Description & Technical information

Previously identified as the martyrdom of Saints Placidus and Flavia, the subject of this watercolour drawing instead depicts an episode from Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme Liberata. Published in 1575, Tasso’s romantic poem about the First Crusade was a popular source for Venetian artists of the 18th century. The scene is taken from the second Canto of the book, in which Aladine, the Saracen king of Jerusalem, threatens to execute the entire Christian community of the city in punishment for the supposed theft of a sacred icon of the Virgin Mary. Sophronia, a young Christian maiden of great beauty and virtue, volunteers to bear the blame for the incident to save her people, and falsely confesses to the theft. Aladine orders her to be burned at the stake, but, desperate to save her from the flames, her lover Olindo then proclaims himself to be the thief, and begs the king to let him die in her stead. Aladine, who knows that the two young lovers are innocent, nevertheless condemns Sophronia and Olindo to die together, bound to the same stake and tied back to back so that they cannot see each other. Clorinda, a female Persian warrior armed and on horseback, appears just before the pyre is lit. Hearing of their plight, she takes pity on the two Christian lovers and gains their freedom by promising in return her services to Aladine in his coming war against the Crusaders. 

This drawing, which has been dated by the Fontebasso scholar Marina Magrini to the middle of the 1750s, reveals something of the long-lasting influence of his first teacher, Sebastiano Ricci, in its composition, colouring and brushwork. While the present sheet has remained unrelated to any surviving painting or fresco by Francesco Fontebasso, it should be noted that a now-lost painting of the same subject by the artist is recorded in the 19th century; a vertical oval canvas of ‘Il Supplizio di Sofronia e Olindo’ which was in the collection of Carlo Berra in Venice in 1863. 

The corners of the sheet cut.

Medium: Watercolour, pen and brown ink and light brown wash, over an underdrawing in black chalk
Dimensions: 20 x 26.8 cm (7⁷/₈ x 10¹/₂ inches)
Provenance: Anonymous sale, London, Christie’s, 15 April 1980, lot 119
Adolphe Stein, Paris, in 1981
Wolfgang Ratjen, Munich
Roberto Franchi, Bologna
Christian Lapeyre, Milan, in 1994
P. & D. Colnaghi, London, in 1994
Private collection.

Literature: Marina Magrini, Francesco Fontebasso: I disegni, in Saggi e memorie di storia dell arte, Vol.17, 1990, p.190, no.156, p.355, fig.64 (where dated to the mid-1750s).

Exhibitions: London, Bury Street Gallery, Master Drawings presented by Adolphe Stein, 1981, no.50; New York and London, Colnaghi, Master Drawings, 1994, no.38; Stanford University, Cantor Center for Visual Arts, Classic Taste: Drawings and Decorative Arts from the Collection of Horace Brock, 2000.
Categories: Paintings, Drawings & Prints