THOUGH recognised as the leader of the School of Valencia, Jose or, as he is sometimes called, Jusepe de Ribera spent most of his life in Naples, where his Spanish pride, combined with his somewhat diminutive stature, procured him the sobriquet, Lo Spagnoletto. He was born in 1588, eleven years senior to Velasquez, in the province of Valencia, in the hill-town of Jativa, the cradle of the Borgia family. Hence the proud title which he often appended to his signature, “Spaniard of Jativa.” His parents, Luis de Ribera and Margarita Gil, took him to Valencia that he might study Latin with a view to becoming a man of letters. But Jose, even thus early showed his independence by declaring that he would be an artist, and was accordingly placed under the care of Francisco Ribalta. The latter, we recall, was the link of transition from Italian mannerism to the native naturalistic schools of Valencia and Andalusia; at one time producing thinly painted subjects of extravagant sentimentality, at another showing himself quite masterful in naturalistic representation. This blend of naturalism and sentiment, the latter frequently carried too far, distinguishes also the work of Ribera and through his influence many artists of the Andalusian School, Murillo in particular. The naturalistic tendency is Spanish, common to North and South alike; the sentiment is a bias given to it by the Southern temperament.
While still a youth Ribera made his way to Rome, where his handsome face and evident ability attracted the notice of a cardinal, who took him into his house and would have cared for him that he might pursue his studies in comfort. But Jose, nothing if not independent, found the restraint irksome and went back to his rags and poverty, declaring that he needed the stimulus of necessity. He made copies of some of the Raphaels and the Caraccis in the Farnese palace, and even found means to visit Parma and Modena and study the works of Correggio. But the pictures which most attracted Ribera were those of Michelangelo Caravaggio, who worked in Naples. So to Naples he went, although he had to leave his coat behind in Rome to pay his board-bill. Whether Ribera actually studied under Caravaggio is uncertain. Anyhow, since the latter died in 1609, the association could not have lasted more than a short time. Meanwhile, even if Ribera never saw Caravaggio in the flesh, he could not escape his spirit. It was a part of the turbulent atmosphere of the Naples of that day, into which with a violence, equal to Caravaggio’s, the independent young Spaniard was quick to fling himself. Fortune favored him, for a rich art dealer gave him some commissions and, discovering his ability, determined to attach him to his own interests. He offered him his daughter’s hand in marriage, and Ribera, having experienced the stimulus of poverty, was now resolved to taste the encouragement of wealth and ease, and accepted it. Soon after his marriage he produced a life-sized picture of the Martyrdom of S. Bartholomew, who was flayed alive. The ghastly scene was rep-resented with such horrible naturalism, that when the picture was exhibited outside of the art-dealer’s shop, a crowd gathered about it. This attracted, as no doubt it was intended that it should, the notice of the Spanish viceroy, the Duke of Ossuna, whose palace window over-looked the spot. Having learned the cause of the excitement he sent for the picture and was so impressed with it that he bought it, appointed Ribera his painter in ordinary, and gave him apartments in the palace. Thus, almost at a bound, Ribera found himself upon the topmost rung of the ladder. He was rich and now courted by the richest and most powerful, who presumed that he had the ear of the viceroy. In artistic circles the young artist had taken the place of Caravaggio and invested it with still greater honor. He was the recognised leader of the naturalists in their war of extinction with the Eclectics.
It is necessary to note the rivalry between these two contemporary schools, since it throws a light on an extraordinary episode in Ribera’s career. With the death of Tintoretto in 1592 the last of the giants of the Renaissance had passed away. They were succeeded by a race of pigmies, who strutted in the mantles of Raphael and Michelangelo. They are called “Mannerists,” differing, however, from the Mannerists of Spain. For while the Spanish imitated the great masters in order to acquire the secrets of their greatness, at the same time, as we have seen, infusing the result with something of the raciness of the Spanish character, the Italian “Mannerists” aped the past in an attempt to galvanize it into continued living.
The “Mannerists” soon become obscured by the “Eclectics,” whose headquarters were in Bologna, the home of the Caracci. For the school grew out of the influence of the five brothers Caracci, especially the three, Annibale, Ludovico and Agostino, who led the way in what was to be a “revival” of art. Its principle was a catholic eclecticism, which should combine the drawing and power of Michelangelo, with the color of Titian, the grace and sentiment of Raphael and the soft dreamy chiaroscuro of Correggio. The movement spread throughout Italy, being variously represented by the Caracci, already mentioned, Domenichino, Guido Reni, Guercino, Sassoferrato, Carlo Dolci and others of more or less merit. Whatever may be thought of these painters individually, it is scarcely to be denied that the principle underlying their art had in it nothing of original growth. It was dishing up the past, instead of providing meat for the present.
Meanwhile, outside of the “Eclectics,” the spirit of the present was asserting itself in a reaction from Classicalism to Naturalismto use a hackneyed term, in a return to nature. That the stronghold of the Naturalists became Naples, which was under Spanish rule is a significant fact. It was an instance, by no means single, of the Spanish influence reacting upon Italy. The movement however was started by the Italian Caravaggio, a man of impetuous temperament and possibly coarse tastes, who by way of bringing the Bible story into touch with every day life, peopled his sacred scenes with personages drawn from the slums of Naples. How great a painter he could be upon occasions is shown in that handsome canvas in the Dresden Gallery, The Card Players. However, the style usually associated with his work and that of his followers is one of violent types and exaggerated dramatic energy. The “Naturalists” were also addicted to the use of dark shadows, which gained for them the nickname of “Darklings.” Between them and the “Eclectics” there was perpetual rivalry, waged with that intensity which only Latin peoples can put into an artistic controversy. On the part of the Neapolitan naturalists it was war literally to the knife, for they did not scruple to employ the bravo and his stiletto in their efforts to hold Naples against the enemy. It was to the leadership in a fight of this sort that the young Ribera succeeded, and he went into it with an unscrupulous ferocity that has left on his memory the blot of a very discreditable episode.
The Chapel of St. Januarius in the Cathedral of Naples was to be decorated. A cabal was formed between Ribera, a native Neapolitan, Giambattista Caracciolo, and a painter of Greek birth, Belisario Correnzio. The last named had already made so bitter an attack on Annibale Carmelo that the latter had been driven out of Naples. The three now determined to secure for themselves the decorating of the chapel. The commissioners at first assigned the work to one, Cavaliero d’Arpino, who had been Correnzio’s teacher. He was assailed with persecution, and forced to take refuge in the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino. Then Guido was selected. Two hired bravos set upon his servant, thrashed him, and ordered him to tell his master that a similar fate was in store for himself should he begin the decoration of S. Januarius. Guido fled the city; and his pupil, Gessi, was chosen as a substitute. He arrived in Naples with two assistants, who were inveigled on board a boat in the bay and never seen again. The commissioners now yielded and gave the commission to the triumvirate. But a little later they revoked the order and offered Domenichino a handsome remuneration, with a promise of protection, if he would undertake the work. He consented and became immediately the target of an insidious persecution. Threatening letters were sent to him; his character was slandered and his ability as a painter impugned; the plasterers were bribed to mix ashes with the mortar on which his frescoes were to be painted; and finally Ribera prevailed on the viceroy to order some pictures of Domenichino. These were carried from his studio before they were finished, or retouched and ruined before reaching the viceroy. At length, in despair, Domenichino fled to Rome; but was induced to return and shortly afterwards died under suspicion of having been poisoned. The cabal, however, failed of its purpose. The Neapolitan died the same year as Domenichino; the Greek two years later and Ribera painted only one altarpiece for the chapel, The Martyrdom of S. Januarius. The decorations were executed by one, Lanfranco.
For his share in this disgraceful intrigue, and because of his being a foreigner, Ribera incurred the hatred of a large number of Neapolitans. To this, probably is to be attributed the story which passed into a tradition, that Don Juan of Austria, while on a visit to Naples, Induced Ribera’s daughter to elope with him; and, soon growing tired of his victim, placed her in a convent. In consequence of shame and grief, Ribera, so the story goes, sank into a profound melancholy, until one day he left his home and was never again heard of. This is now believed to be a mere fabrication of Neapolitan hatred; the true facts being that Ribera settled down to a life of honor and prosperity and finally died in Naples in 1656.
In the popular imagination Ribera is associated with pictures of martyrs and ascetics, with scenes of cruelty and suffering and the portrayal of old and wasted bodies. The impression is justified, for the taste of his time demanded these revolting subjects, and Ribera’s own temperament made him more than acquiesce. He represented them with a zest that proves he revelled in his opportunities. But this is only one aspect of Ribera, and even in itself not complete, for it is prone to take no account of the superb artistry with which he invested the unpleasantness of these themes.
Thus, in the example, selected for reproduction here, because it is characteristic of Ribera’s best known subjects, the original has a beauty which in the reproduction may possibly escape observation. The head of this Hermit Saint is of extreme nobility both of technique and expression. In the suggestion of the powerful skull, the boldly modeled flesh and the clustering masses of grizzled hair and beard, there is an unusual feeling for and realisation of the dignity of human form. It is not merely that the artist has selected a model with a fine head, and rendered its benign and grave distinction, but he has heightened the expression by the expressiveness of the technique. The artist’s sympathetic imagination and extraordinary reverence, not for the saint-idea in his theme but for humanity in its relation to art, have informed the technique with a noble sympathy, grand imagination and a sovereign reverence. For the point, difficult to put into words, is that technique such as this, while it is magnificent as mere representation, achieves the higher quality of expression, and the measure of the latter is the quality of the artist’s conception not only of his subject but even more of his art, as one of the noble mediums of expression. So, in the presence of a work like this, the spectator forgets his dislike of the subject and finds his imagination kindled and his capacity of abstract appreciation heightened. Even the Saint’s back though you may not believe it from the photograph, which has reduced the transparent shadows to opacity and robbed the flesh of its glorious luminosity, adds its quota to the stimulus of the intellectual-esthetic sense. For, in this capacity, not only to delight the sense perception but to stimulate also the intellectual conception of beauty in the abstract, Ribera belongs in the company of Velasquez. He occupies a lower rank because his art, like himself, was less self-centered and controlled; more dependent upon subject and at the mercy of his own impetuous temperament. In the art of both naturalism was lifted mountain-high; but, while Velasquez was the summit, aloof,, unapproachable, Ribera is the torrent, racing, often madly, to the valley. Yet in its career there are level pools of quiet pause, and it is these that the general estimation of Ribera has overlooked.
I am not thinking of his portrayals of the Immaculate Conception or his Assumption of the Magdalen in the Academy of San Fernando. These are rather examples of the concessions that Ribera was obliged and perhaps willing to make in the direction of obvious beauty. They satisfied the Spanish taste in female loveliness, but have little abstraction of expression; and are inclined to be sentimentally pretty. It is rather when you visit the gallery in the Prado devoted to Ribera’s works, that you experience a new impression of this artist. With the exception of a powerful but ghastly Martyrdom of S. Bartholomew, the general suggestion of the gallery is the reverse of the violent and sensational. A sense of grave dignity prevails, which one begins to discover is largely the result of a fine reserve and frequent subtlety in the color schemes. For ex-ample, there is a canvas of life-size figures, representing the Holy Trinity. On the Father’s knees lies the limp form of the Christ. It is grievously disfigured with grossly naturalistic blood stains ; but one gradually loses the insistence of this in admiration of the elevated beauty of the picture as a whole. The Father’s head, benign and tranquil, is seen against a sky in which are faintly discernible the flocking heads of cherubs. From his shoulders floats a silvery plum-colored drapery, while a mantle of pale rose, lined with violet, lies over the shadowed lapis-lazuli of the under robe. It is a color scheme of choice splendour, full of subtle stimulus to the intellectual-esthetic imagination.
A very interesting canvas is the S. John the Baptist in the Desert for the feeling of it is pagan, a trait rarely met with in the art of Spain, which had so rigorously opposed the Humanistic movement. The figure, nude nearly to the waist, is that of a shepherd youth, with large smiling mouth and eyes glancing to one side. The face sets one to thinking of the so-called S. John the Baptist of the Louvre, attributed to Da Vinci. The Ribera has something of the faun-like suggestion; only it is less subtle, piqueing less to mystery ; the suggestion being rather of wild, young animal life, a creature of silent, vacant places, not afraid yet watchful. The figure is at the foot of a big tree-trunk, a red drapery covering the upper part of the legs and the stone on which it is seated. The arms are extended; one aloft, holding a staff, the other lowered to feed a Iamb; both forming pliant loops which increase the suppleness of the whole design. In its blend of classical and naturalistic composition and feeling, and the character of the thought which prompted it, the canvas is probably unique in the Spanish School as an example of the direct influence of Humanism.
One turns to a Penitent Magdalen (Prado, 980) , not to endorse her very lady-like sentiment, but to admire the way in which the beautiful brown hair is rendered and the exquisite color and texture of the old-rose drapery. A similarly choice treatment of this delicate color, shot with silver light and dove-grey shadows, appears in Isaac Blessing Jacob. Then for another fine example of color one may note a half length, S. Simon. Here again is a head of magnificent character; black hair and beard, ruddy features, massive brow, a characterization, generously masculine and vigorous. A warm brown drapery hangs over the slightly yellow-tinted brown of the robe, which shows below it the collar and cuff of a grey shirt ; all this placed against a dark olive background. The tonality, organised with extreme delicacy, is in its ensemble superb. Another choice passage of color occurs in S. Bartholomew, where the saint is shown, life size, seated beneath a cliff. He holds across his body a white drapery; or such is your first impression of the hue. But study reveals a more subtle tissue of smoked ivory and grey, woven into the pallor of the white.
However, the finest example of Ribera’s subtle vein of color-expression in this gallery is in the Jacob’s Lad-der. The sleeping figure reclines horizontally across the foreground, a hand supporting the head, while in the sky are faint suggestions of ascending and descending angels. The foreground consists of slabs of rock out of which, at the back of the figure, rises a tree-trunk, with a broken limb. The figure is clothed in an olivegreyish-brown habit, resembling a monk’s ; the hair and beard are black in strong contrast to the pallor of the face, which is slightly flushed with warmth and puffed with sleep. The suggestion of sleep is, indeed, rendered with extraordinary truth; it seems no idle fancy that one hears the breathing and watches the stir of the drapery over the rise and fall of the chest. But the dignity of this canvas depends upon the color scheme, cold, severe, constrained; so opposite to the sensuous, impassioned or splendid; yet withal so stimulating to the imagination. This picture is a grand example of the intellectual-esthetic quality in Ribera’s finest work; placing this artist far above the estimate popularly formed of him. It is not difficult to discover the influence of this large, grave feeling in the earlier work of Murillo and in almost all the work of Zurburan.