Scenes from the Life of Esther

Written by  Berenice Giovannucci Vigi
Four canvases by Giuseppe Facchinetti restored by the Foundation.
The story of Esther, the young Jewish girl of outstanding beauty whose courage and readiness to sacrifice herself enabled her to save her people from extermination, figures largely in Christian iconography as a prefiguration of the role of the Virgin in the Last Judgement.

The most famous episode in the Biblical story depicts Esther appearing before the Persian king Assuerus, sent to persuade him to cease persecuting the Jews. The scene, particularly popular in large-scale frescos in the seventeenth and eighteenth century Veneto, always almost set in a sumptuous royal palace to emphasis its aristocratic nature, depicts the moment when after Esther has fainted out of fear of having provoked the king's anger, Assuerus extends his sceptre towards her and saves her life.


In the four major canvases in the Cassa di Risparmio collection, painted in tempera and certainly produced for hanging in a prestigious reception room, the narrative iconography of the different episodes differs from that of recognised pictorial tradition. The Ferrara scenes depicting Assuerus's triumphal carriage, The Coronation of Esther, Esther's toilette, The fainting of Esther and Assuerus ordering Mardocheo's triumph at Amam are set against a vast degrading landscape with fields in the background.

The episodes in the story are framed by trees, flowers, fruits and foliage in such a way as the make the figures stand out as if on a stage. The elegant monochromatic chiaroscuro decoration which edges each frame also recalls the theatre.
The current restoration, which has recovered the beauty of these tempera paintings, has revealed the initials GF with which the artist has signed each canvas. The painter's signature makes these works rare in the general context of 18th century art in Ferrara, since nothing comparable has been found even in this artist's other works.

GF stands for Giuseppe Facchinetti, born in Ferrara in 1694, was Master of perspective and architecture at the university public Academy and thus primarily a "quadraturista", to use the term then current to describe the artists who painted walls, vaults and ceilings with decorations characterised by architectural trompe l'oeil views, almost always in monochrome and almost always framing historical subjects painted by most valued and celebrated artists.

Facchinetti's most important works date from the 1750s and 1760s, including the decorative work on the vaults of the former SS. Crispin and Crispiniano Oratory, the paintings carried out with Bigari in the Palazzo Renata di Francia; the architectural decorations in the reading room of the Palazzo Paradiso; the "frames" around Pellegrini and Girolami's frescos in some of the chapels at San Domenico; the decorations in the chapel of the Holy Sacrament in the church of San Paolo, also in collaboration with Pellegrini; and the monochrome decoration around windows and doors in San Girolamo.

Facchinetti's most ambitious works are the quadrature on four ceilings in the Palazzo Renata di Francia. In these frescos featuring mythological subjects and completed between 1758 and 1766 in collaboration with the Bologna artist Vittorio Maria Bigari for the figurative elements, Facchinetti's individual fresco technique and extraordinary ability are very evident.
The most congenial collaboration was that between Facchinetti and Giuseppe Antonio Ghedini, the best eighteenth century artist from Ferrara. Their collaboration began in 1740, when the two worked together on frescos for a ceiling depicting an allegorical view of Olympus in the Palazzo Bevilacqua.

Facchinetti's greatest work, now restored to splendour by the recent restoration, and clearly matching Ghedini's narrative pictorial skills, is on the walls of the seventeenth century transept in the church of Santa Maria in Vado.
The youthful features of Esther and her maid, the fluidity of the garments in chiaroscuro, the lightness of the poses, the solemnity of the illusion of space, all recall the Olympus ceiling and the monochrome figures in the Santa Maria in Vado transept.

Further, the magnificence and gestures of Assuerus and the soldier in the foreground of the two Triumph canvasses call to mind the collaboration with Giuseppe Antonio Ghedini on the two painting The Beggar chased out of the wedding feast and The Sacrifice of Melchisadech in the chapel now dedicated to the Blessed Virgin of the Chalice, also in Santa Maria in Vado.

Facchinetti, who had worked on the architectural setting for the narrative painting of the wedding feast, was clearly influenced by the Ghedini figures in his Esther paintings.