Still Life in Motion

Master painters once called still life painting natura morte—dead nature. Yet even old still life paintings are livelier than you might think. Peer closely at this 16th century Dutch painting, a vase of flowers, and you might spy a bug perched on a wilting petal or leaf. Such paintings seem to whisper to us: Just as these soft petals wither into claws and die, so we all go.

Sunny Italy yielded a livelier batch of botanical artists. The famed Renaissance man Leone Battista Alberti once advised artists and garden planners alike: "In your hands lays hidden the idea of a new nature." 

Wealthy family gardens hosted this new nature—fruits, vegetables, and flowers from the world over. 16th century gardens were so rich, Giuseppe Arcimboldo could paint royal portraits entirely out of their pickings. While other emperors begged for busts of timeless marble, Arcimboldo painted his patron Emperor Maximilian II as Spring—a vest of green herbs; a collar of bright white flowers; a rosy bouquet for a face.

His son, Rudolf II, seems weirdly more distinguished—he's painted in the wine tones of Autumn—a stern neck of root vegetables; a bulbous pear nose; hair, a mini-vineyard of juicy grapes. Such paintings seem presciently surreal. It's no surprise they inspired Salvador Dali.

Bartolomeo Bimbi, 17th Century court painter to the Medici, produced more conventional still life paintings. Bimbi memorializes the fleeting stuff of his patrons' gardens—pears and other fruits. Yet in his large oil paintings, Bimbi also wanders into the bizarre. Set beneath a gloomy sky, Monstrous Cauliflower And Horseradish portrays a horseradish that seems eerily naked, fetal and blanched of color. In fact, Bimbi notes the "birth dates" of his vegetables directly on his paintings—vegetables that probably rotted by the time he finished painting them. Even today, it's wondrously strange to see how Arcimboldo and Bimbi can make a still life seem so moving.

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