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Annibale Carracci (Bologna 1560-Rome 1609)

An Allegory of Truth and Time c.1584-1585

Oil on canvas | 130.0 x 169.6 cm (support, canvas/panel/stretcher external) | RCIN 404770

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  • The winged figure of Time has brought his daughter, Truth, from the depths of a well to reveal her to the light of day. Truth radiates light and looks in a mirror, while two-faced Deceit is trampled under Truth's feet. Framing the scene on the right is Happy Ending and on the left, Good Luck or Happiness. The moral seems to be both 'all's well that ends well' and 'the truth will out'.

    No specific source for the subject of this painting has been identified. Annibale probably consulted books such as Vincenzo Cartari's mythography Le Imagini con la spositione de i dei de gli antichi first published in Venice in 1556 and with illustrations in 1571, compiled from classical sources such as Pliny. The moral of the painting would seem to correspond to two famous sayings (also current in English): 'The truth will out' and 'All's well that ends well'. In the centre of the composition Time has brought his daughter, Truth, from the depths of a well to reveal her to the light of day. Time famously flies (hence the wings) and holds an hourglass; Truth is light (which explains her sunburst halo) and looks at herself in a mirror, which presents a true image of the world. Truth tramples underfoot a figure personifying Deceit (sometimes called Fraud, Hypocrisy or Calumny). After its most recent restoration a malevolent animal's features were revealed at the back of her head, so that she is literally 'two-faced'. This central drama is framed by two symbolic figures, arranged like caryatids. On the right is Bonus Eventus, literally Happy Ending, who refers to the happy issue of enterprises and holds corn and poppies and scatters flowers. The figure on the left may represent Felicity (Happiness), with cornucopia to signify plenty and a winged caduceus for peace, or alternatively Buona Fortuna (Good Luck), who bears similar attributes but is also traditionally shown, as here, with wings.

    Many of the details of the composition were worked out on the canvas during the process of painting, and the numerous resulting pentiments are now clearly visible. On the left-hand side sky has been painted over trees, whose foliage once extended to the top edge of the canvas. Truth's right arm and Buona Fortuna's left hand have both moved slightly, as have both arms of the figure of Deceit and the left arm and right leg of Bonus Eventus.

    There is a drawing, executed in black and red chalk and coloured washes (Fogg Art Museum), which appears to be the final design for a Judgement of Paris, although no painting made from it survives. The apparent date of the drawing, the format and even the composition are so similar to this Allegory as to suggest that Annibale might originally have planned a pair of paintings dealing with the theme of Good and Bad Judgement and their consequences.

    This painting is an excellent example of Annibale Carracci's study of north Italian painting: the idea of a complex 'bespoke' allegory and the general arrangement of figures, architecture and landscape derives from Titian's famously enigmatic allegory, now called Sacred and Profane Love, of c.1515 (Borghese Gallery, Rome). The facial types, the elegant, boneless hands and the slightly acidic colours show the influence of Correggio and of his highly successful follower, Federico Barocci (1526-1612).

    It was not the Renaissance elements that struck Annibale's contemporaries, but rather his modern naturalism, a weighty materiality of figure and landscape that counterbalances the painting's cerebral allegorical subject. Most striking here, and in other Annibale paintings of these years such as the Baptism of Christ of 1585 (San Gregorio, Bologna), is his naturalistic depiction of figures out of doors, seen here in the starkly sunlit figure of Truth. Annibale's directness combined with the inventiveness of his composition and bold colours transform the north Italian influences and herald his future achievements in the Palazzo Farnese in Rome.

    Catalogue entry adapted from The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection: Renaissance and Baroque, London, 2007

    First certainly recorded by Richard Redgrave at Buckingham Palace in 1876 (no 3692); possibly the 'Virtue correcting of Vice' in Store at Hampton Court in 1710 (no 22) and at Somerset House in 1714 (no 213), in which case its subsequent elusiveness is surprising

  • Medium and techniques

    Oil on canvas


    130.0 x 169.6 cm (support, canvas/panel/stretcher external)

    146.8 x 186.8 x 5.8 cm (frame, external)

  • Alternative title(s)

    Virtue correcting Vice