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Light in the art and science of still life

An interview with Stefano Casciu, Director of the Tuscan Museum Authority

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Published: 21 Feb 2020
“Light has always carried meaning in western painting,” says Stefano Casciu, Director of the Polo Museale della Toscana (Tuscan Museum Authority). “And no matter how naturalist a painting may be, it remains a completely mental construction – an abstraction – and so its internal lighting, whether diffuse or focused, always carries a meaning. In general, this meaning was always clear to contemporaries, but for us it is often less so, as we no longer have the necessary codes of interpretation, and we therefore tend to forget that the light used is always designed to emphasize certain things (and obscure others)”.

In 2009, Casciu promoted the creation of the Museo della Natura Morta (Museum of Still Life) at the Villa di Poggio in Caiano (PO), and we interviewed him to find out more about the role of light in still life, as this genre has produced numerous masterpieces, but is still vastly underestimated by the critical establishment.
Light in the art and science of still life

Michelangelo da Campidoglio, Natura morta con frutta e vaso con rose e tuberosa,
ca. 1650- 1669, Poggio a Caiano, Museo della Natura Morta

Historically, still life has been recognised as an independent genre since the end of the sixteenth century. One of the first great artists to devote his attention to it was Caravaggio, whose rich style of chiaroscuro contrasts naturally influenced the later works of his pupils and followers. One of the most universally famous still lifes is Caravaggio’s “Basket of Fruit” painted for Cardinal Federico Borromeo at the very end of the sixteenth century and is currently conserved at the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan. “It is a symbol of transient beauty”, explains Casciu, as “the fruit is blemished and worm-eaten and the leaves are shrivelled. It is therefore a depiction of decay that evokes “a sense of death and the passing of time”. The light that illuminates the scene certainly does not make the concept any happier, but rather emphasizes every tiny detail.
Light in the art and science of still life

Caravaggio, Basket of Fruit, 1594/1598, Milan,Pinacoteca Ambrosiana

Initially there was a sub-genre of religious still life in which light was often used as a symbol of grace that illuminated vine shoots, grapes, pomegranates, bread and other symbols of the Eucharist. However, “as early as the 1630s, the symbolic and metaphorical aspect of light began to be replaced by the powerfully visual and decorative requirements of the Baroque,” says Casciu. “So accurately reproducing reality and the beauty of nature became all- important.” This shift also took place because of a change in the type of commission. In the mid seventeenth century, the still life ceased to be an “experimental genre created only for refined circles often linked to people who played an important role in a city’s cultural life”, and instead began to be appreciated in increasingly wider circles. In aristocratic palazzos, these kinds of painting were fitted into the decorative contexts and rich furnishings of high baroque ornamentation and “meaning became less important”.
Light in the art and science of still life

Jan Brueghel the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder or Velvet Brueghel,
Vase of Flowers, ca. 1620 Poggio a Caiano, Museo della Natura Morta

In addition to the artists influenced by Caravaggio, another well-known “school” of still life painting was that of the Flemish painters. Some of these - like Jan Bruegel and Christian Berentz – worked in Rome and created what Casciu describes as “theatrical stage effects”, in which subtle lighting illuminates and highlights the details of the fruit, flowers and other elements displayed. “Influenced by Northern European painting, these Dutch and Flemish still life painters focus on rendering every detail and surface perfectly thanks to the use of oil paint. There is also a highly refined use of reflection and light play in an attempt to create an exact reproduction of what the eye sees in nature.”

When asked to name two paintings that are emblematic of the important role that lighting plays in still life painting, Casciu named “Fiasca fiorita” attributed (not with complete certainty) to Tommaso Salini and “Fiori e frutta con donna che coglie l’uva” by Christian Berentz and Carlo Maratta.
Light in the art and science of still life

Tommaso Salini (?), Fiasca fiorita, ca. 1610-15, Forlì, Pinacoteca civica

The first can be dated to a period between 1610 and 1615 and is currently conserved at the Pinacoteca Civica in Forlì. It depicts a bunch of yellow, blue, red and white flowers stuck into the broken neck of a glass flagon. “Thanks to its very dark background,” explains Casciu, “the flowers and flagon leap out at you in a very powerful way that is amplified by the light. Here, no symbolic meaning is immediately clear, but, for example, the bunch of flowers may represent in a general way the passage of beauty, because cut flowers don’t live for very long and as they are depicted in full bloom, there is an intrinsic suggestion that in a few hours’ time they will already have wilted.”

The painting by Berentz and Maratta, on the other hand, dates back to1696 and is conserved in the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples. It is “one of the great works of the late seventeenth century Roman period and it features cascades of fruit and flowers. Its style is of the highest level, and the light has no symbolic meaning whatsoever.” The painting includes two human figures, which is relatively rare. One has their back to us and the other is almost lost in shadow, but they don’t trigger a storyline, so the painting remains strictly within the limits of the genre.
Light in the art and science of still life

Christian Berentz and Carlo Maratta, Fiori e frutta con donna che coglie l’uva,
1696, Naples, Museo di Capodimonte

In paintings that have no “hidden” meaning, the artist’s desire to reproduce nature as precisely as possible implies that the role of light as a tool is so fundamental it can even be described as scientific. “Just think of Evaristo Baschenis, an artist who painted still lifes of musical instruments. The compositions of the instruments vary but they are always reproduced with immense precision.” In fact, they are painted so precisely that experts have even been able to identify the real instruments portrayed, “and you even get a sense of the dust on their surfaces” thanks to the depiction of a thumbprint on a lute, for example.
Light in the art and science of still life

Christian Berentz and Carlo Maratta, Fiori e frutta con donna che coglie l’uva,
1696, Naples, Museo di Capodimonte

“In contexts like the Tuscan or Lombard schools, the relationship between art and science is stronger; whereas, in others, like the late seventeenth century Venetian, Neapolitan and Roman schools, there is a greater focus on decoration. The Neapolitan school, for example, focuses much more on the pleasant and immediate effect of colour and the profusion of fruit than it does on accuracy. It is a highly structured world.”

However, the realistic depiction of flowers, leaves and fruit (as well as the insects that feed on them) rendered through colour, forms, textures and a careful selection of light also served as botanical documents for the courts of the period and have since become important historical testimonies for our modern world. In Florence, where the influence of Galileo was acute, “the Medici court became extremely interested in the idea of experimenting with and reproducing nature for scientific purposes,” states Casciu.
Light in the art and science of still life

Bartolomeo Bimbi, Melangoli, cedri e limoni, 1715 Poggio a Caiano,
Museo della Natura Morta

For example, “Bartolomeo Bimbi was a painter with an enormous talent for depicting different fruit and flower species and he has left us huge canvases depicting the different varieties that were produced throughout the year in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. His works show all the various grapes, pears, plums and peaches, and each individual pear is depicted with the precision of a scientific plate. In fact, his paintings have been used by botanists and entomologists to identify varieties that are now rare or even extinct and the National Research Council has even published an extremely interesting volume on his work.”