by Roderick Conway Morris

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Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan
Basket of Fruit by Caravaggio, late 16th century

Caravaggio's Still-Lifes

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE 2 August 2003


Few art historians would dispute Caravaggio's fundamental role in establishing a distinctive school of Italian still life ã but the consensus more or less ends there.

The flowering of still life as an independent form in Italy, at its best and most vigorous, was brief before declining into imitation, repetition and mere decoration ã although there were some exceptions to this general trend, notably Evaristo Baschenis's hushed, highly atmospheric and brilliantly executed compositions of musical instruments.

The oddly abrupt rise and fall of the genre in Italy has tended to deter even the hardiest scholars from entangling themselves in the complexities of this field thronged with unidentified practitioners, thick with contested attributions, and plagued by unanswered, possibly unanswerable, questions.

Mina Gregori, the Caravaggio expert and doyenne of Italian art historians, has for longer than most put considerable efforts into trying to map this poorly charted territory. She has now curated the most ambitious exhibition yet on the subject, with 227 pieces on display: 'Italian Still Life: From Caravaggio to the 18th Century,' which continues at Palazzo Strozzi until Oct. 12.

The precursors of still life in Italy were diverse. The schools north of the Alps unquestionably played a part in giving rise to the southern genre, as did ancient Greek and Roman art, both in the form of surviving works and antique literary descriptions of them. Especially important in this local context were paintings derived from the 'xenia,' the baskets of fruit presented as welcoming gifts to guests (a traditional offering that is still made in the Greek countryside today). The wide use of flowers and fruit for symbolic purposes in medieval and Renaissance pictures and sculptures was another source of inspiration, as were proto-scientific drawings of plants, fruits and, for example, fish.

There is a reasonable degree of agreement that Lombardy, where Caravaggio was born in 1571, was where some of the first seeds of Italian still life were sown, and several pioneers, such as Vincenzo Campi, Giovanni Ambrogio Figino and the female painter Fede Galizia, are represented in the opening section of the show. Included, too, is Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who returned to Milan from the Habsburg Court in 1587 at the height of his fame. His bizarre figures, faces and other objects composed of fruit and vegetables could not have failed to catch the attention of the young Caravaggio (and alerted him, perhaps, to the expressive possibilities of market produce).

From here the exhibition proceeds roughly chronologically, but divided according to region, with final sections on animal and flower painting and so on. Inexplicable is the absence in the opening sections of Venice and the Veneto. There are, after all, significant still-life elements in the works of the masters of the late 15th and 16th centuries, on which they lavished as much skill and attention as figures and drapery. Jacopo de' Barbari's 1504 'A Partridge with Pieces of Armor' is a landmark early Italian independent still life, and Jacopo Bassano and his sons' rustic scenes are overflowing with fruit, vegetables and animals.

Caravaggio himself is represented by 'Boy With a Basket of Fruit,' 'Boy Bitten by a Lizard,' 'Bacchus' and a 'Lute Player' (though the last looks like a studio copy). The artist's only universally accepted, independent still life, the 'Basket of Fruit' at the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan, is not here, no doubt having been impossible to borrow.

All the Caravaggios present have still life elements, including flowers and fruits, but none is an independent still life of the kind that could explain the subsequent plethora of Caravaggesque still lifes, of varying levels of competence (many by artists of uncertain identity).

However, one remarkable exhibit, distinguished by its sophistication, is a previously unpublished 'Still Life With Melon, Watermelon, Pomegranate and Other Fruits,' plausibly attributed to the 'Lodger of Saraceni' (baptized thus by art historian Roberto Longhi), an elusive figure until now credited with the authorship of less than half a dozen canvases. The combination of gray stone ledge, raking light, and luscious, sexually suggestive split melon and pomegranate call to mind the extraordinary, even more sumptuous, more finely executed and more erotic ã here the fruits are accompanied by probing, phallic gourds ã 'Still Life With Fruit on a Stone Ledge.' (The picture is currently in the United States, but for reasons hard to fathom its loan was not requested for the Strozzi show.)

This latter canvas was spotted when it came up for auction in Madrid in 1992 by the Florence-based scholar John T. Spike, has been dated by him at around 1603, and has gained increasing acceptance by specialists as being by Caravaggio himself. Such is the quality of this painting that if it is not by Caravaggio, virtually the only other explanation available is that it is the sole surviving work of an otherwise completely unknown master.

The new Lodger of Saraceni canvas at Florence appears closely related to the 'Madrid' picture, making it a significant addition to that tantalizing jigsaw puzzle that, if more complete, could greatly clarify the exact nature of Caravaggio's role in forming the Italian genre.

Caravaggio's religious works are typically multifaceted, ambiguous, nuanced, and we would expect his still lifes to be no less so. He was educated, cultured and had profound insights into the Christian experience, but also had in many ways a mentality more in tune with an earlier, more free-thinking era. Yet he lived in a Counter-Reformation world that had come to frown on ambiguity and tended to see heresy at every turn, a world by this time firmly under the thumb of the Inquisition.

The use of symbols in art was closely monitored by the authorities ã the watchword in the aftermath of the Council of Trent being one message per symbol, and the approved one at that, no more, no less ã and transgressors, even unconscious ones, were called to account for themselves. Even in fiercely independent Venice, where the Inquisition's power was uniquely weak, Veronese was summoned by the Inquisition in 1574 to justify the contents of a canvas of 'The Last Supper' (now at the Accademia). Rather than remove the 'buffoons, drunken Germans, dwarfs and other such absurdities' that his interrogators objected to, he changed the picture's title to 'Supper at the House of Levi,' a tactic he could not have resorted to anywhere else in Catholic Christendom.

By the beginning of the 17th century, still life in Italy, despite its lingering Protestant associations (given its popularity with the heretics of northern Europe), was tolerated, but its development constrained and its status uncertain. Through his intelligence, ingenuity and dazzling mastery of his medium, Caravaggio overcame all obstacles. His still life painting celebrates the delicious, opulent fruits of the earth and its carnal delights, accepting them as irresistible, while recognizing at the same time that they can also be the path to damnation ã that dark abyss below the cool stone ledge on which the deity's gifts to man and woman are laid out in all their glory.

Only a very great artist could convey this much in a still life ã and get away with it. It is scarcely to be wondered at that lesser painters proved unequal to this challenge, either because they never fully appreciated the subtleties of Caravaggio's still lifes, or because they were unwilling to take the kind of risks he took throughout his career.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024