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Nature's finest

Eccentric vegetables, dead birds, flowers soon to return to dust: All are made beautiful with the stroke of a skilled artist's brush.

By Lennie Bennett
Published February 4, 2007



You can imagine the scenario. Sometime in 1706, a farmer in Tuscany harvests an enormous cauliflower and weirdly shaped radish. He rushes it to the Medici landowner, Grand Duke Cosimo III. Cosimo, who adores unusual garden specimens and keeps prolific records of them, snaps his fingers and shouts, "Get Bimbi, pronto!" "Bimbi" would have been Bartolomeo Bimbi, the most visible painter in "Natura Morta: Still-Life Painting and the Medici Collections" at the Museum of Fine Arts, with 11 out of the 42 paintings bearing his name. The reason for his popularity with the Medici is obvious in his work.

Bimbi, a fine painter, must also have been lightning-fast. He would have scurried to the palazzo to record the eccentric vegetable pair before their brief lives deteriorated into fodder for the compost heap.

If then were now, a photographer could dispatch the assignment with a few clicks of a camera. Bimbi worked in slow-drying oils, knowing his demanding patron expected something that did not merely record the harvest but would justify inclusion in a great connoisseur's collection.

Cosimo got what he wanted.

In Bimbi's hands, the radish and cauliflower become performers in a staged setting worthy of La Scala. The cauliflower's head has the presence of a glamorous personage accessorized by a frill of green leaves. Instead of looking grotesque, the radish's multiple offshoots at various angles make it appear to be a high-kicking hoofer.

It's a hoot.

And a serious, beautiful painting.

Similarly, Bimbi was commissioned to paint a bunch of grapes, again remarkable for its size. Its fruit is rendered with a baroque lushness that outshines the gold platter cradling the grapes. But the stem rising from the fruit draws vague comparison to a Las Vegas showgirl wearing an elaborate headdress who suddenly finds herself dancing in a pressing vat.

Showgirls didn't exist in Bimbi's time, of course. But you get the idea.

"Natura Morta" is a gorgeous exhibition. Nature, painted by a variety of 17th and 18th century artists, is rendered with a ripeness bordering on decadence.

But it's also an unusual and interesting show in that "Natura Morta" is as much about the collectors as it is about the art and artists.

The Medici were self-made merchants and bankers who rose to prominence in the late 14th century. They were noted arts patrons; Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492) was Michelangelo's first supporter. The family were at the height of their political and social power at the time of this exhibition, which is dated from 1618 to 1720.

In their day, they built public buildings, city palazzos and country villas with vast gardens. They collected all sorts of art, but those on view are among the most personal. They reflect a new emphasis on art for its own sake, created for the pleasure of its owners rather than for piety or historical edification.

Two Citrons is one of the earliest known examples of still life from the Florentine school, painted in 1618 by Filippo Napoletano for Grand Duke Cosimo II. It has the hallmarks of baroque style: a naturalistic approach to its subject and a dramatic chiaroscuro presentation. Filippo doesn't romanticize or idealize these fruits. Their beauty is in their puckered yellow skins and asymmetrical shapes. The lemons may be humble objects, but they are a source of pride for Cosimo, valued for themselves and not used as props in a more complex painting.

Verisimilitude was a prized virtue, to be sure. Sometimes, for example, Bimbi painted fruits almost as inventories. Though platters heaped with ripening pears are accompanied by musical instruments and decorative objects, each fruit is numbered and a scroll painted into the work identifies all of them by botanical name.

Originality and innovation were just as valued. So was drama. Andrea Scacciati's Vase of Flowers captures the essence of each specimen with glorious color and brushwork, but the actual arrangement was likely only imagined, since the flowers depicted would not have had long enough stems for it.

The Medici were not only lovers of beauty and students of botany, they also partook with relish of la dolce vita. So what was brought to their dining tables was of keen interest. Seafood, livestock and poultry were arrayed in visceral bounty for artists whose treatments, typical of the time, were full of bravado. Willem van Aelst's Game Birds is particularly eloquent. The birds are presented on a dark background, given star treatment by a stark source of light that illuminates their finely delineated feathers.

Occasionally the still lifes are invaded by animals. A dog chases a cat around a lavish display of fruits and vegetables. A mouse approaches a bowl of pears. Swallows fly through a garland of flowers. The creatures have thematic and compositional importance, providing scale or perspective. Sometimes they are subtle versions of a genre called vanitas, or reminders of mortality.

In a work by Bartolomeo Ligozzi, dated 1688, a parrot stands fierce guard over a pomegranate bursting with its seeds as clouds linger in the background, framing a haunting Tuscan landscape.

Everything in the painting is achingly beautiful, and everything suggests transience. The clouds and bird could disappear, the landscape change, the walls come tumbling down. The produce will certainly vanish.

The Medici couldn't have known at the time, but in less than 50 years, with no male heirs, their line would run out, their ducal lands coming under Austrian rule in 1737.

Stop and smell the roses, savor your vegetables while you can.

The Medici certainly did.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or


If you go

"Natura Morta: Still-Life Painting and the Medici Collections" continues through March 18 at the Museum of Fine Arts, 255 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $8 adults, $7 seniors, $4 students. Children under 7 admitted free. An interactive gallery has been set up in conjunction with the exhibition, and catalogs are available for purchase in the Museum Store.

Because the museum has begun construction on its expansion, parking on the grounds and along Beach Drive is limited. Parking is available in city garages a short distance away.

[Last modified February 2, 2007, 08:19:24]

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