This oil sketch (commonly referred to as a bozzetto or modello) relates to a lost cycle of mural paintings that once decorated the interior of the destroyed chapel at Bulstrode House, Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire. The chapel was decorated by Sebastiano Ricci in 1713–14 for Henry Bentinck (1682–1726), 2nd Earl and––from 1715––1st Duke of Portland. Of the number of other surviving pictures related to the cycle (see Related works), this is the finest. The decorative complex of the chapel at Bulstrode had a distinctive historical relevance because of its rarity as an integrated scheme of Italian wall painting in a religious building in England (John Harris, "Bulstrode," The Architectural Review 124 [November 1958], p. 319).
Description: The Baptism of Christ takes place behind a broad, flattened arch that resembles a theatrical proscenium. Ricci had firsthand experience as a set designer with Francesco Bibiena in Parma and Rome prior to becoming himself the impresario of the San Cassiano opera house in Venice in 1729. His nephew Marco, who went to England with him and might have been responsible (according to Daniels [Sebastiano Ricci] 1976) for the architectural features in the chapel at Bulstrode, in 1708 was commissioned by Lord Manchester to create sets for Alessandro Scarlatti’s Pirro e Demetrio at King’s Theatre. This work for the stage might have informed the illusionistic scheme devised for the chapel (Christiansen 1999). To the sides of the proscenium-like archway, posed on two marble corbels supported by cherubs’ heads, are two trompe l’oeil, allegorical gilded statues of Meekness, on the left, and Penitence, on the right. Above the statues are two scenes in grisaille that were probably intended to simulate marble low-reliefs against a gold background. They seem to portray the Preaching of the Baptist, on the left, and the Beheading of the Saint, on the right (Salomon 2010). At the center of the segmental arch is a cartouche with the Latin inscription "HIC EST FILLIVS / MEVS DILETV[S] / LVC Cã[pVT] III" (This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased Luke 3 [actually Matthew 3:17])—God’s utterance at the baptism of Christ. At attic level, two angels in high-relief, flanked by spirals and garlands and apparently holding medallions, cast shadows on a flat, ocher background. A parallel can be drawn with Ricci’s feigned sculptures of female allegories in the Salone d’Ercole in Palazzo Marucelli in Florence. As there, so here the narrative scene unfolds freely beyond the archway, in a windy landscape, without the constraint of a perspective grid. Christ stands in the center, middle-distance, and is baptized by John the Baptist, who kneels on a rock. Two angels stand between them, one praying, the other holding a towel. A glory of little angels crowns the scene, and the dove of the Holy Ghost appears in the sky, in a golden cloud. The wide landscape seems to be swept by a miraculous wind, and the dense diagonal clouds emphasize the vibrant movement that traverses the whole scene. A crowd of people gathers on the bank of the river Jordan in the background. Some disrobe, with gestures that are deliberate and theatrical (Salomon 2012; former Catalogue Entry). The poses of some of them seem to derive from Ricci’s study of ancient statues. As noted by Christiansen (1982), the man on the left, kneeling with his arms stretched forward, is modeled after the famous ancient statue of the so-called Arrotino, in the Uffizi Tribuna, that Ricci would have seen in Florence. It may be added that the off-balance pose of the figure on the ground, seen from the back, supported on his hand, suggests the study of another well-known marble from antiquity, the Wounded Gladiator (Museo di Palazzo Ducale, Venice), while the man on the very right who stretches his arm forward might be inspired by Lisippus’s Apoxyomenos, or by one of the many bronze versions of Giambologna’s Mars. This borrowing of poses from classical statues creates a play between the feigned sculpture and the figures of the painted scene, with the resulting paradox that the figures in the landscape can seem more "statuesque" than the feigned sculptures of the arch.
The commission: Henry Bentinck had already employed Ricci for the decoration of his London residence in St. James’s Square, where, according to Vertue (1733)––"[Ricci] has painted three large Rooms . . . which show him to be greater than his disciple [Pellegrini] by much, his invention more just, his works being more correct, stronger painted & more natural" (Walpole Society 18 [1929–30], p. 39). Of the London cycle we know only and approximately the fresco ceiling in the "Great Room," painted in 1713 (as attested by letters written by Lord Berkeley of Stratton to his friend the Earl of Strafford containing descriptions of the interior; see Daniels [Sebastiano Ricci] 1976, p. 66). There the painter represented The Apotheosis of Hercules in the central compartment and various scenes from the "labors" in side lunettes. For the choice of the theme and the compositional arrangement Ricci openly recalled his own frescoes in the Salone d’Ercole in Palazzo Marucelli in Florence, executed in 1706–7. (The ceiling at St. James’s is recorded by only a partial view published in the 1937 Christmas issue of Country Life [Arthur Oswald, "Norfolk House, St. James’s Square," Country Life 82 (December 25, 1937), p. 658, fig. 11; repr. also in Daniels [Sebastiano Ricci] 1976, fig. 169]; the building was demolished soon thereafter.) According to two letters written by Angela Pellegrini to her sister Rosalba Carriera, Ricci was then commissioned by Bentinck to paint some works in the country (published in Bernardina Sani, Rosalba Carriera: lettere, diari, frammenti, Florence, 1985, vol. 1, pp. 245–47, no. 208, pp. 282–83, no. 237); Klara Garas ("New Documents Concerning Sebastiano Ricci," Burlington Magazine 106 [March 1964], p. 131) suggested identifying this activity with Bulstrode. The estate, some ten miles from London in the direction of Oxford, had been bought by William Bentinck in 1706, but it was his son Henry who set in motion an extensive plan for renovations and built the chapel decorated by Ricci. In the first letter, written from Düsseldorf and dated October 1, 1713, Gianantonio Pellegrini’s wife notes that Ricci was in the countryside and the air was helping the health of his daughter ("Non sò quello qui si parli del Ricci, so ben che da una lettera, che ricevei da Londra pochi giorni fa, questa mi dicea che Bastiano era alla Campagna e che l’aria della villa avea contribuito molto alla salute della figlia."). In the second letter, dated July 1, 1714, she remarked on the news from London that although Ricci did not lack work, the high fees he demanded shocked his patrons and Bentinck had not paid them (". . . e veniamo alle novità di Londra, Bastiano non manca di lavori ma non pol riscuotere un soldo da My Lord Portelant, dimanda prezzi si alti che quelli che lo fariano lavorare se ne spaventano e restano senza pittura più tosto che esborsare tanto denaro. . . ."). Thus Ricci seems to have worked at Bulstrode between 1713 and 1714, encountering difficulties with payment in early summer 1714. The painter James Thornhill nonetheless informs us in a memorandum dated August 24, 1717, that Ricci received £600 for "the little chapel at Bulstrode" (Salomon 2010).
Lord Portland’s financial troubles, resulting from heavy losses in the South Sea Bubble, forced him to leave the country by 1720 and to accept a position as a governor of Jamaica, where he eventually died in 1726. The house then underwent a series of changes. Bulstrode saw a new period of splendor under Margaret Bentinck, the wife of the 2nd Duke, who gathered a community of literati, designed a grotto in the garden, and collected artworks, among which were paintings by Rubens, a copy of Raphael’s Holy Family, then at Versailles, and the famous Portland Vase, now in the British Museum. In 1806, under the 3rd Duke, James Wyatt remodeled the house, creating a castellated west wing. In 1813 the house was acquired by the 11th Duke of Somerset and in 1860 his son employed Benjamin Ferrey, who largely demolished the former complex to reconstruct and enlarge the house in the neo-gothic style that can be seen today. The accounts on the chapel stop after 1847, and it is likely that it was demolished during Ferrey’s interventions in the 1860s.
The original appearance of the chapel: The chapel measured 25 x 40 feet (J. Wyatt’s plan at RIBA ; see Simon 1974, no. 72) and opened from the end of a wing facing north towards the interior court, which contained––according to Walpole––"a brave gallery of old pictures" (quoted in Harris 1958, p. 319). George Vertue (1733) provides the most detailed description: "at the Duke of Portlands Gerrards Cross. [Bulstrode house] the Chappel. painted by Sig. Bastian Ricci. the round in the Ceiling. the Ascention of Christ at the end over the Gallery the Salutation. on the right hand side from the altar. the Baptism of Christ in the River Jordan– on the left, oppossite to it, the last Supper, with the twelve apostles. ornaments & the four Evangelists &c. the whole, a Noble free invention. Great force of lights and shade. with variety & freedom in composition of the parts." (Walpole Society 24 [1935–36], pp. 47–48). Thus, above the lower part of the walls, with their cedar wainscotting, was painted, likely in oil on plaster, a trompe-l’oeil framework of pilasters, allegorical figures, and an arch surrounding the principal scenes: on the right wall the Baptism of Christ and on the left the Last Supper. Above a gallery were the Annunciation and four evangelists, while on the ceiling was an oval compartment, possibly in stucco, framing the Ascension. The altar had a Madonna and Child by Van Dyck and was flanked on either side with a stained glass window designed by Ricci and executed by William and Joshua Price (from an account, probably by the 3rd Viscount Grimston, of a visit to Bulstrode, August 8, 1769; see Daniels [Sebastiano Ricci 1976, p. 41 n. 4).
Although the chapel does not exist anymore, the various surviving small scale paintings (see Related works) enable us to partly reconstruct its appearance, most notably the two wall paintings and the ceiling. Some of these paintings—most notably that in the MMA—may be true bozzetti, but the possibility that others are, instead, reduced records, or ricordi, of the mural decoration cannot be excluded. As Giuseppe Pavanello (in Sebastiano Ricci: il trionfo dell’invenzione nel Settecento veneziano, exh. cat., Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Venice, 2010, pp. 13–27) has emphasized, Ricci intentionally replicated in his ricordi the lively character of a bozzetto. In a letter addressed to Count Giacomo Tassi (August 1, 1731) the painter went so far as to claim that a study or oil sketch for a painting took aesthetic priority over the finished work: ("questo non è modello solo ma è quadro terminato . . . questo picciolo è l’originale"). Pavanello has acutely examined the existing practice of going over an original sketch (ricoprire) to make it accord with the finished work, all the while maintaining the quickness and expressivity of the loose technique of a bozzetto that was so much appreciated by the collectors of the time. A rich artistic terminology attests the spread of this aesthetic, with subtle variations applying to the terms schizzo, bozza, pensiero, macchia, modello, etc. Annalisa Scarpa (in Sebastiano Ricci: il trionfo dell’invenzione nel Settecento veneziano, exh. cat., Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Venice, 2010, p. 88) has also stressed that in the case of Ricci one often comes across different examples of the same "bozzetto," most––if not all––of which are not preparatory works but paintings done with a documentary scope by the artist or a pupil working under his supervision and with his intervention. This same practice is found in the work of Tiepolo.
Ricci’s architectural surround, or quadratura, has nothing of the imposing presence and illusionistic effect common to much Baroque interior decoration, with its emphasis on perspective. It is open and decorative instead of spatially invasive, and it divides––instead of unifying––the space of the viewer from the pictured scene. This approach was experimented with for the first time in Palazzo Marucelli in Florence by the professional quadraturista Giuseppe Tonelli, whose architectural arrangement, based on strong color contrasts––violet, green, white, gold––gave the painting freedom to unfold without being forced into a corset of vanishing lines. Ricci presented and dedicated to Tonelli a preparatory drawing for the fictive marble group of Hercules and Antaeus in the Salone d’Ercole (Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi, Florence, no. 8006 S) that was clearly inspired by the statues of Giambologna and Vincenzo de’Rossi. This work should be considered as a key piece of the new stylistic orientation. Thanks to the enriching Florentine experience, carried out in close contact with the ancient statues of the Medici collections and the great public sculptures of the Cinquecento, Ricci achieved a highly perfected rhythm and style (see Edoardo Arslan, "Contributo a Sebastiano Ricci e ad Antonio Francesco Peruzzini," Studies in the History of Art Dedicated to William E. Suida on his Eightieth Birthday, London, 1959, p. 308). It can hardly be denied that Ricci’s reuse of Mannerist formal prototypes conferred on his figures a swirling touch of elegance and a precision in drawing that they did not have before. This cultural growth was of fundamental importance for the creation of a distinctive eighteenth-century style in Italy. Once in England, the artist saw fit to use his most cultivated vocabulary, peppered with sculptural citations, to match the expectations of his English patrons, who were passionate about classical culture and Renaissance Italian art. What Vertue judged to be "a Noble and free invention" was, therefore, ennobled by the insertion of classical references and was the result of careful study and perceptive adjustment.
Related works: In addition to the MMA’s painting, three further versions of the Baptism of Christ are known. That in the Harvard Art Museums (1994.173; oil on canvas, 67.3 x 106.4 cm; see Wolohojian 2000, p. 54), although identical in composition to the MMA painting, shows differences in quality and style. It has the appearance of a loosely painted copy after the mural painting rather than a true bozzetto. Another version, whose present whereabouts is unknown (sale, Finarte, Milan, December 13, 1989, no. 101; oil on canvas, 68.5 x 103 cm), shares many of the same features. Judging from reproductions, it shows no differences in composition from the other two, excepting only the spelling FILIVS instead of FILLIVS (as noted by Salomon 2012; former Catalogue Entry) and a more detailed reference to the Gospel: LVC . Cã . III . V. XV-IX. The fact that the painting has a Venice provenance might suggest that it was made after Sebastiano’s return from England to his hometown at the beginning of 1716. The third version is a nearly squared canvas, formerly in John Harris’s collection and exhibited at Colnaghi’s, London, in February–March, 1978 (61 x 68.5 cm). Although the composition is once again the same, many details are weakened or omitted. The architectural framework is almost absent and the handling seems less precise. It is the least compelling of the four versions.
The composition of the wall with The Last Supper is documented by a painting in the National Gallery of Art, Washington (Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1943.3.32; oil on canvas, 67 x 104 cm; see Garberson 1996). According to Vertue, in this composition Ricci inserted his self-portrait as well as that of his nephew Marco. The two men can likely be identified with the innkeeper and the servant with the tray. Like the ex-Drey version of the Baptism of Christ the Washington picture seems to come from Palazzo Venieri, Venice (Daniels [Sebastiano Ricci] 1976, p. 153; Shapley 1979). Both may have been painted in Venice after Ricci’s return, possibly with the intervention of the shop. The quality of both is less fine than the MMA’s picture. Nonetheless, the infrared analysis has revealed some variations and changes: the architectural arrangement was painted after the narrative scene and overlaps it, partially obscuring the figure exiting at the left and completely hiding a seated figure at the right.
The problem concerning the fresco ceiling of the chapel is not entirely clear yet. As a result of a long lasting critical debate, it seems that the ceiling is mirrored by an oval bozzetto at the Shipley Art Gallery, Gateshead, England (no. C153; oil on canvas, 99.8 x 75.5 cm) where The Ascension of Christ is represented (for a full detailed reconstruction of the problem see Salomon 2010, p. 74). The picture was once in possession of James Thornhill, the English painter who vied with Ricci––and eventually defeated him––for the commission of the frescoes of the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Attributed to him at the beginning of the 1950s (G. N. Drinkwater, The Shipley Art Gallery: Catalogue of Paintings and Drawings, Gateshead, 1951, p. 27, no. 354), the small painting was then related to Ricci in connection with the lost ceiling at Bulstrode (letter of Edward Croft-Murray and Arthur Ewart Popham, November 21, 1953, in the Shipley Art Gallery curatorial files; see Salomon 2010, p. 74). However, other scholars disagreed and proposed Antonio Bellucci as the author of the Shipley piece (Francis J. B. Watson, "A Venetian Settecento Chapel in the English Countryside," Arte veneta 8 , p. 295; Watson, letter, February 10, 1955), while the name of Gianantonio Pellegrini was also suggested (letter of Terisio Pignatti, April 18, 1955). James Byam Shaw (letter, June 17, 1963) supported the ascription to Ricci, stressing the similarities between the angels of the Gateshead bozzetto and those of the Resurrection at the Royal Hospital Chelsea. His opinion was endorsed by Croft-Murray (1970, pp. 15, 266), Jacob Simon (1974, no. 72), and especially Jeffery Daniels (1973; "Letter to the Editor," Apollo 99 [April 1974], p. 303; 1975; [L’opera completa] 1976, pp. 38–39, no. 112; [Sebastiano Ricci] 1976, p. 117, no. 317; [Atti] 1976, pp. 70–72), who all maintained Ricci’s authorship and the connection with Bulstrode. By contrast, Eric Young ("Antonio Bellucci in England and Elsewhere," Apollo 97 , p. 499, n. 10; "Another Sketch by Antonio Bellucci for Canons," Burlington Magazine 117 [April 1975], p. 241), Milkovich ("Letters to the Editor," Apollo 99 [January 1974], p. 79) and Cannon-Brookes ("A Modello by Antonio Bellucci for Canons," Burlington Magazine 117 [April 1975], p. 238) reaffirmed the name of Bellucci and supposed the painting to be related to the fresco ceiling of the chapel created by Bellucci in 1716–19 for James Brydges, 1st Duke Chandos, at Canons, Edgware (whose canvases, following the destruction of the chapel in 1747, were installed on the ceiling of the church of Great Witley, Worcestershire). Xavier Salomon (2010, p. 74) carefully reconstructed the intricate question and perceptively came to the conclusion that the Gateshead canvas mirrors indeed the Bulstrode ceiling, but cannot be attributed directly to Ricci. Mentioning two further versions of the oval sketch known through photographs in the Witt Library––the first formerly in the Jacob Heimann collection, Milan (oil on canvas, 94 x 72.5 cm), the second, and almost identical, formerly in the Bendixon collection, Milan (Daniels [Sebastiano Ricci] 1976, p. 41, lists the two entries as possibly referring to the same picture)––he proposes these to be more likely by Ricci, while the Gateshead exemple should be labeled as a copy. The Heimann version was published by Edoardo Arslan in 1935 ("Oeuvres inédites de Sebastiano Ricci," Gazette des Beaux-Arts 77, pp. 38, 40, fig. 6), and mistakenly referred to as the lost ceiling of the church of the Ascension in Venice; it was owned by the Duke of Leeds, Hornby Castle, Lancashire, then entered Julius Böhler’s property, Munich, in 1931, and finally the Jacob Heimann collection, Milan/New York.
[Rodolfo Maffeis 2015]