Scholars today are unanimously agreed that this depiction of the goatlike rustic deity Pan is by the hand of Annibale Carracci, arguably the greatest master of the sixteenth-century Bolognese school. Following its acquisition by the National Gallery of Victoria in 1974, this work was identified as one of the important group of paintings commissioned c.1592 by Cesare d’Este, Duke of Ferrara (1562–1628), as a decorative scheme for a room in his Palazzo dei Diamanti. The painting is striking for its di sotto in sù foreshortening – a particular approach to perspective whereby a figure was shown ‘from underneath, looking upward’. Noting that foreshortening of this kind occurs in Pan and in the four oval paintings by the Carracci known to have featured in the commission – Venus by Annibale, Pluto by Agostino, and Galatea and Flora by Ludovico (all now at the Galleria Estense, Modena) – Clare Robertson, in the catalogue to the 1992 exhibition Rubens and the Italian Renaissance, suggested that the five were originally part of a cycle of fifteen oval and octagonal depictions of classical gods that adorned the coffered ceiling of the Palazzo’s Camera del Poggiolo.
With the secession of Ferrara to the Papal States in 1598, the Este lost many of their works of art, while others were removed to Modena. Writing to Duke Francesco d’Este on 2 April 1630, Gaspare Prati, the ducal agent who had been responsible for transporting the paintings to Modena, mentions ‘a God Pan made in Bologna, by whom is not precisely known’. Although it is generally accepted that the reference is to this work it remains unclear why this painting should have become separated from the other four canvases by the Carracci, and why it lost its attribution so early.
Text by Veronica Angelatos from Painting and sculpture before 1800 in the international collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 43.