The Jesuit order, which was founded in the mid sixteenth century, gained enormous numbers of followers
in Italy and throughout the world. The Jesuits called for a militant defense of the church and its doctrines,
but they also were great teachers who tried to inspire their congregations to imitate Christ in their everyday
actions. Martyrs and mystics were among the most popular saints, each representing a belief so powerful
that it demanded physical sacrifice or surrender. Some of the most amazing works made in seventeenth-
century Italy heighten the physical and sensual qualities of religious subjects.
Finally, the Catholic Church reaffirmed the pope’s absolute authority, which was transferred to him from
St. Peter. It should be no surprise that some of the most magnificent works of the baroque period in Italy
were made to adorn the basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome. Among the churches completed in the late 16th or
early 17th century are St. Peter’s with its magnificent colonnade added by Bernini in the mid-17th century
and Il Gesù, where a wider, more open nave was designed to allow people to see and hear the services
In spite of the zeal of the Jesuits and other reformers within the Church, however, there was no lack of
corruption or excess. Some of the most important patrons of seventeenth-century Italy were cardinals.
These high-ranking members of the church were often from the wealthiest families of Rome—the Barberini,
the Borghese, the Farnese. Often, these men lived ostentatious lives, kept lovers, and furnished their
enormous palaces with the best works of art money could buy. We may well question the morality of these
men, while admiring the extraordinary works they commissioned.
Although mannerism remained the most popular style in Italy through the sixteenth century, toward the
end of the century a growing number of artists and critics began to reject its complex compositions,
exaggerated postures and proportions, and complicated meanings. Critics called for reform on at least two
fronts. Counter-Reformation critics wanted religious art that would clearly convey acceptable doctrine to
the faithful. They were tired of religious art that showed how talented the artist was at the expense of the
message the painting contained. Other critics called for reform from a more purely artistic point of view,
no matter what the piece’s subject matter. They felt that artists had stopped looking at nature and had
moved too far from the perfection that the High Renaissance masters achieved.
Annibale Carracci, his brother Agostino, and their cousin Ludovico together represent those who called for
reform on purely artistic grounds. In order to teach young artists a better way of working, they established
an academy for artists in their native city of Bologna. While artists would still receive their technical training
in workshops, the Carracci Academy tried to give artists a more intellectual foundation for their work. They
wanted artist to once again study nature, and they particularly encouraged learning from the great masters
of the Italian High Renaissance: Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian. Artists should take the best qualities from
each of them—the powerful drawing of Michelangelo, the idealism of Raphael, and the color of Titian—and
combine them into the best possible style.
Annibale’s frescoes in the Farnese Palace in Rome demonstrate his ideas. The grand scale and ambitious
content of the ceiling frescoes rival Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Ceiling, and details like the nudes at
the corners of the main scenes and the muscular framing figures, painted to look like sculpture are further
references to his work. The main theme is the loves of the classical gods, and the individual scenes recall
Raphael’s idealism as well as Titian’s sensuality.
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