- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 2, 2002

Bartolomeo Bimbi's almost-8-foot-wide "Citrus Fruits" with 34 pieces of fruit arranged with their flowers and leaves is just one of many remarkable paintings in "The Flowering of Florence: Botanical Art for the Medici," opening tomorrow at the National Gallery of Art.

The birth of modern science during the time of the powerful Medici family in Florence led to extraordinary horticultural feats and paintings of them. The family, which made its money in banking and as merchants, supported both art and the natural sciences from the late 1500s to the last of its grand dukes, in 1737.

This is a jewel of an exhibition, filled with sometimes surprising art. "Medici" could well be the sleeper of the spring art season.

If "Citrus Fruits" makes visitors' eyes pop with its antique statuary and citrus types carefully numbered and labeled in a cartouche, then viewers must move on to Bimbi's renderings of the most rare and what were called "monstrous" species raised at the time. Fruit such as these were raised in gardens in the middle of fierce competition for the largest or most unusual fruit or vegetable hybrids.

One is the huge, roughly brushed-and-colored squash that the cartouche tells viewers came from the Grand Ducal Garden at Pisa, or rather that it "was born in Pisa." The artist's oversized "Monstrous Cauliflower and Horseradish" takes on a creepy, anthropomorphic look. Then there is his "Giant Cardoon," an enormous, distorted vegetable also popular with contemporary Spanish still-life painters.

The 68-work exhibit opens with an introductory gallery showing flowers in 15th-century religious paintings and two exquisite early nature studies by Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Durer. Exhibit co-curator Lucia Tongiorgi Tomasi of the University of Pisa decided to concentrate on three artists working in Florence who focused on imaging nature and were the leading botany artists of their time.

Jacopo Ligozzi (1547-1626) produced elegant, detailed paintings of plants and animals in the Medici gardens and menageries. Giovanna Garzoni (1600-70), one of the most important female artists in the history of early Italian art, achieved fame and wealth for her naturalistic still-life paintings. Bimbi, a Florentine artist with little formal training, painted scientifically accurate still lifes for Cosimo III, the sixth Medici grand duke. Bimbi said he wanted to create "portraits from nature," and he succeeded.

Florentine liking for scientific accuracy in depicting flora and fauna ironically coincided with a passion for the bizarre and the odd. It also concurred with symmetrically and geometrically designed gardens meant to mirror ideal Renaissance cities. The 15th-century architect Leon Battista Alberti was the first to conceive of a garden as a centralized, orderly and unified design. Gardens were viewed as spaces formed by art and nature to provide delight for the eye and rest for the spirit.

Medicis bought, constructed or renovated several splendid villas outside Florence with attached gardens. Cosimo I created in Pisa the first public botanical garden in Europe in 1543-44. Native and exotic plants were cultivated for teaching the new science of botany and for their medicinal properties. The garden achieved fame all over Europe. Another garden soon was added in Florence, also for study.

Botanists began horticultural experiments, trying to produce ever more handsome cultivars, especially of the tulips, irises, fritillaries and narcissuses recently imported from the Orient.

Cosimo's son Ferdinando I commissioned the Flemish artist Giusto Utens to paint the Medici villas in a series of 14 large lunettes. Mrs. Tomasi included three and set "The Belvedere with Palazzo Pitti" tall in the first gallery. Unfortunately, it's placed too high for most visitors to see its dense, gridlike composition with the Belvedere fortress set at the top of the hill behind the garden. The greater part of the picture is the stately garden, called Boboli, that rises behind the palace. An amphitheater made of shrubbery at the garden's center was for celebrations. The large garden that surrounds the palace on three sides is divided into plots for shade trees and formal gardens of flower beds laid out in geometrical designs.

Literary sources refer to the garden as "di madama" because it was constructed for Johanna of Austria, the first wife of Francesco I. The exhibit catalog cites a description from the manuscript "Agricoltura Sperimentale e Teorica" that the Boboli was also decorated with "'great vases of orange and citron trees and other noble plants,' vast trellises of citruses and a priceless collection of dwarf fruit trees cared for by the prince himself, which were 'laden with fruit of great variety and beauty, and also delightful to the taste.'"

Unfortunately, the rest of the lunettes are not included in the exhibit.

Mrs. Tomasi opens the show with the earliest painter of the three, Ligozzi. The artist was a young, almost unknown painter from Verona when the second grand duke of Tuscany, Francesco I, invited him to join his court in 1577. Ligozzi would remain at the Medici court until his death. He produced many extraordinary paintings for the duke that chronicled the plants and animals of Francesco's gardens and menageries. He painted plants complete with their root systems.

"Ligozzi combined a unique sensitivity to the minutiae of natural phenomena with a masterly technique that enabled him to achieve pictorial effects rarely matched in the history of naturalistic painting," Mrs. Tomasi writes in the handsome catalog. He drew the first known picture of a pineapple from South America; the American century plant, just brought to Europe from the Americas, probably Mexico; and "Mourning Iris and Spanish Iris."

His gouache-on-paper, flowering "Mandrake" is exceptional. The curator says Ligozzi abandoned the anthropomorphic tradition associated with the plant and painted it with clarity.

Garzoni and her patron, Ferdinando II, were perfectly matched. Although a weak ruler, Ferdinando undertook projects such as the expansion and decoration of the Pitti Palace and the Boboli Garden, restored the botanical gardens of Pisa and Florence to some of their former magnificence after decades of decline, and encouraged the popularity of still-life painting.

Garzoni came to Rome after a precocious childhood as a painter in Ascoli in central Italy. She never married, traveled with her brother and was, as Mrs. Tomasi puts it, "under the protection of Enrico Corvino, a pharmacist." Corvino encouraged her to study the engravings in Pier Andrea Mattioli's "Commentarii," the most famous volume of plants at the time. She devoted herself to botanical painting, then considered a fit pursuit for a female painter, and worked in the scientific tradition of Ligozzi. She rendered plants with their roots and flowers and enlivened her thinned gouache watercolors with charming insects like lizards and beetles, bees, nuts and fruits.

"The time to study her is now with the recent research on her, though there are few known facts about her life," Mrs. Tomasi says. It would be interesting to compare her with her compatriot, Artemesia Gentileschi, whose work is now exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Garzoni was successful, never wanted for commissions and died wealthy. Gentileschi, by contrast, always struggled for commissions and died poor.

Of the three botanist painters, Bimbi is the most bombastic and histrionic. He was the most directed by his patron. Cosimo was a strict vegetarian with a devotion to botany. Many of Bimbi's paintings were really inventories, but his patient documenting of pears, cherries, dates and sunflowers, in addition to the fruits and vegetables already mentioned, attests to his devotion to art, science and his patron.

WHAT: "The Flowering of Florence: Botanical Art for the Medici"

WHERE: East Building, National Gallery of Art, Third Street and Constitution Avenue NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays, tomorrow through May 27


PHONE: 202/737-4215

SPONSOR: Supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities

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