Born in Bologna in 1560 to a family of Cremonese origin, Annibale Carracci learned the craft of painting from his cousin Ludovico and that of printmaking from his brother Agostino (1557-1602). Some of his early undated portraits and genre subjects suggest that he may have trained also with Bartolomeo Passarotti (1529-1592). His earliest dated paintings of the Crucifixion (1583, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna) and the Baptism (1585, San Gregorio, Bologna) indicate that his formative years were spent studying other north and central Italian masters as well. In the late 1570s and early 1580s Annibale must have set forth on the study trip (studioso corso) mentioned by his biographer Carlo Cesare Malvasia (see person bibliography). Letters of 1580, disputed but apparently authentic, show that in this year he was in Parma copying frescoes by Correggio in the cupola of the Duomo. The influence from his Parmese trip appears in the fresco cycles of 1584, Story of Jason and the Aeneid, in the Palazzo Fava, Bologna, painted in collaboration with his brother and cousin. He must have traveled also to Tuscany, possibly the Marches, and to Venice, as influences from these regions are apparent in the early dated works.
Around 1582 the Carracci formed an academy, the Accademia degli Incamminati, to teach their innovative artistic theories. In their art they rebelled against the mannered styles of their contemporaries and took as its program a thorough study of nature combined with a study of preceding artists. They believed that this regimen would renew art and form a universal style. Based on these theories, the three Carracci achieved a common style in those years. When asked who painted the masterpiece of the Story of the Founding of Rome in the Palazzo Magnani, Bologna (1592), they replied "It is by us all, the Carracci." In fact, their individual hands in the early years are often difficult to distinguish.
By the early 1590s the Carracci style had earned them a deserved reputation for originality. Fledgling painters chose to study in their academy rather than with the Bolognese mannerist painters. Their masterpieces in the Palazzo Fava and the Palazzo Magnani brought them numerous commissions and praise. Their work came to the attention of the powerful Farnese family, and Annibale left for Rome permanently in 1595 to work for Cardinal Odoardo Farnese.
From 1595 to 1597 Annibale painted the ceiling of the Camerino in the Palazzo Farnese, Rome, and this was followed by the commission for the Gallery of the Palazzo Farnese, on which he worked with the aid of Agostino from 1597 until 1600. Taking as its starting point Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, Annibale's fresco combines his penchant for trompe l'oeil with the highly idealized forms of classical sculpture and Renaissance painting. Feigned oil paintings (quadri riportati) overlap each other as painted fictive medals and sculpture hold them in place. The walls of the room were finished c. 1603/4 on Annibale's designs by his students Domenichino (1581-1641), Lanfranco (1582-1647), and Badalocchio (1585-after c. 1620). The Gallery, which became the most influential ceiling painting of the seventeenth century, was a required stop for sophisticated travelers, art lovers, and artists visiting Rome for the next two hundred years.
Always of a melancholic nature, Annibale suffered a decline in health around 1605, caused in part by his poor treatment at the hands of his patron Cardinal Farnese. However, he was still able to produce designs for the Herrara Chapel (1604-1606), which were executed by his students, and to complete several important etchings. Annibale's death in Rome in 1609 brought an end to a career which spanned the three most revolutionary decades of Italian painting since the High Renaissance. His naturalistic style of the 1580s became the basis for one of the main trends of seventeenth-century art. He also elevated both genre and landscape subjects to a new, independent status in art, and the loose and unfettered execution of seventeenth-century etchings depends more on Annibale's forays into the medium than on any other artist. His works were collected throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Italy and France. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Malvasia, Carlo Cesare. Felsina Pittrice. Vite de Pittori Bolognesi con aggiunte correzioni e note inedite dell'autore di Giampietro Zanotti e di altri scrittori. 2 vols. Originally published 1688. Bologna, 1841. Reprint. 1974: 1:263-273.
Mostra dei Carracci. Exh. cat. Palazzo dell'Archiginnasio, Bologna, 1956.
Posner, Donald. Annibale Carracci. A Study in the Reform of Italian Painting Around 1590. 2 vols. London, 1971.
Boschloo, A.W. Annibale Carracci in Bologna. Visible Reality in Art after the Council of Trent. Granvenhage, 1974.
Bellori, Giovan Pietro. Le vite de' pittori scultori e architetti moderni. (Rome, 1672) Reprint edited by Evelina Borea. Turin, 1976: 29-111.
Malafarina, Gianfranco. L'opera completa di Annibale Carracci. Milan, 1976.
Dempsey, Charles. Annibale Carracci and the Beginnings of Baroque Style. Gluckstadt, 1977.
De Grazia Bohlin, Diane. Prints and Related Drawings by the Carracci Family. A Catalogue Raisonné. Washington, 1979.
Perini, Giovanni, ed. Gli scritti dei Carracci. Bologna, 1990.
De Grazia, Diane, and Eric Garberson, with Edgar Peters Bowron, Peter M. Lukehart, and Mitchell Merling. Italian Paintings of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1996: 44-45.