Annibale Carracci’s Ceiling in the Palazzo Farnese

Annibale Carracci’s ceiling frescoes in the Palazzo Farnese are considered by many to be one of the most influential Renaissance commissions in Rome. When the Bolognese artist’s love-themed cycle was unveiled in 1600 it was hailed as a masterpiece. Carracci’s mix of northern Italian naturalism and Roman idealism laid the foundation for Baroque art. Now, thanks to the combined efforts of the World Monuments Fund, the French Embassy in Italy (which occupies the palace along with the Ecole Française de Rome) and the Paris-based Fondation de l’Orangerie pour la Philan­thropie Individuelle, around €1m has been allocated for the restoration of the “Carracci Gallery” frescoes. Work is expected to begin this year.

When Cardinal Odoard Farnese was looking to decorate the barrel-vaulted gallery of his lavish 16th-century palace, the cardinal’s brother, the Duke of Parma, Piacenza and Castro, recommended Annibale Carracci. In 1597 Carracci took up the commission with instructions to base his composition on the theme of the “Loves of the Gods” to mark the wedding of the Duke of Parma to the grandniece of Pope Clement VIII, Margherita Aldobrandini.

The cycle consists of a series of mythological scenes set within frames and architectural elements. The composition’s centrepiece, The Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne, depicts the lovers in tiger- and goat-driven chariots. The ceiling took 11 years to complete, during which time Carracci enlisted the help of his brothers Agostino, Ludovico and Antonio, as well as artists from his workshop including Giovanni Lanfranco and Domenichino.

Work to stabilise the vault was first undertaken in the late 17th century by artist Carlo Maratta and various initiatives to protect and secure the ceiling were carried out in 1923, 1936 and most recently, in 1994.

Plans for the restoration project are still being finalised and the scientific committee tasked with overseeing the project has yet to be announced. Carracci’s use of both true fresco as well as a secco (pigments tempered with egg, oil or glue are applied to dry plaster) techniques in the ceiling’s decoration may complicate the restoration as conservators will need to make sure that certain delicate elements such as shading, which was often executed in a secco, are not removed during the cleaning process.

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