Annibale Carracci (1560–1609) was the most admired painter of his time and the vital force in the creation of Baroque style. Together with his cousin Ludovico (1555–1619) and his older brother Agostino (1557–1602)—each an outstanding artist—Annibale set out to transform Italian painting. The Carracci rejected the artificiality of Mannerist painting, championing a return to nature coupled with the study of the great northern Italian painters of the Renaissance, especially Correggio, Titian, and Veronese.
During the 1580s, the Carracci were painting the most radical and innovative pictures in Europe. Annibale not only drew from nature, he created a new, broken brushwork to capture movement and the effects of light on form. His Two Children Teasing a Cat (ca. 1590; 1994.142) marks a new chapter in the history of genre painting. In Ludovico’s early and still unresolved Lamentation (ca. 1582; 2000.68), the figure of Christ—clearly studied from a posed model in the studio—gives the picture a jarring immediacy and actuality. The revolutionary potential of this new kind of painting would be taken up over a decade later by Caravaggio, who must have seen the Carraccis’ work while traveling from Milan to Rome in 1592.
The Carracci saw themselves as heir to a great artistic tradition, and they consciously situated themselves within the history of northern Italian painting. Annibale and Agostino visited Parma and Venice to study the work of Correggio, Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese. Their altarpieces and secular fresco cycles in Bologna reasserted a northern Italian emphasis on color, light, and the study of nature, but with a new focus on emotive communication. Their success led to Annibale being invited to Rome to work for the powerful Farnese family (1595). Ludovico remained in Bologna to direct the academy they founded. Through the next generation of painters—Francesco Albani, Domenichino, Guido Reni, Giovanni Lanfranco, and Guercino—Bolognese painting became the dominant force in seventeenth-century art.
In Rome, Annibale’s painting was transformed through his first-hand encounter with classical antiquity and the art of Michelangelo and Raphael. Individual scenes of ancient mythology are surrounded by an elaborate illusionistic framework with feigned statues, in front of which sit muscular nude figures seemingly lit from the actual windows (Galleria Farnese ceiling). The corners are opened to painted views of the sky. When unveiled in 1600, the ceiling was instantly acclaimed as the equal of any work in the past. In combining northern Italian naturalism with the idealism of Roman painting, Annibale created the basis of Baroque art. His only challenger in Rome was Caravaggio, whose relation with the past was combative rather than assimilative. Moreover, Caravaggio’s art was unsuited to large compositions and fresco cycles, and by 1630 Caravaggesque painting was in decline while Annibale’s art was being studied by a new generation of artists. Rubens, Poussin, and Bernini were deeply indebted to him.