Ludovico Carracci (1555–1619) remains the most underappreciated of the great founders of Baroque art. It was not always so, particularly in Bologna, where it was a matter of civic pride to prefer Ludovico to his younger, more widely admired cousin Annibale Carracci (1560–1609). Unlike Annibale, who became a protagonist of Roman painting, Ludovico made only a short, uneventful trip to the papal city in 1602, and his art, unlike Annibale's, continued to favor the great north Italian painters Correggio, Parmigianino, Titian, and Tibaldi over Raphael and Michelangelo and the example of ancient art. He was, nonetheless, a master of what later generations came to call the "grand manner." Indeed, in his second Discourse, Joshua Reynolds put forward Ludovico as the paradigm of the artist whose command of style enabled him to convey whatever conceptions or sentiments he sought: "And in this Ludovico Carracci (I mean in his best works) appears to me to approach the nearest to perfection. His unaffected breadth of light and shadow, the simplicity of his colouring, which, holding its proper rank, does not draw aside the least part of the attention from the subject and the solemn effect of that twilight which seems diffused over his pictures, appear to me to correspond with grave and dignified subjects, better than the more artificial brilliancy of sunshine which enlightens the pictures of Titian." Our primary information on the artist is the biography found in Carlo Cesare Malvasia’s Felsina pittrice
(1678)—now available in English in Anne Summerscale’s critical edition of 2000.
Together with Annibale and Agostino Carracci, Ludovico was a driving force in the reform of painting and in his works of the 1580s promoted a naturalism based on the study of the great protagonists of Lombard painting as well as a careful study from the model. The fresco cycles in Palazzo Fava (1584) and Palazzo Magnani (1592), undertaken by Ludovico, Annibale, and Agostino together, are landmarks of European painting. The Met owns an early, experimental work by Ludovico (2000.68
) that exemplifies the Carracci reform. What was unique to him was his emphasis on and exploration of expressivity. This factor varied widely depending on the subject. Thus, his Flagellation of Christ
(ca. 1584; Musée de la Chartreuse, Douai) plays on grotesque realism and is violently expressive while his altarpiece of the Madonna and Child with Angels and Saints
for the Bargellini family (1588; Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna) is all tenderness and refinement. Over the course of the 1590s, Ludovico’s work takes on a more abstracting tendency, his compositions conforming not to a conventional template of classical grandeur but achieving an intensely expressive effect through a conscious manipulation of scale and characterization of the figures. His frescoes in the dome of the cathedral of Piacenza (unveiled in 1608) must be counted among the most original works of the entire seventeenth century. In his rejection of the naturalism that had informed his earlier paintings, Ludovico’s late works can have an almost visionary quality about them. It is to this phase that the Denial of Saint Peter
belongs. (It has been described by the leading scholar of Ludovico, Alessandro Brogi, as “difficult and not particularly pleasing . . . but not without a dark fascination—as though from a Gothic tale.”) The Met’s collection is fortunate to possess three works by the artist that illustrate his complex artistic personality and his exploration of an often unpredictable, sometimes superficially unappealing, but always deeply expressive style.The Picture:
The apostle Peter is shown warming his feet in the courtyard of the palace of the high priest Caiaphas, as recounted in the gospels: Mark (14:53–72), Luke (22:54–65), and John (18:12–27). He is depicted as though figuratively and literally thrown off balance when accused of being a follower of Jesus. His hands are raised in a combination of surprise and denial at the accusation of the beautiful young woman. Identified in the gospels as a maid of the high priest, she is seductively garbed in pink, her hair elaborately done up, her sash trailing behind her as she advances toward the apostle, her finger raised in an accusing gesture. A group of soldiers and a youth (probably a page) are piled up at the left of the picture, their compressed poses—especially the seated figure at the left—and varied gestures creating an almost claustrophobic effect. (The gospel of Luke remarks that it was the soldiers who kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard.) The oversize centurion standing guard with a spear provides a grim counterpoint to the mood of agitated excitement in the foreground. The way that, in pulling back his left leg, Peter has inadvertently dropped his sandal, is an example of the felicity of Ludovico's imagination and his ability to introduce an anecdotal detail into the elevated language of his narration. In these two figures Ludovico sets in deliberate counterpoint, or contrapposto, two components of his style: on the one hand, an unaffected Lombard style ("quella inerudita semplicità lombarda") and, on the other, central Italian elegance. The intentional awkwardness of Saint Peter (who, as a fisherman, was "inerudito," or illiterate, in the literal sense of the word) could not be further removed from the artifice of the servant's pose, an obvious homage to Parmigianino, whose work Ludovico greatly admired. The scene is set in an enclosed space with a portico opening onto a distant vista. The view is one of Ludovico's most magical, moonlit scenes, with the buildings cloaked in darkness while, above, the moon shimmers in a cloud-streaked sky. A statue in an ad locutio
pose suggests that what we see is the courtyard of Pilate's palace, where Christ was subsequently taken for judgment. Indeed, beneath the arcade at the back of the courtyard we can see Christ being led by figures carrying torches.The Style:
In the Denial of Saint Peter
, Ludovico explores a realm of the imagination in which the expressive "truth" at the core of the story is conveyed by means of a personal, even quirky and abstracting visual language, one that verges on a sort of neo-Gothicism in its manipulation of space for expressive effects, the liberties taken with scale, and the compositional horror vacui. The poetic language Ludovico employs was shaped by his profound sense of identity as a Lombard artist and his intense feeling for the "grazia" and "bellezza" (elegant grace and beauty) he found in the work of Parmigianino. To no less a degree the picture manifests Ludovico's wonderful ability to draw up enriching contrasts and contrapposti: the torch-lit figures played against the moonlit background; the impastoed treatment of the sputtering fire and smooth surface of the rich attire of the woman's dress; the comical aside of the rooster, whose strained crow offers a counterpoint to Saint Peter's agitated rebuttal of the maiden's accusation. Alessandro Brogi (2016) has convincingly argued that the picture is a late work of about 1616.The Patron:
The picture was commissioned by Alessandro Tanari (1549–1639), an avid patron of Ludovico from the beginning of his career until the artist’s death. Tanari was intent on moving up the social ladder in Bologna, with the goal of joining the oligarchy of senators—a hereditary office, the number of which had been set at fifty by Sixtus V (as part of the Papal States, Bologna was, in effect, ruled by a legate appointed by the pope with the tacit approval of the senate). He finally achieved his goal in 1628, after more than two decades of persistent campaigning. In 1608 Alessandro was still living in Strada Maggiore, in the western part of Bologna, but in June 1612—the year after he acquired his position as papal treasurer and the title of Count of Piavolo—he rented a house in via Galliera, obviously with a view to a new residence. He chose as his architect Nicolò Donati, who was engaged contemporaneously in the rebuilding of the nearby cathedral of S. Pietro. (Tanari was a member of the fabbrica
of the church, for which Ludovico would paint his last work.) Although the palace was completed only in 1671, from the outset Alessandro must have been thinking of its furnishings and the way his expanding collection would look in its rooms. Thus, paintings such as the Denial of Saint Peter
were probably painted with a view to placement in the projected palace (for which, see below).
It may be doubted that any Bolognese collection offered a finer survey of Ludovico's work than the one Tanari assembled. At his death he owned no fewer than thirteen pictures by the artist. These ranged from copies after Titian's Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence
(Church of the Gesuati, Venice) and Parmigianino's Madonna of the Rose
(Gemaldegalerie, Dresden; then in the Zani collection, Bologna)—works painted at an early moment in Ludovico's career—to religious and mythological pictures dating from the artist's maturity. Over the years, Tanari must have developed an extremely close relationship with the artist. Evidently to commemorate his marriage to Diana Barbieri on January 13, 1589, he commissioned an exquisite painting on copper showing the marriage of the Virgin (perhaps the version in the National Gallery, London). Put into a silver frame decorated with the crests of the Tanari and Barbieri families, it hung in the bedroom of "la signora Diana." It was to Ludovico that Alessandro Tanari entrusted three canvases with episodes from the life of his namesake Alexander the Great: the Birth of Alexander
, Alexander and the Wife of Darius
, and Alexander and Thaïs
. Hung alternatively as chimneypieces and as overdoors, the three pictures were complemented by further canvases by Ludovico and his cousins Annibale and Agostino that served a similar decorative function in the family palace in via Galliera. The Tanari collection understandably became one of the outstanding sights in the city. Its contents are documented from an inventory drawn up at Tanari’s death in which are listed not only the present picture but The Met’s early painting of the Lamentation
). The description in this postmortem inventory describes the picture and its placement as follows: "In the large room called the 'Sala Vecchia' there is a fireplace in red marble with, above it, a picture wherein, in the palace of Herod, is Saint Peter and the servant who says 'et tu eras cum illo' [you too were with him] and he denies it, with the coat of arms of Cardinal Barberini.” The picture was one of two chimneypieces painted by Ludovico for Tanari, and the depiction of a fire in the left foreground is indicative of its function. The second chimneypiece, the Birth of Alexander
, also included the depiction of a fire in the form of the burning Temple of Diana in the background. No less indicative of its function is the fact that the Denial of Saint Peter
reads most powerfully when seen from a low viewpoint: the somewhat awkward-seeming pose of Saint Peter resolves itself and the soldiers take on a truly threatening appearance. Such adjustments are perfectly in keeping with Ludovico's abiding concern for the placement and function of his paintings.
The Tanari collection remained largely intact for almost two centuries, before being dispersed in the 1820s; the Denial of Saint Peter
was one of a number of Bolognese pictures acquired in 1828 by the Scottish painter and picture agent James Irvine, who had a commission from Sir William Forbes of Pitsligo to put together a collection of paintings. Irvine acquired at least four pictures directly from the Tanari family: Ludovico's Alexander and Thaïs
, a Venus
) Adorned by the Graces
by Annibale Carracci (now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington), a celebrated Madonna and Child with Saint John the Baptist
by Guido Reni (untraced after 1842), and a Madonna and Child
ascribed to Francesco Francia. The Denial of Saint Peter
, which is mentioned in a list of Irvine's in 1828, was among the works that remained at the Forbes's seat in Fettercairn until its private sale in 2002.
Keith Christiansen 2019; adapted from Christiansen 2003