According to the collector Vincenzo Giustiniani, the painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610)—who rocked artistic conventions with his shockingly naturalistic style, and secured lifelong notoriety for subversive ideas and behavior—commented that it was just as difficult to paint a good picture of flowers as it was to make a picture of figures. In 1601, he demonstrated this in The Supper at Emmaus (National Gallery, London), in which the center foreground is occupied by a meticulously rendered still life of bread, cooked fowl, full glass vessels, and a precariously poised basket of overripe, late-summer fruits. The latter was considered by contemporaries as outrageous for a scene that was to have taken place just after the resurrection of Christ at Easter. Nevertheless, Caravaggio’s unidealized description of objects based on direct observation had a profound impact on painting throughout Italy and Spain, especially in the fields of genre and still life.
As with its counterpart in the North, still life painting in Southern Europe flourished in the seventeenth century; however, the tradition had its gestation in antiquity, and its popularity extended into the following centuries. During the Renaissance, artists turned to the classical world, its literature, architecture, and art, for inspiration, and it provided the figural ideal emulated in painting in sculpture of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It also provided, though to a lesser extent, early precedents for still-life painting. These could be found in trompe l’oeil murals and illusionistic tile work depicting fruits, flowers, eating vessels, bones, and skulls. Nevertheless, still-life painting in the Renaissance was consigned by art historians such as Giorgio Vasari to the lowest limbs of the hierarchy of the arts, as its execution was believed to rely less on divinely appointed genius than upon observation, science, and craftsmanship: an artisanal rather than artistic talent. By the end of the sixteenth century, several artists had challenged this convention, and a new generation of painters brought a greater naturalism, and with it an elevated esteem, to the genre.
Lombardy, a region in north central Italy, was a major center for the development of still-life painting in Southern Europe. Giovanni Battista Agucchi (1570–1632), a prominent writer active in Rome and Bologna, mentioned in a treatise on painting written about 1607–15, that “the Roman school . . . has followed the beauty of sculpture, and come close to the art of the ancients. But the Venetian painters, and those of the city of Treviso, whose head is Titian, have instead imitated the beauty of nature, which they have before their eyes.” Influential in this development was Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), active in Milan from 1481/83 to about 1500 and again from 1508 to 1513. Leonardo’s study drawings of trees, plants, and fruits, known by his peers and followers (91.26.5), encouraged careful description of the subject from nature. Several sixteenth-century artists native to Lombardy were important proponents of still-life painting. Giuseppe Arcimboldi (?1527–1593), from Milan, painted bowls of fruits, vegetables, and flora, which, when turned upside-down, revealed themselves to be whimsical “portrait” heads formed by these composite elements. The Cremonese Vincenzo Campi (1530/35–1591) painted kitchen scenes, or “bodegones,” ranged with many varieties of fruits, fish, and poultry. The scenes may be interpreted as allegories of the seasons, the elements, or the sins of the flesh; they also represent a profound attention to the scientifically correct depiction of natural objects. In the late sixteenth century, the region produced Caravaggio, so called after his hometown, who identified himself as a Lombard artist even though he spent most of his career in Rome.
Caravaggio’s older contemporary, Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560–1627), was a pioneer of realism in Spanish painting, and produced some of earliest independent still lifes in Europe. Sánchez Cotán’s unusual compositions include fruits, vegetables, and fowl arranged on a shallow ledge against a dark background, or suspended from threads. Their level of descriptive detail and the brilliant illumination in which they are cast lend the humble foodstuffs a monumental drama. His austere still lifes influenced those of Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664), whose naturalistic handling, reduced compositions, and severe chiaroscuro earned him the nickname “the Spanish Caravaggio.”
Many of the most highly skilled practitioners of still-life painting during this period were women, whose gender usually excluded them from painting grander subjects, such as histories and allegories. In Milan, Fede Galizia (1578–1630) produced still lifes that are compositionally uncomplicated—often depicting a single type of fruit in a bowl or basket, with a few others arranged at its base—but focus on an intensely realistic rendering of the subject. Her style probably influenced contemporaries such as Panfilo Nuvolone (1581–1651), also active in Milan. In Florence, Giovanna Garzoni (1600–1670) was court painter to the Medici; her meticulously rendered pictures of fruits, vegetables, and botanical subjects were sought after by influential patrons throughout Italy, including Charles Emanuel II, duke of Savoy, in Turin, and Cassiano dal Pozzo and Anna Colonna in Rome.
The greatest exponent of the genre in seventeenth-century Italy was the Bergamesque painter Evaristo Baschenis (1617–1677). From the establishment of his own workshop in 1643, Baschenis dedicated his career to painting still lifes, composed almost without exception either of musical instruments or of cooking pots, utensils, and foodstuffs. The artist combined his own love of music with an interest in perspective and geometry, challenged by the objects’ curving forms. His haunting images of silent instruments, sometimes bearing a film of dust, convey a sense of suspended time.
In Naples, a city under Spanish rule, dramatic and naturalistic still lifes were produced by a school of painting strongly influenced by Caravaggio. Giovanni Battista Ruoppolo (1629–1693) was a major exponent of this school, and influenced his contemporary Giuseppe Recco (1634–1695) (71.17). Luis Egidio Meléndez (1716–1780), a Neapolitan artist who spent most of his career in Madrid, dominated genre painting in the eighteenth century. In his luminous compositions of fruits and vegetables arranged against a plain backdrop, Meléndez realistically evoked the volumetric solidity of the objects, while vividly describing their textures and surface markings (1982.60.39). He painted a series of forty-five still lifes for the Palacio Real in Madrid, claiming that his aim was to decorate a room with every type of fruit and vegetable that the Spanish climate produced.
Meagher, Jennifer. “Still-Life Painting in Southern Europe, 1600–1800.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/sstl/hd_sstl.htm (June 2008)
Bayer, Andrea, ed. Painters of Reality: The Legacy of Leonardo and Caravaggio in Lombardy. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004.
Jordan, William B., and Peter Cherry. Spanish Still Life from Velázquez to Goya. London: National Gallery Publications, 1995.
Salerno, Luigi. Still Life Painting in Italy, 1560–1805. Rome: Bozzi, 1984.