Ca' Rezzonico

Ca' Rezzonico

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

The Saints

St. John the Baptist Preaching ion the Desert (black pencil, pen and brown ink, brush and sanguine ink, white lead). On the banks of the Jordan, outside Jerusalem, John the Baptist preaches to the crowd. The presence of young and old men from different social classes; of women bearing children in their arms; of a Roman soldier on horseback – all serves to underline the universal nature of his message.

The Beheading of St. John the Baptist (black pencil, pen and brown ink, brush with brown and sepia inks, white lead). In his preaching, John the Baptist had denounced the tetrarch Herod Antipas for marrying his sister-in-law, Herodias. For this offence he was thrown into prison, and a vengeful Herodias convinces her young and beautiful daughter, Salomé, to promise to dance for the tetrarch if he will grant her a reward of her own choosing. Herod accepts, and the young woman demands the head of John the Baptist on a plate. Fontebasso depicts this final moment of the story. The executioner is placing the severed head of the Baptist on a dish held by a servant; behind him, to the left, Salomé, alongside her mother, looks on as her demands are met.

The Conversion of St. Paul (black pencil, pen and brown ink, brush and sanguine ink, white lead). Paul, whose Jewish name was Saul, originally took an active part in the persecution of the early Christians. However, one day when he was on his way to Damascus to arrest some Christians, he had a dazzling divine vision which caused him to convert to Christianity and ultimately accept martyrdom (in Nero’s Rome). Traditionally, Paul is blinded by a vision of Christ as he falls from his horse. In Fontebasso’s drawing, however, it is God the Father who appears to him, descending in a cloud of dazzling light attended by winged cherubs.

The Martyrdom of St. Andrew (black pencil, pen and brush with brown ink, white lead). A fisherman, Andrew was a follower of John the Baptist and one of Christ’s first four Apostles. Sentenced to be crucified by the Romans, he held himself unworthy of the same death as his Saviour and therefore asked that the cross be of a different form to that on which Christ had died; thus he was crucified on the X-shaped ‘St. Andrew’s Cross’ which would become an established part of the saint’s iconography. Andrew is shown kneeling before an apparition of cherubs bearing from heaven a crown and the palm leaf which was the symbol of martyrdom. To the right, his executioners are assembling the cross; to the left, court dignitaries and soldiers look on, awaiting the execution.

The Communion of St. Jerome (black pencil, pen and brush with brown ink, white lead). This drawing shows the now aged saint receiving communion from heaven-sent angels. He lies on reed matting amidst the objects traditionally associated with him: the cardinal’s hat, books and a skull that symbolises the vanity of earthly things. Alongside is the lion which the saint had healed and which had henceforth been his faithful companion.

The Death of St. Jerome (black pencil, pen and brown ink, brush and sepia ink, white lead). Tradition had it that, at the age of nearly eighty, St. Jerome died in a monastery near Bethlehem and was buried in the Church of the Nativity. This elaborate drawing, however, shows the saint dying in an isolated clearing, attended by a number of angels descending from heaven. It is possible that Fontebasso here is conflating two moments in Jerome’s life: the period which the saint spent as a hermit at Chalcis in the Syrian desert (353-358) and the moment of his death, which took place around 420 AD.

The Death of Mary Magdalene (black pencil, pen and brush with brown ink, white lead). After the Crucifixion and Resurrection, Mary Magdalene withdrew to a desert hermitage, living a period of absolute solitude for thirty years, without food and without clothing. Fontebasso’s drawing shows the moment of her death, with all the traditional iconographical attributes of the saint: a crucifix, a skull, a book and, above all, the vase of unguents she had used to anoint Christ’s feet after washing them with her tears and drying them with her hair. Two smaller winged angels weep at her death, whilst above appears a choir of angels that will accompany the saint to heaven.

The Martyrdom of St. Justina (black pencil, pen and brown ink, brush and sepia ink, white lead). Tradition had it that St. Justina was a young virgin from Padua who had suffered martyrdom during the persecution of the Christians ordered by the emperor Maximian. Fontebasso depicts the scene at the gates of a monumental city. Kneeling at the foot of a statue of Diana, the young woman is stabbed in the breast as she looks up towards the angel carrying her the crown and palm leaf that was the symbol of martyrdom.

The Death of St. Romuald (black pencil, pen and brown ink, brush with sanguine and sepia inks, white lead). Probably St. Romuald, this old friar breathes his last whilst clutching a crucifix to his breast. Around stand four other friars, one of whom is devoutly kissing his foot as a sign of respect. Above, the statuesque figure of an angel points the way to heaven.

The Beheading of a Saint (black pencil, pen and brown ink, brush and sanguine ink, white lead). It is difficult to identify the young saint in this drawing, who is being beheaded at the foot of a statue of Jove whilst soldiers and court dignitaries look on. The weapons and cloak on the ground nearby suggest he was probably one the of numerous warrior saints – such as Sebastian, George and many others – who tradition describes as converting to Christianity and then suffering martyrdom rather than renege upon their faith.

The Funeral of a Saint (black pencil, pen and brown ink, brush and sepia ink, white lead). This is the only drawing in the Cini Album which seems to have a modern setting. Within an imposing church interior of wide arcades and majestic vaults, a crowd of priests and faithful (dressed in clothing still current in the eighteenth century) are attending a funeral. The bier – attended by two winged angels – is part of a magnificent procession; however it is not easy to identify the deceased. Perhaps it is St. Lorenzo Giustinian, the first patriarch of Venice, who died in odour of sanctity on 8 January 1456 (1455 in the Venetian calendar).