Mario Nuzzi, known also as Mario dei Fiori, was without question the preeminent painter of flowers working in Italy in the seventeenth century. It is an indication of his status that he exhibited with the Virtuosi at the Pantheon in 1647, that he was elected to the Academy of St Luke in 1657, and that he was painted by Morandi in the act of painting flowers - the flowers were painted by Nuzzi - in a picture commissioned by the Chigi family (fig. 1). Nuzzi's patrons included many of the most prominent families of Papal Rome, among them the Chigi, Colonna, Barberini, and Orsini.
The tradition of still life painting originated with innovations made in Northern Europe, although it soon took root in Italy with the development of artists such as Jacopo Ligozzi, Bernardo Strozzi and Nuzzi's own uncle Tommaso Salini. Nuzzi's biographer, Pascoli, claims that Nuzzi was initially self-taught; however he was almost certainly apprenticed to Salini and would also have learnt from itinerant Northern artists such as Daniel Seghers, who worked in Rome.
Mario's particular facility for the depiction of flowers would have found a ready audience in a city interested on the one hand in the study of all aspects of the natural world, whose greatest proponent was Cassiano dal Pozzo, and, on the other, a city that enrolled its most important artists in the production of grand decorative prospects. Thus Bernini designed stage sets, Ciro Ferri picture frames, and Nuzzi combined with Carlo Maratti to paint garlands and putti on mirrors two and a half meters high for the Colonna family. At the same time, Mario's more scientific approach can be seen in the series of botanical plates he designed for a volume of engravings entitled Fiori Diversi. Despite Nuzzi's collaborations with figure painters such as Bernadino Mei and Carlo Maratti, his primary output was in independent still life paintings, for which he earned the soubriquet Mario dei Fiori. His paintings are, when by him and not a member of his workshop or an imitator, of remarkable quality, often lit with a strong raking light with the diagonal shadow popularized by Caravaggio. The arrangements are often seen as from below, perhaps suggesting a relatively high placement in the ultimate interior. The vases are ornate and derive from the types engraved by Roman artists of an earlier generation such as Polidoro da Caravaggio. Often, as in this case, they are dramatically placed with their bases projecting beyond the plinth, suggesting their precarious balance.
The influence of Mario dei Fiori spread beyond Rome and left its mark on both Juan de Arellano and Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer, establishing a courtly international style of flower painting that enjoyed enormous popularity throughout Europe in the second half of the seventeenth century.