THE City of Milan had declared the year 2020-21 as for celebrating talented women. As part of that, the Palazzo Reale planned a significant exhibition of 35 Italian women artists from the 16th and 17th centuries.
It began with the sculptress Properzia de’ Rossi, the only woman to appear in Giorgio Vasari’s compendious 1550 biography of artists, and included paintings by Sofonisba Anguissola (c.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 early death was running an internationally known art school in her native Bologna.
To judge from the catalogue, the on-and-off exhibition that finally opened in the late spring of 2021 brought less well-known artists to the fore. It further identified how some had been practising artists in convents, while others had grown up in the family workshop, such as the Venetian Marietta Robusti (c.1554-90), who was nick-named Tintoretta, after her father, Tintoretto.
Prominent among the artists less widely encountered were two who now take centre stage in the heart of St James’s in this striking exhibition: the Lombard Fede Galizia (1574/78-after June 1630), a prodigy noted from the age of 12 working in her father’s studio, and, from the Marche, Giovanna Garzoni, who was born in Ascoli Piceno in 1600 and died, aged 70, in Rome. Like Marietta Robusti, both artists were also acclaimed portraitists and, in Galizia’s case, painted altarpieces.
Lombardy seems to have become the home for still-life painting as an emerging genre in Western art in the latter half of the 16th century, much encouraged by the spiritual initiatives of Cardinal Federico Borromeo (1564-1631), cousin of St Charles Borromeo and, like him, Archbishop of Milan, from 1595. Two years earlier, with the artist Federico Zuccari, he had established the painters’ guild in Rome, the Accademia di San Luca.
Borromeo saw contemplation of nature as a way in which the pious might reflect on God as Creator, and, in the late 1590s, he commissioned Caravaggio for the famous Basket of Fruit, a painting now in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. This is more than a trompe-l’oeil painting when considered in the light of Caravaggio’s previously acknowledged ability to paint fruit and vegetables, as he once reminded jealous critics in a court case.
Whether Fede Galizia knew the Caravaggio painting or not, her work is imbued with the subtle observation of nature consistent with Borromeo’s theological mien. The first panel painting here includes pears, figs, and peaches, set on a table in raking light that once shone from an upper left-hand window top that has been painted out.
colnaghiFede Galizia (1578-1630), Still Life with apples, pears, figs and butterflies
As well as a bumblebee, there are two butterflies in the composition, one a swallowtail — presumably the pear-tree swallowtail (Iphiclides podalirius) — and the other, a red admiral (Vanessa atalanta). Both are delicately painted with the tremendous accuracy that we might expect of a miniaturist and illuminator, as her father had been. When Paolo Morigia sat to her for his portrait (1592-95), he remarked that it resembled nature so closely that he could not ask for more. Intended for St Jerome’s, Milan, it even includes the detail of the reflection of his study in his glasses.
Colnaghi’s newly discovered late painting (formerly in the Bourbon collection of the great-grandson of Charles III) is of 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 is something unhurried and silent about them, provoking thought rather than greed or hunger.
Garzoni often painted in watercolour on vellum, and here brings some 15 blooms into a translucent glass vase, a caraffina. The reflection of a window in the glass, and a further reflection of the reflection, suggest that it is in fact an interior scene, although it is set on an uneven surface that looks like a craggy stone. Several of her paintings exhibited last year in Milan had a similarly unlikely compositional device. In 1690, this attractive picture later formed part of a dowry.
The only signed and dated (1677) painting by the Florentine artist Caterina Angela Pierozzi is a miniature on vellum (5¾ x 7⅝ in.) depicting Gabriel and the Virgin Mary in a framed border 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, back in 1616.
This small devotional work would readily prompt its owner to pray the Angelus; the figures are bust-length copies of a celebrated 14th-century image in the church of the Most Holy Annunciation in Florence, where the Medici family were honorary custodians. The Virgin has lost her tumultuous crown from the church fresco and is bare-headed. The archangel looks down, his gaze now firmly on the open Passionflower in centre of the border.
In addition to the still-lifes, this rewarding show holds two illuminated manuscripts; in a French Book of Hours, the Annunciation appears again, centre stage, while next to it is the unique copy of a French translation of St Jerome.
His letter to the widow Furia advised her not to remarry. In a double scene, we see the saintly scholar 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 chit to a serving man, no doubt with the widow’s address, while the book containing his letter is under his other arm. In the second scene, the serving man arrives, still wearing his spurs, in front of the widow and her two attendants, to hand over the volume. Job well done.
For those who cannot get into the West End to marvel at this show, Colnaghi’s website provides a highly informative and richly illustrated catalogue of these delicious forbidden fruits.
“Forbidden Fruit: Female Still Life” is at Colnaghi, 26 Bury Street, London SW1, until 24 June. Phone 020 7491 7408. www.colnaghi.com