by Roderick Conway Morris

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Private collection
Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge attributed to Caravaggio, 1505-10

Still-Lifes and Mysteries

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 2 March 1996


Protestantism, fear of idolatry and suspicion of figurative divine imagery gave powerful impetus to the development of still life painting in northern Europe, especially in the Low countries. In Spain, an austere mysticism fired artists such as Sánchez Cotán to combine the study of still life with the production of more conventional Catholic images. In Italy, it took a single artist of genius, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, to establish a third alternative, which was neither pro- nor anti-Reformation, but treated still life primarily as a pure display of artistic brilliance.

Defying conventional local wisdom, he was quoted as saying that it took as much effort and skill for him 'to paint a good picture of flowers as one of figures.'

Attention to still life has been increasing rapidly over the last decade or so, as witnessed by the mounting spate of exhibitions specifically devoted to the genre from Moscow to Madrid and Düsseldorf to Dayton, Ohio. A new show of more than 60 works, 'Still Life at the Time of Caravaggio,' at the Capitoline Museums in Rome (until April 14), reveals the early development of Italian still life to be an area of immense interest, unresolved ramifications and lively contention.

Still life was a thriving decorative form in antiquity, and floral and vegetal artistic embellishment never fully died out in the Dark Ages, resurfacing with renewed vigor in the early Middle Ages. It gained strength during the Renaissance in very elaborate wood, stone and marble inlays.

Yet, while masterfully executed still life elements, including memento mori human skulls, foliage, flowers and even fish, often loaded with symbolic significance, played a part in 15th- and 16th-century compositions, still life in itself seems not to have been regarded as worthy of the attentions of a first-rate artist.

The key survival of Caravaggio's early interest in still life is his 'Fiscella' or 'Canestra di Frutta' ('the Basket of Fruit') at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, and not, unfortunately, in the Rome show, a tour de force of naturalism in which the blotchy leaves and pear and worm-holed apple seem not so much to convey the memento mori messages of other contemporary still life schools but to announce the arrival of an inspired and penetrating new artistic vision of the world.

The show opens with three other early Caravaggios with still life elements -- 'Youth with a Basket of Fruit,' 'Boy Bitten by a Lizard' and the 'Sick Bacchus,' a disturbing, bilious self-portrait of the painter, while works by Jan Bruegel, Floris Van Dijck and Joachim Beuckelaer offer a useful foil to the mainly Italian works that follow.

However, when we enter the shadowy lands of late 16th- and early 17th-century Italian still life, we find ourselves in the realm of code-named specialists, elusive collaborators, doubtful aliases and shifting attributions. Meet the 'Master of the Acquavella Still Life,' who appears to have painted only food and tableware, at which he excelled. A splendid array appears in 'Supper at Emmaus,' derived directly from the Caravaggio of the same name now in the National Gallery in London, the figures in which were possibly done by Bartolomeo Cavarozzi.

Some, like the 'Lodger of Saraceni' (Carlo Saraceni was a Venetian painter who worked in Rome) and Pietro-Paolo Bonzi, known as the 'Hunchback of the Fruits,' are characters worthy of a magic-realist novel. So little is known about others in the show, some the authors of pleasing canvases, that many of them cannot be labeled beyond 'Roman' or 'Caravaggesque painter.'

And it is a sign not of any sleight of hand on the part of the exhibition organizers but of the unsettled and volatile nature of this, scholarly speaking, virtually virgin territory, that two blanks on the walls at the Borghese Gallery's long-term temporary home at San Michele in Trastevere are labeled 'Frans Synders' (Antwerp 1579-1637), and yet, after the short trip across the Tiber to the Capitoline Hill, the loaned pictures have turned up with passports in the name of the 'Master of Hartford,' the unidentified painter of a definitely Caravaggesque work at the Wadsworth Atheneum at Hartford, Connecticut.

Notable for its absence is an extraordinary work spotted at auction in Spain in 1992 by the Florence-based American art historian John Spike, 'Still Life on a Stone Ledge.' Spike successfully bid for the picture and immediately arranged to have it cleaned and put on long-term public loan at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. The discovery has been widely discussed in the Italian press, and the picture would apparently have been available to the Rome show. However, the organizers chose to duck the issue and did not request the picture.

Spike is not alone among foreign experts in his conviction that the painting is by Caravaggio, and more than one Italian Caravaggio expert seem to concur, but their public declarations have been cautious. The reappearance of a lost Caravaggio of this type would necessitate the radical revision of current texts on this master. The technical excellence of the painting is indisputable, and it is also imbued with an unparalleled allusive wit and erotic suggestiveness.

'I think 'Still life on a Stone Ledge' is the source of all subsequent Roman still life paintings,' said Spike in a telephone interview. 'All those pictures that have so much in common -- the table tops with realistically depicted fruit, with strong chiaroscuro and a sharply raking light -- where do they come from? They certainly don't come from the 'Fiscella Ambrosiana' in Milan, but they have to come from somewhere. And I believe that this newly discovered picture is the source, the missing link.'

One of the reasons why the painting had passed unnoticed for so long, said Spike, was 'because the background had been entirely over-painted. So that wonderful ocher-yellow-green light characteristic of Caravaggio was invisible; it was pure black. But, after cleaning, it has re-emerged.'

Equally, he said, its obviously later date is puzzling. 'It's a completely new idea: a 1605 still life by Caravaggio. We were all raised on the concept that he specialized in still life in the 1590s and then left that behind him. But the point is that we can never decide for painters what they might or might not have done.'

Spike has, meanwhile, come up with a biographical explanation for the work, suggesting that Caravaggio, who led the most delinquent and rackety life of any great painter in history, produced this sexually suggestive work at the height of his passionate affair with Madallena Antognetti, a young prostitute.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023