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Francesco Fontebasso

(1707–1769, Venice)

The Flood. Pen and two shades of brown ink over black chalk, on a contemporary mount. 47.4 x 33.7 cm.

All his life Francesco Fontebasso was not only one of the most brilliant and sought-after painters of the Venetian nobiltà, but also a very gifted and versatile draughtsman whose works show a great stylistic diversity. With supreme mastery the artist employed a wide variety of techniques, from pen sketches hastily committed to paper to large, highly finished drawings that counted as works of art in their own right. In the 1740s Fontebasso’s style, which was profoundly indebted to the art of Sebastiano Ricci and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, reached its artistic and creative culmination.

This truly astonishing drawing is probably attributable to his mature period and reveals all the virtues of Fontebasso’s draughtsmanship, A powerful dramatic narrative is combined with breathtaking technical perfection. Fontebasso’s pen technique is extremely nimble and differentiated. A close network of hatching and cross-hatching varying in strength and density covers the whole scene, making it vibrate in a clear light. The virtuosity of the penmanship and the ornamental quality of the hatching patterns are faintly reminiscent of the „Federkunststücke", or drawings imitating engravings, produced by such different artists as Hendrick Goltzius and Bartolomeo Passarotti.

The stylistic parallels with autograph drawings by Fontebasso are many and unmistakable. The bold use of perspective – observe for instance the sharply foreshortened, recumbent figure seen from an upside-down angle in the lower right-hand corner –, the strong dynamism of movement and the awesome pathos of the unfolding drama are all topoi that we often encounter in Fontebasso’s work around 1750 (cf. for example James Byam Shaw, The Italian Drawings of the Frits Lugt Collection, Paris 1983, vol. 1, p. 306 ff, no. 295; vol. III, plate 348). The pronounced muscles and the typically broad, low-browed heads of the figures are also characteristic of the master. So it is only appropriate to compare our drawing with the famous Cini Album (Museo Correr, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe, Venice). The twenty-eight scenes from the Old and New Testament and the Lives of the Saints, which are almost as large as The Flood, are perhaps the most outstanding example of Fontebasso’s style of drawing (see F. Pedrocco, C. Tonini, Francesco Fontebasso 1707–1769. L’album dei disegni, Venice 2006/07). What these drawings have in common with the present one is a comparable compositional concentration and intensity. Despite similar movement motifs (for example Pedrocco, Tonini, op. cit., p. 26, 2.11; 2.12) the drawings of the Cini Album show a more open and transparent handling and, by the use of wash, reveal a more elegant, fluid style. Our drawing, on the other hand, differs from them in the extreme density of the penwork, while the highly detailed and precise execution suggests that the drawing should be regarded as an autonomous work of art.

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