Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

The History of the Caracci.

The congenial histories of literature and of art are accompanied by the same periodical revolutions; and none is more interesting than that one which occurs in the decline and corruption of arts, when a single mind returning to right principles, amidst the degenerated race who had forsaken them, seems to create a new epoch, and teaches a servile race once more how to invent! These epochs are few, but are easily distinguished. The human mind is never stationary; it advances or it retrogrades: having reached its meridian point, when the hour of perfection has gone by, it must verge to its decline. In all Art, perfection lapses into that weakened state too often dignified as classical imitation; but it sinks into mannerism, and wantons into affectation, till it shoots out into fantastic novelties. When all languishes in a state of mediocrity, or is deformed by false tastes, then is reserved for a fortunate genius the glory of restoring another golden age of invention. The history of the Caracci family serves as an admirable illustration of such an epoch, while the personal characters of the three Caracci throw an additional interest over this curious incident in the history of the works of genius.

The establishment of the famous accademia, or school of painting, at Bologna, which restored the art in the last stage of degeneracy, originated in the profound meditations of Lodovico. There was a happy boldness in the idea; but its great singularity was that of discovering those men of genius, who alone could realise his ideal conception, amidst his own family circle; and yet these were men whose opposite dispositions and acquirements could hardly have given any hope of mutual assistance; and much, less of melting together their minds and their work in such an unity of conception and execution, that even to our days they leave the critics undetermined which of the Caracci to prefer; each excelling the other in some pictorial quality. Often combining together in the same picture, the mingled labour of three painters seemed to proceed from one palette, as their works exhibit which adorn the churches of Bologna. They still dispute about a picture, to ascertain which of the Caracci painted it; and still one prefers Lodovico for his grandiosità, another Agostino for his invention, and another Annibale for his vigour or his grace.1

What has been told of others, happened to Lodovico Caracci in his youth; he struggled with a mind tardy in its conceptions, so that he gave no indications of talent; and was apparently so inept as to have been advised by two masters to be satisfied to grind the colours he ought not otherwise to meddle with. Tintoretto, from friendship, exhorted him to change his trade. “This sluggishness of intellect did not proceed,” observes the sagacious Lanzi, “from any deficiency, but from the depth of his penetrating mind: early in life he dreaded the ideal as a rock on which so many of his contemporaries had been shipwrecked.” His hand was not blest with precocious facility, because his mind was unsettled about truth itself; he was still seeking for nature, which he could not discover in those wretched mannerists, who, boasting of their freedom and expedition in their bewildering tastes, which they called the ideal, relied on the diplomas and honours obtained by intrigue or purchase, which sanctioned their follies in the eyes of the multitude. “Lodovico,” says Lanzi, “would first satisfy his own mind on every line; he would not paint till painting well became a habit, and till habit produced facility.”

Lodovico then sought in other cities for what he could not find at Bologna. Ho travelled to inspect the works of the elder masters; he meditated on all their details; he penetrated to the very thoughts of the great artists, and grew intimate with their modes of conception and execution. The true principles of art were collected together in his own mind — the rich fruits of his own studies — and these first prompted him to invent a new school of painting.2

Returning to Bologna, he found his degraded brothers in art still quarrelling about the merits of the old and the new school, and still exulting in their vague conceptions and expeditious methods. Lodovico, who had observed all, had summed up his principle in one grand maxim — that of combining a close observation of nature with the imitation of the great masters, modifying both, however, by the disposition of the artist himself. Such was the simple idea and the happy project of Lodovico! Every perfection seemed to have been obtained: the Raffaeleschi excelled in the ideal; the Michelagnuoleschi in the anatomical; the Venetian and the Lombard schools in brilliant vivacity or philosophic gravity. All seemed preoccupied; but the secret of breaking the bonds of servile imitation was a new art: of mingling into one school the charms of every school, adapting them with freedom; and having been taught by all, to remain a model for all; or, as Lanzi expresses it, dopo avere appresso da tutte insegnò a tutte. To restore Art in its decline, Lodovico pressed all the sweets from all the flowers; or, melting together all his rich materials, formed one Corinthian brass. This school is described by Du Fresnoy in the character of Annibale,

—— Quos sedulus Hannibal omnes

In PROPRIAM MENTEM atque morem mirâ arte COEGIT.

Paraphrased by Mason,

From all their charms combined, with happy toil,

Did Annibal compose his wondrous style;

O’er the fair fraud so close a veil is thrown,

That every borrow’d grace becomes his own.3

Lodovico perceived that he could not stand alone in the breach, and single-handed encounter an impetuous multitude. He thought of raising up a party among those youthful aspirants who had not yet been habitually depraved. He had a brother whose talent could never rise beyond a poor copyist’s, and him he had the judgment, unswayed by undue partiality, to account as a cipher; but he found two of his cousins men capable of becoming as extraordinary as himself.

These brothers, Agostiuo and Annibale, first by nature, and then by their manners and habits, were of the most opposite dispositions. Born amidst humble occupations, their father was a tailor, and Annibale was still working on the paternal board, while Agostino was occupied by the elegant works of the goldsmith, whence he acquired the fine art of engraving, in which he became the Marc Antonio of his time. Their manners, perhaps, resulted from their trades. Agostino was a man of science and literature: a philosopher and poet of the most polished elegance, the most enchanting conversation, far removed from the vulgar, he became the companion of the learned and the noble. Annibale could scarcely write and read; an inborn ruggedness made him sullen, taciturn, or, if he spoke, sarcastic; scorn and ridicule were his bitter delight. Nature had strangely made these brothers little less than enemies. Annibale despised his brother for having entered into the higher circles; he ridiculed his refined manners, and even the neat elegance of his dress. To mortify Agostino, one day he sent him a portrait of their father threading a needle, and their mother cutting out the cloth, to remind him, as he once whispered in Agostino’s ear, when he met him walking with a nobleman, “not to forget that they were sons of a poor tailor!”4 The same contrast existed in the habits of their mind. Agostino was slow to resolve, difficult to satisfy himself; he was for polishing and maturing everything: Annibale was too rapid to suffer any delay, and, often evading the difficulties of the art, loved to do much in a short time. Lodovico soon perceived their equal and natural aptitude for art; and placing Agostino under a master who was celebrated for his facility of execution, he fixed Annibale in his own study, where his cousin might be taught by observation the Festina lente; how the best works are formed by a leisurely haste. Lodovico seems to have adopted the artifice of Isocrates in his management of two pupils, of whom he said that the one was to be pricked on by the spur, and the other kept in by the rein.

But a new difficulty arose in the attempt to combine together such incongruous natures; the thoughtful Lodovico, intent on the great project of the reformation of the art, by his prudence long balanced their unequal tempers, and with that penetration which so strongly characterises his genius, directed their distinct talents to his one great purpose. From the literary Agostino he obtained the philosophy of critical lectures and scientific principles; invention and designing solely occupied Annibale; while the softness of contours, lightness and grace, were his own acquisition. But though Annibale presumptuously contemned the rare and elevated talents of Agostino, and scarcely submitted to copy the works of Lodovico, whom he preferred to rival, yet, according to a traditional rumour which Lanzi records, it was Annibale’s decision of character which enabled him, as it were unperceived, to become the master over his cousin and his brother; Lodovico and Agostino long hesitated to oppose the predominant style, in their first Essays; Annibale hardly decided to persevere in opening their new career by opposing “works to voices;” and to the enervate labours of their wretched rivals, their own works, warm in vigour and freshness, conducted on the principles of nature and art.

The Caracci not only resolved to paint justly, but to preserve the art itself, by perpetuating the perfect taste of the true style among their successors. In their own house they opened an Accademia, calling it degli Incaminati, “the opening a new way,” or “the beginners.” The academy was furnished with casts, drawings, prints, a school for anatomy, and for the living figure; receiving all comers with kindness; teaching gratuitously, and, as it is said, without jealousy; but too many facts are recorded to allow us to credit the banishment of this infectious passion from the academy of the Caracci, who, like other congregated artists, could not live together and escape their own endemial fever.

It was here, however, that Agostino found his eminence as the director of their studies; delivering lectures on architecture and perspective, and pointing out from his stores of history and fable subjects for the designs of their pupils, who, on certain days exhibited their works to the most skilful judges, adjusting the merits by their decisions. “To the crowned sufficient is the prize of the glory,” says Lanzi; and while the poets chanted their praises, the lyre of Agostino himself gratefully celebrated the progress of his pupils. A curious sonnet has been transmitted to us, where Agostino, like the ancient legislators, compresses his new laws into a few verses, easily to be remembered. The sonnet is now well known, since Fuseli and Barry have preserved it in their lectures. This singular production has, however, had the hard fate of being unjustly depreciated: Lanzi calls it pittoresco veramente più che poetico; Fuseli sarcastically compares it to “a medical prescription.” It delighted Barry, who calls it “a beautiful poem. Considered as a didactic and descriptive poem, no lover of art who has ever read it, will cease to repeat it till he has got it by heart. In this academy every one was free to indulge his own taste, provided he did not violate the essential principles of art; for though the critics have usually described the character of this new school to have been an imitation of the preceding ones, it was their first principle to be guided by nature, and their own disposition; and if their painter was deficient in originality, it was not the fault of this academy so much as of the academician. In difficult doubts they had recourse to Lodovico, whom Lanzi describes in his school like Homer among the Greeks, fons ingeniorum, profound in every part of painting. Even the recreations of the pupils were contrived to keep their mind and hand in exercise; in their walks sketching landscapes from nature, or amusing themselves with what the Italians call Caricatura, a term of large signification; for it includes many sorts of grotesque inventions, whimsical incongruities, such as those arabesques found at Herculaneum, where Anchises, Æneas, and Ascanius are burlesqued by heads of apes and pigs, or Arion, with a grotesque motion, is straddling a great trout; or like that ludicrous parody which came from the hand of Titian in a playful hour, when he sketched the Laocoon whose three figures consist of apes. Annibale had a peculiar facility in these incongruous inventions, and even the severe Leonardo da Vinci considered them as useful exercises.

Such was the academy founded by the Caracci; and Lodovico lived to realise his project in the reformation of art, and witnessed the school of Bologna flourishing afresh when all the others had fallen. The great masters of this last epoch of Italian painting were their pupils. Such were Domenichino, who, according to the expression of Bellori, delinea gli animi, colorisce la vita; he drew the soul and coloured life;5 Albano, whose grace distinguishes him as the Anacreon of painting; Guido, whose touch was all beauty and delicacy, and, as Passeri delightfully expresses it, “whose faces came from Paradise;”6 a scholar of whom his masters became jealous, while Annibale, to depress Guido, patronised Domenichino, and even the wise Lodovico could not dissimulate the fear of a new competitor in a pupil, and to mortify Guido preferred Guercino, who trod in another path. Lanfranco closes this glorious list, whose freedom and grandeur for their full display required the ample field of some vast history.

The secret history of this Academia forms an illustration for that chapter on “Literary Jealousy” which I have written in “The Literary Character.” We have seen even the gentle Lodovico infected by it; but it raged in the breast of Annibale. Careless of fortune as they were through life, and free from the bonds of matrimony, that they might wholly devote themselves to all the enthusiasm of their art, they lived together in the perpetual intercourse of their thoughts; and even at their meals laid on their table their crayons and their papers, so that any motion or gesture which occurred, as worthy of picturing, was instantly sketched. Annibale catching something of the critical taste of Agostino, learnt to work more slowly, and to finish with more perfection, while his inventions were enriched by the elevated thoughts and erudition of Agostino. Yet a circumstance which happened in the academy betrays the mordacity and envy of Annibalo at the superior accomplishments of his more learned brother. While Agostino was describing with great eloquence the beauties of the Laocoon, Annibale approached the wall, and snatching up the crayons, drew the marvellous figure with such perfection, that the spectators gazed on it in astonishment. Alluding to his brother’s lecture, the proud artist disdainfully observed, “Poets paint with words, but painters only with their pencils.”7

The brothers could neither live together nor endure absence. Many years their life was one continued struggle and mortification; and Agostino often sacrificed his genius to pacify the jealousy of Annibale, by relinquishing his palette to resume those exquisite engravings, in which he corrected the faulty outlines of the masters whom he copied, so that his engravings are more perfect than their originals. To this unhappy circumstance, observes Lanzi, we must attribute the loss of so many noble compositions which otherwise Agostino, equal in genius to the other Caracci, had left us. The jealousy of Annibale at length for ever tore them asunder. Lodovico happened not to be with them when they were engaged in painting together the Farnesian gallery at Rome. A rumour spread that in their present combined labour the engraver had excelled the painter. This Annibale could not forgive; he raved at the bite of the serpent: words could not mollify, nor kindness any longer appease, that perturbed spirit; neither the humiliating forbearance of Agostino, the counsels of the wise, nor the mediation of the great. They separated for ever! a separation in which they both languished, till Agostino, broken-hearted, sunk into an early grave, and Annibale, now brotherless, lost half his genius; his great invention no longer accompanied him — for Agostino was not by his side!8 After suffering many vexations, and preyed on by his evil temper, Annibale was deprived of his senses.

1 Lanzi, Storia Pittorica, v. 85.

2 D’Argenville, Vies des Peintres, ii. 46.

3 The curious reader of taste may refer to Fuseli’s Second Lecture for a diatribe against what he calls “the Electic School; which, by selecting the beauties, correcting the faults, supplying the defects, and avoiding the extremes of the different styles, attempted to form a perfect system.” He acknowledges the greatness of the Caracci; yet he laughs at the mere copying the manners of various painters into one picture. But perhaps — I say it with all possible deference — our animated critic forgot for a moment that it was no mechanical imitation the Caracci inculcated: nature and art were to be equally studied, and secondo il nativo talento e la propria sua disposizione. Barry distinguishes with praise and warmth. “Whether,” says he, “we may content ourselves with adopting the manly plan of art pursued by the Caracci and their school at Bologna, in uniting the perfections of all the other schools; or whether, which I rather hope, we look farther into the style of design upon our own studies after nature; whichever of these plans the nation might fix on,” &c., ii. 518. Thus, three great names, Du Fresnoy, Fuseli, and Barry, restricted their notions of the Caracci plan to a mere imitation of the great masters; but Lanzi, in unfolding Lodovico’s project, lays down as his first principle the observation of nature, and, secondly, the imitation of the great masters; and all modified by the natural disposition of the artist.

4 D’Argenville, Vies des Peintres, ii. 47-68.

5 Bellori, Le Vite de Pittori, &c.

6 Passeri, Vite de Pittori.

7 D’Argenville, ii. 26.

8 Fuseli describes the gallery of the Farnese palace as a work of uniform vigour of execution, which nothing can equal but its imbecility and incongruity of conception. This deficiency in Annibale was always readily supplied by the taste and learning of Agostino; the vigour of Annibale was deficient both in sensibility and correct invention.

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