Annibale Carracci, Landscape with the Flight into Egypt

Annibale Carracci, Landscape with the Flight into Egypt, c. 1604, oil on canvas, 122 x 230 cm (Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome). Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

Additional resources

This painting at the Galleria Doria Pamphilj

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re in the Doria Pamphilj Gallery in Rome, looking at a painting by Annibale Carracci. This is the building that this painting was made for.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:15] It’s one of four lunettes that were created for this palazzo, and we’re looking at the “Flight into Egypt.”

Dr. Zucker: [0:22] This is a story from the Bible. It is a consequence of the three Magi having come from the east in search of the newly born Jesus Christ. They first stop at King Herod’s and ask for directions to the newly born king of the Jews.

[0:36] Now, having said that makes King Herod more than a bit paranoid. He orders the Massacre of the Innocents.

Dr. Harris: [0:43] Joseph, in a dream, learns of the danger to the Christ Child, and he and Mary set off for Egypt. That’s the scene that we’re looking at, this flight for the safety of the Holy Family.

Dr. Zucker: [0:56] This is so obviously not Egypt. What we’re looking at is this expansive, verdant landscape with mountains and rolling green hills. This is not about historical accuracy.

Dr. Harris: [1:08] It’s an interesting painting because we normally think about religious paintings being front and center, expounding that narrative. But here it’s the landscape that really draws us in.

[1:20] I’m thinking, for example, of Raphael’s paintings of the Madonna and Child, where we have figures in the foreground and the rolling hills of the Italian countryside. They all serve as a background for these religious figures.

Dr. Zucker: [1:35] Here, [it] takes a moment to even notice the figures. What my eye goes to first is this large hill town, framed by trees, with this lovely atmospheric perspective.

Dr. Harris: [1:45] The colors fade to light grays and blues, creating this really masterful illusion of space.

Dr. Zucker: [1:52] It invites our eye to explore. My eye goes to the waterfall coming out of the stone wall. It goes to the rooftops of the houses that we can see just above. Then my eye goes to the roofs of the buildings that we can see within. There’s a round structure with an oculus, that is, with an opening at the top that reminds me of the Pantheon in Rome.

[2:13] This is meant to recall ancient architecture.

Dr. Harris: [2:16] Carracci practiced early in his career in Bologna but then comes to Rome. The ancient Roman architecture and sculpture that he sees around him has an enormous impact.

Dr. Zucker: [2:28] The problem that the artist has set for himself is how to create a classical landscape — a landscape that recalls the great literary and artistic traditions of ancient Greece and Rome. He does that by creating a landscape known as the pastoral, an ideal landscape that has been perfected by man’s presence, that is harmonious, that is measured, and that is beautiful.

Dr. Harris: [2:51] It is eternally spring. One imagines that the sky is always this perfect, with just the right amount of clouds. We have human beings who are in harmony with nature: the shepherd with his sheep, the figure who’s ferrying a boat across the stream.

Dr. Zucker: [3:09] What’s so interesting is that in Rome, at this very moment, we have a very different style of painting that is developing thanks to the artist Caravaggio, who is creating dramatic images that focus on the human body and that obscure almost everything else, that is rejecting the classical.

[3:27] But Annibale Carracci is doing almost the opposite. The human body is minimized. He’s trying to recall that classical tradition of ancient Greece and ancient Rome, of the poetry of Virgil and other classical writers.

Dr. Harris: [3:40] This painting by Carracci minimizes the figures. But here in Rome, we could go to the Cerasi Chapel and see an altarpiece by Carracci of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary framed by two paintings by Caravaggio that couldn’t be more different in style.

[3:57] The figures are monumental. They’re close to us. They’re dramatic. There’s a powerful movement of Mary’s body being assumed into Heaven. But here, landscape does take preeminence. Landscape is becoming, beginning in the 16th century, more and more important.

Dr. Zucker: [4:17] Carracci does seem to be paying attention to northern Renaissance artists like Patinir or Bruegel. I’m thinking specifically of “The Fall of Icarus,” where we have an ancient mythic story, but the figure that represents that story is not front and center. The landscape is dominant.

[4:34] And so here, we have an Italian artist that is putting the landscape front and center. This will have a dramatic impact on 17th-century artists, not only in Italy but also in France. Painters like Poussin and Claude.

Dr. Harris: [4:48] To me, so much of the landscape elements help to draw my eye to the Holy Family — that diagonal line of sheep, the water, even the white birds that seem to be leading the way for the Holy Family. The oarsman draws my eye to them. But because they’re small, there is a sense of the difficulty of this trip.

Dr. Zucker: [5:11] Although the landscape is so dominant, it is still in service to the biblical narrative.

Dr. Harris: [5:17] The light falls on Mary, who’s tenderly carrying the Christ Child, who looks out at us. Mary looks back toward Joseph.

Dr. Zucker: [5:26] Mary does stand out because she alone wears the bright colors of blue and red, whereas Joseph is covered with cloth the tones of the landscape, whereas Mary pairs with the brilliance of the sky.

Dr. Harris: [5:39] Look at how Carracci has so beautifully painted highlights and shadows around Mary, the veil around her head, the very faint halo and the clothes that swaddle Christ and his very tender gesture as he seems to cling to his mother.

[5:54] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Annibale Carracci, Landscape with the Flight into Egypt," in Smarthistory, July 24, 2023, accessed June 21, 2024,