Visual arts

Female still life at Colnaghi, London

THE City of Milan declared the year 2020-21 as a celebration of talented women. In this context, the Palazzo Reale has planned an important exhibition of 35 Italian women artists of the 16th and 17th centuries.

It began with the sculptress Properzia de’ Rossi, the only woman to appear in Giorgio Vasari’s Abridged Biography of Artists in 1550, and included paintings by Sofonisba Anguissola (vs.1532/35-1625) and her sisters, Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614), Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-post 1654) and Elisabetta Sirani (1638-65), who at the time of her untimely death was leading a renowned art international school in his native Bologna.

Judging by the catalog, the traveling exhibition that finally opened in late spring 2021 featured lesser-known artists. He further identified how some had practiced as artists in convents, while others had grown up in the family studio, such as the Venetian Marietta Robusti (vs.1554-90), nicknamed Tintoretta, after her father, Tintoretto.

Among the lesser known artists, two now take center stage in the heart of St James’s in this striking exhibition: the Lombard Fede Galizia (1574/78-after June 1630), a prodigy noticed from the age of 12 working in her father’s studio and, from Marche, Giovanna Garzoni, born in Ascoli Piceno in 1600 and died in Rome at the age of 70. Like Marietta Robusti, both artists were also acclaimed portrait painters and, in the case of Galizia, painted altarpieces.

Lombardy seems to have become the home of still life as an emerging genre in Western art in the second half of the 16th century, much encouraged by the spiritual initiatives of Cardinal Federico Borromeo (1564-1631), cousin of Saint Charles Borromeo and, like him, Archbishop of Milan, from 1595. Two years earlier, with the artist Federico Zuccari, he had founded the corporation of painters in Rome, the Accademia di San Luca.

Borromeo saw the contemplation of nature as a means by which the pious could reflect on God as Creator, and in the late 1590s he commissioned Caravaggio to write the famous Fruit basket, a painting now at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. It’s more than one optical illusion painting when viewed in light of Caravaggio’s previously acknowledged ability to paint fruit and vegetables, as he once reminded jealous critics in a court case.

Whether or not Fede Galizia was familiar with Caravaggio’s painting, his work is imbued with a subtle observation of nature consistent with Borromeo’s theological attitude. The earliest panel painting here features pears, figs, and peaches, set on a table in raking light that once shone from a painted top left window top.

colnaghiFede Galizia (1578-1630), Still life with apples, pears, figs and butterflies

In addition to a bumblebee, there are two butterflies in the composition, one a swallowtail – presumably the pear swallowtail (Iphiclides podalirius) — and the other, a red admiral (vanessa atalanta). Both are delicately painted with the tremendous precision one would expect from a miniaturist and illuminator, as his father had been. When Paolo Morigia sat before her for her portrait (1592-1595), he noticed that it resembled nature so closely that he couldn’t ask for more. Intended for Saint-Jérôme in Milan, it even includes the detail of the reflection of its study in its glasses.

Colnaghi’s recently discovered late painting (formerly in the Bourbon collection of Charles III’s great-grandson) is a still life with apples and pears in a wicker basket, figs in a white porcelain dish, and a split melon with cucumbers and peaches on the table. There’s something quiet and silent about them that inspires thought rather than greed or hunger.

Garzoni often paints in watercolor on vellum, and here brings about fifteen flowers in a translucent glass vase, a caraffin. The reflection of a window in the glass, and another reflection of the reflection, suggests that this is actually an indoor scene, although it is set on an uneven surface that looks like steep stone . Several of his paintings exhibited last year in Milan had an equally improbable compositional device. In 1690, this lovely painting later became part of a dowry.

The only signed and dated painting (1677) by Florentine artist Caterina Angela Pierozzi is a miniature on vellum (5¾ x 7⅝ in) depicting Gabriel and the Virgin Mary within a border framed with any number of flowers. Pierozzi was only the second woman to be elected to the prestigious Accademia delle Arti del disegno in 1684; the other was Artemisia Gentileschi, in 1616.

This little devotional work would gladly encourage its owner to pray the Angelus; the figures are bust copies of a famous 14th century image in the Church of the Most Holy Annunciation in Florence, where the Medici family were honorary guardians. The Virgin has lost her tumultuous crown from the church fresco and is bareheaded. The Archangel looks down, his gaze now firmly fixed on the open Passionflower in the center of the border.

In addition to the still lifes, this enriching show contains two illuminated manuscripts; in a French Book of Hours, the Annunciation appears again, center stage, while next to it is the unique copy of a French translation of Saint Jerome.

His letter to Widow Furia advised him not to remarry. In a double scene, the learned saint is seen standing in his study with six volumes bound in blue on the shelf that runs along the walls behind him (folio 5r).

He hands a voucher to a servant, probably with the address of the widow, while the book containing his letter is under his other arm. In the second scene, the servant arrives, still spurred, in front of the widow and her two servants, to hand over the volume. Good job.

For those who can’t step into the West End to marvel at this sight, Colnaghi’s website has a very informative and lavishly illustrated catalog of these delicious forbidden fruits.

‘Forbidden Fruit: Female Still Life’ is at Colnaghi, 26 Bury Street, London SW1, until June 24. Call 020 7491 7408.