Venice 1583? – Rome 1618

Latona, with her children Apollo and Diana, turning the Lycian peasants into frogs

Oil on Canvas
79 by 123.5 cms

Private Collection, England

C. Whitfield, “Landscape paintings and drawings by Antonio Carracci” Paragone. November 2006 pp. 3-20

Antonio Carracci was the natural son of Agostino Carracci, born of an affair that he had probably during his first visit to Venice with a courtesan called Isabella. Upon his father’s death in 1602, Antonio moved to Rome and worked with Annibale on a variety of paintings and projects, including the mythologies of the walls of the Farnese Gallery. He inherited the Carracci studio in Rome and its contents on the death of his uncle Annibale in 1609, and had gained the favour of Paul V and his prodatario, Cardinal Michelangelo Tonti, for whom he embarked on a considerable series of chapels and paintings in San Bartolommeo all’ Isola in Rome, the Cardinal’s titular church. Apart from these and other fresco decorations, Antonio was well-known for doing cabinet sized compositions often partly based on the great variety of graphic material he had access to in the Carracci studio. Supported by Cardinal Odoardo Farnese, he also enjoyed the friendship of G.B. Agucchi, and with him began to lay the foundations of an academic tradition in the final short years of his life, which ended prematurely with a great sense of loss in April 1618. The most famous of his works is the Deluge in the Louvre, sometimes derided as a ‘grouillante collection d’académies’ but one of Cardinal Mazarin’s most prized pictures, and a key work for Nicolas Poussin both at the beginning and the end of his career.

This subject of this work is from Ovid [Metamorphoses VI, 317-361). Latona, in Greek mythology Leto, was the daughter of the Titans Coeus and Phoebe, and mother of Diana (Artemis) and Apollo. When she conceived the twins by Zeus, Hera sent the serpent Python after her and forbade all to give her rest or help. Finally she stopped on the island Delos and gave birth. The twins were devoted to their mother and assiduously protected her, as in the stories of Niobe and Python. Leaving the island, she found refuge in Lycia, but after the long journey she found a pool to quench her thirst but was prevented from doing so by some peasants working the osier beds. She promptly punished them by turning them to frogs.

The theme was a familiar one to Annibale Carracci, who painted a different composition earlier, known from a number of versions The figure group of Latona with her children Apollo and Diana relates to the similar group of Charity on the walls on the Farnese gallery and Domenichino’s fresco of Latona on the ceiling at Palazzo Odescalchi at Bassano di Sutri; a drawing by Annibale in the Louvre, originally from Francesco Angeloni’s Musaeum, of a mother and child is connected with this design2. The subject was also painted quite early on by Albani in a work that is now at the Musée Municipal, Dôle3 and echoed in his various later representations of Charity. The Carracci drawing in the Louvre has been regarded as providing the basis for Domenichino’s fresco in the middle of the ceiling at the Palazzo Odescalchi (Giustiniani) at Bassano di Sutri, which dates from 1609, but it would seem more likely that it was in connection with the oval medallion of Charity in the Galleria Farnese referred to above; probably earlier than this he had painted a similar group in the Rest on the Flight into Egypt in the Musée Mandat, Riom4 The present writer will propose in a forthcoming article that this painting, and most of the mythologies on the walls of the Galleria, were in fact executed by Antonio, who was during the years of his uncle’s illness from 1604 to his death in 1609 his principalamanuensis.

Stylistically, the Landscape with Latona has all the hallmarks of Antonio’s hand, and is a revelation of his ability to understand and develop Annibale’s versatility particularly with regard to landscape elements. The central group of figures is characteristically contained and classicized in comparison with the older painter’s draughtsmanship; not only the figure of Latona herself, but also the peasants themselves seem to be inspired by drawings by the older master that may yet be traced It is especially in the very fluent foliage motifs and perspectives, left, centre and right, that we can see Antonio has assimilated many of the techniques to be seen in earlier Annibale landscapes, like the two oval pictures now in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich. The present work has much in common with the Landscape with Bathers (canvas, 76 by 127,5 cms, 30 by 50 ¼ inches) in the collection of the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, R.I., and indeed the identical proportions suggest that these were originally part of the same scheme of decoration.  The subject of Bathers was one that is repeated by other hands in the Carracci studio in Rome, from Domenichino to Sisto Badalocchio, and it may well be that the present canvas and the one from Rhode Island originally formed part of what we can surmise to have been a very significant landscape decoration in the Palazzetto Farnese. Here Domenichino painted the well-known frescoes of Venus and AdonisApollo and Hyacinth and Narcissus, but another room in this building next to the giardino segretodescribed in the 1653 inventory of the contents of Palazzo Farnese had ‘Dicianove guadri a prospettiva di paesi et uno in mezzo più grande con Apollo laureato con il Plettro tutti con cornicetta dorata che rapresentano il giorno, et formano il soffitto di dº Camerino’. The 1662 inventory of works sent from Palazzo Farnese to Parma includes a group of landscapes by the ‘Scola dei Caracci’ that can only correspond with the paintings from this room, and one of them seems to have been the Rhode Island painting, another the Landscape with a Bridge by Annibale Carracci in Berlin. The juxtaposition of this latter work, whose detail has much in common with the present painting and the Rhode Island landscape, shows that it was here that the genre of landscape painting brought to Rome by Annibale Carracci found its principal début. Richard Symonds, in Rome around 1650, was able to admire the decoration before it was dismantled, admiring the first camerino that had a ‘flat roofe which [is] of board and about 10 or 12 foot high is all in quarters with rare paeses of that incomparable master [Annibale Carracci]’

We are grateful to David Scrase for pointing out the preparatory drawing in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (No. 2024; C.H. Shannon Bequest, 1937, pen and brown ink, brown wash, with slight traces of chalk, 191 by 254 mm), which relates to the central group of figures and the landscape elements next to them. This is in itself an unusual survival, for few preparatory drawings for Carraccesque landscapes survive, and this example shows that Antonio had at this stage already determined not only the arrangement of the figures, but also their disposition in the landscape setting. The trees are fluently described with an eye to the same variety that we see in the painting, with a slightly different interpretation of detail as is natural with details of trees and branches. The right hand peasant is more fully transformed into a frog, and is placed behind the overhang of the right-hand bluff, the other two peasants are much closer to how they are realized in the picture. Another drawing associated with the Rhode Island Landscape with Bathers, in this instance for the hilltown that forms the background to the composition, in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford is equally a preparatory design, and together the studies are important evidence of Antonio’s character as a draughtsman, making it possible to identify a further group of Carraccesque landscape drawings.