Thursday, 21 January 2010

Flowering of Florence - Botanical art for the Medici

This stunning book is the catalogue of a National Gallery of Washington Exhibition from March 2002. Its subject, a chapter from Italian art of 17th century: the reflection of the newborn Botanical Science in the figurative arts, through the artistic commissions of the Medici family in Florence. The sixty-eight works displayed were all commissioned by the Medici family: paintings, works on vellum and paper, hard stone mosaics, manuscripts, printed books and textiles, and were lent by various Museums, Libraries and Galleries from Florence, Rome, Pisa, Venice, Bologna, as well as from Washington and London. The cover of this beautiful publication is a detail from a still life (“Chinese Plate with cherries and bean pods”, c. 1620) by Giovanna Garzoni. Born in 1600 in central Italy, she lived in Rome before spending almost a decade (1642-1651) working as one of the favoured artists of the Medici court in Florence. Her studies in the area of botanical illustration constituted valuable training for Giovanna, who gradually broadened her repertoire to include still-life paintings, a genre that would win her fame in Paris, Rome, Naples and Turin – some of the most illustrious courts of Europe. She also studied the works of the great northern European masters of still life and their influence can be seen through her observant eye: she was able to capture the most subtle details of the flowers in her compositions, and was very sensitive to the effects of a sharp, revealing light and its effects on objects. Her works were always executed on vellum (from the Old French VĂ©lin, for "calfskin", mammal skin prepared for writing or printing on), never on canvas, and mostly with gouache or watercolour. In the other two works shown here (“Glass vase with flowers” and “Still life with birds and fruit”), her sense of colour combines nude, melancholic tones, with powerful, deep shades of red and pink: she makes Nature talk through colours, communicating at once its fragility and its vitality. This dualism is at the heart of her painting: her art is strong and delicate as a crystal glass. As strong as the skin she painted on, as delicate as the watery colours she chose. The illustrations in this catalogue are a feast for the eye, each of them a journey into history, human ability, beauty and most of all into the colours and the shapes (and also, why not, the smells) of a Mediterranean garden with its flowers, fruits and vegetables. I feel compelled to highlight the sumptuous “Citrus Fruits”, 1715, oil on canvas where Barolomeo Bimbi presents thirty-four different kind of lemons. Take a closer look also at one of the hard stone mosaics designed by Jacopo Ligozzi: this “Tabletop with Scattered Flowers”, 1614-1621, is a perfect example of the astonishing “trompe l’oeil” effect achieved by the Florentine mosaicists, who reached an exceptionally high level of accomplishment through the sponsorship of the Medici family. Every single pictorical effect of shade, light and colour is obtained by the skilled artist’s choice of stones and cuts, with no use of paint whatsoever.
Should you wish to have a pleasant journey through a warm Southern European garden, please do so at NLS asking for this great piece of our collection. And for an early example of Florentine botanical attention to flowers, enjoy this Madonna by Botticelli at the National Gallery of Scotland on the Mound, on display in the permanent collection.