Francesco Fontebasso was a leading figure in the flourishing world of 18th century Venetian painting; like the city’s other ‘itinerant painters’ – Ricci, Pellegrini, Carrera, Tiepolo, Canaletto and Bellotto – he would help to restore the standing of Venetian art within Europe as a whole.
Working extensively in the medium of fresco, Fontebasso was equally skilled as an easel painter, with his work embracing everyday scenes, religious and historical subjects and portraiture; he was also a very gifted graphic artist who demonstrated his mastery in a number of different techniques. As a draughtsman, his ability is particularly clear in so-called ‘finished drawings’, often completed with water-colours; as one can see from the series on display here, these works are fully comparable to paintings as individual works of art in their own right.
The son of a biacarol , Fontebasso was born in 1707 and would receive his early training in the studio of Sebastiano Ricci, an artist who would remain a constant point of reference for his art. This early period was followed by time spent at the Rome Accademia di San Luca (1728) and in Bologna, two cities that would also leave their mark on Fontebasso’s work: throughout his life, his art would reveal traces of the classical-inspired style, full-bodied modelling and perspective architectural settings that were characteristics of the Emilian Quadrettisti. Another influence made itself felt when the artist returned to Venice, where the young man was immediately struck by the energy and dramatic chiaroscuro in the art of the young Giambattista Tiepolo.
Fontebasso’s first works were religious paintings commissioned by the Manin family, first for their villa at Passariano (1732) and then for the Venetian church of I Gesuiti, where his ceiling panels of Elijah Carried up into Heaven and The Angels Appearing to Abraham (1734) clearly reveal the influence of Tiepolo. Shortly after his marriage to Angela Maria Belli, Fontebasso would in the spring of 1736 receive his first important commission from outside Venice: for the decoration of the church of Our Lady of the Annunciation in Trento. Another work which probably dates from around the same period is the striking lunette of The Apotheosis of Venice, which shows the city as a richly-dressed lady bowing before the Virgin and Child and St. Mark; the painting is on display here at Ca’ Rezzonico (in the small room next to the exhibition which leads through into the area housing the Giandomenico Tiepolo frescoes from the villa at Zianigo). Around twenty years later, in 1759, Fontebasso would receive another important commission in Trento: 19 canvases of scenes from the Old and New Testament which were to hang in the Main Hall and Refectory of the Castello del Buono Consiglio. It was, however, in large-scale decorative schemes that the artist gave the best of himself. Produced in the middle of the century, his work in this field benefitted from two factors: the absence or non-availability of Tiepolo and the Venetian aristocracy’s enormous interest in commissioning such work (a sort of visual denial of the decline of the Venetian Republic). In great demand amongst the patrician classes, Fontebasso received commissions from the Duodo, the Bernardi, the Boldù, the Barbarigo and the Contarini, each one of them wanting joyful, light-hearted compositions to adorn the ceilings of their city palazzi and country villas. Amongst the ten paintings by the artist now in the Martini Gallery (third floor of Ca’ Rezzonico) is a sketch for one such decorative scheme: a Triumph from the Episodes of the Life of Aurelian painted for the barchessa [outbuilding] of Ca’ Zenobio (Santa Bona di Treviso). Almost nothing remains of Fontebasso’s work in St. Petersburg, a city to which he was called in spring 1761 by the empress Elizabeth, who wanted him to decorate the ceiling of the church within the Winter Palace. That journey to Russia would mark the end of the most fruitful and successful period in the artist’s career; however, upon his return, his status as one of the leaders of the Venetian School was recognised by various official honours (including election as President of the Accademia in 1768). Fontebasso’s late work shows the artist concentrating primarily on polish of form. For example, in the series of four paintings for the church of San Francesco della Vigna (1765) one finds a certain stylistic rigidity; cold elegance has replaced the more tangible, palpable energy that was a characteristic of his previous work.