This celebrated drawing by Annibale Carracci is a study for a painted naked youth (known as an ignudo) to the left of the fresco Venus and Anchises, in the Farnese Gallery in Rome. Begun around 1597 by Annibale and his brother Agostino, the fresco cycle forms part of the decorative scheme for a room designed to exhibit Cardinal Odoardo Farnese’s collection of antique sculpture. Annibale’s inventive response to the commission became one of the masterpieces of Baroque art. The originality of the scheme lies in Annibale’s witty engagement with the antique sculptures displayed in the room, as well as with Michelangelo’s decoration of the Sistine Chapel. The monumental ignudo takes inspiration from both these sources, the pose of the figure being especially reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Prophet Jonah.
In the drawing Annibale explores the upward play of light across the figure as it would be seen by a spectator looking up at the ceiling. The impression of the ignudo’s massive bulk is enhanced by this view, the body a surface of rippling muscles. Famous for his insistence on drawing from nature, Annibale most probably sketched a model from life. The physique of the ignudo, however, conforms to the idealised proportions of classical sculpture. Seamlessly, the artist fuses his observation from life with this recognised canon of beauty. The figure’s monumentality is achieved by the most economical of means. Rapidly applied black chalk describes the contours of the model, while passages of smudged chalk convey an extraordinary sense of three-dimensionality. Varying the pressure on the chalk, Annibale achieves a range of effects, from the heavy line that defines the contour of the figure’s back, to feather-light strokes for the sloping right shoulder. The character of the strokes combines with the figure’s pose to give the appearance of movement, as though the escapades of Venus and Anchises, over his left shoulder, have caught his eye.
Text by Maria Zagala from Prints and Drawings in the International Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 39