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Sophonisba Receives the Cup of Poison. Red chalk drawing. 24.5 x 17.4 cm.
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Giovanni Maria Viani, a painter from Bologna, was a pupil of Flaminio Torri. His painted oeuvre betrays influences of contemporaries such as Guido Reni and Simone Cantarini and displays major stylistic features of the Italian High Baroque. Churches and palazzi in Bologna are still adorned with numerous altarpieces and panel paintings in his hand. Drawings by Viani are comparatively rare, however, and the present sheet demonstrates the quality of his work. Using a spirited and fluent red chalk technique, which reveals the lasting influence of his Bolognese mentors, Viani depicts the death of Sophonisba, a popular theme in 17th century fine art. Sophonisba was the daughter of the Carthaginian military commander Hasdrubal. She was married to Syphax, the King of Numidia, who subsequently formed an alliance with Carthage against Rome. After Syphax had been defeated by the Roman army under Masinissa in 203 B.C. the victor fell in love with Sophonisba, who had been taken prisoner. According to Livy, Masinissa offered her poison so that she could escape the disgrace of being handed over to the Romans. Sophonisba drank from the cup of poison in a calm and collected manner, thus providing an example of stoic equanimity.
In depicting the moment suprême Viani demonstrates a great sense of dramatic effect. Sophonisba, clad in a flowing ancient robe, sits on a throne and gazes heavenwards with an air of resignation. In her right hand she holds the cup of deadly poison she just been given by a servant. A heavy curtain serves to delineate the space, while through an opening in the arch the sketchy outlines of the military commander Masinissa and an escort are visible. The scene radiates the stage-like character of an opera seria with all its theatricality. Viani’s elegant and spirited drawing style gives the scene a Baroque pathos that matches the serious tone of Livy’s account.