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ANTONIO TEMPESTA | The Egyptians drowning in the Red Sea

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  • Tempesta, Antonio
  • The Egyptians drowning in the Red Sea
  • SOLDoil on red marble, probably either Breccia Medicea or Breccia Moresca. A repaired break running diagonally along a vein of the marble from upper left to lower right. 
  • 16 5/8  by 23 3/8  in.; 42.1 by 59.5 cm. 


The Gavotti Verospi family, prior to 1709 and by descent; a wax seal transferred from the previous 18th-century frame has the coat of arms of the Gavotti Verospi family and a second seal is stamped with the monogram AS, Angelo Gavotti Verospi (1781–after 1855);
With Jean-Luc Baroni, 2011;
From whom acquired by the present owner.


The following condition report is provided by Henry Gentle who is an external specialist and not an employee of Sotheby's:TempestaEgyptians drowning in the Red Sea.Oil on pink marble support, in a faux inlay and wood frameThe marble support is in a good preserved state. There is a fine repaired diagonal fracture starting lower right at the blue turban and travelling up to the left to the striped yellow and white banner; there is minimal restored paint loss along the fracture.Under u-v light scattered delaminated paint loss across the surface can be detected, some of which has been retouched out, however, there are small areas of revealed marble visible to the naked eye.The paint texture is well preserved, the colours are strong and fine details are intact.Removal of the remains of a discoloured varnish would improve the overall tonality.
"This lot is offered for sale subject to Sotheby's Conditions of Business, which are available on request and printed in Sotheby's sale catalogues. The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders' information only and without warranty by Sotheby's or the Seller."


Antonio Tempesta was a painter, draughtsman and printmaker best known for his battle scenes. Alongside commissions for large-scale decorative projects, he produced elaborate and sophisticated cabinet pictures for the connoisseur market. The present picture is an exceptional and characteristic example of his ingenious works on stone. In it he illustrates, with great precision, the biblical passage from Exodus in which God instructs Moses to hold out his hand over the Red Sea, thus dividing the waters and allowing the Israelites to pass through on dry ground.Tempesta shows Moses standing in the background with his hand raised. The pillar of cloud, the manifestation of God, floats above the sea. The Israelite women, with their babies and possessions in their arms, stare in wonder at the dreadful destruction as the water closes back over the Egyptian army, the men and horses flailing helplessly in the turbulent waters. In one detail typical of Tempesta, a turbaned man looks out with pleading eyes towards a dog barking on the shore. With great creativity the vivid, animated patterns of the marble are incorporated into the design: a particularly strong vertical vein is used to define the land on which the Israelites stand and the land itself occupies the markedly lighter section of the stone. Other paler masses in the top right corner become rocky outcrops, their darker tones serving as deep clefts in the rock, while smaller, whiter sections of the marble are ingeniously transformed into the flanks of horses. Tempesta created the churning sea in which the soldiers thrash and struggle by picking out the darker and lighter reds of the marble with coloured highlights to define waves and foam. The entire surface is transformed into a highly sophisticated pattern of painted detail and flecked, variegated stone.

Tempesta treated this biblical subject on more than one occasion both in print and as paintings on stone. As part of a print series of 1613 depicting scenes from the Old Testament, plate no. 7 shows the Egyptian army in the foreground with soldiers on horseback pursuing the Israelite army and the waters of the Red Sea parting in the distance to the left. The following plate in the series, no. 8, shows in the foreground the Israelites giving thanks to God on the shore of the Red Sea, while behind to the right the Egyptian army is drowned.1 The present painting combines the two events into one scene – Exodus 14: 28–31 and Exodus 15 – the Egyptians drowning and the song of praise by Moses and the Israelites after that event:

‘And the waters returned, and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, and all the host of Pharoah that came into the sea after them; there remained not so much as one of them. But the children of Israel walked upon dry land. Thus the Lord saved Israel that day out of the hand of the Egyptians’.

The painting differs from the etching in bringing the actual drowning of the Egyptian army right to the foreground of the composition, thereby making best use of the extraordinary marble ground. This solution also increases the dramatic potential of the scene, as the fate of the Egyptians occupies much of the painting’s surface.

Tempesta made a number of other paintings illustrating the Crossing of the Red Sea, each different in composition. Examples in Rome are at the Galleria Doria Pamphilj (painted on alabaster on an oval format),2 and the Galleria Borghese (on pietra paesina);3 the Giulini Collection in Milan (on alabaster with an arched top);4 and the Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest (oil on marble, oval).5 The subject was also published in 1614 as an etching in the series of twenty-four Old Testament Battlescenes dedicated to Grand Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici.

The present work stands out amongst the various painted versions for its exceptional vividness and magnificence. Tempesta would undoubtedly have known the celebrated fresco by Cosimo Rosselli (1439–1507) of the same subject in the Sistine Chapel, part of the cycle of paintings on the south wall depicting the Stories of Moses. The compositional arrangement is broadly similar to Rosselli’s large narrative fresco, comparable in groupings such as the prominent figures of the Israelites on the left and the dense ranks of cavalry and infantry to the right; atmospheric elements recur, such as the massed storm clouds and pelting rain in the middle distance. Tempesta would have had ample opportunity to study this impressive wall painting at first hand during his employment at the Vatican. As such it constitutes an important precedent for this uncommon subject.

Tempesta, a Florentine, maintained his links with his native city, albeit that he spent much of his career in Rome, counting two successive popes among his most illustrious patrons. Tempesta was listed as a member of the Florentine Accademia del Disegno on 8 December 1576. According to Giovanni Baglione (c. 1566–1643), he was taught by Johannes Stradanus (1523–1605) and certainly his work shows a clear allegiance to the school of Vasari and the continuing influence of the battle scenes of the Salone dei Cinquecento at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Tempesta was in Rome by 1575 when he is recorded as working on the cycle of frescoes in the Loggia Gregoriana of the Vatican Palace alongside Matthijs Bril (1550–1583); the influence of Netherlandish art constitutes another strong current in his work. Among Tempesta’s Roman commissions are a series of frescoes for the church of Santo Stefano Rotondo, frescoes and mosaics in S. Giovanni in Laterano, contributions to the decorations of the villa of Cardinal Francesco Gambara at Bagnaia; and the Farnese villa at Caprarola and, late in his career, two frescoes to flank Guido Reni’s Aurora in the Loggia del Giardino of Scipione Borghese’s palace. Rome remained his focus and his career there was further advanced by the patronage of the succeeding Pope, Paul V Borghese, elected in 1605. In around 1610, there is, however, evidence of renewed contact with Florentine patrons. While Tempesta always referred to himself as ‘pittore’ and was consistently producing pictures and painting frescoes, from the late 1580s he also began to work as a printmaker, initially making designs for execution by experienced engravers but quite quickly employing the medium of etching himself. The majority of Tempesta’s early prints are on religious themes, but with the freely etched hunting and battle scenes that he began to publish in the 1590s, Tempesta established himself as the first Roman artist to reproduce his own graphic style. The less overtly devotional subject matter of this work meant that it escaped the strict control of the papal administration and could therefore be more innovative and experimental in technique.

Tempesta was extremely productive and successful as a printmaker and, alongside the highly animated and increasingly large Battles and Hunts, he made a twelve-sheet Plan of Rome, a magnificent record of the city’s architectural history, which continued to be printed until late into the eighteenth century, as well as illustrations for Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Deeds of Alexander the Great and the great 200-print series of Old Testament scenes. A member of the Accademia di San Luca, he associated with contemporary painters such as Domenichino (1581–1641), Carlo Saraceni (c. 1579–1620) and Baglione and is mentioned by Caravaggio (1571–1610) as one of the few ‘valent’uomini’ among painters in Rome. In his last years, his printed output slowed down somewhat but his work was still much sought after by collectors and patrons, an example being the Barberini family whose account books list numerous acquisitions from the artist. Tempesta’s influence continued well beyond his immediate contemporaries; Jacques Callot (1592–1635), Stefano della Bella (1610–1664), Pietro Testa (1612–1650) and even Salvator Rosa (1615–1673) all looked to his techniques for inspiration and his prints were used as models by artists as preeminent as Rubens (1577–1640), Rembrandt (1606–1669), Velázquez (1599–1660), Poussin (1594–1665) and Giordano (1634–1705).6

The first recorded owner of this work was the Gavotti family, a branch of which became established in Rome in around 1570. Originally from Savona and are recorded there from the middle of the fifteenth century. Their palaces became focal points for Ligurians in Rome as the family maintained contacts with the Genoa and Savona nobility while entering the heart of Roman society. As significant collectors of art, the Gavotti Verospi family associated with many of the artists and patrons active in Rome in the seventeenth century; the Abbot Giovan Carlo Gavotti was in regular contact with Reni (1575–1642), Albani (1578–1660) and Guercino (1591–1666) and the Gavotti family chapel in the church of San Nicola da Tolentino, was decorated by Pietro da Cortona (1596–1669). The Gavotti and Verospi families were united when Alessandro Gavotti married Virginia Verospi, daughter of Gerolamo Verospi (d. 1775). Paintings from the Gavotti Verospi collections are in various museums and public collections, including Ribera’s Resurrection of Lazarus at the Prado, Madrid, and works by Dirck van Barburen (c. 1594/5–1624) and Giovanni Lanfranco (1582–1647) now at the Fondazione Longhi in Florence. 

The present picture may be the one referred to in an inventory made on the death of Ottavio Gavotti, dated 26 August 1709, which lists as painting number 24, ‘a small picture which shows a battle scene with the figure of Moses with his hands raised’. A more definite reference can be found in the inventory of 1849, in the archives of the Lante family, into which the Marchese Angelo Gavotti Verospi (1781–after 1855) had married in 1806, which lists as number 18, a ‘Passaggio del Marrosso in pietra del Cavalier Tempesta’ located in the anticamera ‘del setino rosso’ of the palazzo di via delle Muratte. The inventory was compiled by the painter and Academician Tommaso Minardi, who also specified that the listed paintings were ‘contrassegnati a tergo’, (‘marked on the back’) with the coat-of-arms of the Gavotti and of that of Angelo Gavotti Verospi, both in red wax. In addition, another earlier valuation of 1838–40 of the Gavotti Verospi paintings, made by Nicola Sessi and G. Trampolini, describes a ‘Sommersione del Faraone del Tempesta, scudi 120’.7


1 Bartsch XVII.130.243.

2 Oil on alabaster, oval, 40 x 53 cm. (inv. 382), reproduced in S. Pezzati’s essay ‘Due dipinti trascurati di Antonio Tempesta e un misterioso disegno’, in Paragone, LIII, 627, no. 43, May 2002, pp. 72–73 and 79, pl. 54.

3 Oil on pietra paesina, 15 x 33 cm.

4 E. Leuschner, Antonio Tempesta: ein Bahnbrecher des römischen Barock und siene europäische Wirkung, Petersberg 2005, p. 476, fig. 14.1.

5 Inv. no. 7179, 38 x 56 cm.; reproduced in colour in Leuschner 2005, p. 25, fig. 2.2.

6 For this information on Tempesta’s biography, see Eckhard Leuschner, The Illustrated Bartsch, Antonio Tempesta, vol. 35, part 1, commentary, pp. 1-5, and his bibliographical references pp. 5-6.

7 The 1709 inventory is listed in the Appendices of the following two publications: A. Leonardi, Dipinti per i Gavotti: da Reni a Lanfranco a Pietro da Cortona: una collezione tra Roma, Savona e Genoa, Genoa 2006 and Feudi, ville, palazzi e quadrerie. Committenze Costa, Gavotti e Siri tra Liguria e Roma nel ’500 e ’600, Genoa 2008.