Family of Bolognese painters, the brothers Agostino (bapt. Bologna, 16 Aug. 1557; d Parma, 23 Feb. 1602) and Annibale (bapt. Bologna, 3 Nov. 1560; d Rome, 15 July 1609) and their cousin Ludovico (bapt. Bologna, 21 Apr. 1555; d Bologna, 13/14 Nov. 1619). They were major figures in the transition from Mannerism to Baroque and were largely responsible for establishing Bologna (previously something of an artistic backwater) as the centre of the most distinctive tradition in 17th-century Italian painting. In reaction against the artificiality of Mannerism, they revived the solidity and grandeur of the High Renaissance, to which they added a vigour and warmth reflecting their admiration for Venetian painting. They often worked together early in their careers, and it is not easy to distinguish their individual shares in, for example, the cycle of frescos on the History of the Founding of Rome in the Palazzo Magnani, Bologna (c.1589–90). In the early 1580s they opened a private academy in Ludovico's studio, and it soon became a centre for progressive art. It is uncertain how it operated in its early days, but by about 1590 it had become a teaching institution. Originally it was called the Accademia dei Desiderosi (‘Desiderosi’ meaning ‘desirous of fame and learning’), but it later changed its name to Accademia degli Incamminati (Academy of the Progressives). In their teaching the Carracci stressed drawing from life, and vigorous draughtsmanship became a quality particularly associated with artists of the Bolognese School, notably Domenichino and Reni, two of the leading members of the following generation who trained at the academy. All three Carracci were themselves outstanding draughtsmen, and Malvasia writes that even when eating they had ‘bread in one hand and a pencil or charcoal in the other’. Their naturalistic outlook was in tune with the reforming ideals of the Counter-Reformation Church: in 1582 the Bishop of Bologna, Gabriele Paleotti, published a treatise on religious art in which he spoke out against ‘obscure and ambiguous paintings’ and praised the kind of artist who ‘knows how to explain his ideas clearly…and to render them intelligible and plain to see’.
By the mid-1590s Annibale had emerged as the greatest artist of the family. His early work included landscapes, portraits, and genre pictures, but his reputation was mainly based on a succession of large altarpieces for churches in Bologna and other cities in north Italy, in which he showed a growing mastery of composition and expression (Resurrection of Christ, 1593, Louvre, Paris). In 1594 he was called to Rome by Cardinal Odoardo Farnese to discuss decorations for his family palace, and after returning to Bologna to finish various commissions he had in hand, he settled in Rome in 1595 and embarked on the work in the Palazzo Farnese from which his fame is inseparable. He first decorated a small room called the Camerino (the cardinal's private study) with mythological scenes, mainly involving Hercules, then in 1597 began his masterpiece—the decoration of the Farnese Gallery. The gallery is one of the most imposing rooms in the palace and at this time was used to display choice pieces from the celebrated family collection of ancient sculpture. Annibale's paintings complemented these sculptures by evoking the world of classical antiquity, the overall theme of his frescos being the loves of the Gods, or, as Bellori described it, ‘human love governed by celestial love’. The ceiling was completed in 1600 or 1601, and the decoration of the walls, which is of much less importance, was done over the next two or three years, mainly by assistants, including Domenichino, who was part of a flow of Bolognese artists who followed Annibale to Rome and capitalized on his success. His contemporaries regarded the Farnese Ceiling as the successor to the great Vatican frescos of Michelangelo and Raphael, and throughout the 17th and 18th centuries it ranked almost as high in critical esteem. There are obvious similarities with Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling, notably in the majesty of the nude figures, but Annibale's ceiling is entirely different in spirit, conveying a wonderful feeling of movement and exuberance. It was enormously influential, not only as a pattern book of heroic figure design, but also as a model of technical procedure: Annibale made hundreds of drawings for the ceiling, and until the age of Romanticism such elaborate preparatory work became accepted as a fundamental part of composing any really large and ambitious work. In this sense, Annibale exercised a more profound influence than his great contemporary Caravaggio, for the latter never worked in fresco, which was still regarded as the greatest test of a painter's mettle and the most suitable vehicle for painting in the Grand Manner.