Sebastiano Ricci (Belluno 1659-1734 Venice) The Holy Family Sebastiano Ricci (Belluno 1659-1734 Venice) Sofonisba accepting the poison unframed

Sentenced to death – twice – Sebastiano Ricci was the bad boy of Baroque art. Susan Moore explains how a brush with the law was the making of the Venetian master

By the time Sebastiano Ricci died in Venice in 1734, he was one of the most celebrated painters in Europe. He had also been one of the most peripatetic, constantly on the move as a result of disastrous romantic liaisons and flights from the law. Adept at making a virtue out of necessity, Ricci used these travels as opportunities to hone his skills – studying the works of a wide range of earlier masters and seeking commissions in which to use what he had learned. It could not have been a better preparation for an illustrious career, for in his day Venice was a cultural backwater.

Ricci had fled to Bologna in 1681, after attempting to poison the young woman he had made pregnant – a nobleman had intervened and secured his release from prison. Once in the city, he looked to the tradition of Classical monumentality introduced the century before by the Carracci family. Then, in Parma, he found important patrons and the novel perspective of Correggio's soaring illusionistic frescoes.

It was here that the artist began to produce the decorative frescoes for churches and palaces that were to be the mainstay of his career.

Having abandoned his wife and daughter in Bologna and run off with the daughter of a fellow painter to Turin, he was again imprisoned, and sentenced to death. This time he was saved by the intercession of Ranuccio II Farnese, Duke of Parma. The Duke sent him to Rome, lodging him in the Palazzo Farnese. Here, Ricci evidently immersed himself in the great fresco cycle by Annibale Carracci, and admired the invention and airy luminosity of Pietro da Cortona's ceiling in the Palazzo Barberini. Both provided primary inspiration for his vast and vividly coloured Allegory of the Battle of Lepanto in Palazzo Colonna. With the death of his protector, Ricci was obliged to abandon Rome for Milan. Here he may have come into contact with the idiosyncratic Alessandro Magnasco whose swift, nervous brushwork perhaps played a part in forming Ricci's later style.

It was Venice, however, that was arguably the most enduring influence. Returning to La Serenissima in 1696, he was commissioned to restore the badly damaged frescoes by Paolo Veronese in the church of San Sebastiano. Veronese's frescoes cover the walls and ceilings in this church, and the artist himself is buried here, so it is tempting to view this experience as critical. Ricci's rediscovery of the 16th-century colourist – he made many copies of his works – certainly had a profound effect, not only on his own painting, but on later Venetian masters, not least Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Ricci's subsequent work in another church on the Dorsoduro, San Marziale, comprising three oval canvases set into the nave ceiling, is a bold synthesis of Veronese, Bolognese Classicism and Lombard art. It also marks a
break with the late Baroque traditions and anticipates the Rococo.

Ricci was never exclusively a painter of decorative frescoes, and the influence of Veronese spills over into his mythological, biblical and history paintings on canvas. Ricci reimagines the elder artist's theatrical settings and lavish costumes. His Continence of Scipio, for instance, now in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, looks back to Veronese's comparable tale of military clemency, The Family of Darius before Alexander (in the National Gallery, London), the main protagonists of which similarly form a pyramidal group in the shallow foreground. In the slightly later canvas of around 1710 on offer in Bonhams' December sale, the subject is the beauteous and accomplished Sophonisba. The daughter of a Carthaginian general, she married the Numidian king Masinissa. Her father's ally, Scipio, heartily disapproved and insisted on the surrender of Sophonisba. To spare her the humiliation of Roman captivity, Masinissa sent her a bowl of poison which, according to Livy, she drank without hesitation. Here, the stoic Sophonisba, whose pose and appearance bear a striking resemblance to Scipio's young prisoner in Ricci's earlier painting, is being offered the bowl as her attendants weep.

By this time, Ricci had received commissions from both Louis XIV and the imperial family in Vienna, for whom he painted a monumental Allegory of the Princely Virtues in Schloss Schönbrunn. His work for the Medici at the Pitti Palace in Florence only added to his international fame. In 1711, Ricci set sail for England with his nephew Marco, who was following in his uncle's footsteps in more ways than one. Having murdered a gondolier in a tavern brawl, he had spent four years apprenticed to a landscape painter in Dalmatia. The notebooks of the English antiquary George Vertue suggest that the rivalry between Marco and Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini, who had worked together in Britain, prompted the trip.

Richard Boyle, the 3rd Earl of Burlington, was Ricci's first patron during his four-year sojourn in England, initially commissioning four canvases for Burlington House – works still in the building, now the Royal Academy of Art. Other paintings probably also associated with Burlington remain at Chatsworth House. Among them is Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1713), one of a number of works that make an English date likely for Bonhams' second Ricci in the sale, a Holy Family. Joseph, the Christ Child and even Mary look as though they were painted using the same models, and all three are swathed in warm reds, blues and golds. Rather than a rest on the flight, this painting is more like a Nativity, with the Christ Child asleep on pillows in the manger. That said, the pose of the Madonna, particularly her left hand, suggests a comparison with The Triumph of Wisdom in the Louvre, sent by Ricci from Venice to Paris in 1718 as his morceau de réception for the Académie Royale.

Sebastiano Ricci was the first of many artists who, in different fields, regained an international voice for Venice. Without him, the art of Tiepolo would be unthinkable.

Susan Moore writes for Apollo Magazine and FT.

Sale: Old Master Paintings
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Wednesday 6 December at 2pm
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