View Full Version : The Carracci and Caravaggio Revolutions: Foundations of the Baroque

Cheezy the Wiz
Apr 30, 2009, 07:58 PM
The Carracci and Caravaggio Revolutions: Foundations of the Baroque
by Cheezy the Wiz
April 29, 2009

Giorgio Vasari begins his Life of Michelangelo Buonarotti with a statement about the artist’s incredible prowess, a quotation which Carlo Cesare Malvasia echoes in the opening pages of his Life of the Carracci, though directed at Ludovico Carracci: “the most benign Ruler of Heaven in His clemency turned His eyes to the earth, and, having perceived the infinite vanity of all those labors, the ardent studies without any fruit, and the presumptuous self-sufficiency of men, which even further removed from truth than is darkness from light, and desiring to deliver us from such great errors, became minded to send down to earth a spirit with universal ability in every art and every profession, who might be able, working by himself alone, to show what manner of thing is the perfection of the art of design in executing the lines, contours, shadows, and highlights, so as to give relief to works of painting.” Ludovico Carracci and his cousins led the charge in the greatest reform of artistry since Cimabue and Giotto, and the first reactionary art revolution in Western Art History. Building on the immediate rejection of the late Mannerist art made by the Carracci, Caravaggio completed the rebellion and helped usher in a new Renaissance to parallel the old, rooted in Classical principles and Renaissance influences but adapted to cater to contemporary mores and restrictions as dictated by the Catholic Counter-Reformation.

Ludovico was the oldest of the Carracci, born in Bologna in 1555. He was apprenticed to an artist named Prospero Fontana, who painted in the style of the time, known today as second-generation Mannerism. Fontana found Ludovico was not as daring as he thought an artist ought to be and he advised him to abandon the art of painting, as he did not seem to have the nature for it. This sentiment was echoed to Ludovico by Tintoretto when the former came to Venice to study his and Titian’s work and style.
Ludovico rejected this opinion, however, and left Fontana to study by himself. “Just as a field which is naturally of sterile soil can be made fertile by artful cultivation,” Malvasia writes, “so Ludovico now all the more committed to the challenge and sting of this advice, strove to overcome his natural aridity by dint of unceasing effort, and there was no work…he did not wish to study or draw.” Ludovico was directly challenging Vasari’s notion that a good painter can only be born with the gift, and never created. Thus, to make himself more knowledgeable about the ways of the great artists, he set out on a tour of northern Italy, studying the artists he felt were the best of the Renaissance: Andrea del Sarto in Florence, Parmigianino in Parma, Giulio Romano in Mantua, and Titian and Tintoretto in Venice.

After his return to Bologna, Ludovico was joined by his two cousins Annibale, born in 1560, and Agostino, born in 1557. The two were polar opposites, however, with Agostino being as timid as Ludovico, and Annibale being much livelier. Their father sent Agostino to study under Fontana, but Ludovico insisted on teaching Annibale personally, as he was “much more lively than [Agostino], in need of regulation and moderation.” He felt that daring and speed were “all one would ever acquire under Prospero [Fontana],” and thus would only be of use to the timid Agostino.

Though their natures were contrary, the great range between the three proved to be to their benefit, as two contraries have the tendency to modify and correct one another, creating a new art form greater than the sum of its parts, as well as a great deal of interplay and influence between the three artists’ styles. In 1584 the trio founded the Carracci Academy in Bologna, and it quickly came to eclipse all surrounding art academies. The Academy always had the best human models, had many Roman antiques for students to study and copy, and, perhaps most innovative, conducted extensive dissections directed by the university’s anatomist, a Dr. Lanzori, in order for students to understand correct musculature and ligament structure. Another important part of the curriculum was the practice of debating conflicting ideas and artistic theories, which often resulted in a syncretism of the two, not unlike the great philosophical debates of the Athenian Lyceum of Antiquity. The trio’s combined skills were what drew students the most, however. Ludovico’s learned foundation in art, Agostino’s tireless labor, and Annibale’s passionate involvement combined to create an almost magical appeal. Among their students were several future artists of great fame, including Guido Reni, Domenichino Zampieri, and Francesco Albani.

Because of their location between Florence and Venice, and Ludovico’s great learnedness in art, the Carracci’s artistic style became a fusion of the two prevailing manners from these cities: disegno, from Florence, and colore, from Venice. The rich colors of Titian, the “angelic purity” of Correggio, and the apparent brushwork of Tintoretto and the Venetian colore tradition combined in the Carracci’s work with the perfect proportions of Raphael and the knowledge of Michelangelo, as well as a more tempered pace of working while still maintaining the Venetian tradition of working directly on the canvas were together to characterize the Carracci’s new style. However, some of their most prominent works were frescoes, where the Venetian manner of re-working on the canvas, more natural to the medium of oil than fresco, was abandoned out of necessity. Thus, the Carracci’s style was not exclusionary but synthetic; they identified various excellences and perfections, and then assimilated them. The critical and stylistic basis of their reforms was in full-force by 1584-85.

The principles behind the Carracci Reforms were founded in a purposeful rejection of contemporary art: that is, late Mannerism. The Carracci found contemporary artists to have corrupted the principles of the great Renaissance artists: Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, and Andrea Del Sarto, out of “crass ignorance or foolish temerity.” Malvasia regarded the Carracci as having “liberated the noble profession of art, previously raised to such heights, from the great affliction of those false manners with which that generation now dared to oppress it.” Among the criticisms leveled at their contemporaries were that they had given themselves over to weak drawing, feeble and washed out color, and worked in a manner totally chimerical and ideal and overly finished. They “made their imagination the sole foundation of their art.” Thus, Mannerism was not effective at conveying ideas, because over-idealization had made the artist, and thus the art, lose contact with reality.

Thus, the Carracci and their Academy actively set themselves apart from these perceived corruptions and harkened back to the great artists upon whom the Mannerists were supposedly building on, as well as Classicism and Antiquity, which were the ultimate foundations of the Renaissance. Because they began very poor, the trio started by using regular people for their models and subjects, as in Annibale’s The Bean-Eater (1583-85), and, in reaction to the excessive idealism of contemporary art, they sought to convey truth through naturalism and illusionism by creating images common people could understand, and which were visually accurate. For them, though, naturalism was the means to an end: “expression of abstract truth beyond experience…with convincing verisimilarity.” Carracci naturalism was not only a study of nature and its effects, but also an appeal to artistic tradition.

The Mannerist reaction to the Carracci’s accusations was very strong. They regarded themselves as “having studied…in Rome and having also known Michelangelo when he was alive,” not only boasting that “they had learned that manner there, but had the temerity to claim they had added something more to it: a certain freeness and a tenderness lacking sic.” They said their “own color was more gentile and more loving” when it was in fact weak and detached. They used their skills learned without a sense of order and selection, which they saw as mastery and copiousness of invention. The Carracci’s works were derided as having no artistic qualities about them, as being mere copies of reality; however, popular opinion soon fell in their favor and away from Mannerism.

Central to understanding the mindset behind the Carracci and Caravaggio and the environment in which they painted is understanding the Council of Trent. Called in response to the Protestant Reformation beginning in 1517, the Trentine Council convened in twenty-five sessions between 1545 and 1563 to outline a new path for the Catholic Church. Besides reaffirming the incorrect nature of the Protestant movements, the Council also enacted reforms on the Catholic Church, addressing concerns about corruption as well as the growing disassociation between the Church and the People. New restrictions were placed upon a variety of fields, including art, to guide art in a way that it became more subservient to the needs of the Church and Catholicism, and eliminate much of the painterliness and frippery that had come to dominate art of the time. Thus, the Carracci were not the only ones to realize and react to the trends of contemporary art. The restrictions dictated by the Council were that “every superstition shall be removed…all lasciviousness be avoided; in such ways that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust…there be nothing seen that is disorderly, or that is unbecomingly or confusedly arranged, nothing that is profane, nothing indecorous, seeing that holiness becometh the house of God sic.” Thus, the purpose of art was questioned. “An artist had a duty to make his art subservient to the truth; inventions, ornaments, and difficulties of art should not be exalted for their own sake.” Special force was applied to religious art: “ primary purpose was to instruct the ignorant, not appeal to the knowledgeable.” Thus it is easy to see how the principles laid down by the Carracci: naturalism, illusionism, and simplicity, fell remarkably in line with the guidelines set by the Trentine Council in 1563. It is no coincidence that the Carracci quickly came to dominate the religious art scene, and their works to decorate many churches, chapels, and cathedrals.

Though the Carracci laid the foundations for seventeenth-century art, it was Caravaggio who would have a more immediate influence upon that century’s artists. Born in 1571 in Caravaggio, a small suburb of Milan, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was to lead a short yet active life, both inside and outside the art scene. Caravaggio’s life was largely dictated and dominated by death and violence; when the plague swept through Milan in 1577, he lost his father, grandfather, and uncle, which together comprised all the men in his family, to it on the exact same day. He was thus left in the care of his mother until 1584, when she sent him to apprentice under Simone Peterzano, a Lombard Mannerist of no great fame, despite having once been a pupil of Titian in Venice. From Peterzano Caravaggio only learned the basics of oil paint, and he was capable only of still-lifes and portraits. He never learned how to make frescoes. After his return home in 1588, Caravaggio sold his family’s estate and left for Rome to find work and excitement. His life in Rome, however, was one of poverty, and he had trouble finding work because of the lack of a market for oil paintings. After several years of barely sustaining himself, however, he came to be employed by the famous painter Cavaliere d’Arpino, whose skyrocketing fame gave Caravaggio some name-recognition. The two did not get along, so Caravaggio left his studio in 1594. In 1596, he was discovered by the Cardinal Del Monte, a famous and wealthy Roman art collector, who asked Caravaggio to come live in his palazzo and paint for him. This proved to be the foot Caravaggio needed to get in the door of the art world, as the Cardinal, a representative of the Medici in Rome, had contacts everywhere, and was able to get Caravaggio several important commissions, including that for the Contarelli Chapel, where two of his most famous works remain: [I]The Calling of St. Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew (1599-1600).

During his time in Rome, Caravaggio most definitely came in contact with the work of Annibale Carracci, who had left Bologna in 1597 to do a series of commissions in Rome. Though he already possessed a fondness for painting the average and mundane, most likely from having been too poor to hire professional models for his works, Caravaggio was also influenced by the naturalism conveyed by the Carracci in their works. Caravaggio declared in a letter that “nature [was] the only subject fit for [my] brush,” which not only was a Carracci principle, but a Counter-Reformation principle as well. One work of the Carracci’s was absolutely pivotal to the development of Caravaggio’s mature style and was the foundation of his signature tenebrous lighting: Annibale’s St. Margaret (1597-99). Caravaggio said in a letter that, upon viewing this work in 1599, he “died.” He continued that “I rejoice that in my lifetime I really see a painter sic.” It was the great contrast of light and dark in Annibale’s work, the extreme chiaroscuro, that inspired Caravaggio to create his signature tenebroso, a style of lighting so dramatic that the very forms of the figures are dictated by the falling of light.

Caravaggio continued to build on the Carracci reforms, developing their naturalistic style further to create the “experiential realism” that characterizes his later works. Such a development is the logical outcome of the principles laid down by the Carracci as well as the Council of Trent, though many later voiced their disdain for it. Gian Petro Bellori half a century later put his opinion in no uncertain terms: “because Caravaggio put an end to dignified art, every artist did just as he pleased, destroying all reverence for Antiquity and for Raphael.” He continued that “Caravaggio had resolved to describe sacred and historical events as though they were being enacted in The Ghetto by butchers and fish-wives.” His extreme naturalism also upset the Oratorian Order when it was applied to saints or holy figures, especially when he portrayed Christ without a halo, as in the Supper at Emmaus (1601); apparently their preached doctrine of humility was only meant to apply living mortals. Even Annibale Carracci voiced disapproval, saying of his Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598-99) that “it’s too natural.” However, his style would soon become immensely popular, especially with future artists.

The principal innovation by Caravaggio is his signature tenebroso, or “darkness.” This great contrast between light and dark was the acme of chiaroscuro, not merely suggesting depth of form, but defining it outright through light and dark. Perhaps the best visualization comes from Bellori’s callous description of Caravaggio’s style: “he did not know how to come out of the cellars…he never brought his figures out into the daylight, but placed them in the dark brown atmosphere of a closed room…he employed a light placed above, which descended straight down upon the main parts of the body, so leaving the rest in shadow in order to vehemently emphasize the lights and darks.” This sort of lighting allowed him to create the maximum amount of drama in an image without making it flashy and elaborate, and thus place it in contention with the Church’s decrees at Trento. The unique nature of light and the spiritual association with it allowed Caravaggio and other artists to use light as the “visible manifestation of the supernatural,” and it kept their works’ real and natural appearance while suggesting a supernatural presence, even though no divine being is visible.

The other possible use of light is to represent enlightenment, and Caravaggio makes use of it in this regard as well. He uses light to suggest grace, or to represent a revealing of truth or realization of faith. Likewise, the absence of light on a figure suggests ignorance or indifference. Perhaps his most apparent uses of light in this way is in his Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600) and Conversion of St. Paul on the Road to Damascus (1601). In The Calling, the figures in the light are fully aware of Christ’s presence in the room, and at the center of the light beam is Matthew, realizing he has been summoned by Jesus. The figures further towards the edge of the light are at varying stages of understanding or recognition, and the figures completely outside the light shaft are oblivious to events taking place. Likewise in Conversion, Paul has been made so aware of the Truth that he has figuratively been knocked off his horse by the ray of light beaming down from the sky, while his assistant guiding the horse is blissfully unaware of the event taking place; he has not received the light of the Faith.

John Rupert Martin said that “by 1605, the stylistic boundaries over which the expressive potentialities of the new baroque illusionism would be contested for the rest of the century had been drawn.” By this time, the foundations of the Baroque were firmly in place: many of the most popular painters of the time were graduates of the Carracci Academy; Caravaggio’s tenebrism had firmly established itself as a new and expressive way to portray images in accordance with the Council of Trent’s decrees, and the next generation of painters were seeing these works as they entered the market or found their place on a church or palazzo wall, and being influenced by all the art and theory that was around them. The Carracci reforms paved the way for future art academies, and established the foundation upon which their curriculums would be based. Their reforms, as Francesco Angeloni wrote in his Historia Augusta, “revived the good way of painting.” Luigi Lanzi praised in 1799 that “to write the history of the Carracci and their followers is virtually to write the history of painting in all Italy for two centuries.” Thus it is clear that the impact of the Carracci was a great and encompassing one. Without their reforms and principles, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio may never have graduated beyond the Cardinal Del Monte’s painter-in-residence, and the world of art and art history would be forever different. Though Caravaggio died young, in 1610 at the age of 39, Ludovico Carracci outlived him and the other Carracci; Agostino died in 1602 and Annibale in 1609, and Ludovico continued running the Academy until his own death in 1619. And so the origin of the great revolution in painting was able to see, more than any other, the great contrast of that which came before and that which came after: the continuance of “the good way of painting.”

Images, for reference to the reading:

Late Mannerism:
Giorgio Vasari: Perseus and Andromeda (1570-74)

The Carracci Reform:
Ludovico Carracci: The Bargellini Madonna (1588)

Annibale Carracci: St. Margaret (1597-99)

Early Caravaggio, before seeing St. Margaret:

The Cardsharps (1594)

Middle-late Caravaggio, after seeing St. Margaret and developing tenebroso:
The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600)


“Bargellini Madonna.” Wikipedia: The Free Online Encyclopedia (accessed April 25, 2009).

“Calling of St. Matthew.” Fine Arts and Prints on Demand (accessed April 25, 2009).

“Cardsharps.” Wikipedia: The Free Online Encyclopedia (accessed April 25, 2009).

Dempsey, Charles. “The Carracci Reform of Painting” in the Age of Correggio and the Carracci: Emilian Painting of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, ed. by Andrea Emiliani. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1986.

Hanover College Department of History. “The Council of Trent: Twenty-Fifth Session”. (accessed April 25, 2009), 1995.

Martin, John Rupert. “Light” in Baroque. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.

Moffitt, John F. Caravaggio in Context: Learned Naturalism and Renaissance Humanism. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co. Inc. Publishers, 2004.

“Perseus and Andromeda.” (accessed April 25, 2009).

Seward, Desmond. Caravaggio: A Passionate Life. New York: William Morrow & Company, 1998.

“St. Margaret.” Web Gallery of Art (accessed April 25, 2009).

Summerscale, Anne. Malvasia’s Life of the Carracci. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.

Varriano, John L. “Caravaggio and Religion” in Saints and Sinners: Caravaggio and the Baroque Image, ed. by Franco Mormando. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Vasari, Giorgio. “Michelangelo Buonarroti” in the Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. New York: Random House, Inc., 2006.

Apr 30, 2009, 10:18 PM
Oooh, nice (and relatively fresh) subject. Didn't know much about Carracci before this. :goodjob: In addition, frippery is a superior word. :D

Apr 30, 2009, 11:56 PM
The Wiz seems to be on a roll.:thumbsup:

May 04, 2009, 07:38 PM
Good read Cheezy! :hatsoff:

Oooh, nice (and relatively fresh) subject. Didn't know much about Carracci before this. :goodjob: In addition, frippery is a superior word. :D

chimerical is pretty great, too.

May 05, 2009, 07:33 PM
Nice article, cheezy! I liked the relative lack of "blah blah is widely considered one of the most blah blah of the blah blah period" type stuff. Actual analysis and interpretation of the work is much more interesting! :goodjob:

Cheezy the Wiz
Mar 03, 2010, 09:32 PM
I asked that this thread be moved to the new forum from World History, I figure it would get more proper attention here. They're just not into art over there.

Mar 05, 2010, 04:04 PM
Kind of odd considering somebody there slapped me on the head with an art history book...