On Tuesday, June 27, in the prestigious Genoese headquarters of Castello Mackenzie, Cambi Auction House will present the exclusive live auction Old Masters, an extraordinary event involving works of ancient painting from different eras.
Among the most interesting lots, a still life with fruit basket and vanitas stands out (estimate 140.000 – 180.000 euros) created by an important artist of the first half of the seventeenth century known as the Master of the Acquavella still life.
Prof. Alberto Cottino, specialist in Baroque art and Italian painting from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, considered one of the world’s leading connoisseurs of Italian still life, explains:
“This unpublished, extraordinary still life constitutes evidently a notable increase in the catalog of the still mysterious Caravaggesque painter whom years ago I was able to define as ‘the most important painter of still lifes after Caravaggio’, traditionally identified as the ‘Master of the Acquavella still life’ by name of the owner of one of his magnificent canvases.
A part of the critics (not still life specialists) believes that this anonymous painter could correspond to Bartolomeo Cavarozzi (Viterbo 1587-1625).
The quality is very high: the sense of contemplation of the objects, the decisive naturalism as well as the diagonal light cut to the right certify that this painting belongs to the strict Caravaggesque sphere, just softened by a blonding of the shadows, by a lightening of the colors and by the ‘softening of matter.
There are numerous points of contact with the already known works of this master, as demonstrated not only by the general structure of the painting (the ‘metric scan’ of the objects arranged on the stone surface, including the sprig of medlars on the far right, is the same as the former Barberini canvas, recently moved to Robilant and Voena in London) and of the homologous (with some variations) formerly by Colnaghi, but also some details such as the chippings on the stone surface, the typology of the leaves are almost superimposable. (…)
The presence of the Vanitas with a skull resting on a book, flowers and an hourglass – in open dialogue with the richness and exuberance of the fruit, a unique case to my knowledge in Italian still life – reaffirms and reinforces a symbolic concept typical of the seventeenth century linked to the meaning of cut flowers and fruit, i.e. the transience of earthly things (Fugit irreparable tempus), a concept also widely used in contemporary literature, which is here made explicit in a very evident way.(…)
The so-called Master of the Acquavella Still Life clearly belongs to the Caravaggio-style naturalistic still life, closely connected to the Marquis Giovanni Battista Crescenzi. Starting from the second decade of the century, in fact, the driving force of the Roman still life, initially closely linked to the entourage of the cavalier d’Arpino, seems to move precisely towards the circle of the Marquis Crescenzi (Rome 1577- Madrid 1635). He was an extremely important character above all as an avant-garde intellectual, catalyst and perhaps even proponent of a new taste as well as a patron of artists since, among other things, according to the words of Baglione, he gathered around him in a sort of Academy some of the best young painters of Caravaggio culture both of figure and still life. Among them, Pietro Paolo Bonzi and Bartolomeo Cavarozzi stood out in particular. In reality, we do not know exactly how structured this so-called Academy was, but we do know – according to the words of the biographer Giovanni Baglione (1642) – that he also painted ‘from nature’, according to a rather ambiguous term widely used in the Caravaggesque sphere. It should be noted that in the so-called Accademia del Crescenzi they painted only ‘sometimes’ from nature; therefore, it was not the only method used and furthermore the various ‘beautiful and curious things that were found in Rome of fruits, animals, and other oddities’, were delivered ‘to those young people who would draw it’ : the term, if I understand it correctly, therefore confirms that the naturalists normally used drawings and cartoons.(…)
Another protagonist of the ‘natural’ study evenings in the so-called Accademia del Crescenzi was Bartolomeo Cavarozzi, not surprisingly also known as ‘Bartolomeo del Crescenzi’, a notable figure painter of Mannerist training (he was linked in particular to Cristoforo Roncalli) then turned into Caravaggio-like direction (at the same time maintaining a classicist component of the Raphaelesque-Renian mold). Some of his figure paintings are complemented by still lifes of excellent quality, given by some critics to a distinct but anonymous personality called ‘Master of the Acquavella still life’, whose hand can also be found in remarkable independent still lifes, of great quality and more ‘modern’ than the Hartford Maestro. The Caravaggesque influence is evident in the works that can be traced back to him, such as for example in the remarkable Supper in Emmaus in the Paul Getty Museum, which I was able to exhibit in the successful exhibition of 1995-1996.
With the small group of works given to this master we enter the age-old and still not fully resolved problem of specialisms that slowly take shape starting from the sixteenth century (here we refer above all to the specific tasks in Raphael’s workshop, just think of Giovanni from Udine, which are still kept in the construction sites of the Cavalier d’Arpino at the end of the century), and perfected in the first decades of the seventeenth century with the definition of pictorial genres. Did Cavarozzi, the great figure painter, also deal directly with the decorative parts – and with the independent still lifes – or was it a field left to a very gifted collaborator of his?
The problem, according to what Vincenzo Giustiniani claims in the famous letter of 1618, as I have already had the opportunity to observe, was above all of ‘scales of degree’, in which the still life was positioned in the lowest places. We are precisely in Cavarozzi’s years of activity: could he be interested in performing autonomous still lifes as a professional? Furthermore, it must also be considered that there are no inventories of the period from which Cavarozzi emerges as the author of still lifes; given the prestige of the painter, certainly famous in those years in the same way as Gentileschi, Saraceni and others, why not mention him in the collections? It would have been a source of pride for the collector, but nothing.
But there are other considerations to keep in mind as well. Stylistically, I am convinced that not all the still lifes ascribed to Cavarozzi date from 1625, the year of his death. Furthermore, there are quite famous paintings in which Maestro Acquavella is certainly present while the figures are not by Cavarozzi. Apart from the case of Caravaggio, as always outside the box, it is difficult to identify great figure painters who were equally great ‘professional’ painters of still life. It is a fact to reflect on.
Nonetheless, some scholars, including Gianni Papi, believe that Cavarozzi himself is also the author of several still lifes given to the mysterious master, while others would be by a talented follower, by the same scholar hypothesized in Michelangelo Cerquozzi. However, in this case it is not clear where and how the discontinuity begins in the paintings of the group which would allow it to be split into two distinct personalities, and which in my opinion is not perceived, least of all by hypothesizing an intervention by Cerquozzi which would create a fracture between these and his known canvases much stronger than what is possibly felt in the rather homogeneous path of the so-called Maestro Acquavella.
Apart from a controversial document from the Altemps house (1613), no evidence has so far been found that unequivocally attests the production of still lifes by Cavarozzi, which seems rather strange compared to the large number of inventories of paintings by example of Salini, Bonzi and later Mario dei Fiori, but also of other lesser-known painters (another fact to reflect on), while, on the contrary, in recent years we have numerous names of flower and fruit specialists of which we do not know today nothing, so I think it is methodologically more correct to keep this group anonymous, without having any prejudgment on the matter5.
Cavarozzi was closely associated with Giovanni Battista Crescenzi, so it is entirely certain that these paintings were born in the same environment. The works of the so-called Maestro Acquavella seem to evolve gradually from a strictly Caravaggesque optical lucidity towards a more delicate style that seems to presage the by now Baroque richness and sense of decoration – while remaining within the confines of naturalism – with a lightening of colors and shadows that they become soft and enveloping, as is evident in the case of the painting studied here. Furthermore, as I was able to underline thanks to an in-depth analysis, in the Aminta exhibited by me in the Turin exhibition of 2005-2006 the still life part is superimposed on the already finished figures, even in fundamental points such as the attack of the fingers on the flute . The execution of these pieces at a later time, with the material already spread and dry, is quite evident, and I cannot explain it except with the presence of a still life specialist intervening on a scene that has already been set (unless could think of an intervention by the same figurist at a later time, but it seems to me a less probable situation).
There are other problems to be solved: one of them is that the figure of the well-known Violinist from a private collection, in which the still life is undoubtedly by our artist, does not seem attributable to Cavarozzi, as well as at least the figure of the Fruit unknown published by Mina Gregori in 1973, as well as the Still life with putti recently sold to Robilant Voena, whose figures can in no way be given to Cavarozzi. The only certain fact is that one of the master’s canvases undoubtedly comes from the Barberini collection, as I was able to specify a few years ago. In my opinion, therefore, the problem must still remain open and must nevertheless be tackled in a more complex and sophisticated way than what has been done up to now, but the important canvas studied here certainly constitutes a further fundamental element for the understanding of the age-old problem.”