"e il Caravaggio disse che tanta
manifattura gli era fare un quadro
buono di fiori come di figure"
The term natura morta alludes to the depiction of inanimate objects such as fruit, flowers, dead animals, carpets, curtains, musical and scientific instruments and precious and household items. In its primitive form, which in Italy is linked to Caravaggio's legacy, still life can be understood more correctly as natura in posa. Other countries with Latin-based languages have adopted commonplace terms that are conceptually far-removed from the innermost meaning of these depictions (nature morte in French and naturaleza muerta in Spanish). The concept is better described in the terminology adopted by countries with Anglosaxon languages (still life in English, stilleben in German and stilleven in Dutch).
In Italy, the pictorial genre of still life has ancient roots. The first documented examples are found in Roman murals discovered in Ercolano; extraordinarily modern paintings depicting xenia - offerings of food for guests. These specimens, which came to light during excavations in the 18th, depict subjects that surely once decorated many of Rome's upper class houses.
This mural artwork was forgotten with early Christian and medieval art that shifted attention to sacred subjects. However, these secular examples inspired painters active between the end of the 1500s and the start of the 17th, particularly with the renewed interest in nature that developed during the second half of the 15th century following Johannes Gutenberg's invention of printing. Vital philological work carried out by certain important humanists between 1469 and 1499 made it possible to recover, translate, print and distribute works that were essential to medieval and renaissance botany, medicine and pharmacopoeia. Such works include Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historia, the Pseudo-Apuleius Herbarium, Theophrastus's De Historia Plantarum and Pedanius Dioscoride's De materia medica.
An abundance of scientific essays designed to classify the natural world emerged throughout the 16th century. Following the discovery of the Americas, it was realised that this natural world was far more complex than ancient texts had suggested. Particular focus was placed on botanical knowledge, leading to the production of numerous illustrated Herbaria, some of which were inspired by the medico-philosophical theories of the German naturalist Paracelsus (1493-1541). Others produced highly meticulous work, for example Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1500-1577), who used the work of painter Giorgio Liberale of Udine to illustrate around 1200 medicinal herbs in his Commentarii on Pedanio Dioscoride's work.
The period between the end of the 16th and the start of the 17th also saw a widespread distribution of Florilegia - a contribution that should be considered fundamental to scientific illustration and the beginnings of still life painting. This was mainly a Nordic phenomenon, supported by Eastern trade and the importation of rare and unknown species of flower. Examples include the Flemish miniatures of Georg Hofnagel (1541-1601) and Jacob de Gheyn II (1565-1629), as well as engravings by Adriaen Collaert (1560 circa-1618), Jan Sadeler (1550-1600), Johann Theodor de Bry (1528-1598) and Michael Snyders (1568 circa-1630 circa).
This type of naturalist painting quickly started to become a genre in its own right, having broken away from the subordinate obligation to produce religious and sacred illustrations. This new genre reached its height in the 17th when interest in minor genres grew to encompass scenes of the landscape, everyday life and battles.
These developments were prompted by a trend that originated in The Netherlands with the assertion of an emerging new middle class supported by Lutheran reform and Calvinist theories calling for a ban on the worship of religious images. At the start of the 17th century, depictions of flowers, fruit, markets and other similar subjects quickly spread throughout Europe, even reaching countries of Catholic culture and faith where artistic commissions were still an exclusive right of the clergy and aristocracy.
In Italy, interest in naturalist painting initially found fertile ground in the expansive cultural climates of Venice, Florence, Rome, Bologna and Milan, with very varied beginnings and developments.
Between the end of the 15th century and the start of the 16th century, Albrecht Dürer had already brought a Nordic flavour to Venice by observing and capturing nature in flowers and land and water animals, laying down the path for scientific illustrations by subsequent painters such as Jacopo Ligozzi (1547-1627) of Verona. The Medici dynasty in Florence prompted the finest examples of Ligozzi's highly virtuosic imitations when the grand dukes of Tuscany entrusted him with the task of illustrating models for phytological and zoological cataloguing requirements. The naturalist, botanist and entomologist Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) of Bologna was a great admirer of Ligozzi's painted boards, which are great example of painting applied to science.
Although Linnaeus would not introduce a scientifically valid classification of living organisms until the 1700s, the studies contributed by Aldrovandi are certainly of fundamental importance to the development of naturalist knowledge during the course of the 17th century.
In Florence, a notable book describing the garden of Henry IV loudly echoed the interest in science. The book, which was dedicated to Queen Maria de' Medici, was illustrated in 1608 by Pierre Vallet (1575 - after 1657) and is full of botanical images.
In Rome, interest in the science of nature was stimulated at the start of the 17th century, with the foundation of the Accademia dei Lincei. Fundamental contributions were made to the academy, first of all by Federico Cesi and then, following Pope Urban VIII's ascension to the papal throne, by cardinal Francesco Barberini and Cassiano dal Pozzo.
The academy was attended by a circle of artists and intellectuals including Jacopo Ligozzi, Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670), Anna Maria Vaiana (ca. 1600 - after 1643) and Daniel Seghers (1590-1661).
The most famous and interesting work, which is full of illustrations and engravings by famous artists, is De florum cultura. This work was dedicated to Francesco Barberini in 1633 by the Jesuit, Giovan Battista Ferrari.
The Accademia del Naturale, which the Carracci founded in Bologna the 1580s, did not pursue scientific speculation but openly questioned the formal hyperbole of late mannerism with the main aim of teaching realistic painting. This marked a very important turning point in the beginnings of naturalist painting, with highly realistic scenes emerging, such as those created by Annibale Carracci in The Beaneater, housed in the Galleria Colonna di Roma, A Boy Drinking, housed in the Museum of Art in Cleveland, The Butcher's Shop paintings, housed in the Christ Church Picture Gallery in Oxford and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth.
During the 16th century, in Milan and in the rest of Lombardy, Leonardo da Vinci's imposing and versatile personality paved the way for significant interest in the sciences. It is no coincidence that, in the 1630s in this very city, the canon Manfredo Settala began to systematically collect, classify and catalogue the Naturalia (products of the natural world), Artificialia (man-made products) and Curiosa (anything that fascinates because it is unusual) in the wake of renaissance cabinets of curiosities (Wunderkammer). The scientific spirit with which he carried out his work led to the formation of theMusaeum Septalianum.
The beginnings of realist painting in Lombardy can be observed in the loyalty to realism expressed by renaissance painters from Brescia, such as Girolamo Romanino (1485-1566), Alessandro Bonvicino called Moretto (1498-1554) and Giovanni Gerolamo Savoldo (1480 - ca. post 1548). Nevertheless, still life as a genre in its own right emerged for the first time only at the end of the 16th. The most compelling and notable examples include canvases by Vincenzo Campi (1536-1591) of Cremona, in which fruit sellers, fish sellers and poulterers portray moments of everyday life. Campi drew inspiration for these paintings from the Dutch market scenes by Pieter Aertsen (1508-1575) and the Flemmish painter Joachim Beuckelaer (1533-1574) but, above all, from the Metal Plate with Peaches and Vine Leaves by the Milanese painter Ambrogio Figino (1553-1608) - a true incunable of the painting genre in Italy.
Initially, paintings were dominated by the religious symbolism of flowers and fruit and by the pithy symbolic representation of vanitas. Such images spurred even high bishops such as Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte in Rome and Cardinal Federico Borromeo in Milan (for whom, respectively, Caravaggio painted a vase of flowers and the famed Basket of Fruit, housed in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana) to appreciate these depictions. However, it was the nobility that expressed the greatest interest in images that became one of the most popular genres for furnishing large aristocratic homes and country villas in the second half of the century.
Unlike what happened at the outset, when artists such as Michelangelo Merisi - known as Caravaggio -(1571-1610), Tommaso Salini (1575-1625), Bartolomeo Cavarozzi (1590 circa-1625), Pietro Paolo Bonzi called Gobbo dei Carracci (1576-1636), who would normally work on other themes, used natural subjects for experimentation, from the 1640s artists began to dedicate themselves almost exclusively to the genre. These painters brought to life the phenomenon of specialization, which started in Rome before quickly spreading to the major artistic centres of the peninsula: Naples, Florence, Lucca, Genoa and Milan. Venice was encompassed only marginally.
Still life reached the peak of its glory in the Baroque period when it took on an almost exclusively decorative function. The iconographic repertoire also widened to include less conventional subjects such as living nature, with pets and wild animals, undergrowth, indoor scenes, carpets, curtains, precious items, musical and scientific instruments, etc.
The heyday of still life in Italy continued into the first half of the 18th, feeding the Rococo taste for pretty floral and ornithological depictions. Venice closely followed this trend, incorporating elements with an oriental character to create a prolific pictorial movement that was for a long time inappropriately termed "guardesca".
During the second half of the 18th century the hunger for natural painting gradually began to wane across the peninsula, making way for new fashions and expressive trends, the first of which was based on neoclassicism.