In the late 16th century, Bologna emerged from artistic obscurity to become a cradle of reaction against the exaggerations of late-Renaissance Mannerism (not many local examples have survived, but think of the exquisite, swan-necked creatures of Parmigianino). The fight was led by the Carracci: brothers Annibale and Agostino and cousin Ludovico, who started off together frescoing palaces, and in the 1580s founded a school of painting with the startlingly inaccurate name of the Accademia degli Incamminati (‘the progressives’).
Their success was not necessarily due to any change in Italian tastes. The Council of Trent, which concluded its reform of the Church in 1563, decreed that religious art was to fall under the close supervision of the clergy, and clear rules were set down for it. Painting and sculpture must be simple and intelligible, realistic, and filled with emotional appeal to encourage piety.
The Carraccis’ genius was to hit on a formula that the Counter-Reformation Church could approve. They emphasized draughtmanship, life drawing, perfect polish and the restoration of classicism; their approach discouraged thinking, vision and imagination, which made their followers in the Bolognese school exceedingly popular and gave the region’s museums and churches their acres of virtuoso wallpaper.
There were some notable exceptions. The most gifted of the Carracci, Annibale, revived interest in the then-neglected art of Correggio before moving off to Rome to paint the ceiling of the Galleria Farnese, his masterpiece and a fundamental point of departure for Baroque painting. He is also credited with the invention of the ‘ideal landscape’, an art perfected by Poussin, and he was the first to draw caricatures.
Many graduates of the Accademia followed Annibale to Rome. The most accomplished, Guido Reni, soon returned to Bologna, where his huge studio sent religious paintings to patrons around Europe. Domenichino and Giovanni Lanfranco of Parma became rivals in Rome; Lanfranco surpassed Domenichino with his more dynamic, illusionistic work, full of the dramatic foreshortening he had learned while growing up and looking at Correggio’s domes.
The much younger Guercino, a great draughtsman, flirted with a more exuberant Baroque style before returning to Bologna in 1624 to take over Reni’s studio, and spent the next thirty years churning out sleeping pills. As Rudolf Wittkower wrote:
The tradition of the Carracci ‘Academy’ had an extraordinary power of survival, and through all vicissitudes Bolognese classicism, even in a provincial and, sometimes, debased, feeble and flabby form, continued to be a power which for good or evil made itself felt in many other centres.
In the 19th century, the Bolognese school fell dramatically from favour, attacked by Ruskin in 1847 as having ‘no single virtue, no colour, no drawing, no character, no history, no thought’, which sums up the worst of it.
But Bologna had more up its sleeve: from the time of the Carracci it was the European centre of quadratura painting, illusionist decoration that makes a room appear to extend into imaginary space – a technique invented by the ancient Romans and revived by Mantegna in nearby Mantua. Specialist quadraturistas were used by other artists around Italy to paint backgrounds: the first leaders in the field were Girolamo Curti, ‘Il Dentone’, followed by the team of Michele Colonna and Agostino Mitelli, who invented quadratura with multiple vanishing points.
Even when demand for Bologna’s hackneyed Grand Manner petered out in the 18th century, the imaginative quadraturistas were still popular. This reflected the region’s importance in Baroque theatre and spectacle—the Bibbiena family of Bologna were in demand around Europe for their theatre designs, and Gaspare Vigarini went off to embellish Louis XIV's court at Versailles.
Images by: PD Art