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The Theater of Aspirations: Pietà, Glaucus and Scilla

5 May 2014

For the Old Masters there was no greater stage for the performance of emulation than Rome. The brothers Annibale (Hannibal) and Agostino Carracci came there from their native Bologna (where they left their cousin Ludovico in charge of the academy they had founded, gli'Incamminati) just before the end of the sixteenth century. The Carracci wanted to reform Mannerist painting (an art heavily invested in personal manner or style, maniera in Italian), or the artistic world they grew up in; and they would do it by two distinct but connected paths: a greater focus on studies from life (although they rarely painted from life), and the synthesis of the best or most perfect forms, compositions, and coloring from the artists who had preceded them. For us today it is too obvious to stress the former, but it was the latter that filtered how they saw nature, and it distinguished how they delineated. Disegno, or drawing/design, was for them (as for most great artists) the defining skill and frame of reference for any medium, from fresco to sculpture.

Sketch after Michelangelo's Pieta.
Sketch after Michelangelo's Pieta.

Two examples can show how Annibale and Agostino pitched themselves against their contemporaries and predecessors on the Roman stage. When Annibale painted his Pietà he couldn't help but think of Michelangelo's sculpture, famous even then. But if he wanted to emulate--rival--it, he needed to go beyond it. Of course, we're talking about two different media, marble vs. oil on canvas; but something about the interpretation, as much as the representation, had to show some new form of potential and mastery. So his Christ has slid off the Madonna's lap, and she, exhausted, weeps. This is very different from the sculpture's stoic stability, and meant to show art's capacity for empathy. The painter was interested in pushing the expressive potential of art, its capacity to elicit emotion from us because we perceive emotion in it. And just in case we didn't get it, two cherubs indicate for us what is meant to engage us, and how. It's as if he set the sculpture in motion, showing us a point in time some minutes after the marble's moment.

Sketch after Annibale Carracci's Pieta.
Sketch after Annibale Carracci's Pieta.

Sketch after the Carracci brothers' Glaucus and Scilla.
Sketch after the Carracci brothers' Glaucus and Scilla.

Around the same time he and his brother were painting frescoes in the mammoth Palazzo Farnese, in a gallery that looked across the Tiber River to the Villa Farnesina across the way, where Raphael had famously painted. Seeing a chance here as well, they based their themes on the frescoes on the villa's façade, and looked inside to Raphael's frescoes for specific figures. In their Glaucus and Scilla, a tragic watery love story from mythology, they harkened to their predecessor's aquatic figure of Galatea; but they didn't borrow figures so much as steal them and transform them. And if the composition is mostly Agostino's, his younger brother inserted himself in the process with his powerful triton, blowing a conch, massive and torsional in ways that rivaled not only Raphael, but Michelangelo. A new art was being born, Baroque in its energy and command of all aspects of the figurative tradition.


Forthcoming posts:

The Atelier of Rivals: Il Magnifico and Michelangelo, Tintoretto's Philosophers, Giovanni da S. Giovanni

The Mosaic of History: Bacchus, Rubens' Descent from Cross

Found in translation I: Rusconi, Poussin

The future of Emulation

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