St Sebastian healed by the pious women
Uffizi, Depaartment of Prints and Drawings, inv. no. 109583
Pietro Benvenuti (1769-1844) was a very precocious, talented painter who, after training at the Accademia in Florence, went to Rome, where he stayed for many years (1792-1804). And indeed, between the 18th and 19th centuries, Rome was a place where promising young artists would go to study the works of antiquity and become inspired to express the beauty and magniloquence that became the code of neoclassical art.
In this scene, the theatrical nature of the poses is reminiscent of one of the grand epigones of Neoclassicism, French painter Jacques-Louis David, who influenced the young Benvenuti and who, in Rome, had in turn been influenced not only by ancient art, but also by 17th century Italian art. The accurate details and the finiteness of the forms are indications of the painter’s highly meticulous, careful style, which he had inherited from the Tuscan painting tradition. The squared piece of paper was probably a preparatory sketch for a large painting created around 1803/1804 for the marquis Albergotti of Arezzo, now lost.
In Tuscany, Pietro Benvenuti was a very successful painter, working for the court of Elisa Baciocchi and then for the court of the Lorraine family after the end of the Napoleonic era: one of his most important commissions was the decoration of the Hercules Room on the first floor of Palazzo Pitti (1817-1829).
Sebastian was a praetorian who lived in the 3rd century AD. Having been born to Christian parents, he entered the personal guard of the emperors Maximian and Diocletian and began offering comfort to the prisoners sentenced to death. Thanks to his position he was able to have many of them released. Diocletian, who came to know of Sebastian’s faith, sentenced him to death and ordered that he be shot with arrows. His lifeless body was recovered by Irene, widow of a martyred imperial officer who, with the aid of her servant, intended to give him a worthy burial. But despite his torment, the young man was still alive, and Irene healed his wounds with great care and dedication.
As soon as he was able, Sebastian presented himself to the emperor, accusing him of unfair cruelty towards Christians: this led to Diocletian’s decision to have him flogged to death and have his body thrown into the Cloaca Maxima, so that it could not be recovered and buried. But Sebastian appeared in a dream to the Roman matron Lucina, indicating the location of his body, which was then recovered and buried in the catacombs on the Appian Way alongside saints Peter and Paul. The pilgrims visiting the apostles’ tombs would also find that of the praetorian, whose cult soon became very popular. In the 4th century, a basilica dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul was built.
When Rome was struck, in 680, by a terrible plague, prayers were addressed to St Sebastian, who was believed to have been responsible for ending the epidemic. The basilica that conserved his relics became known by everyone as “Basilica Sancti Sebastiani”.