This remarkable and unrecorded still life has been in private ownership since the mid-nineteenth century. Baschenis has been the subject of two major exhibitions in the last ten years which have allowed for a thorough critical assessment of the artist's oeuvre (see Evaristo Baschenis e la natura morta in Europa, Accademia Carrara, Bergamo, 1996-1997; and The Still Lifes of Evaristo Baschenis - The Music of Silence, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2000-2001). The present painting's re-emergence has given rise to excitement tempered by debate as to its authenticity and the degree to which the artist's workshop participated in its execution.
Evaristo Baschenis is universally acknowledged as the inventor of the musical instrument still-life and its most celebrated practitioner. He was himself a practising musician who clearly had a deep understanding of the instruments that he painted. His highly personal vision evolved from the tradition of concert and musical scenes painted by the likes of Titian and Giorgione in sixteenth century Venice, and by Caravaggio and his northern followers in the first-half of the seventeenth century. Baschenis transformed this theme by completely removing the figurative element, leaving the instruments as the sole protagonists, thus effecting a poetic and entirely original style.
Baschenis' repertory on this theme relied on a series of different instruments, objects and textiles that were re-used again and again in ever more intricate compositions. The dynamic arrangement of objects in the present work consists of a seemingly casual piling up of instruments on a draped table. From right to left the instruments are: a theorbo, possibly by the maker Sellas (active in Venice in the second-half of the seventeenth century); below it, a mandolino, notable for its elegant ivory filetted neck; a Venetian lute (datable to the end of the sixteenth century); a pentagonal spinet also likely to be Venetian sixteenth century; a violin; an unusually fine ebony inlaid guitar, and a harp. The ebony casket on which the theorbo rests is Cremonese and notable for featuring in a picture by Baschenis painted for Abbot Francesco Superchi in circa 1670 (Venice, Gallerie dell'Accademia). The red damask cloth with a bronconi di cappero pattern appears more regularly in Bachenis' work and can be seen for instance in a canvas in the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo, and in the picture from the Silvano Lodi collection recently sold at Christie's, New York, 6 April 2006, lot 60 ($1,300,000). The richly embroidered drapery overhead also recurs in other works by Baschenis, as in the aforementioned canvas in the Accademia, Venice. The music sheets lying open on the casket and on the spinet are thought to be the parts for a vocal arrangement.
The composition is both intricate and strikingly original - the archlute carefully balanced on the casket; the mandolino protruding over the spinet with the seemingly haphazard but complicated placement of the guitar, violin, lute and harp behind. The instruments appear to have been recently laid down by musicians and although absent, their presence is intimated at by such devices as the scuffed music manuscripts, the snapped mandolino string, and the finger marks left on the body of the theorbo - again, all technical tricks invented by Baschenis and employed repeatedly throughout his career.
Although the still-life part of this picture accords well with Baschenis' repertory both in its arrangement and execution, the interior setting is without precedent in his oeuvre, leading to doubts as to whether Baschenis could be responsible for it. Invariably his known still-lifes are painted against a neutral background, only occasionally allowing a glimpse of a paved stone floor, as for instance in the Still-life with a cittern (Brussels, Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels). A handful of still lifes by followers of Baschenis are set in interiors, for example the two works in a private collection, Rome, and New York respectively (see I Pittori Bergamaschi - Il Seicento, III, pp. 112-3, both illustrated), both of which depict a group of instruments on a table in the left foreground with a recession to a doorway on the left, very much in the same way as in this picture. This poses the question as to whether these derived ultimately from a lost prototype by Baschenis in which the background may have been painted by an assistant. The sophistication of the spatial arrangement in this picture and the quality of execution is of a calibre beyond the two aforementioned works and indeed anything by Baschenis' identifiable followers, The Master B.B. or the Master C+C.