Salvator Rosa, 132 x 191 x 10 cm
Rome, Giuseppe Cesari called Cavalier d’Arpino, ante 1607, inv. no. 61; Rome, Scipione Borghese Collection, 1607; Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, p. 26, no. 41; purchased by the Italian State, 1902.
This canvas and its companion, Still Life with Birds (inv. 301), were both part of the painting collection of Giuseppe Cesari, called Cavalier d’Arpino. Having accused Cesari of illegal possession of firearms, in 1607 Pope Paul V ordered the confiscation of the entire collection, which he then turned over to Cardinal Scipione Borghese. In this manner, the latter acquired 105 works that had previously belonged to Cesari, among which two famous Caravaggios: Sick Bacchus and Boy with Basket of Fruit (inv. nos. 534, 136).
The painting has not always been recognised as forming a pair with Still Life with Birds, but this fact has been definitively confirmed thanks to the diagnostics carried out by Davide Bussolari (2016, pp. 279-289) for an exhibition held in Rome, The Origins of Still Life in Italy: Caravaggio and the Master of Hartford (Borghese Gallery, 2016-17). The two works are in fact identical in type and both were painted on two horizontal pieces of canvas sewn together using the same technique. The slight difference in size has been traced back to certain cuts made at an unknown time which mainly affected the shorter sides and explain the unusual cropping of certain elements depicted on the edge of the scene.
Analyses of the preparatory sketch and of the pictorial technique made it possible to finally prove mistaken some of the many attributions that have interested this pair of paintings over time, namely those that theorised the work of two different artists (first and foremost Marini 1978-1979, p. 43, note 128). In both cases, the line is thin and methodical, traced directly on the primer, and the painting is executed with a meticulous stratification of thin layers of colour. While the consistency of these exquisitely technical details is sufficient to validate the theory of a single painter’s hand behind the execution of these two still lifes, it is not however decisive for a certain attribution, an issue that divides critics, who have advanced a number of theories.
In the 1970s, after Carlo Volpe (1972, pp. 73-74) and Mina Gregori (1973, p. 46) had put forth the name of Giovanni Battista Crescenzi, Federico Zeri (1976, pp. 92-103) was the first to connect the two Borghese paintings to the Still Life with Flowers and Fruits (Hartford, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art) by the artist conventionally called Master of Hartford, from the name of the city where the work is preserved and whose identity is still unknown. From this moment onwards, the pair of Borghese paintings, in which the scholar recognised a stylistic affinity with the “namepiece” of the Hartford Museum, was legitimately included in the list of works attributed to the Master.
Paola della Pergola (1959, II, p. 170, no. 248) correctly identified Still Life with Birds with the painting described at no. 38 of the inventory of the works seized from Cavalier d’Arpino. Based on her observations, Zeri identified this Vase of Flowers, Fruit, and Vegetables with the following number in the same listing, thus conclusively confirming that both canvases came from D’Arpino’s workshop. In fact, no. 39 is described as “Another painting with several fruits and flowers and no frame.” In an attempt to identify a figure in the painter’s workshop to whom the works collected around the Hartford still life could be ascribed, including the Borghese canvases, the scholar suggested as possible author a young Caravaggio during his first stay in Rome, as he had in fact frequented Cesari’s workshop for some time. This occurrence, until recently placed in 1593, has been lately postdated somewhere between 1596 and 1597, and is still at the heart of a heated debate [for an in-depth analysis, see R. Gandolfi, A. Zuccari, I primi anni di Caravaggio, in Dentro Caravaggio (Inside Caravaggio), exhibition catalogue (Milan, Palazzo Reale, 2017-2018), edited by R. Vodret Adamo, Milan 2017, pp. 249-260].
Later, Maurizio Marini (1978-79, cit.) theorised a cooperative execution for Vase of Flowers, Fruit, and Vegetables, in which he recognised at least three styles: that of the Master of Hartford, another akin to Pietro Paolo Bonzi’s manner, and a third, the best, which he does not rule out as belonging to Caravaggio himself. In the following years, Marini (1981, p. 50; 1984, p. 13; 2005, pp. 130-131, 369-370) returned to this work, and the others of the Hartford group, time and time again, basically confirming their heterogeneity, but establishing that their production was certainly to be ascribed to D’Arpino’s workshop, a fact upon which critics agree nearly unanimously (in this respect, see a recent analysis by Nicosetta Roio, 2018, pp. 383-394).
The hypothesis of Caravaggio’s participation in the Borghese paintings, forcefully rejected by Maurizio Calvesi in an article that appeared in L’Espresso (11 February 1979), has been the focus of more or less open-minded reflections on the part of many scholars who have devoted their studies to the Hartford group, and more in general to the theme of the birth and development of still life painting in Italy.
When the two Borghese canvases were exhibited in Rome in 1979, Claudio Strinati (1979, pp. 62-65) cautiously embraced the Caravaggio attribution, while four years later, when they were shown in New York alongside the still life from the Hartford Museum, they were collectively presented as works by a follower of the Master (Spike 1983, pp. 41 ff.).
In the 1990s, only the Vase of Flowers, Fruit, and Vegetables was attributed by Ferdinando Bologna (1992, pp. 287-290) to Tommaso Salini, while Minna Heimbürger (1993, pp. 69-84) ascribed it, together with its companion, to the Flemish artist Frans Snyders, though both hypotheses have rarely been seconded by other critics.
More recently we find a series of attempts to identify the Master of Hartford if not with Caravaggio himself, at least with one of the other artists who frequented Cesari’s workshop or with someone who might have been connected to this environment. Among the names that have been advanced, there are, for example, Francesco Zucchi (Marini 1984, cit.; Salerno 1984, pp. 52-54), brother of the more famous Jacopo, and Prospero Orsi, called Prosperino delle Grottesche (Strinati 2001, p. 16; Spezzaferro 2002, pp. 31-32; Whitfield 2007, p. 11; Schifferer 2009, p. 175; Gregori 2009, p. 168).
Alberto Cottino has broached the subject several times over the past thirty years or more, initially displaying a certain aperture towards Zeri’s theory, but more recently expressing doubts related mainly to the chronological succession of the works in the Hartford group (Cottino 1989, pp. 655-662; 1995, pp. 59-65; 2002, pp. 136-137; 2003, pp. 140-141; 2011, pp. 25-33). At the same time, after an early attribution to Crescenzi in the 1970s, Mina Gregori (Gregori 1973, cit.) spoke once again in 1985 (pp. 206-208) in favour of a non-collaborative execution of the Borghese canvases, and more recently (2009, cit.) has considered the name of Prospero Orsi as a possible Master of Hartford.
Expressing an unusual point of view, the scholar Vittoria Markova (2000, pp. 52-55) suggested separating the Borghese paintings from the rest of the Hartford group, attributing them to a different (anonymous) artist, while in her analysis of the inventory of the D’Arpino confiscation, Kristina Herrmann Fiore (2000, pp. 63-64) ruled out the possibility that Caravaggio’s hand can be seen in the two works, a hypothesis that Anna Ottani Cavini still found convincing, advancing it once again in 2009 on the occasion of the Bolognese exhibition Federico Zeri. Behind the Image ((Ottani Cavina 2009, pp. 84-86, no. XV.a).
The Vase of Flowers, Fruit, and Vegetables thus still remains in the sphere of the mysterious Master of Hartford, who in turn is inextricably connected to the workshop of Cavalier d’Arpino, whether an artist active in this very workshop or simply someone external who was well acquainted with its production.
As for the dating of this painting, as well as its companion, the fact that it belonged to Cavalier d’Arpino’s expropriated collection establishes 1607 as a certain date before which we can place the execution of the work.
In restating the quality of the two works and their role among the first examples of Italian still life painting, Davide Dotti (2016, pp. 226-228, nos. 11-12) observed the painter’s penchant for a detailed naturalistic investigation of the elements composing the scene, which possesses a certain classificatory taste. According to the scholar, the artist analyses light from a structural point of view, as an element contributing to the plastic and spatial definition of objects, an aspect that makes him one of the greatest exegetes of the Caravaggesque language in the area of still life painting. The diagonal slant, clearly visible on the wall at the back of Vase of Flowers, Fruit, and Vegetables, suggests a close proximity with Merisi’s research, an element which had already been observed by Alberto Cottino (1995, p. 118, no. 18), and even earlier by John Spike (cit.).
A different opinion was held, as we have mentioned, by Herrmann Fiore (cit.), who considered the painting’s connection with Caravaggio’s early works evident, albeit undefined. The element of light in the still life by the Master of Hartford does not achieve that peculiar adhesion to objects visible, for example, in Merisi’s Boy with Basket of Fruit, its impact thus much dampened in comparison. The Borghese painting would thus be an admittedly virtuous example of that manner which Caravaggio strove to overcome.
Dotti (2016, pp. 129 ff.) further attempted to reconstruct the chronological order of the paintings attributed to the Master of Hartford based on their stylistic evolution, setting the two Borghese canvases in a slightly earlier period compared to the still life from Hartford, which is considered to be the greatest example of the artist’s activity and can be dated about 1606-07.
The painting we have been discussing depicts an assortment of fruits and vegetables belonging to different seasons and arranged on different planes. The main compositional elements are the basket on the far right and the ceramic vase full of flowers on the left. The painting also contains several allegorical details, such as the lizard and the green lizard, two cold blooded animals that were seen as positive influences capable of leading a person afflicted by vice and negative morals back onto a virtuous path.
Pier Ludovico Puddu