Published: March 5, 2002
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Medici family’s passion for the arts and fascination with the natural sciences, from the Fifteenth Century to the end of the dynasty in the Eighteenth Century, is beautifully illustrated in “The Flowering of Florence: Botanical Art for the Medici,” at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building through May 27. Sixty-eight exquisite examples of botanical art, many never before shown in the United States, include paintings, works on vellum and paper, pietra dura (mosaics of semiprecious stones), manuscripts, printed books, and textiles.
The exhibition focuses on the work of three remarkable artists in Florence who dedicated themselves to depicting nature – Jacopo Ligozzi (1547-1626), Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670), and Bartolomeo Bimbi (1648-1729).
“The masterly technique of these remarkable artists, combined with freshness and originality of style, has had a lasting influence on the art of naturalistic painting,” said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. “We are indebted to the institutions and collectors, most based in Italy, who generously lent works of art to the exhibition.”
The exhibition begins with an introductory section on nature studies from the late 1400s and early 1500s. Plants abound in mid-Fifteenth Century art, but portrayals were generally idealized and often conveyed allegorical or symbolic meanings. Domenico Veneziano’s (circa 1410-1461) “Madonna and Child,” circa 1445, depicts a rosebush with red and white blossoms symbolizing the Christ Child’s future sacrifice and Mary’s purity.
Other works show the continued development of botanical illustration in the later Fifteenth Century, including Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) pen-and-ink drawing, “Studies of Flowers,” circa 1483, and Perugino’s (circa 1450-1523) “The Crucifixion with the Virgin, Saint John, Saint Jerome, and Saint Mary Magdalene,” circa 1482-1484.
The second grand duke of Tuscany, Francesco I (1541-1587), invited Jacopo Ligozzi (1547-1626) to join his court. Seventeen of Ligozzi’s works are displayed, the largest number ever seen outside of Italy. Among them are the first known drawing of a pineapple from South America, the “American Century Plant” newly brought from Mexico, and “Mourning Iris and Spanish Iris.”
Also included is a masterpiece of botanical and zoological art, Ligozzi’s “Fig Branch with Exotic Finches,” which shows a common fig branch on which are perched three exotic birds.
Flemish artist Giusto Utens (mid-Sixteenth Century, 1609) was commissioned by Cosimo di Medici’s son, the third grand duke Ferdinando I (1549-1649), to depict the Medici villas in a series of 14 large lunettes. The unique collection of paintings, created between 1598 and 1599, provides a good sense of what the villas and their surrounding gardens must have looked like during the Sixteenth Century. Three lunettes, “The Belvedere with Palazo Pitt,” “Villa L’Ambrogiana,” and “Villa Poggio,” can be seen in the exhibition.
Ferdinando I had a passion for gardens and sent botanists on expeditions throughout Europe. He commissioned artists to illustrate the plants in his care, which he collected in large florilegia. The exhibition include one such commission, that of the German artist Daniel Froeschl (1563-1613), who painted “Sunflower,” a plant that was introduced to Tuscany from Peru in the Sixteenth Century. Froeschl renders the sunflower twice, first in a conventional front view and then, perhaps for the first time in botanical illustration, from the back.
In the early years of the Seventeenth Century, Florence became famous for semiprecious mosaic inlays, or pietra dura. A selection of these colorful mosaics is presented in the exhibition, including “Sunflower” (1664) by Gerolamo della Valle (Seventeenth Century) and a small panel by an unknown artist, “Parrot in a Pear Tree” (Seventeenth Century). These mosaic panels were used to decorate the fronts of elaborate cabinets, and larger panels became tabletops. Examples of both are represented in the exhibition.
The art of embroidery blossomed in Fifteenth Century Florence and continue to flourish for several centuries. Botanical themes were uniquely suited to the decoration of rich fabrics used to ceremonial occasions. Several Seventeenth Century examples of botanical embroidery can be seen in the exhibition, including a “Chalice Veil,” a “Baptismal Cover,” and a “Chasuble for the Feast of Santa Reparata.”
Under the rule of Ferdinando II (1610-1670), still life painting grew very popular. Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670) – one of the most important female artists in the history of Italian art – gained great fame for her naturalistic paintings. Sixteen of Garzoni’s works can be seen in the exhibition including two of her many still lifes depicting extravagant bouquets of cultivated flowers, both titled “Glass Vase with Flowers.”
Also on view are several still lifes of fruits and vegetables, such as “Chinese Plate with Cherries and Bean Pods,” circa 1620, a favorite subject of Garzoni. “Three Lemons with a Bumblebee,” which portrays two lemon branches bearing fruit and an animated bumblebee hovering above, is another example of Garzoni’s work. Several of the Garzoni paintings have never before been exhibited in public.
Cosimo III (1641-1723), the sixth grand duke, continuing the Medici tradition of patronage for the arts and sciences, lent considerable support to the painter Bartolomeo Bimbi (1648-1729). Bimbi specialized in “portraits from nature,” often large-scale scenes of monstrous and odd specimens of fruits and vegetables that grew in the gardens of the Medici villas.
The exhibition includes Bimbi’s “Citrus Fruits,” which depicts 34 varieties of citrus, and “Pears,” 1699, which shows 115 different typed of pears. Both are examples of “inventories” painted for Cosimo III. Among the horticultural “monstrosities” painted by Bimbi are a “Monstrous Cauliflower and Horseradish,” 1706, and a life-size “Sunflower,” 1721.
The exhibition is organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington. It is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. Lucia Tongiorgi Tomasi of the University of Pisa, Italy, and Gretchen A. Hirschauer, assistant curator of Italian paintings, National Gallery of Art, Washington, co-curated the exhibition.
An illustrated catalogue is available.
The National Gallery of Art and its Sculpture Garden, located on the National Mall between Third and Ninth Streets at Constitution Avenue, NW, are open Monday through Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm and Sunday from 11 am to 6 pm. Admission is free. For information, 202-737-4215; telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD) at 202-842-6176; or visit www.nga.gov.
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