or simply finished it because of the difficulty of getting the master to apply himself to the task in hand.  The prevalence of the interferences in Annibale’s work, outside the Galleria itself, going beyond the ‘corrections’ that his colleagues contributed, are an indication of the fatigue that had already set in, and confirm the physical collapse that Mancini refers to after the completion of that work. Was Agucchi really appreciative of the naturalism that is one of the characteristics we most associate with the work of Annibale in Bologna ? did he really approve of the unfinished ‘Venetian’ quality of his handling, that the Carracci studio had been used to tidying up?  Ellis Waterhouse found that Annibale‘s fancy was numbed by the encounter with the classical remains of Rome, for this work was then seen as a prominent instance of his ‘new style’. But we should ask ourselves how much this really due to the need to continue the fiction of his material continuation after the Galleria ceiling was completed, a conspiracy of the band of Bolognese pupils who surrounded the artist in his decline to extract the most from his magic palette, with the help of intellectuals like Agucchi who admired the literary zeal of Agostino seen through the imagery that his brother laid over it., and then dealers who wanted to maximise the amount of material that they could describe as Annibale’s. The veneer of ‘classicism’ that Tacconi gave to the Chantilly painting, undoubtedly the most important work that he was entrusted with, shows how much he was the purveyor of the ‘hyper-idealism’ that Annibale’s late work has been labeled with, while the genuine classicism that is behind the invention is the result not of Annibale’s curiosity for the marbles of ancient Rome, but of Agostino’s wide-ranging culture. It would explain some of the contradictions that have long made it difficult to reconcile Annibale’s innate naturalism with a more intellectual succession, a powerful new creative industry at precisely the time of his physical decline. Annibale was not the only artist to survive long after his prime and be kept as a standard bearer of the workshop that sheltered him in decine.

Agostino Carracci, Last Communion of St Jerome, 1592/97
Bologna, Pinacoteca

We do not see evidence of Tacconi’s collaboration after this point in mid-1602; out of favour with everybody, he left with Ludovico when the latter returned to Bologna, leaving the studio to the new arrivals from Bologna. The main stylistic continuity was actually assured not by new arrivals like Reni, Domenichino and Albani, but by Agostino’s son Antonio, who had been in Rome with his father before he left in 1600, and returned with Annibale (and Ludovico) in the summer of 1602. The new people on his block were pupils of his late brother: Domenichino, who arrived in Rome at the moment of greatest pressure; he had hardly worked with him before, for he had joined the Accademia degli Incamminati at the age of fourteen, in 1595 and so had been taught by Ludovico and Agostino: equally  the even younger Lanfranco and Badalocchio (arriving in 1602)  were seen as the pupils principally of  the elder brother[29] having also followed him to Parma, while Albani and Reni were already independent and practising on their own when they arrived in Rome in 1601. Tacconi does not seem to have returned to his native town, but his subsequent career seems to be independent of the Carracci studio. It was Antonio who was the main badante now; his father had taken him away when he left in 1600 as Mancini relates[30]  – un fanciulletto, a teenager in modern parlance, and now perhaps nineteen[31], and we see his hand already in some of the drawings for the Mass of St Gregory.  Despite the absence of a complete plan for the rest of the Galleria, there were evidently designs in the studio that could in some way represent a continuity with what had come before, and several of them relate to compositions that come from Agostino. The drawings he left behind  in the studio were relevant to the new generation of Carracci students because he had been their principal teacher, and they were more educational than many of Annibale’s vivid sketches. But the ‘classical’ imagery that had manifested itself during the collaboration with Tacconi was over, and there is none of his work in projects such as the Herrera Chapel at San Diego degli Spagnoli, which was initiated, as we now know, as early as 1602.

The principal reward of Agostino’s ardentissimo amore di sapere, as Bellori described it, was that he was able to articulate visual interpretations of mythological stories, and root out obscure classical sources with his antiquarian friends. Most iconography outside Christian themes had previously been concerned with the attributes and symbols that literary patrons were satisfied to read as an emblematic language: the Carracci introduced a much more sophisticated language of forms in motion, of expressions  and gestures that spoke volumes especially when they had at hand the quite extraordinary gifts of Annibale in being able to capture expression. The combination was stunning, Agostino was a ‘genio straordinario, che teneva al disegno’ and his interest in classical antiquity was a thread that was rewarded with incredibly lively recreations from texts like Ovid’s, often left quite dry and void of detail, but came to life because Annibale had such astonishing visual imagination. Keeping him on the straight and narrow was Agostino, for Mancini a man of singular ability who had a long track record of invention, direction and teaching. And the continuing impact of his designs is evident not only in the work of his son Antonio, but also in numerous quotations that were more incisive than the brilliantly creative brushwork of his brother. But it is paradoxical that although Agucchi evidently saw the Venus while it was still unfinished, it was still an Annibale Carracci production as far as the outside world was concerned, even Agucchi was not privy to the creative process through which the Carracci firm arrived at their designs. 

Clovis WHITFIELD    London April 2018


[1] a boy and a girle naked making a marriage, the girle has Venus slippers on’  see A. Brookes, Richard Symonds’s notes on his visit to Rome 1649/50, Walpole Society, Vol 69, 2007, p. 84
[2] C. Robertson & C. Whistler Drawings by the Carracci from British Collections, London, Oxford, 1996/97, No. 49; Wittkower, 1952, No. 101
[3] Canvas, 190 by 328 cm  D. Posner, Annibale Carracci, 1971, No. 134, p. 59/61
[4] oil on poplar panel, 52,8 by 66,5 cm. See J. Bikker, ‘Balthasar Coyman’s Italian Paintings and Annibale Carracci’ in  Collected Opinions, Essays on Netherlandish Art in Honour of Alfred Bader, London, 2004, 26-33.Bikker traces the history of the series to the collector who was in Rome in the early seventeenth century, and who was well-known to Joachim von Sandrart. Only the Kassel painting  from the Seven Acts has so far been identified.
[5] 1841, I, p. 404 ‘ e correva quel proverbio, già detto, per la corte: portarsi assai meglio l’intagliatore del pittore’ . The già detto is in 1678 404 ‘correa voce, nella Galleria l’Intagliatore assai meglio del Pittore portarsi’
[6] Bellori, Vite, 1672, 67/68
[7] 296  solo e senza il dotto fratello che gli dirigeva il lavoro e li dimezzava la fatica, ebbe a perdersi il cervello come vi si accorciò la vita
[8] Canvas, 364 by 211 cm . D. Posner, Annibale Carracci, 1971, II, cat. no. 109. The chapel was completed in 15
[9] For long the view prevailed that it had been delivered before Tiberio Cerasi died (7 May 1601); but there is no mention of it in 1601 alongside the Caravaggio’s, and it is more reasonable to agree with Benati that it was not delivered until he spring of 1602 (D.Benati, Annibale Carracci, catalogue, 2006/07. p. 200)
[10]  Canvas, 265 by 152, formerly at Bridgewater House, London, destroyed in WW II. Posner, II,  No. 130. p. 57/58
[11] Canvas, 277 by 187 cm
[12] She was the last child of Giulia Farnese.
[13] 1841, I, p. 404
[14] Canvas, 250 by 150 cm. Posner, II, o. 151.  The altarpiece dates from c. 1604/05, the chapel being completed during the latter year.
[15] A. Brogi, ‘Innocenzo Tacconi, e l’officina classicista: Un eredità dilapidata’  Paragone, 1998,  p. 26-57
[16] B. Jestaz, L’inventaire du Palais et des propriétés Farnèse à Rome en 1644, Ecole française de Rome, 1994, p. 135/137.
[17] Filangieri di Candida……**********
[18] ibid…*** It may be this picture that R. Symonds saw ‘ Another of Diana Bathing’ in the Palazzetto see Brookes, op. cit., Walpole Society, V. 69, 2007, p. 84, rather than the Diana and Actaeon now in Brussels.
[19] Summerscale’s admirable translation of this passage in the Felsina Pittrice does not pick up on this anomaly, referring only to ‘canvas’. Some of Agucchi’s descriptions give the impression he was looking at an engraving of the painting, for the equivocation of left and right.
[20] D. Mahon, Studies in Seicento Iconography, 1947.
[21] see G. Dunphy Wind, Annibale Carracci’s ‘Sleeping Venus’ a source in Claudian’ in Source” Notes in the History of Art’, X, 1991, p. 37-39
[22] See A. Brookes, ‘ A Farnese impresa in Annibale Carracci’s Sleeping Venus’, in Burlington Magazine, v 140, 1998, p. 676-69
[23] Review of The Drawings of Annibale Carracci, in Master Drawings, XLIII, No 4, 2005, p. 529
[24] A. Brogi, Innocenzo Tacconi e l’officina classicista: un eredità dilapidata, Paragone, Arte, XLVI, nuova serie, 49 (549) Jan. 199, p. 27-57.
[25] But it ought to be noted that the ink outlines are just as forceful when as with the single  drawing  for a cupid in the Louvre (Inv 7303 term, Posner 1971 II, Pl. 134c) there is no chalk accompaniment.
[26] R. Wittkower, The Drawings of the Carracci in the Collection of H.M The Queen at Windsor Castle, London, 1952, p 147, No. 358, Fig 51;  J. R. Martin, Drawings by Annibale Carracci for the Sleeping Venus,Master Drawings, V. 2, No. 2, 1964, p. 160-163, 214/215,
[27] Published first by Martin, loc. cit., this is Louvre, Cabinet des Dessins, Inv. 7303 ter. , Loisel, , No. 547
[28] From Agucchi’s  Descrizione.… Malvasia 1841 ed., I p. 360
[29] Mancini says the Duke Ranuccio sent them to Rome to be aiuti di bottega to Annibale in Palazzo Farnese; Domenichino was staying initially with Cardinal Sfondrati at Santa Prassede, like Guido Reni, and then with the Agucchi brothers.
[30]  Mancini (Considerazioni, I, p. 218) specifically says that Agostino left Rome with his son, ‘to whom he could only instil a natural inclination to art’. The idea promoted in M. Pirondini, E. Negro and N. Roio’s Antonio Carracci (2007) that he was born in 1593 does not stand scrutiny: as L. Sickel has pointed out ‘Il testamento di Antonio Carracci e il Diluvio universale per Bernardo de’ Franchi’ in Nuova luce su Annibale Carracci, ed S. Ebert Schifferer & S. Ginzburg, p. 262/63, the document relating to his marriage papers in 1615 does not say he was twenty-three then but merely that he had arrived in Rome thirteen years before. It is still likely that Antonio was born in the early 1580s, the result of his liaison with the Venetian courtesan Isabella. and that he was already in Rome in 1600 when Agostino finally departed.
[31]  Mancini (Considerazioni, I, p. 218) specifically says that Agostino left Rome with his son, ‘to whom he could only instil a natural inclination to art’. The idea promoted in E. Negro and N. Roio’s Antonio Carracci (20 ***) that he was born in 1593 does not stand scrutiny: as L. Sickel has pointed out ‘Il testamento di Antonio Carracci e il Diluvio universale per Bernardo de’ Franchi’ in Nuova luce su Annibale Carracci, ed S. Ebert Schifferer & S. Ginzburg, p. 262/63, the document relating to his marriage papers in 1615 does not say he was twenty-three then but merely that he had arrived in Rome thirteen years before. It is still likely that Antonio was born in the early 1580s, the result of his liaison with the Venetian courtesan Isabella. and that he was already in Rome in 1600 when Agostino finally departed.