Annibale Carracci and the Modern Reform of Altar Painting

Livia Stoenescu


Annibale Carracci is a particularly revealing figure to study because his career challenges the conventions and norms of Counter-Reformation and Baroque art. Qualities vividly displayed in his work emend notions of decadence and stricture associated with the Counter-Reformation and at the same time avoid the excesses of the commissioned Baroque artists, condemned by the Reformation as “externals.” Annibale Carracci effected the great leap in the progress toward perfecting the accomplishments of his Renaissance predecessors and unravelling the motivating ideas or practical exigencies of their creations. On a number of counts Annibale was most legitimately named a “reformer” and a “forerunner” of the modern age. However, such perception has been driven less by the prospect of shedding light on his reforming agenda than for the sake of fitting Annibale into the Baroque grandeur or Counter-Reformation rigourism. Interventions of seventeenth-century historiographers Malvasia and Bellori, who had attempted to free Annibale from a plummeting reputation in Baglione’s pro-Counter-Reformation account, gave rise to interpretations of Annibale’s usage of classical motifs as an outlet for a Baroque passion. Such conceits entertained by Donald Posner, S.J. Freedberg, and Charles Dempsey are tinged with the notions of the prevailing role of classical antiquity in Baroque art. Yet, the course of research has never examined why Annibale Carracci is a reformer. Mindful of the trappings of norms and classifications, my investigation argues that his reforming agenda lies in new modes of narrative art and dramatic changes to the conventions and traditions of altar painting. The altarpiece of the Crucifixion with Saints, 1583, still in situ in the church of Sta. Maria della Carità in Bologna, offers compelling indications of Annibale Carracci’s reform.


Counter-Reformation; The Reform of Art; Early Christian Art; Icons; Annibale Carracci; Federico Zuccari; Catacombs

Full Text:

PDF PDF (Français)

© Universities Art Association of Canada / Association d'art des universités du Canada