Caravaggesque painter (active in Rome during the first quarter of the 17th century)

Basket of Fruit For Sale

Oil on canvas, 20 1/16 x 26 3/8 in (51 x 67 cm)




Private collection.

- Véronique Damian, Sweerts, Tanzio, Magnasco et autres protagonistes du Seicento italien, Paris, Galerie Canesso, 2009, pp. 18-21;
- Franco Paliaga, in L’origine della Natura Morta in Italia. Caravaggio e il Maestro di Hartford, Anna Coliva-Davide Dotti (eds.), cat. exh., Roma, Galleria Borghese, 16 November 2016 – 19 February 2017, pp. 246-247, no. 32.

- L’origine della Natura Morta in Italia. Caravaggio e il Maestro di Hartford, Anna Coliva-Davide Dotti (eds.), Roma, Galleria Borghese, 16 November 2016 – 19 February 2017, no. 32.

The motif of an isolated Basket of fruit recalls the celebrated prototype painted by Caravaggio (1571 -1610) and housed in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan, although that is conceived in an entirely different spirit: unlike that of the Lombard painter, our composition favours solids over voids, and each fruit is given an almost close-up treatment. This is even truer of the insects, described as if they had been observed through a magnifying glass. But the differences do not lie merely in general compositional concepts – the details themselves contain opposite meanings. Whereas Caravaggio is painstaking in his description of decay, and of leaves shrivelled from lack of water, curling on themselves, our anonymous artist enhances his fruits, bursting open from too much sun, revealing their mouth-watering pulp and the beautiful red and yellow skin of ripened substance. The picture space is entirely filled with its subject-matter: poised on the edge of a simple wooden base, this stretches across the surface of the canvas in an enticing foreground spread. One wants to stretch out one’s hand, invited by the different varieties of grapes that spill over the edge of the basket. This is not a set pose, as in some portraits, but a moment of real life, of pleasure, as it speaks to the senses. The warm brown background, which is bright in spite of everything, has been chosen by the artist so that he can describe each fruit in full light, sometimes defined by a fine black line as in the case of the pomegranate balanced at the summit of this promising pinnacle. Before such generosity, it is almost surprising to see that some flies initially escaped our notice, together with a dragonfly and two butterflies in a graceful, improvised aerial ballet around the foliage, and to note the unstable, even improbable aspect of the whole pile. It is ultimately more a recreation than a precise observation.
Indeed this painting is about exuberance, not austerity – firstly exuberance of colour, with an obvious pleasure in its creation, pure and direct, and exuberance in the choice of subjects, multiplied in all their possible combinations, as with both the grapes and apples, which vary in form and colour. No doubt the canvas functioned as an overdoor decoration, since the visual impact and material quality of this basket are dramatically striking. The leaves appear marbled and seem so solid in space that they seem to have been created out of some mineral. However, this detail is not sufficient for an attribution to the Master of the Acquavella Still Life, suggested by Alberto Cottino for another composition that adopts a closer look at the central motif of the basket (private collection)(1). Nonetheless each painting contains not only the same motifs – melon, open pomegranates, bright red apples, and grapes spilling out of their container – but a characterization of colour that might be considered the artist’s signature: the blue-grey shadow that marks the opening in the melon. This touch of cool tonality and the black contour around the fruits furnish important stylistic indications for the reconstruction of this anonymous artist’s oeuvre.
Judging from what we know at present, and although we cannot put a name to this master, it seems right to set this still life within the context of the Roman artistic milieu around 1615 -1620. Its post-Caravaggesque character makes it contemporary with the art of Michelangelo Cerquozzi (1602 -1660), Pietro Paolo Bonzi, called il Gobbo dei Carracci (c. 1576 -1636), as well as the famous Master of the Acquavella Still Life, active in Rome during those years – between 1615 (?)and 1630 -1635 – not to mention Giovanni Battista Crescenzi (1577 -1635 ) and the so-called Pensionante del Saraceni, who flourished during the second decade of the seventeenth century. Our artist shares with these last two a specific vocabulary that aims to explore not only the external aspect of each fruit, but the interior, with a display of coloured flesh, dotted with dark seeds.

1- We are grateful to M. Guido Capelli for suggesting this comparison, and for his passionate involvement in the study of this painting. For the Still Life published as by the Master of the Acquavella Still Life, see Alberto Cottino, Natura Silente. Nuovi Studi sulla Natura Morta Italiana, Turin, 2007, p. 25, fig. 12 ; the canvas measures 45 x 33 cm.