Crespi was born in Bologna to Girolamo Crespi and Isabella Cospi. His mother
was a distant relation of the noble Cospi family, which had ties to the
Florentine House of Medici. He was nicknamed "the Spanish One" (Lo Spagnuolo)
because of his habit of wearing tight clothes characteristic of Spanish fashion
of the time.
By age 12 years, he apprenticed with Angelo Michele Toni (1640-1708). From the
age of 15-18 years, he worked under the Bolognese Domenico Maria Canuti. The
Roman painter Carlo Maratti, on a visit to Bologna, is said to have invited
Crespi to work in Rome, but Crespi declined. Maratti's friend, the Bolognese
Carlo Cignani invited Crespi in 1681-1682 to join an Accademia del Nudo for the
purpose of studying drawing, and he remained in that studio until 1686, when
Cignani relocated to Forlì and his studio was taken over by Canuti's most
prominent pupil, Giovanni Antonio Burrini. From this time hence, Crespi worked
independently of other artists.
His main biographer, Giampietro Zanotti, said of Crespi: (He) "never again
wanted for money, and he would make the stories and caprices that came into his
imagination. Very often also he painted common things, representing the lowest
occupations, and people who, born poor, must sustain themselves in serving the
requirements of wealthy citizens". Thus it was for Crespi himself, as he began a
career servicing wealthy patrons with artwork. He is said to have had a camera
optica in his house for painting. By the 1690s he had completed various
altarpieces, including a Temptation of Saint Anthony commissioned by Count Carlo
Cesare Malvasia, now in San Niccolò degli Albari.
He journeyed to Venice, but surprisingly, never to Rome. Bearing his large
religious canvas of Massacre of the Innocents and a note from Count Vincenzo
Rannuzi Cospi as an introduction, Crespi fled in the middle of the night to
Florence in 1708, and gained the patronage of the Grand Duke Ferdinand I de'
Medici. He had been forced to flee Bologna with the canvas, which while intended
for the Duke, had been fancied by a local priest, Don Carlo Silva for himself.
The events surrounding this episode became the source of much litigation, in
which Crespi, at least for the next five years, found the Duke a firm protector.
An eclectic artist, Crespi was a portrait painter and a brilliant caricaturist,
and was also known for his etchings after Rembrandt and Salvator Rosa. He could
be said to have painted a number of masterpieces in different styles. He painted
few frescoes, in part because he refused to paint for quadraturists, though in
all likelihood, his style would not have matched the requirements of a medium
then often used for grandiloquent scenography. He was not universally
appreciated, Lanzi quotes Mengs as lamenting that the Bolognese school should
close with the capricious Crespi. Lanzi himself describes Crespi as allowing his
turn for novelty at length to lead his fine genius astray. He found Crespi
included caricature in even scriptural or heroic subjects, he cramped his
figures, he fell in to mannerism, and painted with few colors and few
brushstrokes,employed indeed with judgement but too superficial and without
strength of body
One celebrated series of canvases, the Seven Sacraments, was painted around
1712, and now hangs in the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden. It was originally completed
for Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni in Rome, and upon his death passed to the Elector
of Saxony. These imposing works are painted with a loose brushstroke, but still
maintain a sober piety. Making no use of hieratic symbols such as saints and
putti, they utilize commonplace folk to illustrate sacramental activity.
True to his eclecticism is the naturalistic Saint John Nepomunk confessing the
Queen of Swabia, made late in life. In this painting, much is said by partially
shielded faces. His Resurrection of Christ is a dramatic arrangement in dynamic
perspectives, somewhat influenced by Annibale Carracci's altarpiece of the same
While many came to work in the studio Crespi established after Cignani's
departure, few became notable. Antonio Gionima was moderately successful. Others
included Giovanni Francesco Braccioli, Giacomo Pavia, Giovanni Morini, Pier
Guariente, and Cristoforo Terzi. He may also have influenced Giovanni
Domenico Ferretti. While the Venetian Giovanni Battista Piazzetta claimed to
have studied under Crespi, the documentation for this is nonexistent.
Two of Crespi's sons, Antonio (1712-1781) and Luigi (1708-1779) became painters.
According to their account, Crespi may have used a camera obscura to aid in
depiction of outdoor scenes in his later years. After his wife's death, he
became reclusive, rarely leaving the house except to go to daily mass.
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