Sphinx Fine Art
Francesco trained in his father, Jacopo's, workshop between 1560 and 1570, when Jacopo was moving from Mannerist experiments to an increased naturalism in the Venetian tradition. Francesco attempted to imitate his father’s style in his contributions to their painting of the Vision of St Eleuterius (c. 1565; Venice, Accademia). They also collaborated on new versions of the biblical themes Jacopo had treated c. 1560; Francesco executed some preparatory drawings and parts of the paintings themselves. These works were in considerable demand from Venetian collectors and Francesco produced such skilful replicas that they are difficult to distinguish from the originals.
Francesco’s precocious talent is evident in the Miracle of the Quails (Verona, private collection, see Arslan, 1960, i, p. 184; ii, fig. 207), the earliest work signed with his name alone, which from Jacopo’s interventions can be dated to 1566–7. From the large altarpieces produced by his father in the 1560s and 1570s Francesco learnt how to relate figures to their architectural surroundings and how to structure a composition using receding diagonals, as in St Paul Preaching (1574; Maróstica, S Antonio Abate), in which Jacopo first officially acknowledged his son’s mastery by signing with Francesco. In this altarpiece their techniques are similar but distinguishable; Francesco’s brushwork is heavier and his style of description more modest. Other works signed by father and son, especially collectors’ pieces, include a Mocking of Christ (c. 1575; Florence, Pitti), Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (Houston, Texas, Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation), the Vision of Joachim (c. 1576–7; Corsham Court, Wiltshire), a new version of the Departure of Abraham for Canaan (Berlin, Gemäldegallerie) and the Return of the Prodigal Son (c. 1576–7; Rome, Galleria Doria–Pamphili).
In this period Francesco and Jacopo also collaborated on new biblical themes, for example the Stories of Noah (c. 1577; Kromeríž, Archbishop’s Palace), where Francesco’s hand is evident despite the single signature of Jacopo. It is more difficult to identify Francesco’s hand in paintings produced c. 1575, when the workshop was reorganized for large-scale production. The pictures are not signed or individually documented, and Francesco closely imitated his father’s style. Of the works from 1575–7, however, a greater number can be attributed to Francesco, for example, Christ Driving the Money-changers from the Temple (Isola Bella, Museo Borromeo), and the cycles of the Four Seasons (e.g. Summer; Modena, Galleria & Museo Estense) and the Elements, which were devised by Jacopo in the period of collaboration between father and son from 1574–6. In the Annunciation to the Shepherds (Kraków, Wawel Castle) the handling of light is less vibrant than in the version by Jacopo (1575; Prague, National Gallery, Šternberk Palace), and Francesco’s characteristic smooth drawing and heavy brushwork are evident.
Dating from this period (c. 1575) are the four altarpieces with predellas for the parish church of Civezzano, Trento (all in situ except the predella with the Temptation of St Anthony; private collection, see Borgo, 1975, fig. 46) executed by Jacopo and Francesco in collaboration. Two altarpieces of the series, the Sermon of St John the Baptist and the Meeting of Joachim and Anna, are signed by both artists. They also collaborated on frescoes (1575) for the parish church of Cartigliano, Vicenza: the wall scenes on the right, Eve Offering the Apple to Adam and the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, belong to Francesco and show his characteristic pyramidal figure groups, full brushwork and contorted drapery. In the Circumcision (Bassano del Grappa, Museo Civico), signed jointly, they used a new frieze-like composition, which reappears in the Flood (1577; Kromeríž, Archbishop’s Palace) from the Stories of Noah and in the great Forge of Vulcan (Barcelona, on dep. Madrid, Prado). These experiences were fundamental to Francesco’s development and for the demanding enterprise of the four Battles of the Serenissima for the ceiling of the Sala del Maggiore Consiglio in the Doge’s Palace, Venice, which he painted in the spring and summer of 1578.
Francesco had worked in Venice before, probably earlier in 1578 when he executed the altarpiece with the Virgin in Glory with St Nicholas of Bari (on which his signature was discovered in the 1990s) and the painting of the Sermon of St John the Baptist, both for the Dolzoni Chapel in S Giacomo dell’Orio (both in situ) and reminiscent of the Civezzano cycle. This suggests that he was known in Venice before he moved there permanently in 1578, the year of his marriage to Giustina Como of Bassano del Grappa. He opened his own workshop there but maintained a close relationship with his father, who assisted in the design and execution of the paintings on the ceiling of the council chamber.
Jacopo may have helped Francesco with other works in the Doge’s Palace, particularly with such demanding compositions as the oval Capture of Padua at Night (c. 1580) on the ceiling of the Sala dello Scrutinio. Thus the nature of the collaboration changed, with Jacopo supplying sketches for Francesco’s prestigious commissions, such as the Rape of the Sabine Women (Turin, Galleria Sabauda), and working with him, as in the Forge of Vulcan (c. 1584; Poznan, National Museum), which is signed by both. In other works Francesco repeated his father’s compositions, with a few variations, as in the Adoration of the Magi (Padua Cathedral), which contains his distinctive dense, brilliant colours, short stocky Magi and a massive Virgin. In such nocturnal scenes painted c. 1580 as the Capture of Padua at Night in the Doge’s Palace, the Baptism of St Afra for S Afra, Brescia, the Agony in the Garden and the Adoration of the Shepherds (both Bassano del Grappa, Museo Civico), Francesco also used ideas from Titian and Tintoretto, as well as prototypes from his father’s workshop.
According to Ridolfi, his move to Venice was due to the requirements of the art market. There, in addition to major commissions, he painted night scenes, with moonlight and vivid artificial light effects, for which he showed a particular aptitude. Many of his genre pictures were variations of designs by Jacopo, for example the Four Seasons (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum), and the allegories of the elements, Fire and Earth (Vaduz, Liechtenstein), which show how far Francesco had moved from the formal approach of Jacopo: the colours glow more vividly, the paint is thicker, the figure masses expanded and weighty. Some of these pictures, such as Hercules (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum), indicate the Mannerist influence brought to Venice by Paolo Fiammingo.
Francesco’s creations, linked to the 16th century Venetian tradition and to his father’s inheritance, were marked by a pastoral tone. The ‘nocturne’ remained an important theme, in which light is not purely descriptive. His father’s teaching is still clear in his monumental episodes from the Life of the Virgin (Bergamo, S Maria Maggiore), of the late 1580s, in the broadly conceived composition, the soft, brilliant colouring and the wide brushstrokes. A movement towards the style of Leandro Bassano, who moved to Venice in 1588, can be seen in the Assumption (Rome, S Luigi dei Francesi), and particularly in one of Francesco’s last works, the Presentation at the Temple (Prague, Hradcany Castle), in which the emphasis is on description, with pale colours, broad, simple forms and more fragmented compositions.
In his last years he suffered from deep depression, worn out by the intense labour of painting, ill with tuberculosis and obsessed with a persecution mania. In November 1591 he threw himself from a window of his house in S Canciano, the house in which Titian had lived. He survived only another few months, and his commissions were completed by Leandro.