The newly opened monographic exhibition at the Galleria Palatina on Jacopo Ligozzi, a sixteenth century court painter, takes us on a journey from charming naturalistic drawings and decorative projects to reformation religious paintings and moralistic allegories that show the artist’s obsession for death and decay in his later life. Although the latter images are rather disturbing, in fact it’s not such a big leap from the study of plants and their natural decay to conclusions about aging and the decay of the human body.

Jacopo Ligozzi , Botanical tables, Circa 1577-87 (birds and prunes)
Jacopo Ligozzi , Botanical tables, Circa 1577-87 (birds and figs)

Born in Verona, Ligozzi is recorded in Florence by 1575 at the court of Francesco I de’ Medici (who was known for his marked interest in alchemy), and he remained active there until his death in 1627. His artistic production remained rather close to home, making it possible to have this exhibition of over 100 works that does include some prestigious loans but that mostly depends on the collections of the Pitti Palace and of the Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi. And while most of us have never heard of Ligozzi, he was much appreciated not only in his time but into the 17th century. In the 1590s he was provveditore (similar to today’s Director) of the Accademia del Disegno (although his relations with the institution soured when he accumulated debts). Baldinucci, the 17th-century chronicler of the arts, called him a “pittore universalissimo”. Perhaps not quite “universal” as we’d use the term today, Ligozzi unquestionably had a varied and long career, as we can see by the works in this show.


Ligozzi, Fish
Ligozzi, Fish (Cernia?)

Francesco I de’ Medici commissioned from Ligozzi various sheets of plants and animals. Apparently, he brought examples of his marine drawings with him when he came to Florence and was promptly commissioned more. These fish must have been drawn dead, but they look alive and still dripping, and with a creative chromatism that can only be imagination (there was no scuba equipment at the time).

Ligozzi, - Topo quercino (Eliomys quercinus) e talpa (Talpa sp.)
Ligozzi, – Topo quercino (Eliomys quercinus) e talpa (Talpa sp.)

Ligozzi equally painted mammals and rodents, seemingly frozen in time, every hair rendered in detail. There are amusing juxtapositions and facial expressions, like in the showdown between a country mouse and a mole. The artist contributed to establishing a stylistic genre in naturalistic painting that took off in the subsequent decades, one that now we consider “typical of the Renaissance” and quite different from the modern, neutral scientific aesthetic.

Valeriana Rubra

Consider the beauty of his plant specimens that are veritable portraits. They often include small insects (duly labeled), roots or dirt. They show a healthy admiration for nature, a humility in the act of collection, observation and rendering.

Pietre dure tabletop
Pietre dure tabletop

On the other hand, Ligozzi was perfectly capable of idealizing and abstracting these forms. This is apparent in his designs for pietre dure, such as the tabletop illustrated here.

In the exhibition you can admire many more beautiful birds, strange reptiles, miniature pineapples, caterpillars, butterflies and more. All of these things must have been studied from “life” but were most likely dead (or almost) when he painted them. Probably for this reason, in Italian they are called “natura morta” (dead nature) and not still-life.

While the exhibition continues with sections on his designs for temporary apparatus for the Medici and others for decorative work, I’d like to focus on the contrast between these earlier works and the later ones, in particular those more concerned with death. For, as I mentioned in the opening sentences of this article, when you’re doing natura morta, sooner or later your specimen starts to stink.

From around 1600 until 1620, Ligozzi’s activity as court painter was suspended, and it is in fact in the beginning of the 16th century that he starts to paint dark, religious paintings, large altarpieces that were commissioned from the new patrons of his newly opened private bottega. The style of most of these paintings probably has more to do with the Counter-Reformationist taste of the time than with interior concerns of the artist. It is also common for artists (and people in general) in this period to become more God-fearing with age. But a section of the exhibition is dedicated to “the devout artist” and it shows that Ligozzi had a more than average turn towards moralistic and downright gory representations of sin, death and decay.

Allegory of death (Respice finem)
Allegory of death (Respice finem)

In contrast with the light late-Mannerist style of his court works, and probably also with his lifestyle at court, Ligozzi was also a product of the Counter Reformation, profoundly touched by the religious thought of this age. He was an active member of a confraternity, a lay religious group of the sort that was popular at the time, and he owned and read a lot of religious books, as we learn from his correspondence. Thus, although representations of things like allegories of death or of capital sins were themes requested of artists at the time, there does seem to be a particular connection between Ligozzi and these themes.

Allegory of Avarice, 1590
Allegory of Avarice, 1590

In these allegorical works, death appears particularly scary and close. But none quite as scary as the “natura morta macabra” found on the reverses of a pair of portraits of a young man and a young woman (both in a private collection). I was truly taken aback by these works in the exhibition because one sees a lot of “vanitas” images intended to remind the viewer that death will come, but few quite like this. First of all, they are on the reverses of rather bland portraits of young people that have been identified as nuptial portraits (i.e. for a future wedding or on occasion of the nuptials), which I believe is a rather unusual juxtaposition of typologies. Second, because it’s common to see skulls represent death, but Ligozzi, rather, represents the process of decomposition. His is a true “natura morta”! The horrid female head still has eyes and skin, and is reflected in a mirror that makes it look even more gory. Imagine hanging this on your wall and walking past it in the dark… The head is accompanied by all the usual items to avoid, related to vanitas, in order to be ready for death (jewelry and other trappings of wealth and beauty, the qualities represented on the front-side of the painting).

Female portrait and Natura Morta Macabra
Female portrait and Natura Morta Macabra

This couple of paintings is not unique to Ligozzi’s production, as close copies are known of these macabre still-lives. They were private paintings, produced for a select group of people who would commission them and know their meaning. Ligozzi, as a specialist in beautiful still-lives, had all the skill, but additionally an awareness of the fragility of life, to make him also a painter of death.

Display and Content

Exhibition display
Exhibition display

Personally, I liked this exhibition, although as usual, it leaves room for improvement. The Sala Bianca of Palazzo Pitti and contiguous rooms are reduced by coloured paneling that permits hanging the paintings in this otherwise ornate space. The exhibition starts with green walls for the nature drawings and ornamental work, and moves into a rich blue colour for the later paintings. Each major section is prefaced by wall text, printed on a simple panel (rather than on the wall itself), in both Italian and English. These texts give some basic historic and contextual information about the theme of the section. Unfortunately, there is no further explanatory labeling alongside the works in the exhibit, where information is limited to artist name, title of the work in Italian, date, collection and collocation. Both touch and non-touch screens are used within the exhibit to show details in works, technical information, or to allow us to flip through a book, but none of these displays use text, video or audio to give additional information about the works; for example, I would have been interested in learning about the contexts of some of these commissions. Of course, details are available in the thick catalogue, available only in Italian, and written in the Italian scholarly tradition. As is, the in-museum presentation gives one a good sense of the long life of a painter and his evolution, and there is sufficient material that is beautiful to look at to make it worth the visit.



Visitor Information

Jacopo Ligozzi “pittore universalissimo” (Verona 1549 c. – Firenze 1627)
Galleria Palatina di Palazzo Pitti, Firenze
May 27 – September 28, 2014
Opening hours: Tues – Sunday, 8.15 – 18.50

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