Agostino Carracci, A Woman borne off by a Sea God (?)
The Farnese Gallery Cartoons
These huge cartoons were made in preparation for the painted ceiling in the Gallery of one of Rome’s greatest Renaissance private palaces, the Palazzo Farnese (now the site of the French Embassy in Rome). In 1593 Odoardo Farnese, who had just been made a cardinal, opened negotiations to get the Carracci brothers to decorate the palace he had inherited the previous year. Annibale Carracci moved to Rome in 1595, and was followed by his older brother Agostino two years later.
The Carraccis frescoed the vault and end walls of the long narrow Gallery on the first floor of the palace, where the Farnese family’s extensive collection of antiquities were displayed. Packed with illusionistic architecture, sculptures and painted mythological scenes illustrating the loves of the gods, the ceiling gives the impression of being three-dimensional. The frescoed decoration in the Palazzo Farnese is rightly considered the Carraccis' crowning achievement and was widely admired both during their lifetime and afterwards.
These huge cartoons, Cephalus carried off by Aurora in her Chariot and A Woman borne off by a Sea God, were made in preparation for scenes on the painted ceiling in the Gallery of one of Rome’s greatest Renaissance private palaces, the Palazzo Farnese (now the site of the French Embassy in Rome). In 1593 the nineteen-year-old Odoardo Farnese, who had just been made a cardinal, opened negotiations to bring the Carracci brothers to Rome to decorate the palace he had inherited the previous year. Annibale Carracci moved to Rome in 1595, and was followed by his older brother Agostino in 1597.
Annibale first decorated the Cardinal’s study, the Camerino, and then moved on to the ceiling of the Gallery in 1597, with assistance from his brother. The Gallery is a long narrow room on the first floor of the palace, which was used to display the Farnese family’s extensive collection of antiquities. Its barrel-vaulted ceiling posed a challenge due to its steep curvature but Annibale devised an ingenious scheme for its decoration. Packed with trompe l‘oeil pictures and statues, the vault and two end walls are entirely painted but the illusion is so skilful that the visitor is fooled into believing that at least parts of it are three-dimensional. Painted architecture, stucco work, illusionistic bronze medallions, marble sculptures and mythological paintings jostle for space and attention. Naked youths lounge on the cornice that runs around the room, recalling Michelangelo’s famous ignudi (nude male figures) on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which Annibale must have studied closely. All these elements make up an imagined gallery, complementing the setting of the sculptures displayed below.
The ceiling is the result of Annibale’s momentous encounter with classical antiquity and the art of the High Renaissance in Rome. His intensive study of Michelangelo and Raphael, especially the latter’s frescoes in the Villa Farnesina (which also belonged to Cardinal Odoardo), and of Roman antique sculpture, moved his art towards the more monumental and classical style of his later works.
The complex, multi-layered design of the Farnese ceiling is based on well-known Roman models, in particular the Sistine Chapel, although its themes are classical rather than biblical: the loves of the gods, largely taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The Carracci brothers followed the normal practice in planning the decoration of the ceiling. Numerous preparatory drawings were made – compositional studies, figure studies, drawings for decorative details (many of which survive) – and after these came full-scale drawings, or cartoons, from which the designs were transferred onto the ceiling. The drawings, in particular, show how the brothers’ ideas developed and what were their literary and artistic sources.
In the centre of the vault above each long wall of the Gallery is a large rectangular scene in a trompe l‘oeil frame, seemingly propped up on the cornice. The National Gallery’s drawings are the cartoons for these two painted scenes. The exact nature of the two brothers’ collaboration on the ceiling decoration is not clear, although the project was well advanced by the time Agostino arrived in Rome in 1597 (he left in 1600, following a dispute with Annibale). It is generally thought that Agostino painted the two frescoes for which these cartoons are the designs, although Annibale may have contributed various elements and had overall control of the project.
After a series of delays, the ceiling was finally completed in 1601. When the vault was nearly finished, Annibale was paid 500 scudi – a miserly sum for a masterpiece which had been in the making for over three years. Annibale’s disappointment probably contributed to his mental breakdown and his inability to fulfil later commissions, but the fame of the ceiling was such that it was – and still is – considered the masterpiece of his career.