Serendipity, scholars and students combine to bring ‘Gods and Goddesses’ to IU Art Museum

Claude Lefèbvre after Annibale Carracci

Claude Lefèbvre created reproductive prints of Annibale Carracci’s Farnese Gallery paintings, including “Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne,” now on display at the IU Art Museum.

The Indiana University Art Museum will celebrate the opening of three new special exhibitions with a public reception tonight.

Behind one of those exhibitions, “Gods and Goddesses: Annibale Carracci and the Renaissance Reborn,” is the story of prints, a palace, a great escape and a good measure of serendipity.

The show is the result of a collaboration between art history professor Giles Knox, his students and Nan Brewer, the museum’s Lucienne M. Glaubinger Curator of Works on Paper, who brought their ideas to fruition.

The prints and the palace

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel murals might be world-famous, but another spectacular ceiling is less than two miles away at the Palazzo Farnese in Rome.

The Farnese Gallery ceiling is the masterwork of Annibale Carracci (1560–1609), the most influential Italian artist of the 17th century.

Today, Carracci and his family of artists have been “put in the shadow” by Caravaggio, a colorful contemporary figure. “The problem is that we don’t like to appreciate the mainstream,” Knox said.

Claude Lefèbvre, after Annibale Carracci, “Polyphemus Furioso and Polyphemus Innamorato”

Claude Lefèbvre, after Annibale Carracci, “Polyphemus Furioso and Polyphemus Innamorato”

The Carracci frescoes that illustrate the “The Loves of the Gods” have always been difficult for the public to see because they were in a private palace, which today serves as the French Embassy. Still, the important compositions were shared over the centuries through hand-engraved reproductions made by various artists.

“Gods and Goddesses” features 14 prints made by 17th-century French engraver Claude Lefèbvre, as well as supporting materials that include a video of the spectacular Farnese ceiling.

“These prints are really quite magnificent,” Knox said. “They really convey the beauty of the ceiling Annibale painted.”

A colorful journey

The Lefèbvre prints came to Indiana in a most unusual way.

A former IU professor inherited some prints from his family, but they were trapped in East Germany during the Cold War.

The prints remained stashed in the nationalized home for decades, but were left alone by friends living there. When the professor was permitted to visit just a few years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, he managed to spirit the family prints past border guards as he left the country.


Years later, the professor met Knox and invited him to see the collection.

Knox, who specializes in European art of the period, took an interest in the professor’s prints and decided to make them the focus of a graduate seminar.

Last spring, all eight students in the class prepared catalog entries on the prints. Later in the term he asked if anyone was interested in helping prepare an exhibition. He had two enthusiastic volunteers: Carlotta Paltrinieri and Zoe Van Dyke.

“Carlotta and I divided our work pretty evenly and collaborated well together,” said Van Dyke, a master’s student in art history.

Claude Lefèbvre after Annibale Carracci,

Claude Lefèbvre, after Annibale Carracci, “Medallions with Boreas and Oriethyia and the Flaying of Marsyas”

They met with Knox and Brewer all semester and over the summer. When that wasn’t possible, they exchanged email.

The two students helped select which prints would be the focus of the show, how it should be organized and how the prints should flow as visitors walked through the space. They shared the writing of wall labels, too.

Paltrinieri, a Ph.D. student studying Italian literature, also assisted with translation. And over the summer, she returned home to Carpi, Italy.

Knox asked Paltrinieri to secure high-resolution images of The Farnese Gallery ceiling, so she traveled to Rome. She arrived July 14, only to find the French Embassy at the Palazzo choked with tourists. It was Bastille Day.

Luckily she had met Lorenza D’Alessandro, who was restoring the Carracci frescoes, the year before when Paltrinieri was teaching at IU’s Florence Summer Program. The master conservator spotted Paltrinieri and plucked her from the line so she could get what she needed.

A lasting impression

“When I sat down in class that first day, I had no idea this could happen. This would never happen in Europe,” Paltrinieri said. “I had no idea it would lead to an actual exhibition for a whole semester.”

“Working alongside the museum personnel, Giles, and Carlotta has been a fantastic experience. I would do it all over again if I could,” Van Dyke said. “We often met our deadlines early, and I think that speaks to our commitment to and passion for the show and the IU Art Museum.”

Paltrinieri added that Brewer was very practical and welcoming. “Without her, I don’t think there would be an exhibition today.”

Fall 2015 openings

Three special exhibitions open with a public reception from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sept. 25 at The IU Art Museum.

Grand Allusions: Robert Barnes — Late Works 1985-2015” will celebrate the prolific painter and longtime Indiana University art professor who retired in 1999. This partial retrospective presents the rare opportunity to view 18 of his large-scale paintings at once, in addition to 20 smaller works on paper.

  • Michael Rooks of Atlanta’s High Museum of Art will present the opening lecture “Robert Barnes/Blood, Paint and Whiskey” at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 25 in Fine Arts Room 015.
  • A Collectors Panel on Robert Barnes will be held at 1 p.m. Sept. 26 in the IU Art Museum’s Special Exhibitions Gallery.

“Grand Allusions,” “Gods and Goddesses” and “The Indian Sari: Next to the Skin, Close to the Heart” will remain on view through Dec. 20. Visit the website for more information on the shows and a full schedule of related events.

Gods and Goddesses” events

  • The lecture “Annibale or Agostino Carracci — Who Did What When?” will begin at 6 p.m. Oct. 2 in Room 251 of the Radio and TV Building. A light reception with Italian-inspired desserts will follow in the museum’s Thomas T. Solley atrium.
  • Paltrinieri and Van Dyke will deliver the noon talk “The Metamorphoses of Annibale” at 12:15 p.m. Nov. 11 in the museum’s Judi and Milt Stewart Hexagon Gallery. The graduate students will discuss the role of metamorphoses in the work of Annibale Carracci as it connects to Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” and to his stylistic transformation in the Farnese Gallery. For a full schedule of related events, visit the website.

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