Saturday 7 December 2013

Carracci on Copper: Initial essay ramblings

This post arises out of my initial essay ramblings about the artist Annibale Carracci (November 3, 1560 – July 15, 1609). I am setting out to investigate what his small paintings on copper tell us about religion and intellectual ideas of the period. 'The Montalto Madonna', the 'Temptation of St Antony Abbot' and the 'Vision of St Francis' are all dated to when he had been in Rome a few years, from 1597-1598. I shall be looking at the different subject matter of each painting and connecting it with a number of interesting issues. For example, St Francis and the renewed interest in the spiritual, possibly touching on St Teresa of Avila. I remain fascinated by the monsters in the St Antony Abbot piece so what can this tell us about real and psychological demons of the late 1500s. Finally how had the role of the Virgin Mary changed over the latter part of the century - what does his depiction of the Holy Family say about her?

Any study of Annibale Carracci reveals that his style underwent a marked change on his mid career move from Bologna to Rome. After an initial trip in the autumn of 1594, he completing pending Bolognese commissions, he then transferred permanently to Rome in Nov 1595. As an established artistic name, he was quartered in the Palazzo Farnese, one of the grandest of all the renaissance residences. It was at this time that he started work on the enormous ceiling projects. This immediate immersion into the humanistic classicism of Rome, where he had ample opportunity to examine the antiquities, influenced and shaped his art immeasurably, especially in in his monumental fresco cycles. However in this study, I am not dwelling on his large scale works, but his more intimate and private works of art.

At the same time as undertaking the enormous Palazzo project he was experimenting with painting on copper, a technique practised primarily by northern painters, such as Jan Breughel and Denis Calvaert. Calvaert introduced the technique to artists in Bologna and the practice spread through his pupils and collaborators, with many Italians adapting their own styles by the end of the 16th century. By the time Carracci appeared, Rome had became an important centre for the production of works on copper and was a melting pot of various regional styles. He was quick to embrace the new medium for wealthy patrons' commissions. There are many reasons why metal supports were so successful. 

Firstly was the nature of the metal. Flemish painters had specialised in precisely depicting the natural world in miniature and the bright, reflective surface of copper offered a luminosity unparalleled by fresco or canvas. For artists who were adept in colour, delicacy and precision, such as Carracci, it was a medium with unlimited potential. 

The second reason is the increasing appreciation of these jewel like pieces by the sophisticated, rich and highly educated Roman patrons who were looking to assemble collections of remarkable objects. Like the method itself, it has been suggested that the fashion for these small paintings had been imported from the north. The small scale of these paintings required an appropriate setting so the creation of various studioli packed with treasures from the natural world in the northern Italian cities provided a perfect backdrop. By the 1590s, Francesca Cappelletti suggests, 'possibly because of the influence exerted in Rome by the taste and collections of Farnese and the Medici, virtuoso paintings on copper or stone had gained prominent positions in other collections'.1 

Finally there is also the hint of copper being a material appropriate for patrons who had an interest in the study of natural philosophy; an embryonic collection of scientific subjects which covered metallurgy, alchemy, mechanics, botany and so on. Biringuccio has copper nourished by the influence of Venus and due to disunited imperfections in its substance, it is an impure metal. He continues, 'for this reason the practising speculator calls it in itself a sick metal, foliated and earthy, and, for its defects, is converted into dross.2 This subsumation of cutting edge theoretical metal craft, combined with esoteric Florentine tastes into a something acceptable to the fashionable Roman post-Tridentine world is something that Carracci achieved brilliantly with his religious works on copper. As if the pagan impure metal has been reborn as a sacred object to be venerated. 

Marcia Hall concludes that 'he understood that the reform of painting could be brought about only from a position within the tradition' and though these small pieces were as conventional and traditional as any of his altar pieces, these 'private moments' demonstrates his wit and his instinct for capturing spontaneity.3 The new materials and influences meant that he could take something ultimately traditional and produce a work of art which was as fresh and modern as any discerning patron would require. It is this potential clash between the regenerated, yet traditional ideas of the church and the underlying intellectual ferment, which makes his art so interesting.

1Francesca Cappelletti, 'The enticement of the north: landscape myth and gleaming metal supports' in Genius of Rome 1592-1623, (Royal Academy of Arts, London 2001), p184 
2Biringuccio, de re pirotechnica, p52-53 
3Marcia Hall, After Raphael: painting in central Italy in the sixteenth century, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999), p283

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