Farnese Gallery frescoes (1597-1608) by Annibale Carracci
Interpretation of of Classical Mythological Murals

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Farnese Gallery frescoes
By Annibale Carracci.
The greatest paintings of
the classical Italian Baroque.

Farnese Gallery frescoes (1597-1608)


Analysis of the Farnese Gallery frescoes
Interpretation of Other Mural Paintings


Name: Farnese Gallery Frescoes (theme: "The Loves of the Gods")
Artist: Annibale Carracci (1560-1609)
Medium: Mural painting
Genre: Mythological painting
Movement: Early Baroque art
Location: West wing of the Farnese Palace, Rome

For the meaning of other celebrated masterpieces,
please see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).

Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne
on the central ceiling panel.


In 1597, Annibale Carracci - co-founder of the Bolognese School of painting, along with his brother Agostino Carracci (1557-1602) and cousin Ludovico Carracci (1555-1619) - was commissioned by Cardinal Odoardo Farnese, Pope Paul III's nephew, to decorate the barrel-vaulted gallery on the main floor of the Palazzo Farnese in Rome. In fulfilling the commission, Annibale introduced a new grand manner of fresco painting, which was hugely influential within artistic circles. They were ranked alongside the Sistine Chapel frescoes (1508-41) and the Raphael Rooms (1508-20), as the greatest achievements of monumental fresco painting. Created mostly between 1597 and 1601 but not finally completed until 1608, the frescoes marked a complete break from Mannerism and paved the way for the new idiom of Baroque painting which became the dominant style of the 17th century. Annibale Carracci was assisted by his older brother Agostino, as well as Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647), Francesco Albani (1578-1660), Domenichino (1581-1641) and Sisto Badalocchio (1585-1647). Palazzo Farnese is one of the most important examples of Renaissance architecture in Rome. Begun in 1517 for the Farnese family, the building involved architectural contributions from many of the greatest architects of the day, including Michelangelo (1475-1564), Antonio da Sangallo the Younger (1484-1546), and Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola (1507-73). Acquired by the state, the building was leased to the French government in 1936 and currently houses the French Embassy in Italy.

Analysis of the Farnese Gallery frescoes

Before decorating the Farnese Gallery, Annibale Carracci first frescoed a smaller chamber (1595-7) in the palace with scenes from the life of Hercules. This room, known as the Sala d'Ercole (the Hercules Room), was so named because it had for centuries accommodated the famous Greco-Roman statue known as the Farnese Hercules (now in the National Archeological Museum, Naples), which was a Roman copy of the 4th-century BCE original by Lysippos.

It was also the Farnese collection of art from classical antiquity that prompted the decorative iconography of the Farnese Gallery. Unlike the Genesis fresco (1508-12) and the Last Judgment fresco (1534-41) in the Sistine Chapel, and Raphael's frescoes in the Vatican apartments - almost all of which were religious paintings - the Farnese Gallery decorations are mythological paintings dating back to pagan antiquity - a most unusual phenomenon in a city that prided itself on being the centre of Catholic Counter-Reformation art.



The decoration of the gallery does not consist of a single scene, but rather a collection of individual paintings surrounding a principal scene - The Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne - which occupies the centre-panel of the ceiling. (See also: Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520-23, by Titian.)

The individual pictures are set inside painted frames (quadri riportati) including an illusionistic architectural framework (quadratura) supported by ignudi, putti, and herms. The whole decorative scheme was a showcase for the Carraccis' revitalized classicism - that is, a return to the naturalism of High Renaissance art, and thus a rejection of the prevailing idiom of Mannerist painting with its non-naturalistic contortions.

The overall theme chosen was "The Loves of the Gods". In the centre-panel, The Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne shows a procession carrying Bacchus and Ariadne to their 'lover's' bed, which recalls the triumphal processions of Ancient Rome. In Carracci's fresco, Bacchus and Ariadne occupy chariots pulled by tigers and goats, and accompanied by cavorting bacchanti, nymphs, and satyrs. At the head of the procession, Bacchus' drunken tutor, Silenus, is riding an ass.

Annibale Carracci's classical but exuberant style of painting - full of movement and the effects of light on different forms - recalls the naturalism of the northern Italian painters especially Correggio (1489-1534), Titian (c.1485-1576) and Paolo Veronese (1528-88). It exerted a significant influence on other Italian Baroque artists, including Andrea Sacchi (1599-1661), Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669), and Poussin (1594-1665). The Farnese Gallery frescoes played a key role in the transition from the Italian Renaissance to the Baroque, with its dynamism, its use of colour and its dramatic tenebrism.

NOTE: While Annibale Carracci created a type of naturalism based on idealized classical models, another brilliant innovator - Caravaggio (1573-1610) - was developing a dark, dramatic and vividly realistic style of naturalism. For more on the contrasting work of this pair, see: Classicism and Naturalism in 17th Century Italian Painting.

Iconography of Farnese Frescoes

See below for a list of the iconographical themes covered in the murals of the Farnese Gallery.


Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne


- Jupiter and Juno
- Diana and Endymion
- Hercules and Iole
- Venus and Anchises
- Aurora and Cephalus
- Glaucus and Scylla
- Polyphemus in Love
- Polyphemus in Anger
- The Rape of Ganymede
- Apollo and Hyacinthus
- Pan and Diana
- Mercury and Paris
- Apollo and Marsyas (Medallion)
- Cupid and Pan (Medallion)
- Boreas and Orithyia (Medallion)
- Orpheus and Euridice (Medallion)
- Pan and Syrinx (Medallion)
- Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (Medallion)
- Europa and the Bull (Medallion)
- Hero and Leander (Medallion)
- Jason and the Golden Fleece (Medallion)
- Paris (Husband of Helen of Troy) (Medallion)
- Pan (Medallion)


- Fortitude
- Temperance
- Justice
- Charity
- Perseus and Andromeda
- Perseus fighting Phineas
- Virgin with the Unicorn
- Dedalus and Icarus
- Diana and Callisto
- Callisto's Metamorphosis into a Bear
- Mercury and Apollo
- Arion the Citharist
- Minerva and Prometheus
- Hercules kills the Dragon
- Hercules frees Prometheus
- Cardinal Alessandro Farnese's Heraldic shield
- Duke Alessandro Farnese's Heraldic shield
- Cardinal Odoardo Farnese's Heraldic shield
- Duke Ranuccio Farnese's Heraldic shield

Interpretation of Other Mural Paintings

Arena Chapel Frescoes (1303-10) by Giotto di Bondone.
Cappella degli Scrovegni, Padua.

Brancacci Chapel Frescoes (1424-8) by Masaccio (and Masolino).
Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence.

Camera Degli Sposi Frescoes (1465-74) by Andrea Mantegna.
Ducal palace, Mantua

Assumption of the Virgin (Correggio) (1526-30)
Parma Cathedral.

Allegory of Divine Providence (1633-39) by Pietro da Cortona.
Gran Salone, Palazzo Barberini, Rome.

Apotheosis of St Ignatius (1688-94) by Andrea Pozzo.
Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Campus Martius, Rome.


• For more murals by Italian Baroque artists, see: Homepage.

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