Apprenticed to Sebastiano Ricci, but much influenced by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Francesco Fontebasso became one of the leading artists of 18th century Venice, much in demand as a painter of frescoes and grand history pictures. In his early career, he spent brief periods in both Bologna and Rome before returning to his native Venice. He probably first came into contact with Tiepolo’s work around 1730 when he saw the frescoes at the Palazzo Patriarcale in Udine, an encounter that would steer Fontebasso’s work in a decisive new direction. The impact was evident in his first major commission in Venice, from the Manin family, for I Gesuiti, executed in 1734, by which point his reputation had already grown to the point where he was able to open a school. Commissions flooded in from members of the Venetian aristocracy in the subsequent decades, and in 1761 he was invited to St. Petersburg at the invitation of Empress Catherine II, where he would remain for nearly two years, working on projects for the Winter Palace and other Imperial palaces. Appointed as Professor at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, he then returned to Venice at the end of his storied career, becoming principe of the Accademia Veneziana in 1768.
The present subject, depicting Scipio’s great act of mercy, was one that Fontebasso returned to on repeated occasions. One is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, dating to the early 1740s, and may have possibly been part of the decoration made for the Ca’ Duodo in Venice. Another was commissioned a short time after for the Ca’ Zenobio (now the Villa del Prà) in Santa Bona, near Treviso. And a further staging is recorded as being commissioned in 1733 by the renowned commander and patron Field Marshal Count Johann Matthias von der Schulenburg, but is now considered lost.
The work is dated by Magrini (op. cit.) to a later period, c.1755, on account of the similarities with pictures of the Via Crucis cycle in Santa Maria del Giglio, Venice, two of which Fontebasso painted as part of a series executed with other leading Venetian painters of the day, including Francesco Zugno, Gaspare Diziani and Jacopo Marieschi. In what must have been a productive year, he was also given the imposing task in 1755 of restoring Tintoretto’s Paradise in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio in the Doge’s Palace.