Giovanna Garzoni: het eeuwige ademt in het detail

Giovanna Garzoni (Ascoli Piceno 1600- Rome 1670).
Niet alleen de wetenschappelijke accuraatheid van haar werk werd geprezen, maar ook de oorspronkelijkheid waarmee ze de wereld van haar stillevens vorm gaf: het opvallende kleurengebruik, de zin voor details, de combinatie van voorwerpen, aanleunend bij het verschijnsel ‘Wunderkammer’ waarin de nog onbekende werelden met wetenschappelijke belangstelling en kunst werden gecombineerd. Ter ere van de schoonheid en het wondere.
Nog tot 28 juni te bekijken in ‘The Greatness of the Universe in the Art of Giovanna Garzoni’, Pitti Paleis Gallerie degli Uffizi in Florence.
Bekend met de door ons uitvoerig besproken kunstenares Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656) beperkte Giovanna zich hoofdzakelijk tot de wereld van het miniatuur, het stilleven en de decoratieve kunsten maar wist ze ook daarin de vrouwelijke scherpzinnigheid en onafhankelijkheid te accentueren. De Italiaanse en Europese hoven schatten haar kunde en kunst hoog, en -gelukkig voor ons- bewaarden haar werk in de beste omstandigheden.

Giovanna Garzoni (Ascoli Piceno 1600 – Rome 1670), Self-portrait as Apollo, circa 1618–1620. Tempera on parchment, laid down on linen, 42 x 33 cm. Signed on the instrument: “Giovanna Garzoni F” Rome, Segretariato Generale della Repubblica, Palazzo del Quirinale.

Giovanna Garzoni was born in Ascoli Piceno in c. 1600 and picked up the technique of oil painting, probably from her uncle Pietro Gaia, in Venice while still a young girl. One of her first commissions was for a painting in a series depicting the Apostles for the church of the Ospedale degli Incurabili in Venice, a series to which such prestigious masters as Domenico Tintoretto also contributed. At the same time, she trained in the arts of calligraphy and miniature painting whil also acquiring skill as a singer and a player of string instruments, a talent that she was able to display at the Medici court at the age of 19. At 22 she wed the Venetian portrait artist Tiberio Tinelli, but their marriage failed on account of a vow of chastity which Giovanna had taken to thwart a prophesy predicting that she would die in childbirth. The marriage came to an end in 1624, with her relatives preparing to testify to Tinelli’s use of witchcraft. Heeding her brother’s advice to seek her “freedom”, Giovanna moved to Naples in 1630, where she took up service with the Duke of Alcalà in the company of Artemisia Gentileschi. Passing through Rome, she attracted the patronage of the Barberini family and was introduced to the Accademia dei Lincei by the scholar Cassiano Dal Pozzo. In 1632 she moved to Turin where she was granted the title of “Miniaturist to Madama Reale”. On the Duke of Savoy’s death in 1637, she travelled, again in Artemisia’s company, to the court of King Charles I in London where she made the acquaintaince of Inigo Jones. By late 1639 she was a member of Cardinal Richelieu’s entourage in Paris, but from 1642 to 1651 she lived mainly in Florence, working for the Medici and primarily producing miniatures. She finally settled in Rome, where she died in 1670 and was buried in the church of the Accademia di San Luca, the first woman ever to be granted the privilege. (Nvdr: waarop ze wel tot in 1698 moest wachten!)

She lived at the courts of Venice and Turin, spent several years with the Medici in Florence, worked in Naples and in France, where she painted a portrait of Cardinal Richelieu (on display in the exhibition), and even frequented the court of King Charles I in England, a fact borne out by documents on show in this exhibition for the very first time. She was a friend of Artemisia Gentileschi, that other great woman artist of the 17th century, with whom she shared both travel and experiences and who was something of a role model for her in that she was a few years Giovanna’s senior. Shrewd in currying favour with her patrons, Garzoni specialised in miniatures on parchment, excelling in particular in the depiction of still-lifes with exotic curios and subjects taken from the plant and animal world. A leading player in the cultural affairs of her age, she rapidly built a reputation for herself and was admired throughout Europe, to the point where she was even portrayed in her old age by Carlo Maratta, the prince of Rome’s Accademia di San Luca and future restorer of Raphael’s masterpieces.

Chinese Porcelain Plate with Cherries
Giovanna Garzoni (Ascoli Piceno 1600 – Rome 1670), Lapdog with Biscotti and a Chinese Cup, circa 1648. Tempera on parchment, 27,5 x 39,5 cm. Signed in the lower right corner: “Giovanna Garzoni F.” Florence, Gallerie degli Uffizi, Palazzo Pitti, Galleria Palatina.

Giovanna Garzoni was endowed with astonishing intellectual inquisitiveness and originality, which translated into penetrating and stringent observation of the natural world. The vast corpus of her work owned by the Gabinetto Stampe e Disegni degli Uffizi is supplemented in the exhibition by a series of loans from private collections and from Italian and foreign museums illustrating the full creative spectrum of her career. Of particular interest are her precious floral miniatures with vases in the Chinese style and shells from tropical countries and her still “yet living” lifes with fruit, exotic plants and small animals of all kinds (from insects depicted in their infinite variety to snails, birds and crickets) alongside the exhibition’s iconic work, her celebrated English Small Dog portrayed on a table with a Chinese cup and some biscuits.

The old man from Artimino, ca 1650, by Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670), tempera on parchment, 39×60 cm.
Still life with Bowl of Citrons late 1640

But Garzoni also expressed her uniquely creative talent in the way she juxtaposed objects and human figures, for instance in the Old Man of Artimino surrounded by the produce of his labours as a farmer (sausages, fruit, eggs and cheeses) and by his farm animals (chickens and a dog). Equally striking is Garzoni’s Self-portrait as a young girl in the guise of the god Apollo, which she painted when barely twenty years old, and her unusual miniature of the Ethiopian Prince Zaga Christ, whom she portrayed while at the Court of the House of Savoy in Turin. And finally, the exhibition could hardly have avoided paying tribute to Raphael (as the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome hosts a major exhibition to mark the 500th anniversary of his death) in the shape of a miniature copy, painted by Garzoni in 1649, of the Madonna della Seggiola which was already a showpiece of the Medici collections in her day and which still hangs in the Galleria Palatina di Palazzo Pitti to this day.

Giovanna Garzoni (Ascoli Piceno 1600 – Rome 1670), Portrait of Zaga Christ (c. 1608-1638), 1635. Watercolour and bodycolour on vellum mounted on card, later silver frame with scroll top. Oval 2 ¼ in (57 mm) high. © 2020 Philip Mould & Company.
Giovanna Garzoni (Ascoli Piceno 1600 – Rome 1670), from Raffaello Madonna della seggiola , 1649, tempera on parchment glued on slate; 23.5 x 23.5 cm, signed on the upright of the chair “Giovanna Garzoni. F. “,Private collection.

Gallerie degli Uffizi Director Eike Schmidt: “Giovanna Garzoni was a woman who often found herself working and painting with and for other women, and these sisterly episodes contributed in part – but always in a positive vein – to her choices and to the results she obtained with her work. But aside from that, Garzoni managed single-handedly, by her own strength and intelligence and by adopting a shrewd policy of self-promotion and astute flexibility in moving about the Italian and European courts of her day, to assert herself and to create an original and deeply poetic style even in the still-life genre then in its infancy. Recent scholarship and new discoveries meant that the time was ripe for this year’s monographic exhibition, which explores the artist’s output throughout her artistic career. In this case the exhibition does not focus exclusively on her still-lifes but also includes other works and objects conjuring up those depicted in her paintings, where her vibrant painterly style breathes eternal life into her subjects, be they the elegant figures in her portraits or the wonders of nature. This year’s events have meant that it is precisely Garzoni’s art that marks the rebirth of the Grand Dukes’ palace after a long moment of darkness and silence”.

Chinese Vase with Flowers, a Fig, and a Bean

“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)

Buffone con garofani e altri fiori su una base in pietra con pesca appoggiata, 1642-51 ca

Misschien had ze geen tuin de kuise, steeds
op reis naar tijdelijke hoven of het atelier
van een leermeester. Bracht men haar onder
bloemen bedolven vruchten in breekbare
schalen voor nuttig keukengebruik? O zomer.

Ze schilderde aan het herbarium voorbij
berstende vijgen naast een hagedis, rijkdom
van boerenbonen voor een adellijk maal,
meloen met uitspuugpit, slakjes, nerven met één
penseelhaar tempera in aardkleuren en blauw.

Waarom wil je maken wat buiten je bestaat -
een tuin fabuleren die jou niet toebehoort,
van kersen genieten nadat ze gegeten zijn?
Wie tekent kijkt beter. O wonder, naast lichtende
amandelen zit een bijkans levende muis.

Ineke Holzhaus

“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)

Still Life with Birds and Fruit

“Everything absorbs her attention, with this incredible level of intensity that we reserve for the most critical business we do. 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.” (Barker)

Stilleven mt peren en een vlinder

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.” (catalogus)


“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.

Plate of Peas

The Baroque Artist Who Captured the World in Her Still Lifes

Bowl with plumes tempera on parchement 1625-1650