(also known as “Lo Spagnoletto”) (1591-1652)
Ribera was born the son of a shoemaker in the small Spanish town of Játiva, near Valencia. He received his early training in Spain, probably with Francisco Ribalta in Valencia, and is next documented in Parma in Northern Italy in 1611, at the age of twenty, when he was paid for a painting. He spent the rest of his life in Italy, in Rome from 1613-16, and thereafter in Naples, where he died.
According to Mancini, the Pope’s doctor and a critic of contemporary art, he left Rome to avoid the debts caused by extravagance, despite a reasonable income. Soon after arriving in Naples, he married the daughter of Azzolino, a Sicilian artist.
Naples was then still the largest city in Italy, but not necessarily the best place to pursue a career as an artist. It had never been a centre of painting to match its importance as a city, and the local style had always tended to be propelled by influences from visiting artists from further North.
The most recent of these had been Caravaggio, whose second visit had ended only six years before. Most local artists continued a mannerist style influenced by the Cavaliere d’Arpino, an earlier visitor, but GB Caracciolo was already painting in a rather austere Caravaggiesque style.
The Kingdom of Naples, comprising Southern Italy and Sicily, was part of the Spanish Empire and ruled by Viceroys who were invariably Spanish aristocrats sent for short terms of duty. Ribera was fortunate in catching the attention of the new Viceroy, the Duke of Osuna, soon after they both arrived in Naples.
For the four years until Osuna was replaced in 1620 (too keen on reform) Ribera received a string of commissions for paintings from the Viceroy and other patrons, mostly Spaniards, but including the Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany. The years after Osuna’s return to Spain were much leaner for him, and few paintings survive from 1621-6.
It was during this period that he turned to print-making, no doubt partly in an attempt to promote his reputation to a wider world. Of his 18 etchings (including 2 not certainly his), 11 date from 1620-22, and only 2 from after 1630 (both commissions). His first two surviving etchings, dated to 1620, are images of saints - the most frequent subject of both his paintings and prints - that show him learning the technique.
He already had a powerful and distinctive drawing technique, and The Poet of 1620-1, which we reproduce, shows how quickly he was able to adapt this into etching. The other print we reproduce, the Drunken Silenus, dated 1628, comes right at the end of his main print-making period, and shows his style fully developed.
From about 1626 his painting career picked up again (he usually dated his paintings from then on), and he largely abandoned print-making. Many of his prints were versions of his paintings, but never merely reproductive. His prints achieved their widest influence after his death, but probably were known to Rembrandt from the 1630s.
Despite eventually living for over forty years in Italy, Ribera usually signed his prints and paintings (like the Drunken Silenus) with variations on ”Jusepe de Ribera, Spaniard”. He was generally known and referred to as “Lo Spagnoletto” (“The Spaniard” in Italian) from his years in Rome up to the C20th. When in 1648 there was a major revolt in Naples against Spanish rule, the Masaniello uprising, he felt it wise to take refuge in the Viceroy’s palace for the duration.
His patrons, especially in the first fifteen years, were more often Spanish or Flemish than native Neapolitans. The painting of the Drunken Silenus, for example, was owned by a Flemish merchant.
His style is likewise greatly influenced by Italian artists, but remains fundamentally Spanish. His master Ribalta had been trained in the tenebrism of the Escorial School, and in Italy Ribera was exposed to the more powerful tenebrist and realist style of Caravaggio, the main influence over his art until the 1630s.
Ribera added a sometimes excessive sensationalism, with flickering light over warm flesh. Not only his many martyred saints, but also classical subjects (Marsyas, Tityus, Ixion etc) show a tortured man, many upside down, and often looking directly out at the viewer. Byron wrote in Don Juan: ”Spagnoletto tainted/His brush with all the blood of all sainted”. One of his Ixions, moved to Amsterdam, was blamed in a book of 1675 for a deformity in its owner’s next child.
Such images became Ribera’s trademark, but he always produced a much wider range of pictures. His first series on the Five Senses, showing very ordinary individuals in realistic settings, may well have influenced Velasquez’s bodegones. Recently large two pure landscapes have been identified in Spain.
Guido Reni was also greatly admired by Ribera, who learnt from his use of colour (but see below). He was also exposed to Flemish influences, both in Spain and in Rome, where in 1615 he lived in a house with Spaniards and Flemings (then also from part of the Spanish empire). We have no names of his housemates, but there was a notable colony of young Netherlandish artists in Rome in these years, most of whom were heavily influenced by Caravaggio.
Once in Naples, Ribera quickly became established as the leader of the relatively small artistic community. He clearly intended to keep things that way, and resorted to frankly gangster-ish methods to warn off other significant artists who thought to try their luck in Naples, or accepted commissions there. With Caracciolo and another local artist, and their studios, he formed the so-called “cabal of Naples” or “Faccioni d’Pittori” .
Guido Reni left hurriedly in 1621 after an assistant was beaten up and wounded, and when in 1631 Domenichino arrived to fresco the important Chapel of the Treasure in the Cathedral (where the liquification of the blood of St Januarius takes place) he was harassed and threatened until he fled back to Rome in 1634. He claimed that he would arrive in the morning to find his work of the previous day rubbed off or defaced. However, he returned to Naples the next year and remained there until his death in 1641, which was accompanied by rumours of poisoning. Ribera was one of two artists consulted on the completion of the chapel, for which he did one section himself. Nonetheless other incomers, notably Lanfranco and Artemesia Gentileschi, were able to establish themselves in Naples in the 1630s, apparently without serious trouble.
Ribera’s style changed considerably after about 1632, moving away from Caravaggism unless a particular commission required it, and developing instead a Venetian-influenced style of richer colour and subtle effects of light. He flourished during the 1630s and early 1640s, living in some style and marrying his daughter to a Spanish nobleman in the administration, but he suffered from ill-health in his last years, and died very short of money.
The most important Neapolitan painters of the following generation, Salvator Rosa (also a significant etcher) and Luca Giordano were both greatly influenced by Ribera and probably worked in his studio. The many paintings of Ribera’s taken back to Spain also had significant influence there, on Velasquez, who met Ribera on his way back from Rome in 1630, Murillo and others.