Among the earliest paintings by Annibale Carracci that have come down to us is the large Butcher Shop in the Christ Church Museum, Oxford, datable on grounds of style to about 1582-1583.1 The original destination and precise significance of this painting remain unknown.
The present study is for the butcher at left, who is busy weighing a piece of meat. Compared to the figure in the final picture, this man has rather boyish features, which can be explained by the tradition of studying the poses of particular figures through casual models, usually chosen from among the workshop apprentices. The clothing -- dark woolen cap, white shirt open to the chest, pure white knee-length apron covering the trousers, dark hose -- is exactly the same in the painting and the drawing, but the shirtsleeves of the drawn figure are not rolled up above the elbows. In a detail sketch at right on the same sheet, Annibale studied the arm as it would appear in the final painting (and in this case it is already the arm of an adult). The knife and sharpening steel hanging from the belt of the painted figure are missing, although great care has already been taken in the study of the scales, more properly a stadera, on which the meat is hung in such a way that the counterweight (romano), running the length of the horizontal pole, registers the weight. More summary, by contrast, is the rendering of the meat, which in the final painting will become a spot of intense realism.
From a technical viewpoint, the drawing is comparable to the one of a Boy Eating at the Uffizi (inv. 12393 f.),2 which confirms that in his early years Annibale was attracted to depicting the more ordinary aspects of everyday life. Thus were born new subjects for paintings, such as the so-called Bean Eater (Rome, Galleria Colonna) or the Boy Drinking, known in several versions.
The Windsor sheet has been slightly cut on the right side. On the verso it bore a quick study for the entire composition, bordered by an indication of the frame.3 The trimming of the page preserved only the right part, which illustrates the butcher hanging a side of veal, a carcass hung from the rafter, and, in the foreground, the back of the servant butchering a sheep (an incongruous detail, because the slaughtering took place off site). Compared to the final painting, the butcher at right in the sketch seems to have more mature features and wears a hat.4 In spite of the rather hasty and almost careless handling, this sketch should also be considered autograph.
The drawing on the recto exhibits an admirable economy of means. Comparison with the drawings of contemporary Bolognese artists shows an astonishing lack of preciosity and elegance. Not only is the figure posed frontally, well planted on his legs -- his concentration on his work makes it difficult to strike a harmonious pose -- but also the large, starched apron falls heavily, almost unbroken by folds. At the same time, the stroke is secure, rough, and reluctant to round the contours. The shadows are tersely formed, with no virtuosic frills.
The questions of attribution that have surrounded the painting are reflected also in the history of the drawing, which was first published as the work of Agostino Carracci.5 In later drawings, Annibale would soften his own stroke and pursue a more illusionistic naturalism, while Ludovico, rather, adhered to a similar absence of frills in his execution. In any case, this coarse, essential drawing style is also found in the painting of the Butcher Shop, as well as the Crucifixion with Saints, now in the church of Santa Maria della Carità, dated 1583 and certainly by Annibale. Unfortunately, no preparatory drawings are known for the Crucifixion with Saints.6
Paintings depicting the trades were unusual in the Italian tradition. Even the Bassano family, active in Venice and known to Agostino, customarily justified the subjects of daily life in their paintings (kitchens, marketplaces, etc.) by including episodes from sacred stories. This need was less strongly felt by northern European painters, in particular the Flemings. In contemporary noble collections in Parma and Cremona, paintings by Pieter Aertsen or Joachim Beuckelaer were certainly present, and were already being reinterpreted by the Bolognese Bartolommeo Passarotti. Annibale probably knew the work of Passarotti as well as he did the pictures of those northern painters, in which the shop is similarly treated from behind the counter. Compared to these models, however, the Butcher Shop now at Oxford is much larger and presents the figures full length. The scene is presented with great simplicity and truth, without any trace of comic-grotesque intentions or mocking allusions to confrontations with the working classes that characterize the paintings of Passarotti (such as the Butcher Shop now in the Galleria Nazionale, Rome).
Indeed, the seriousness that the painting conveys has led some scholars
in the past to consider it an allegorical puzzle, and the picture has been
thought to be connected with the program of naturalistic restoration
introduced by the three Carracci. But this theory has since been set aside,
and most prefer to read it as promotion for the powerful guild of butchers,
of which Vincenzo Carracci, the father of Ludovico and the uncle of
Annibale, was a member.7 A connection has also been suggested with the
Canobi family, owner of a chain of livestock shops in the city and the
holder of a chapel in San Gregorio for whom, in the same years, Annibale
executed an altarpiece of the Baptism of Christ (1583-1585; see cats. 7 -
4. Contrary to Robertson's view (Oxford and London 1996-1997), it seems to me that the very existence of these variants between the drawings and the painting voids the theory that the butchers at work in the painting are the Carracci themselves and that the painting is an allegory of the Accademia degli Incamminati (Martin 1963).
King George III (Windsor Inv. Ms. A, 75, as Ludovico); Royal Library, Windsor Castle, inv. 2215
Bologna 1956, no. 84; Bologna 1984, no. 78; Oxford and London 1996-1997, no. 51
Wittkower 1952, no. 93, fig. 9 (as Agostino); Arcangeli 1956, 25; Martin 1965, 264; Posner 1971, 2: under no. 4, fig. 4c; Schilling and Blunt 1971, 62; Cooney and Malafarina 1976, under no. 4, repr.; Fanti 1980b, repr. 53; Goldstein 1988, 185, fig. 142; Zapperi 1989, 64, fig. 10; Loisel Legrand 1995, 4; Whistler 1996, 11; Finaldi 1997, 58; Robertson 1997, 20, fig. 25; Turner 1997, 209; Weston-Lewis 1997, 455