FLORENCE, Italy — The most curious things laid across Giovanna Garzoni’s table. On a given day, it might have been a petite English lapdog and a painted teacup from China. On another, the Italian Baroque artist (1600-70) may have filled a Ming porcelain vase with Mexican marigolds, cockscombs from India, and Japanese morning glory. Garzoni’s tablescape was a map of the world, and she wanted to chart every detail.
“Women have been left out of the narrative of globalism,” says Sheila Barker, curator of “The Greatness of the Universe” in the art of Giovanna Garzoni, a solo exhibition dedicated to Garzoni at Florence’s Pitti Palace. “It’s usually a story about men and ships.” Instead, in Garzoni’s over 50 surviving still lifes, she illustrated things shipped across the world and docked at her table.
“She evinced a real curiosity and a real affinity for novel things, and new things, and strange things, and she didn’t segregate them into a kind of cold world of display,” Barker explains. “In her art, and in her life, she was trying to understand her place in relation to the rest of this big, fascinating world that people were in the process of discovering.”
The exhibition was initially slated to open in March, but was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. As part of a wave of museums reopening in Italy, the Pitti Palace opened its doors on May 29.
“The Greatness of the Universe” is the first to showcase the full range of Garzoni’s work, including the still lifes for which she’s best known, which were originally commissioned by the Medici family and remain in the Uffizi Galleries collection. But it also displays her early calligraphy, her portraits, and her later textile work. Totaling around 100 objects, the show is dedicated to the memory of the late Jane Fortune — founder of the Florence-based Advancing Women Artists nonprofit dedicated to identifying, restoring, and exhibiting art by women in Italian museum storerooms.
Garzoni’s career began around 1620, when she tried to secure a position at a Florentine court. A witness to her visit said she had more talents than fingers because she could sing, play music, do calligraphy, and paint miniatures. The teenage aspiring artist met some important role models during this visit — painters Artemisia Gentileschi and Arcangela Paladini — who may have encouraged her to pursue a path as a professional artist.
Garzoni continued to travel around. She worked in many artistic mediums and genres, ranging from devotional images to still lifes, portraits, botanical illustrations, and mythology. Her biography is still being studied, but we know that in 1638 she went to England with Gentileschi, by 1640 she was working in a French court (painting a portrait of Cardinal Richelieau), and in 1642 she started a decade-long stint producing botanical illustrations for the Medici in Florence.
Her Florentine patrons were Grand Duke Ferdinando II de’ Medici and Grand Duchess Vittoria della Rovere, representing a family that had a longstanding interest in medicinal plants and cultivated a botanical garden. Garzoni was regularly supplied with leafy models from this garden, and created 21 still lifes for the Medicis that looked more like plant portraits (dried stems, bruised petals, and all) than scientific studies.
“She shows us a moment in the life of a living thing,” writes art historian Mary Garrard in the exhibition catalogue, continuing:
The figs are bursting out of their skin. A hazelnut emerges from its sheath. Plums in a dish, joined by walnuts and morning glories, have spots suggesting they’re slightly past their prime. They are still edible, but you’d better hurry. Carpe diem!
For this reason and others, Garzoni’s still lifes are distinctive. For one thing, their white parchment backgrounds render a far different character than that of dark and shadowy oil on canvas. “They have a luminosity that is very surprising and refreshing — it’s like stepping out of the nighttime into the daytime,” Barker notes.
Garzoni also had a high degree of technical skill, using several techniques and working on a small, almost microscopic scale. “Just to paint something as simple as a straw basket she might use three different techniques, or five different tools, and a multitude of colors. She didn’t take for granted any detail or any aspect of the small world around her. Everything was important, and I think that’s what comes through in her art,” Barker describes.
“Everything absorbs her attention, with this incredible level of intensity that we reserve for the most critical business we do,” she adds. “But she makes it possible to appreciate the ordinary things around us, and the extraordinary things, as things of wonder, because of the amount of observation and work she puts into replicating them.”
Garzoni painted at a time when still life was considered a suitable genre for women artists because it was deemed less creatively demanding than religious narratives or history painting. Barker thinks the artist chose to paint the plant world because she genuinely loved it, though, and had an incredible manual dexterity that suited small-scale work. Barker believes “she could have done many, many, many, many things.”
And the artist could see many, many things in a single strawberry, and the whole world in a solitary globe artichoke. “See, O curious eye, epitomized in a brief and small canvas, the greatness of the universe,” wrote an 18-year-old Garzoni to one of her patrons. “Recognize, Your Illustrious Lordship, with a generous look, in this small and circumscribed sheet, the imaginary immensity of my devotion to you.”
“The Greatness of the Universe” in the art of Giovanna Garzoni continues at the Pitti Palace (Piazza de’ Pitti 1, Florence, Italy) through June 28. The exhibition was curated by Sheila Barker.