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Flowers and butterflies

Aelst Willem van

(Delft c. 1625 - Amsterdam? c. 1683)

This work is a typical example of small paintings with natural, secular subjects, commonly found in Italian courts in the mid-17th century. It depicts different flowers picked at various times of their short existence: while the tulips have just blossomed, several leaves on the thorny stems of a fading Damask rose seem nearly withered. The composition is enriched by horned and field pansies, a dangerous hornet and two butterflies – a large white and a painted lady – which together with the crystal vase allude to the themes of vanitas and fleeting time. On the right is depicted a Fritillaria orientalis, recognisable by the chequered pattern of its petals. This flower was held dear in the Flemish tradition; its seeds were diffused throughout Europe by Huguenots after they fled to England. The presence of this flower in paintings is in fact generally associated with escape and persecution.

Object details

1670 ca.
oil on panel
cm 25 x 20

Salvator Rosa, 34.5 x 27.5 x 3.3 cm


Rome, Borghese Collection, 1693 (Inv. 1693, room VIII, nos 8-9; Della Pergola 1959); Inv. 1790, room XI, no. 109; Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, p. 35; purchased by Italian state, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1903-05 Luigi Bartolucci;
  • 1952 Augusto Vermehren.


The provenance of this painting is still unknown. Its first mention in connection with the Borghese Collection dates to 1693, when it was cited in the inventory of that year as ‘a small painting of one span with flowers on a table with two tulips, at no. 259’ (Inv. 1693). While this document lists it as by an unknown artist, the inventory of 1790 ascribes it to the Italian still life painter Mario Nuzzi, called ‘Mario dei Fiori’. This attribution was accepted by Giovanni Piancastelli (1891) but rejected by Adolfo Venturi (1893), who rather proposed that both this small painting and the Vase with Flowers (also in the Borghese Collection – inv. no. 362 – and today attributed to Jan Brueghel the Elder) were the work of Abraham Mignon.

The first critic to cast doubt on this hypothesis was Roberto Longhi (1928), followed by Paola della Pergola (1959), who for her part took up Giulio Cantalamessa’s claim that the two paintings were by different artists. She in fact attributed the panel in question to Willem Van Aelst, a Dutch painter active in Italy between 1649 and 1656. Dating the work to around 1670, Della Pergola pointed to certain similarities with the Still Life with Fruit attributed to Van Aelst (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), in particular the proclivity for painting worm-eaten leaves and insects in the same composition. Although this attribution was repeated by Chiara Stefani (2000) and Kristina Herrmann Fiore (2006), the present write does not concur: the brushwork of this painting does not in fact reflect the Dutch painter’s unique ability to reproduce the compact texture of matter. It betrays a certain hardness foreign to him, rather suggesting the hand of a German artist who was active in the early 17th century and familiar with contemporary still life production in Italy.  

Antonio Iommelli

  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese, in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 344;
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 174;
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 213;
  • P. della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, II, Roma 1959, pp. 143-144, n. 196;
  • P. della Pergola, L’Inventario Borghese del 1693 (I), in “Arte Antica e Moderna”, XXVI, 1964, p. 211;
  • C. Stefani, in P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, p. 208;
  • K. Herrmann Fiore, Galleria Borghese Roma scopre un tesoro. Dalla pinacoteca ai depositi un museo che non ha più segreti, San Giuliano Milanese 2006, p. 118.