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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Sebastiano Ricci

The Judgment of Paris, 18th century, Sebastiano Ricci
Sebastiano Ricci Self-portrait.
It's no secret that, like most other areas of human endeavor, the male of the species has totally dominated the fine arts, especially painting and sculpture. One has only to contemplate the overwhelming number of nude female figures in subjective content down through the centuries to validate such a conclusion. And though this predominance has weakened in the last 150 years or so, it's still a fact of life. Assuming that women artists seldom paint the male nude (a safe assumption) one can almost judge the percentage of gay artists as well, throughout the history of art. I've never actually made a count, but my instincts tell me such a statistic would pretty accurately mirror the gay/straight ratio we've come to accept in today's society, a figure in the low single digits. Of course, it's impossible to say if this ratio has held steady or possibly increased slightly as homosexuality has gained some degree of socials acceptance. Perhaps it's too soon to tell. In any case, it's needless to point out that the female nude has been a favorite subject of the male dominated world of art, probably since the discovery of wet paint. Seldom, however, have I found an artist who has so completely devoted himself to the unclothed (or nearly so) female figure as the Italian artist of the Baroque era, Sebastiano Ricci.

Venus and Cupid, ca. 1700, Sebastiano Ricci

The Victory of David over Goliath,
Sebastiano Ricci
Although he occasionally painted the nearly nude male figure (right), it's a pretty safe assumption that Ricci was not gay. Far from it, in fact. Born in 1659, Ricci came of age in the Alpine town of Belluno (extreme northeastern Italy). He left for Venice at the age of fifteen only to make a hasty departure in 1681, having impregnated two women, one of whom he tried to poison. In Bologna, Ricci fell in love with the daughter of the landscape painter, Giovanni Peruzzini. He fled with her to Turin, abandoning his Venetian wife (whom he had been forced to marry) and their daughter. Ricci was denounced, arrested and sentenced to death for abduction and bigamy. Only the intercession of his good friend, the Duke of Parma, saved him. As punishment, Ricci was banished from the city of Turin. Though obviously not gay, the sexual overtones in virtually all of Ricci's work as seen in his Venus and Cupid (above), though thinly disguised, are never far beneath surface.

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, ca. 1695-97, Sebastiano Ricci
Fall of Phaeton, 1703,
Sebastiano Ricci.
The Duke bundled Ricci off to Rome where he employed the wayward young artist in copying Raphael's The Coronation of Charlemagne as a gift to Louis XIV of France. At a salary of 25 crowns a month, plus room and board in the Farnese Palace, it took Ricci nearly two years. When his protector died in 1694, Ricci lost his meal ticket and was forced to abandon Rome for Milan, having made himself notably unwelcomed in Venice, Bologna, and Turin. In Milan, Ricci found work painting frescoes to decorate various local churches. One of his best works, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (above) from around 1695-97 was likely created for one of these churches (and not a nude figure to be seen anywhere). By 1698, Ricci felt it safe to return to Venice where his growing reputation as a fresco painter brought him commissions decorating several of the newly-built churches in the city. (Venice has about one church per island and their are lots and lots of islands.) Ricci's ceiling fresco, Fall of Phaeton (left), though likely not painted for a church, was done during his time in Venice.

Sleeping Endymion, ca. 1700, Sebastiano Ricci
By 1706, Ricci's reputation had spread to Florence where he went to work for the Castelli family in decorating their newly built palace (now called the Palazzo Frenzi, a part of the University of Florence). His ceiling frescoes there, full of dramatic mythological figures (lots more nudity) are considered his masterpiece works. Impressed by these works, Ricci was chosen by no less than the Grand Duke Ferdinando de' Medici to decorate the Pitti Palace. One of Ricci's most erotic scenes was painted in Florence for one of these projects, his Sleeping Endymion (above) dating from around 1700. Now riding the high tide of his popularity, Ricci returned to Venice to work with his nephew, Marco Ricci, in painting a Madonna and Child for the church of San Giorgio Maggiore. From there, they were off to London to paint eight mythological canvases for Lord Burlington, decorate a chapel or two, and design some stained glass windows.

Bathsheba in Her Bath, 1725, Sebastiano Ricci
From England, on his way back to Venice, Ricci and his nephew assistant, stopped in Paris long enough to meet Jean-Antoine Watteau and accept admission into the Royal French Academy of Painting and Sculpture. Ricci returned to Venice a wealthy man with requests for more work than he could possibly handle. However, he chose instead to return to his hometown of Belluno to decorate the villa of an old friend, Giovanni Francesco Bembo. His Judgment of Paris (top) and his Bathsheba in Her Bath (above) were likely painted during this period of his career. The same is probably the case for one of Ricci's best religious works, his glorious Resurrection (below), painted sometime after 1700. Despite having once been banned from the city in his youth, Ricci spent his final years once more working in Turin, this time for the House of Savoy where he painted numerous similar religious works. He was admitted to the Clementine Academy in Venice in 1727 and it was there he died in 1734 at the age of seventy-five.

The Resurrection, 18th century, Sebastiano Ricci

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