The 17th-century painter and priest with a documentary filmmaker’s eye for detail

“Streaked by the marks of the recent touch”: one of the three canvases that make up the “Triptych Agliardi” by Evaristo Baschenis

A thin layer of dust veils the backs of musical instruments left on a table. The music has stopped, the musicians have left: the lutes, the cittern, the mandola and the guitar are streaked with traces of their recent touch. In the surrounding darkness, these skilfully lit abandoned instruments occupy an important place. Their depiction could almost be called a portrait.

“Still Life with Musical Instruments” is one of three canvases that make up the Agliardi triptych, the masterpiece of the enigmatic and highly original 17th-century Italian painter-priest Evaristo Baschenis. It is the centerpiece of the first monographic exhibition of his work in France, at the Galerie Canesso in Paris.

There are no paintings by this unknown artist in French museums; in fact, there are very few outside of Italy; even there, the core remains in private collections in his hometown of Bergamo. It was the donation of a painting to the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels in 1908, and then the discovery of his signature, that launched a reassessment of Baschenis – just as Braque and Picasso also turned to the violin. , mandolin and guitar as inspiration for their cubist works.

A mandola, lute, cittern and small piano-like instrument sit on a table covered in red silk damask
‘Still life with musical instruments’ (1660)

While Baschenis can claim to have invented the musical instrument still life genre in the 1640s, questions of why he did it, and the real subject of his rich but allusive art, continue to intrigue. art historians. It is known that Baschenis was a keen amateur musician: his estate sale reveals that he owned some 14 instruments and numerous sheet music. His only self-portrait appears as a canvas in the Agliardi triptych and shows him playing the spinet alongside Count Ottavio Agliardi, who plays the archlute. The third painting of the triptych represents the other Agliardi brothers. Figures are rare in Baschenis’ work, portraits rarer still, and even here the instruments remain the real protagonists, notably the richly figured guitar played by Count Alessandro, clearly signed by the Venetian luthier Giorgio Sellas. Such manufacturers deserved their due.

Cremona, Brescia and Venice, all close to Bergamo, produced the greatest stringed instruments in Europe. It is also probably no coincidence that many of the artist’s table tops were covered with silk damask, the source of Bergamo’s wealth. In his most theatrical canvases, such as that on loan from the Accademia Carrara (another “Still Life with Musical Instruments”), tasselled draperies open to reveal the full range of intellectual pursuits engaging the refined and cultured elite. from the city. A statuette of Alessandro Vittoria and richly patterned “Lotto” rugs suggest their collecting interests, the spines of books reveal the poetry they read, their interest in law, science, philosophy and mathematics.

A man in a black robe sits playing spruce with a man standing behind him strumming an archlute.  The table in front of them has a cello and a lute sitting on it
Only self-portrait by Evaristo Baschenis (c. 1665), with the artist at the spruce and Count Ottavio Agliardi with an archlute

In this sense, the works are less allegories of the liberal arts than cultural portraits. Baschenis’ own study of geometry and mathematics is evident in the mastery of his perspective foreshortening and the almost architectonic volume of his full-bodied lutes. He may have used a perspective viewfinder device, such as that described in the previous century by Dürer.

However, these paintings are not only exercises in illusionism and fidelity. Agliardi’s melancholic, almost metaphysical still life, for example, seems an invitation to contemplate the inexorable passage of time, the ephemeral nature of pleasure, and life itself. Dust accumulates, the corners of the vellum-bound scores bend under the effect of the atmosphere, the apples slowly rot. It’s the stuff of Northern European vanity paintings, but candles, skulls and hourglasses are absent here, as are any obvious moral messages.

Fruit and a cut carnation may have been included to also make it a symbolic representation of the five senses: sight, touch, hearing, taste and smell. Baschenis might also have enjoyed verbal and visual puns in different languages. The apple dish — mela – is near melos (melody), the fly in trompe l’oeil — nutmeg — lands on another partition, music. Vanities like this were common in texts of the time, which relished improbable juxtapositions of opposites.

A lute and cittern sit on a table next to a small Greek-style statue of a naked man
‘Still life with musical instruments and statuette’ (circa 1660)

This may partly explain why Baschenis established himself in 1643 as a painter of still lifes of musical instruments and kitchen scenes. The musical still life in the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam even has a depiction of fish and dead game as a pendant. Food for body and soul.

Baschenis’ paintings have long attracted the attention of musicians, musicologists, luthiers and restorers captivated by the painter’s attention to documentary detail – the veins and hues of the different woods, the ribs of the boxes, the restorations, the signatures, the inscriptions and sheet music notes for various instruments. Research for this exhibition identified the precise score on the spruce foot in a work on loan from a private collection – a variant of the composition borrowed from the Museo Teatrale alla Scala in Milan. It belongs to a 1568 edition of a book of madrigals by Orlande de Lassus, set to music from 14th century verses taken from the collection of poems by Petrarch, Canzoniere. They must have had a special meaning for the learned patron of the artist.

As of December 17, canesso.art

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