It's hard to get a fix on Annibale Carracci (1560-1609), who hid out in his art.

Annibale, as he is called (his name, pronounced ah-NEE-ballay, is Italian for Hannibal), had so many ways of drawing, and such mastery of all of them, that in the midst of his quick shiftings he keeps slipping out of sight.

Like Shakespeare, his contemporary, he always found a way to fit his style to his theme.

When he drew a public hanging--the broken neck, the jeering crowd--he did so in a manner as rough as a police report's. His Madonnas are celestial. The pen strokes he employed when drawing rearing horses twist and plunge and strain. Annibale could do sensual Venetian art, and antiquarian Roman art, and street art, and the courtly, and breezes stirring autumn leaves, and butchers weighing meat.

Ninety-five of his old drawings are now in the National Gallery of Art's West Building, and the only thing they lack is that spark of personality most modern viewers yearn for. We know a Rembrandt is a Rembrandt the moment that we see it, we know a van Gogh's a van Gogh, but these drawings are not like that. Annibale's a mystery. To follow his swift hand, to track the movements of his pens or his chunks of colored chalk, is to recognize a master. Yet the longer we look the less we know about the man.

We know his dark-eyed face, for he left a few self-portraits. And we know his place in history, for his drawings fit precisely between those of the Renaissance and those of the baroque. We know he knew the muscled art of mighty Michelangelo, which shouldn't be surprising since both of them helped decorate the same grand Roman palace, and we know he understood the ultra-realistic art of Caravaggio, for the two men worked together on the same Roman chapel. But Annibale, the man, is still a sort of blur to us. We do not know his heart.

Annibale, in Rome, served the richest princes of the Roman Catholic Church, and lived within their palaces, yet refused the role of courtier. The artist wasn't tidy, or socially assured. "Annibale," wrote Carlo Cesare Malvasia in 1678, "was not overly clean, and dressed in the worst way, with collar all twisted, with hat brim turned up four different ways, cloak every which way, and beard unkempt." Once, when Cardinal Borghese, a nephew of the pope, came to see the artist, Annibale in panic fled out of the back door. There is roughness in such stories, and shyness, and refusal, but none of this is sensed in the confidence and ease of his sure and fluid art.

There is yet another reason for his eerie indistinctness. Annibale, for years, was regarded by historians as just one of the Carracci, less an individual than a member of a team.

As a young man in Bologna he collaborated so closely with his brother Agostino (1557-1602), and their cousin Lodovico (1555-1619), that art historians are still struggling to tell the three of them apart.

That's the way those artists liked it. They weren't seeking to be soloists. When asked once by a patron which of them had painted a fresco on the walls of the Palazzo Magnani-Salem, the three of them refused to parcel out the credit. "It is by the Carracci," they responded. "All of us made it."

The art school the Carracci established in Bologna--the Academia degli Incamminati (the "academy of those progressing," of "those who're on the road")--stressed cooperation. The painters and the sculptors, plasterers and gilders, enrolled in their academy learned together, ate together, and drew together, too.

The young artists enrolled there copied master paintings, drew from skeletons and models, and cut apart cadavers. They studied linear perspective, mythology and literature. Sometimes they competed. Who could draw the fastest? Who could depict a figure group with a single bounding line without lifting up the pen from the surface of the paper? They drew and drew and drew.

One sees that in this art. From early in his childhood Annibale drew ceaselessly. Drawing all the time does more than exercise the hand. It opens up the mind.

Annibale Carracci didn't see as we see. You or I, when meeting an acquaintance on the street, might recognize a smile, or note a necktie, but Annibale saw everything. He saw the texture of the hair, and the shadows on the brow, and the landscape in the background, and the movements of the muscles underneath the skin.

And if he saw it he could draw it. If he dreamed it he could draw it. The scenes that he imagined--Jesus staggering in pain beneath the burden of his Cross, or satyrs in the woods, or Venus on her couch--are realized as fully as his portraits done from life.

Nothing interrupts the orchestrated actions moving hand, and memory, and detail-seeing eye. Annibale's no mannerist. Nor is he a cartoonist. No matter what his image, no matter what his speed, he somehow holds in balance the accurately gauged proportions of the whole.

And his shifts are smooth as silk. In the British Museum's "A Boy Taking off His Sock" (circa 1584) one can see Annibale changing his direction when he's only halfway done.

The sock is torn and holed and mended. The boy (who looks to be pulling it on, not taking it off) seems lost in a distraction fit--when suddenly the drawing zooms off into landscape. He's no longer just a model posing in the studio, he's suddenly a mythic lad beside a mythic sea. There's an island in the distance, and a Roman ship as well, and what one read, at first, as the left leg of the model is a leg no longer. It's become a seaside rock.

In "Baldassare Aloisi, called 'Galanino' " (1589-1590), a portrait drawing in red chalk borrowed from Berlin, what amazes the observer is the wonderful control of the repetitious movements of the artist's darting hand.

Annibale often rubbed his chalks into his paper as if they were pastels, but here he used hatchings--mere parallel chalked lines--which evoke all the surfaces he wishes us to see.

Annibale was fast. In this portrait you can sense his hand moving at top speed. He's only drawing little lines, one after another, and yet together they make visible the patience of the sitter, and the fullness of his lashes, and the newness of his haircut, and the soft light on his temple, and the shining of the silky, costly collar of his coat.

"The Drawings of Annibale Carracci" ought to draw big crowds, but probably won't. Drawing shows, we know by now, are not every viewer's cup of tea.

Painting shows do better. Paintings are, well, louder. If paintings were full symphonies, drawings would be chamber music. And paintings are more colorful--though lots of colors dance among these tinted papers, swiftly brushed-in washes and varicolored chalks. And most drawings are small--though one immense exception is here on display.

"A Bacchic Procession With Silenus" is one of the largest Old Master drawings that has managed to survive. Annibale composed it in 1598--on more than 50 glued-together sheets of brownish paper. A study for a fresco in the Palazzo Farnese, it's more than 11 feet high.

It was Odoardo Farnese, a 19-year-old cardinal and the master of that house, who lured Annibale to Rome. The facade of his huge palace had been partially designed by Michelangelo, and the cardinal was determined that its interior decorations be comparably grand. Annibale came through. The frescoes he designed for the Farnese Gallery--with their eye-deceiving statues, supposedly woven tapestries, gigantic bronze medallions and heavy gilded frames, all of which are merely paint--were the grandest done in Rome since Michelangelo completed his Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Annibale's great ceiling--which bows to Michelangelo, and to Raphael as well, while presaging the light-filled baroque ceilings yet to come--was regarded as a wonder. Images from life, and classical antiquity, and blasts of sex and sky and brio were blended in his ceiling into one compelling whole. Many of the drawings in which the artist figured out that complex composition are included in this show.

A viewer might suppose that he painted it in joy. But Annibale was miserable. He hated the work. He felt underpaid and undervalued. He quarreled with his brother, Agostino, and with the employer. Then he fell apart.

It might have been a stroke. It might have been a breakdown. A doctor at the time described the artist's ailment as "a deep depression accompanied by emptiness of mind and lapses of memory. He neither spoke nor remembered." Annibale never signed another painting. His students tried to cheer him up. Nothing seemed to work. The artist, once the toast of Rome, slid into despair, and into penury. When he died in 1609 at the age of 48, the only goods he owned were some bits of broken silver and a few tattered shirts.

He was buried near Raphael in the Pantheon in Rome.

"The Drawings of Annibale Carracci" includes loans from Queen Elizabeth II, the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth, the Louvre, the Uffizi, and a score of other notable collections. A team of Carracci specialists, among them Diane De Grazia, formerly of the gallery, now of the Cleveland Museum of Art, contributed to the catalogue. Margaret Morgan Grasselli, the gallery's curator of Old Master drawings, coordinated their efforts. A grant from Republic National Bank of New York, and Safra Republic Holdings, Luxembourg, helped pay for the exhibit.

"The Drawings of Annibale Carracci" will not travel. It closes Jan. 9.

'THE DRAWINGS OF ANNIBALE CARRACCI'

"The Drawings of Annibale Carracci" at the National Gallery of Art includes 95 sheets by the enigmatic Italian artist who was born in Bologna in 1560 and died in Rome in 1609. The exhibition--in the gallery's West Building, Fifth Street and Constitution Avenue NW--is supported by a grant from the Republic National Bank of New York, and Safra Republic Holdings S.A., Luxembourg. A 304-page, fully illustrated catalogue by a team of Carracci scholars accompanies the show. The gallery is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is free. For further information call 202-737-4215.