"Prints and Related Drawings by the Carracci Family," on view in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, is a scholarly exhibition. It is also saucy.
Pendants who explore it seeking information on 16th-century Italy, the Bolognese Academy and post-Mannerist engraving will not be disappointed. Those of lower tastes -- hucksters, for example -- will learn here just as much.
The Carracci of Bologna, though revered as Old Masters, understood the grabber. They developed a mass market exploited in our own day by Hugh Hefner, Larry Flynt, television admen, the publishers of baseball cards and Cecil B. De Mille.
Most scholars credit the Carracci with dampening the Mannerist excesses of the previous generations. By turning once again to the art of the antique, they helped prepare the path for the Baroque art yet to come. Their frescoes and their paintings are well-known to all scholars. But this large, important show is the first to call attention to their prints.
Art history remembers at least four Carracci. The present show stars two -- Agostino (1557-1602) and his younger brother, Annibale (1560-1609), both of whom learned much from their cousin, Lodovico (1555-1619).
Shakespeare was alive when they made their pictures. Their engravings, like his plays, today seem encrusted with mythological references and latinate allusions, but beneath those encrustations one feels the pulse of life.
They knew just what would sell. Their little baseball-card-sized copper-plate engravings of the saints and the apostles were peddled on the street. In late 16th-century Bologna, then a papal state, few churchgoers could read. Elder brother Agostino, the family's most prolific printmaker, engraved portraits of the famous (of Titian, the great painter, of II Sivello, the great actor). He designed coats of arms for Bolognese aristocrats. Publishing was booming, libraries were growing, and he illustrated books. Common people, then as now, liked to see themselves in pictures, so he made a set of pictures of Bologna's tradesmen.
Cousin Lodovico, a systemic art historian, led tours of Florence, Parma, Mantua and Venice studying old paintings. In those days before the photograph there were few other ways of learning about pictures. Agostino knew of one. He spent much of his life making "reproductive prints" of famous works of art.
Though he has been disparaged for copying his betters, he did not copy blandly. His cross-hatchings of black-on-white often suggest colors. When he reproduced a rather cramped and muddy composition by, say, Paolo Veronese, he gave to his engraving new clarity and air.
Their prints were often sacred, occasionally profane and sometimes both at once.
Agostino, no doubt, would have understood the admen who, when selling Chevrolets, pose smiling nymphs in flimsies baside their shiny cars. Whenever it seemed appropriate -- and sometimes when it didn't -- he spiced his engravings with a flash of leg or knee.
Cincluded in the 162 drawings, etchings and engravings, most of which have never been exhibited before, are countless Venuses, nymphs and pretty angels who show off their charms.
One of the them appears in "St. Francis Consoled by the Musical Angel," a 1595 engraving. This devotional picture is a reproduction. Agostino took the image -- at least he copied most of it -- from a famous, maudlin painting by Francesco Vanni. Vanni's scraggly saint mourns over his crucifix. So does Agostino's. But Vanni's Viol-playing angel is a little cherub of small erotic interest. Agostino's, a winged lass of great beauty, parts her flowing robes to bare a shapely thigh.
Between 1590 and 1595, in a set of 15 prints known as the "Lascivie" (because they are lascivious) he went even further. His subjects are classical -- "Susanna and the Elders," "Lot and his Daughters," "Orpheus and Eurydice" -- but his pictures aren't. Nudes are stripped, or whipped, or chanied to seaside rocks while sea monsters slaver. Seventy years earlier the artist Marcantonio, a colleague of Raphael's, had been imprisoned by the pope for a set of similar pictures. Agostino's works displeased Pope Clement VII highly but the lucky artist got off with a rebuke.
He was, by all accounts, gregarious, intellectual, a poet, a munsician, a so-phisticated charmer. Perhaps he put on airs. His younger brother thought so. Annibale, the far better painter, was ill-kempt, antisocial. "Remember," he'd tell his brother, "our father was a butcher." The two men often quarreled.
Though scholars think more highly of Annibale, this show -- organized by Diane DeGrazia Bohlin, the Gallery's curator of Italian drawings -- helps to right the balance. She demonstrates conclusively how much Annibale learned, about printmaking and more, from Agostino's art.
Cousin Lodovico, who because he made few prints is a minor figure here, was a solid, teaching scholar. "The constant interchange among all three Carracci indicates that they each fed on the other's knowledge and ideas," notes Bohlin. The three of them together formed the academy in Bologna. They made prints of the same image (Annibale's are the softer, more subtle). "They painted together after each other's drawings," writes Bohlin, "and probably discussed changes in projects daily."
Though artists often father artists -- one thinks of the Peales, the Calders, the Renoirs and the Wyeths -- rarely in art history have related artists as fine as the Carracci thrived at the same time.
Bohlin's scholarly publication, which accompanies the show, is not a pamphlet but a book. Four years in preparation, her 560-page study is the first catalog raisonne of the Carracci prints to appear since 1818. A symposium, "The Carracci and Italian Art c. 1600,"will be held on April 7 in the Gallery's East Building. The pictures on display were borrowed from Princeton, Harvard, Oxford, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the Louvre, the Ufizzi, and other fine museums. "Prints and Related Drawings by the Carracci Family" closes May 20.