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LA NATURA MORTA ITALIANA
For any Italian artist of the last century, a colossal dilemma was presented: how was one to reconcile the age of modernity, of machines, of science, with more than two millennia of history of figurative art? Visiting Rome, Florence, Venice, Naples, Palermo, Genoa, Milan, one is constantly aware of the visual and cultural heritage that both inspires and weighs down upon the developing artist. From Etruscan tombs to Roman grottoes, from Romanesque churches to the Scrivegni Chapel, to say nothing of the Renaissance. The endemic nature of the pictorial culture in Italy is both boon and burden. It is intriguing, then, to find that so many Italian artists of the last hundred years have nonetheless, or perhaps because of this, turned to the highly traditional-seeming motif of the still life.
While the still life had previously not enjoyed the same favour in Italy as it had in the more Northern, and especially Netherlandish, schools, it was nonetheless a consistent feature, as witnessed by Roman frescoes and even earlier periods. The secular nature of Northern Renaissance art meant that such subjects necessarily replaced some of the religious art of the Catholic nations, which naturally continued to thrive in Italy. However, the very fact that similar domestic objects and foodstuffs surrounded the artists and people of countries, regardless of religious preference, meant that they appeared in artistic representations. Sometimes still life painting mimicked reality in two dimensions, and sometimes the objects of the everyday world were used as hooks to anchor a painting to the viewer, to convey a meaning.
It is in this context, perhaps, that the sense of bounty that is invoked by Andrea Mantegna's garlands should be seen, and more so Carlo Crivelli's idiosyncratic religious paintings, which are replete with overspilling fruit and vegetables. In Caravaggio's paintings a century later, the still life broke free of narrative tradition with his depiction of a basket of fruit standing alone, essentially a novelty in artistic terms at the time with only a few scattered precedents in Italian painting. But Caravaggio also used still life elements to convey a bounty more sensual than that of Crivelli, for instance in his classical and secular-themed pictures of strangely eroticised youths, be they Bacchus (healthy or depleted) or a boy bitten by a lizard. This is only natural, one assumes: painters are bound to present the viewer with items from the world around, and likewise to appeal to a domestic, even democratic, iconography of common objects. This is used in another way in the marquetry of the celebrated Studiolo in the palace of Urbino, where the instruments of science and literature, worship and warmongering alike are all represented, some of them arcane in their uses and meanings, others clearly displaying for all to see the interests, beliefs, skills, achievements and intentions of the room's owner, Federico da Montefeltro. The hermetic and hieratic aspects of these various examples of the Italian still life in the work and time of the Old Masters provided elements that would be touched upon again and again by their Twentieth Century descendents.
Working within the constraints of this genre, many artists over the past hundred years have managed to bridge the gap between their cultural inheritance and the need to present the modern world in a modern way, and this is clearly demonstrated through the cross-section of paintings that comprise the discerningly-assembled private collection of an eminent art dealer which are being offered here. These pictures show that in many ways the still life, formerly a sideline of Italian art, in fact came into its own in the Twentieth Century. It was traditional enough that Italian artists could confront or embrace their cultural legacy, yet secular enough that they could do so in their own terms and with modern means. Thus, this collection includes works that are timeless as well as works that are completely of their era; it encapsulates pictures that are filled with abstraction and modernity and others that verge on Expressionism. The formidable range of artists includes the master of still life of the Twentieth Century, Giorgio Morandi, as well as a host of other esteemed painters such as Soffici, Sironi, Carrà, de Pisis and Marini.
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