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07 October 2013

Emulation X.1 The Theater of Aspirations

The Carracci and their Models I

[The Carracci’s] art was not exclusionary, but synthetic, seeking to identify various excellences, identifying their different perfections, and then to assimilate them. They did not reject the canonical status of Michelangelo, Andrea del Sarto, or Raphael, each of whom in his different way represented a classical and idealist art. They instead sought to assimilate to this canon the naturalistic and illusionistic canons of Venice and Emilia, exemplified with the examples of Titian and Correggio, and in so doing render the ideal with convincing verisimilitude.[1]

Annibale Carracci, Pietà
Perhaps no body of artists so substantively reshaped artistic practice and discourse as the two Bolognese brothers Annibale and Agostino Carracci, along with their slightly older cousin Ludovico. The practice of emulation in the work and studies of the Carracci academy is, without a doubt, its most singular characteristic. While their reform of painting centered on drawing from life, that seemingly neutral exercise was not unmediated by artistic precedent and experience. On the contrary, their particular approach to disegno was rooted in connoisseurship, in which the ways one made contours and indicated shadow were shaped by a profound knowledge of the possibilities discovered by artists over the preceding century. The way they taught in their academy of Gl’Incamminati (those on the way) was competitive among the students, but also competitive with respect to the past and present; Agostino designed their impresa, whose motto Contentione Perfectus, ‘through competition perfected,’ suggests that the competitive aspect was an essential aspect of learning. Students were compared and evaluated vis-à-vis each other, and having one’s drawing recognized as the first, or second, or third in the group clarified without further comment what the standards were.[2]

            [T]he stylistic polemic in which the Carracci were engaged did not revolve simply around an opposition of naturalism to idealism as such, and that indeed their art sought to incorporate within itself both terms. On the one hand their painting was conceived as an optical technique for giving the illusion of reality, and on the other as an imaginative technique for presenting an idea.[3]

            It was in disegno that they apprehended and synthesized what they perceived to be the best of art until their time, and this mode of apprehending, a taste for particular aspects of drawing—like a firm, lively contour and nuanced hatching of shadows—gave them the tools to extend their art and potentially exceed all who had come before them. And while they trumpeted their own Emilian heroes like Correggio and among the Venetians especially Paolo Veronese, the paragons upon whom they turned these retooled artistic guns were inevitably Raphael and Michelangelo. In the Roman palace, that of the Farnese family, Annibale and Agostino had the opportunity to take on both.

            Annibale Carracci’s rivalry with Michelangelo and Raphael was not so much eristic as aspirational, in the sense that he was not interested so much in overturning as exceeding them. Part of this depended on separating out in their oeuvre those works that were exemplary by his standards from those that either went astray or led others astray; for example, with Michelengelo there was a perceptible gulf between his work before and after the Sack of Rome. Michelangelo’s own struggle with where to go with his art after a series of universally acknowledged peaks did not, for the Carracci, inevitably lead to different but equally good avenues, as modern historiography might want it. When artists achieve the stature of a Michelangelo, there is every impetus for us to justify whatever they did, even if it is not consistent with their other work and philosophy. Artists in their opinions of others are not so constrained. If one wanted a classical ideal of the figure in proportion, contour, and modeling, one found it on the Sistine ceiling but less so in the Last Judgment.

            The very clear impression created by Annibale’s Pietà is of Michelangelo’s Pietà existing in time, as though the Virgin, emotionally drained or unconscious, has released the body of Christ, allowing Him to slide from her lap. In other words, those parts of Annibale’s Christ that are different from Michelangelo’s Christ are consistent with changes occurring in real time and space: Were Michelangelo’s Virgin to relax her hold on Christ’s body, that side would fall precisely the way it does in Annibale’s Christ, and the same for the other arm and the rest of the figure.[4]

            Annibale’s respect for Raphael and Michelangelo at their best is evident in works of his that draw directly on those heroes of Vasari’s Third Age. A clear case is his painting of the Pietà, now in Naples, which derives quite deliberately from Michelangelo’s canonical sculpture in St. Peter’s. Carl Goldstein has clearly elucidated the way in which Annibale began with the marble (or his brother Agostino’s print of it), and then activated it, or rather set the scene in motion: Christ slides off of the exhausted Madonna’s lap, and now his head rests there, facing us rather than facing up; and she, for her part, while retaining her proper left hand in a position of pleading or supplication, now adopts a more mournful pose and expression than the somewhat passionless Mary of the marble. Much changes inevitably from marble to paint: from a highly polished and deeply undercut Carrara stone to saturated hues and chiaroscuro in oil; from the unity of two figures in stone to a distinct, beautifully complementary palette of Mary’s complex blue drapery and Christ’s still warm flesh tones, which begin to give way subtly at hands and feet to a deathly pallor (reinforced by the beginnings of rigor mortis in toes and fingers). Carracci also adds two rhetorical putti, one supporting Christ’s left arm while looking toward his companion pained by the crown of thorns. The latter, oddly enough, seems to be referencing Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s Boy Bitten by a Lizard, which predates the Pietà by at least three years. The dark background may as well owe something to Caravaggio’s manner, whose paintings in the Contarelli Chapel in S. Luigi dei Francesi were being painted at roughly the same time. Those references are likely to be eristic, as the two artists were already perceived as representing opposing camps in early Baroque Rome.

            What is “better” about Annibale’s interpretation of the scene, by something like his own standards, than Michelangelo’s? His Madonna’s drapery ripples, folds, and follows her body more naturally and less obtrusively, reinforcing and focusing the composition (this is something which Bernini would later develop to even greater effect). He sustains Michelangelo’s rocky outcrop (a hint of the later non finito), but turns it from something ostensibly naturalistic (the raw stone of which the figures are carved) into more severe, cut blocks of the implicit tomb: these function as clear contrasts to the supple figures, heightening their relevance both compositionally and meaningfully. Mary is slightly older than her marble model, and her mournful expression (derived in part from the study of Correggio’s ability to capture emotion) makes of her a more expressive actor and makes the painting as a whole, therefore, more expressive. At some point, likely in the seventeenth century, two bronze cherubs were added hovering over the marble group, a Baroque response to what by then must have seemed a somewhat unanimated mise en scène (and may in fact have been motivated by Annibale’s painting).

drawings by David Mayernik

[1] Dempsey, C. 1986.  “The Carracci Reform of Painting,” in The Age of Correggio and the Carracci: Emilian Painting of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Washington: National Gallery of Art. 247
[2] Flick, G.-R. 2008. Masters & Pupils. London: Hogarth Arts. 107–108
[3] Ibid., 246
[4] Goldstein, C. Visual Fact Over Verbal Fiction. 142–3