The upper classes in our 21st century may purchase sleek sports cars and the latest gadgetry to indulge in their wealth, but the courts of the 16th and 17th centuries were not all that different. They too had expensive clothes, lavish homes and dinner parties.
And yet, although the similarities in style and way of life may be numerous, one of the principal differences between these centuries is the widespread importance and influence of art.
"Back in the old days people owned art, and they owned property, and they may have had money in banks," said Chazen Museum of Art Director Russell Panczenko. "The political times were pretty volatile. Say the Strozzi attacks the Medici, what could they take with them? It would be jewels and artwork, because at that time it was considered portable wealth."
The Medici family of Florence was one of the most prominent supporters of the arts in the 17th century, and, during what is now known as the Baroque period of artistic history, the Medici shaped and advanced the still life art form through their patronage. The paintings, commissioned or bought, were hung on the walls of their palazzi and country villas or given as gifts.
The Chazen is now displaying 43 of these selected works in the traveling exhibit Natura Morta: Still-Life Painting and the Medici Collections.
The term "natura morta" in Italian literally means "dead nature," which in English is more formally called still life. It is an artistic genre that, to many, sounds dull and unimaginative, as in, 'Who wants to go look at paintings of fruit and flowers?' But it's much more than a mere painting.
"Photography was not around, so the artists were doing pictures of the plants, the animals and scientific ideas," Panczenko said. In this way, still life created a way to depict and catalog the varieties of nature, but in a more stunning and realistic manner than a simple sketch.
Lemons, for example, were a rare treat for Italians. Imported from Asia, the purchase of this citrus fruit became a sign of wealth. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Medici possessed many works showing lemons, such as "Espalier of Citrus Fruits" by Florentine artist Bartolomeo Bimbi.
In this particular painting, the artist has chosen to display the many different kinds of lemon, and each sports a number corresponding to a list on the bottom of the canvas giving its scientific name. "It wasn't just an attractive picture," Panczenko said. "It puts a bend in your piece of reference if you are interested in, say, botany."
Other featured artists include Cristoforo Munari, Bartolomeo Ligozzi and Giovanna Garzoni. The latter's images, for instance his "A Ceramic Bowl with Pears and Morning Glories," are painted on vellum rather than canvas, giving it a lightness and softness similar to that of a watercolor painting, Panczenko said.
In all, the exhibit exemplifies the baroque style of excessiveness and richness, such as overtly ripe produce and giant blooming flowers with a vivid contrast of color and shadow.
"It is a rare offering for both the students, faculty and the community in that we don't often have accessibility to this historical material," Panczenko said. "Most of these works have never been seen in the United States before."