Jusepe de Ribera

Born: Xàtiva, Spain

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The oldest of the great painters of the Spanish Baroque, Jusepe de Ribera almost doesn’t even qualify as a Spanish artist, given that he spent the majority of his life and his entire career in Italy. Nonetheless, the artist was fiercely proud of his Spanish roots, and furthermore lived in Naples, which during the 17th century was a Spanish territory. The artist thus had strong connections with his homeland and exerted an enormous influence on Baroque art, both in Spain as well as in the rest of Europe. Ribera was lucky to be working in Naples. After becoming part of the Spanish empire in 1501 (the city would remain under Spanish rule for two centuries), the city’s population tripled in size, making it Europe’s second largest urban center after Paris. During the 17th century, Naples was a hotbed of intellectual and artistic activity, home to the century’s greatest artists, philosophers, writers and musicians, at least until the great plague of 1565 wiped out half the city’s population. By living and working in Naples, Ribera was guaranteed to be surrounded by cutting-edge art and wealthy patrons.

Virtually no documents exist that could shed some light on Ribera’s childhood in Spain. It is known that he was born and baptized in the town of Játiva in the Valencia region, the second son of a successful shoemaker named Simón Ribera; he lost his mother when he was only about five or six years old. Although sons were usually trained to continue the same profession as their fathers, some art historians have speculated that Ribera’s artistic pursuits could have been encouraged by other artists in his family. His paternal grandmother was named Juana Navarro of Tervel, and several painters with the surname Navarro were known in Valencia; this remains mere speculation, however. Ribera’s biographer claims that as a boy, Ribera was apprenticed to the successful local artist Francisco Ribalta, although there is absolutely no evidence to support this claim. Whatever the facts of his childhood, Ribera was evidently displeased with the way things were going and left his hometown in pursuit of bigger and better things (popular belief holds that he left Spain over an argument with Ribalta concerning the master artist’s daughter). Ribera was in Italy by 1611, stopping first in Parma, where documents reveal he executed a painting for the church of St. Prospero, and then ending up in Rome by 1613. Ribera stayed in Rome until 1616, studying at the Academy of St. Luke and living with his younger brother, Juan, as well as a whole flock of other fellow Spaniards in the house of a Flemish merchant on the Via Margutta.

Contemporary sources suggest that during these early years in Rome, Ribera led a libertine existence, perhaps in imitation of Caravaggio, whose art Ribera so admired. He thus quickly ran out of money and, apparently to escape his creditors, fled to the Spanish-ruled Kingdom of Naples in 1616, where he would stay for the rest of his life. Fortunately for Ribera, as a Spaniard he was able to ally himself with the Spanish elite as well as the Flemish merchants who were in the upper echelons of Neapolitan society, and who were thus the primary patrons of art in Naples. Soon after his arrival Ribera made an advantageous marriage to Catalina Azzolino India, the daughter of the established and successful painter and art dealer, Giovanni Bernardino Azzolino (the haste of the marriage suggests that Ribera may in fact have arranged it before he even left Rome). It should be noted that as popular as Ribera was as an artist, as a man he was often reviled. The Italian Neapolitans often resented their Spanish oppressors and Ribera’s proud demeanor and apparently tempestuous personality were far from ingratiating.