Ca' Rezzonico

Ca' Rezzonico

FRANCESCO FONTEBASSO (1707 - 1769). Album of Drawings.

The life of Christ

The Adoration of the Shepherds (black pencil, pen and brown ink, brush and sepia ink, white lead). Kneeling before the manger in which Mary has laid the Christ Child, the shepherds lay before him their gifts (including a lamb which symbolises Christ’s own sacrifice for the sins of the world). In the background is Joseph, and further back the ass and the ox who warm the Child with their breath. Beaming light through the shadows of the night, the angel who brought the shepherds the glad tidings looks on from above, accompanied by cherubs.

The Adoration of the Magi (black pencil, pen and brown ink, brush and sepia ink, white lead). This is one of the most famous drawings in the Cini Album. After their long journey following the star, the Magi – traditionally identified as Melchior, king of Nubia, Balthasar, king of India and Caspar, king of Arabia – render homage to the “new born king of the Jews”, presenting their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Holding the Christ Child in her arms, Mary – with Joseph alongside – welcomes the regal procession in front of the shed where Christ was born. This structure leans against the ruins of a Classical temple, symbolising that Christianity is both the continuation and the renewal of the classical world.

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (black pencil, pen and brown ink, brush with brown and sanguine ink, white lead). Two weeks after Christ’s birth, Mary – together with Joseph – take the child to the Temple of Salomon in Jerusalem, where they are received by the old priest Simeon; the young woman on the left is holding a cage with the two doves which Joseph will offer to the Temple. However, the drawing omits a figure mentioned in the biblical account: the aged prophetess Anna. The monumental structure of the Temple is striking and calls to mind the architectural settings in the works of Veronese, which were enjoying a new vogue in the 18th century thanks to Sebastiano Ricci and Tiepolo.

The Resurrection of Lazarus (black pencil, pen and brown ink, brush and sanguine ink, white lead). The Gospel according to St. John tells how Jesus arrives in the village of Bethany, just outside Jerusalem, some four days after the death of Lazarus. Accompanied by Martha, Mary and a large crowd, he makes his way to the tomb of his friend, and having had the tombstone rolled back, calls upon Lazarus to come forth. This is the last, and most famous, miracle described in St. John’s Gospel and was depicted innumerable times by artists. Fontebasso places the main characters in the foreground, before a series of imaginary monumental buildings intended to depict the city of Jerusalem.

The Probatic Pool (black pencil, pen and brown ink, brush and sanguine ink, white lead). In this harmonious drawing the influence of Sebastiano Ricci and Giambattista Tiepolo is again clear. Look, for example, at the Veronese-inspired background, with arches and other architectural details behind a large pyramid that is the symbol of eternity.

Christ and the Woman taken in Adultery (black pencil, pen and brown ink, brush and sanguine ink, white lead). St. John’s Gospel recounts how the Pharisees asked Christ whether a woman taken in adultery should be stoned, as the law prescribed. Christ responded with the now famous phrase “He that is without sin among you, let him cast a stone at her,” which he then stooped to write in the sand. The Pharisees leave “one by one” and Christ turns to the woman, absolving her with the words: “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.”

Christ and the Woman of Samaria (black pencil, pen and brown ink, brush and sanguine ink, white lead). Again drawing upon St. John’s Gospel, Fontebasso depicts the scene in which a thirsty Christ arrives at Jacob’s Well, where he meets a woman of Samaria who, thanks to his words, overcomes her ancient animosity to the Jews. In the background, one can see the Apostles arriving with the food they have obtained in the nearby city of Sychar.

The Institution of the Eucharist (black pencil, pen and brush with brown ink, white lead). During the Last Supper, Christ instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist, offering the apostles his flesh and blood in the form of bread and wine. Fontebasso sets the scene in the open air, having a large, winged angel swoop from above bearing a thurible. Peter, the first of the apostles to receive Communion, descends the stairs to set out and carry the Word into the world.

The Agony in the Garden (black pencil, pen and brown ink, brush and sanguine-brown ink, white lead). The drawing depicts one of the most tragic moments in the Life of Christ. After the Last Supper, Jesus – accompanied by Peter, James and John – goes up to the Mount of Olives. The tired apostles fall asleep, whilst Christ draws slightly apart. Tormented by his knowledge of the events to come, he prays God the Father to “remove this cup from me”, but then accepts that his Passion is God’s will. At this point, according to St. Luke’s Gospel, an angel appears to comfort him. In the background, torchlight illuminates the Roman soldiers that Judas is bringing to capture Christ.

Christ Presented before the People (black pencil, pen and brown ink, brush and sepia ink, white lead). This scene of the populace calling out for the crucifixion of Christ shows Jesus on a staircase to the right; most of the drawing is taken up by priests and soldiers and by an imaginary view of the monumental buildings of Jerusalem. The influence of Tiepolo is clear, both in the overall composition and the types of characters depicted.

The Deposition (black pencil, pen and brown ink, brush and sanguine ink, white lead). Lowered from the Cross, the livid body of Christ is wrapped in a winding-sheet by the old priest Nicodemus, assisted by the nobleman Joseph of Arimathea, who has obtained Pilate’s permission to bury the body. Behind the main group is John the Evangelist, with the Virgin and the two holy women to the left. Their work over, the Roman soldiers are coming down from Calvary, whilst two other men on a ladder are using pincers to remove the nails that had been driven through Christ’s flesh.

The Resurrection (black pencil, pen and brown ink, brush and sanguine ink, white lead). This follows the traditional iconography, with Christ emerging from the tomb in a blaze of light, bearing in his hand a standard with the red cross which is the symbol of resurrection. Two large winged angels have descended from heaven to roll aside the heavy tombstone; three soldiers are shown sleeping on the ground, whilst a fourth, terrorised, soldier cowers back wielding his sword.

The Supper at Emmaus (black pencil, pen and brown ink, brush and sanguine-brown ink, white lead). This shows the key moment in one of the last events of Christ’s time on earth after the Resurrection. Walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, two disciples are sadly discussing Christ’s death when they encounter a stranger who asks them to recount the tale. That evening, when the three are eating in an inn, the stranger takes bread and blesses it before offering it to the disciples, who now recognise him as Christ; but at this point he “vanished out of their sight.” Fontebasso shows Christ in the act of blessing the cup of wine and includes within the scene not only Jesus and the disciples but also the innkeeper and a youth.