The Choice of Heracles by Carracci was originally hung in the Camerino di Ercole, or "Study of Hercules," in Palazzo Farnese, the residence of Cardinal Odoardo Farnese. The iconographic program for this room, which was the first decoration that Annibale carried out in Rome, between 1595 and 1597, was dictated by Cardinal Fulvio Orsini and should be interpreted as an exhortation to virtue. It called for the representation of the Labors of Hercules in fresco on the ceiling and this canvas with Hercules at the Crossroads was placed at its center. The picture shows the hero about to make his choice between the difficult path indicated by the personification of Virtue, on the left, and the easy but illusory one of Pleasure, on the right. The heroic nude of Hercules, leaning on his club as he makes his decision, is already influenced by Annibale's sight of Raphael frescoes in the Vatican and his first meditations on classical antiquities, in particular the celebrated Farnese Hercules. The style of his painting too, and especially his use of light, appears to have changed since his early painting works, which were more closely tied to the examples of Correggio and the Venetian artists. The symmetrical and yet varied composition reflects a search for classical equilibrium that also affects the natural setting, with the steep path of Virtue on the left and the forest of Vice on the right, and anticipates the great renewal in landscape painting for which Annibale was to be responsible in the years to come. An almost identical figure to that of Pleasure, Raphaelesque in the fine view from behind and the elegant drapery, can be found in a picture by Caravaggio, the Rest on the Flight into Egypt (Galleria Doria-Pamphilj, Rome), testifying to the contacts and exchanges that took place between the two painters even before their joint decoration of the Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo.
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