Earlier this year, the Chazen Museum of Art's "In Stabiano" exhibition transported us to southern Italy in the first centuries B.C. and A.D., before the terrible eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Now, with "Natura Morta: Still-Life Painting and the Medici Collections," the Chazen whisks us off to baroque Italy - in the 17th and early 18th centuries - farther north, in Florence.
It was a time and place when the powerful Medici family had a hand in business, politics, religion, the arts, science and just about everything else. Through Medici family patronage, many a masterpiece was created.
This touring exhibition, featuring works from Italian collections little seen (if ever) in the United States, focuses specifically on still life ("natura morta" in Italian) as subject matter. Most of the artists are themselves Italian, though a number of Dutch painters traveled to or lived in Italy and benefited from the Medicis' patronage.
In a handsomely lit show, with gentle spotlights accentuating the paintings against espresso-brown walls, the exceptions to the type are most noticeable. While there are plenty of large, showy floral paintings, small works like Giovanna Garzoni's "Ceramic Bowl with Pears and Morning Glories" from the mid-17th century stand out.
Garzoni, the only female painter represented in this show, depicts a blue and white ceramic bowl that is spilling over with enormous, knobby pears. A delicately rendered gray mouse perches near the bowl. Done in tempera on parchment - in contrast to the majority of works here, which are oil on canvas - Garzoni's work has a lightness and brightness due to her choice of medium and the colors she employs, including inviting yellows and blues.
While fruits, vegetables and flowers are the main subjects in this show, a number of paintings also include fish and game. Giuseppe Reco's "Fish" (c. 1690) presents a slick, slippery plate of sea creatures, including a dead eel with blood dripping from its mouth. The result is fascinating yet slightly grotesque.
While paintings such as these were part of the décor in wealthy homes, there is more to them than mere visual appeal. They were also connected to scientific inquiry of the day in areas such as botany and agriculture.
In fact, a related exhibition in the Special Collections area at the UW's Memorial Library addresses the relationship between the Medicis and the sciences more explicitly: "Under the Mediciean Stars: Medici Patronage of Science and Natural History," running through Oct. 26. (For more information, visit www.specialcollections.library.wisc.edu).
Those familiar with certain strains of the still-life tradition may expect to find moralizing messages here, such as commentary on the transience of life. However, these still lifes are not in that vein. Rather, they offer us a seductive respite from the 21st century and also a window into a time of cultural progress and exploration.