Milan – Pinacoteca & Biblioteca Ambrosiana (2/3)

Previously, in my first post about the Ambrosian Art Gallery, I explained in detail two masterpieces, that is to say, the “Basket of Fruit” by Caravaggio (in the library) and the “Preparatory Cartoon of the School of Athens” by Raphael (in Room 5). Taking the opportunity, I also talked about Raphael’s (most) famous fresco “The School of Athens” in the Raphael Rooms in Vatican City. In this post, I’ll focus on introducing to you “The Portrait of a Musician” by Leonardo da Vinci and “The Portrait of a Woman” or “Lady with a Pearl Hairnet” which Federico Borromeo purchased and attributed explicitly to the hand of Leonardo. Additionally, I’ll take you to go through some more rooms of the gallery and recommend you some of the works by Sandro Botticelli, Bramantino, Jacopo Bassano, Jan Brueghel the Elder, Salaì and so on. Now let’s get started with the only oil painting by Leonardo in Milan.

The Portrait of a Musician” by Leonardo da Vinci

As for the name Leonardo da Vinci, I’m sure it doesn’t sound strange to you. However, do you really know his achievements? I’ve given a rather detailed introduction to him when I was talking about his “La Scapigliata” in my first post about the National Gallery of Parma and if you are interested you can take a look. Here I’ll just introduce him briefly and focus on the painting, “The Portrait of a Musician”.

Born in Vinci in the region of Florence, Leonardo spent his earlier working life in the service of Ludovico Maria Sforza in Milan, who commissioned “The Last Supper“. He later worked in Rome, Bologna and Venice, and spent his last years in France at the home awarded to him by Francis I of France, a prodigious patron of art, who acquired the “Mona Lisa” after attracting Leonardo to work on the Château de Chambord.

Probably most renowned as a painter, Leonardo’s most famous works include the “Mona Lisa“, which is now in the Louvre Museum in Paris, “The Last Supper“, which still stays in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan and is the most reproduced religious painting of all time, as well as the drawing of the “Vitruvian Man“, which is regarded as a cultural icon and is now preserved in Galleria dell’Accademia in Venice. Just recently, (November 2017), his “Salvator Mundi” was sold for a world record of $450.3 million at a Christie’s auction in New York, making it currently the most expensive painting in the world. Besides being one of the greatest painters of all time, Leonardo da Vinci was a polymath of the Renaissance, whose areas of interest included invention, painting, sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history, and cartography. I’m sure you’ve heard that sometimes he is credited with the inventions of parachute, helicoptertank and many other complicated machines. In the next post, when I introduce to you certain folios of the Codex Atlanticus (Atlantic Codex), we will have the rare opportunity to look into the mind of this “Universal Genius“.

Labeled as an individual of “unquenchable curiosity” and “feverishly inventive imagination“, Leonardo is widely considered one of the most diversely talented individuals ever to have lived. According to the art historian Helen Gardner, the scope and depth of his interests were unprecedented in recorded history, and “his mind and personality seem to us superhuman, while the man himself mysterious and remote“.

Like Leonardo himself, “The Portrait of a Musician” is also shrouded in mystery. Considering there is no signature or dating of the painting, is it really executed by Leonardo? What’s the identity of the sitter? Last but not least, by comparing the detailed facial features and the lower part of the painting, we can’t help wondering is this a finished work? In the next three sections, I’ll try to find the answers to these questions.

Considering there’s no documentation of the painting or who the commissioner was, much debate has been held concerning the authorship of it. It is generally assumed that the “Portrait of a Musician” was painted by Leonardo in his early years in Milan and it is often dated around 1485, the same period when his famous “Lady with an Ermine”, now in the National Museum in Kraków, was created. Nowadays, only four portraits are rather securely attributed to Leonardo and all of them are of woman. If Leonardo was indeed the painter, the “Portrait of a Musician” would be the only portrait he did of a man. As I learnt from the internet, when this work was hanging in the Louvre between 1796 and 1815, it was attributed to Bernadino Luini, whose later works respond very positively to Leonardo’s artistic style. Nevertheless, when it was hanging in Milan, both before and after its “stay” in Paris, it was usually attributed to Leonardo. Some other possible candidates of its author include Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio and Ambrogio de Predis, who collaborated with Leonardo. In short, by comparing the characteristics between this and some other works of the master, the majority of experts nowadays believe that the work is by da Vinci, but some others hold the opinion that it might have involved collaboration with the assistants from his workshop.

What are the common characteristics? Firstly, Leonardo has broken with the conservative artistic preference for portrait in Milan at that time which posed the sitter in profile. In both this portrait and his other four portraits of women, Leonardo gave them a three-quarter view for easier identification. Secondly, we know that the master placed great emphasis on human character and psychology, which is common in many of his works. In this sense, portrait is likely the most fitting genre of painting for him because it allowed him to examine the feelings and emotions of his model and convey his or her personality through non-verbal expression such as attitudes, gestures or poses. As I learnt from one article called “Insights to Art – Leonardo’s Portrait of a Musician” by Nigel J. Ross, the master suggested that painters should capture the facial features of the sitter at twilight, particularly when the weather was cloudy or misty. Such circumstance would not only add a special attractiveness and softness to the painting but also provide an insight into the character of the person, or as he called it, the interior “moto” (moving force). Let’s take a close look at the face of the musician. Leonardo’s use of strong light and shadow effects made the sitter’s facial features stand out. Some people say that his face seems stiff but for me, it’s right the opposite. I think he’s just very concentrated and Leonardo managed to present to us this deep feeling. What is he looking at and what is he thinking about? His intelligent glance seems to be directed towards something outside the picture frame, or he’s not looking at anything particular at all. Telling from the sheet music in his hand, we assume that he’s probably focusing on composing it, learning it or remembering it. Through the young man’s eyes, we sense his full attention. Thirdly, the contrast between the neutral (black) background and the bright figure also suggests Leonardo is very likely the author. Again, as I read from Nigel J. Ross’s article, the master suggested that portraits should be painted against a black background to bring out the personality of the sitter. This feature is particularly obvious in his “Lady with an Ermine” and “Portrait of a Musician“, and though they are portraits of a man and a woman respectively, they bear certain resemblance. Firstly, both figures emerge from a rather dark and gloomy background and are painted with strong contrasts of dark and light, which make them look more real. Secondly, the hands of the musician and of the lady are almost identical, which is also part of the reason why the “Portrait of a Musician” is dated the same period as “Lady with an Ermine”.

Last but not least, the eyes of the musician are reminiscent of those of the angel in Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks, which was created between 1483 and 1486. I guess this resemblance also to some extent supports the authorship and dating of this painting.

The second mystery about the painting is the identity of the musician. In fact, before the beginning of the 20th century, it was thought to be the portrait of Ludovico Maria Sforza, the benefactor to Leonardo. In 1905, after the painting was commissioned for cleaning, a sheet music was revealed, which not only brought to light the real profession of the sitter but also caused a heated and ongoing debate among scholars on the identity of him. Four candidates proposed by experts include Franchinus Gaffurius, who was an Italian music theorist and composer of the Renaissance and the maestro di cappella of Milan Cathedral. He was a contemporary of Josquin des Prez and Leonardo da Vinci, both of whom were his personal friendsJosquin des Prez, who was a French composer of the Renaissance and was in the service of the Sforza family in Milan in the early 1480s; Giovanni Angelo Testagrossa, who was an Italian lutenist, singer and renowned teacher. His pupils included Isabella d’Este, a patron of the arts and a leader of fashion; and Atalante Migliorotti, who was an Italian Renaissance musician and assistant of Leonardo da Vinci. It is said that after being a pupil of Leonardo in Florence, who taught him music, he moved to Milan in 1482 together with his master.

Now, all we need to do is to narrow down who the musician really is. There are two clues shown in the painting, one of which is the age of the musician and the other one is the letters on the sheet music. The appearance shows that the sitter was probably a young man and if the dating of the painting is accurate, Giovanni Angelo Testagrossa was 15 years old, Franchinus Gaffurius was 34, Josquin des Prez was 30 or 35 and Atalante Migliorotti was 19 years old at that point. It seems Atalante Migliorotti‘s age matches the best with the sitter. Only part of the inscription can be recognized and it reads “CANT…ANG…“. What does it mean? The letters could mean “Canticum Angelicum“, which refers to Franchinus Gaffurius’s book “Angelicum ac divinum opus musice”. However, they could also mean “Cantor Angelo“, (“cantor” refers to a person who sings solo verses or passages to which the choir or congregation respond) which refers to the singer Giovanni Angelo Testagrossa. Considering Leonardo’s interest in puzzles, the letters might be not relevant at all to the identity of the young man. Many scholars have been trying to read something into it but so far without luck. In short, many experts believe that the musician is either Franchinus Gaffurius or Atalante Migliorotti, but others think he is just anonymous.

One interesting theory that I read from Wikipedia says that Siegfried Woldhek, a Dutch illustrator, has claimed the “Portrait of a Musician” is one of the three self-portraits by Leonardo. If you think about it, Leonardo himself was a very fine musician and he first entered the service of the Sforza family as a teacher of music. In this regard, Woldhek’s assumption doesn’t sound impossible at all.

Like some of da Vinci’s works, this painting is probably unfinished but close to completion. This theory can be verified by a comparison between the portrait’s facial features and his red hat and tunic. First, let’s take a close look at the face. The artist clearly studied and understood the bone structure beneath the flesh and the detailed depiction of the curly hair and the elegant fingers are characteristic Leonardo’s work. However, as I read from, the two brown parts of his tunic “are mere washes of brown under-painting. Also the black body with a white flash on the chest appears quite crude.” It seems that the hat as well as the tunic was painted by another painter, probably one of Leonardo’s assistants.

Before leaving this room, I’d like to draw your attention to another portrait, which was bought by Cardinal Federico Borromeo and attributed explicitly to the hand of Leonardo. Is it really another work by the master? Let’s look into it.

“The Portrait of a Woman” or “Lady with a Pearl Hairnet” by Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis

This portrait was bought by Cardinal Federico Borromeo and at that time was attributed to the hand of Leonardo da Vinci. Later, it has been re-attributed to Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis, who worked for the court of the Sforzas for a number of years, mainly as a portrait painter. It is said that during this time, he offered hospitality to Leonardo da Vinci when he arrived in Milan. As I learnt from Wikipedia, he and his brother Evangelista are known to have collaborated with Leonardo da Vinci on the painting of the “Virgin of the Rocks” for the altarpiece in the chapel of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception at the Chiesa di San Francesco Grande in Milan, now demolished. Leonardo painted the central panel with the “Virgin of the Rocks”, now in the National Gallery in London, while the two brothers created the side panels.

Now let’s come back to the portrait in this gallery. Why has it been re-attributed? Many scholars hold the opinion that it’s too poorly executed to be by Leonardo but they believe certain parts were indeed done by him. Let’s see the arguments of the scholars. Compared with Leonardo’s five portraits in oil, namely, “Mona Lisa”, “Lady with an Ermine”, “Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci”, “La Belle Ferronnière” and “Portrait of a Musician”, in which all the sitters are shown in three-quarter view, in “Lady with a Pearl Hairnet”, the girl in shown in profile. This practice can only be seen in his two drawing portraits, that is to say, “La Bella Principessa” in black, red and white chalk and heightened with pen and ink on vellum, and “Portrait of Isabella d’Este” in chalk. What’s more, in all the master’s portraits, both painting and drawing, he does’t seem to be interested in depicting jewelries. Only in “Lady with an Ermine” and “La Belle Ferronnière” we see a few pieces of jewelry and in his most famous “Mona Lisa” we see none. However, in “Lady with a Pearl Hairnet”, the girl’s hairnet is richly decorated with pearls, gold and precious stones and she’s wearing a pearl necklace with a ruby and diamond pendant and even her tunic is embellished with matching gold, ruby and diamond decorations around the shoulder. What a fashionable woman! The details, such as the seemingly 3-D pearls, the hairnet, the ribbons and in particular the knots, are depicted with great skill and therefore, they are considered by experts to have been done by Leonardo himself. In fact, if you make a comparison between the knots in this painting and Leonardo’s “La Belle Ferronnière” in the Louvre, I’m sure you’ll find certain resemblance.

Another question about this portrait is who the sitter is. It was generally accepted that she was Beatrice d’Este, duchess of Bari and Milan by marriage to Ludovico Sforza. She is regarded as one of the most beautiful and accomplished princesses of the Italian Renaissance mostly because of her refined tastes in art and fashion. She invented new clothing styles and was the mistress of one of the most splendid courts of Italy to have gathered around outstanding artists, such as Donato Bramante and Leonardo da Vinci. In a double wedding in 1491, which was orchestrated by Leonardo, Ludovico Sforza married Beatrice, while Beatrice’s brother, Alfonso I d’Este, married Anna Sforza, the sister of Gian Galeazzo Sforza (Ludovico Sforza’s nephew). In a recent investigation (2010) done by Martin Kemp and Pascal Cotte, they believe that the true sitter of the painting is not Beatrice d’Este but Anna Sforza. No matter which bride portrayed in this painting is, her jewelries were possibly designed by Leonardo and that’s why he could produce such a realistic depiction of them.

My thoughts above are inspired by an article on, but I feel the author is being a little extreme. His thoughts, particularly in the first paragraph, make me feel that all that’s done by Leonardo are good and all that’s not done by him are bad. He commented “The background, plain black and without detail, is not typical Leonardo at all.” and we now know it’s definitely not true. He also mentioned that the subject in this painting is “harsh, cold and stiff” but in my eyes, the girl’s face is depicted with care and from it I can sense beauty and a bit of happiness and inner peace. Certainly, the great masters are worth admiring but it doesn’t mean there’s nothing to learn from the less known artists.

“The Last Supper” by Andrea Bianchi (Il Vespino)

In the same room you will see a “The Last Supper” above the entrance to the library but don’t be mistaken, the one by Leonardo da Vinci is still in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Commissioned by Cardinal Federico Borromeo, this is a copy made by Andrea Bianchi between 1611 and 1616 and is probably the most important of the copies of Leonardo’s paintings. Borromeo’s reason and purpose of copying da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” is recorded in his “Musaeum” as well as in the inscription on the upper left corner. At that time, the original “fresco” already began to show signs of deterioration, probably because of Leonardo’s innovative technique of painting it on a dry wall instead of on wet plaster in order to give him sufficient time to develop his characteristic gradual shading. Therefore, the Cardinal decided to make a copy of it for the future generations. Having realized that the great value of the “The Last Supper” lies in the intense facial expressions of Jesus and the apostles, he commissioned only the figures and omitted the architectural elements. It is said that Vespino studied each of the heads individually, copied them to separate canvases and eventually assembled them together.

“St. John the Baptist” by Gian Giacomo Caprotti (Salaì)

The moment I saw this painting I recalled Leonardo da Vinci’s “St. John the Baptist”, but upon a second thought, I remember when I saw Leonardo’s version in the Louvre Museum, the background was very dark or even black. It turns out this is a work by Salaì, who was one of Leonardo’s students and servant and is thought by some to be the model for Leonardo’s “St. John the Baptist“, “Bacchus” and even “Mona Lisa“. In this painting, Salaì copied the figure from his master’s design and added a scenic background, which is also typical of Leonardo. Compared with this specific work, Salaì’s life story and connection with Leonardo is more interesting. Now, let me briefly introduce it to you.

He joined Leonardo’s household at the age of ten and was described by him as “a liar, a thief, stubborn and a glutton”. Though he was said to have stolen from Leonardo a few times, he was kept in the household for more than 25 years and was trained as an artist. On the contrary, Vasari describes him as “a graceful and beautiful youth with curly hair, in which Leonardo greatly delighted“. His several famous works include the “Monna Vanna“, a nude version of the “Mona Lisa”, and possibly the Prado’s copy of the “Mona Lisa”. As I read from Wikipedia, some Italian researchers believe that Salaì, instead of Lisa del Giocondo, was the real model for the “Mona Lisa” because of the similarities in their facial features, particularly the nose and mouth. However, the Louvre holds a different opinion. An interesting fact which could be easily neglected is that the letters which form “Mona Lisa” can be rearranged to form “Mon Salai“. Wasn’t da Vinci always fond of this kind of puzzles? He left France and Leonardo in 1518 and it is commonly believed that upon Leonardo’s death in 1519, Salaì inherited several paintings including the “Mona Lisa“, which later passed into the possession of Francis I of France. Next time when I go to the Louvre Museum, I’ll pay particular attention to “Mona Lisa”, “St. John the Baptist”, “Bacchus” and “Monna Vanna” (hopefully it’s exhibited there?) and make a careful comparison between them. In fact, in my next post when I introduce to you certain folios from the “Codex Atlanticus“, we will see a possible drawing of Salaí probably by pupils of Leonardo.

All the paintings I introduced above are exhibited in the second last room of the gallery and now, let’s come back to the recommended itinerary and continue from where we stopped in the last post, the second room.

“Madonna and Child with Three Angels” or “Madonna of the Pavilion” by Sandro Botticelli

Sandro Botticelli was an Italian painter of the Early Renaissance. Born in the city of Florence, he belonged to the Florentine School under the patronage of Lorenzo de’ Medici. Together with Pietro Perugino, Pinturicchio, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli, he created a series of frescos depicting the Life of Moses and the Life of Christ in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. During the 1470s, he was developing in mastery and reputation and his career reached its peak in the 1480s, when many of his most famous works depicting mythological scenes such as “The Birth of Venus” and “Primavera” were executed. In the 1490s, his style became more personal and he seemed to be moving in an opposite direction to a new generation of painters, who were creating the High Renaissance style. As I learnt from Wikipedia, he has been described as “an outsider in the mainstream of Italian painting”, who didn’t have much interest in the artistic developments of at that time such as the realistic depiction of human anatomy, perspective, and landscape. Honestly, when I saw some of his paintings, I imagined they were done in late Gothic period (for example in the mid-15th century) but actually it turned out they were painted during the same period as some of Leonardo’s works such as “Madonna Litta”, which seems to me much more “modern”. I’m not saying Leonardo’s works are absolutely better but for me at least, they are more in correspondence with the present-day aesthetic taste. However, No matter in his “The Birth of Venus” or “Primavera”, which are in the Uffizi Gallery, or his Madonnas painted in the 1480s, Botticelli’s devotion to details and mastery over color are indeed impressive and breath-taking.

This painting got its nickname “Madonna of the Pavilion” because of the baldachin, which is being opened ceremoniously by two angels, presenting to us the Virgin and Child and inviting us into the scene. Mary is kneeling and gesturing, and has bared her breast to feed the Child, who is being brought over by the third angel. Mary’s gestures symbolize life and motherly love and the white flowers in the vase in front of her symbolize purity. One interesting feature about this work is that, compared with the other figures in the painting such as the angels, Mary seems unnaturally enormous. As I learnt from, the unusual size of the figure of Mary is characteristic of Botticelli’s late work, in which he frequently emphasized the importance of the main figures by increasing their size.

“Madonna and Child Enthroned with St. Ambrose and St. Michael” by Bramantino

Born and mainly active in Milan, Bartolomeo Suardi, also known as Il Bramantino, was an Italian painter and architect. During his short stay in Rome, Donato Bramante taught him architecture, and therefore, he adopted a similar name to his master’s. Though to some extent influenced by Leonardo da Vinci, he is said to have remained faithful to his training in the style of Central Italy.

The “Enthroned Madonna and Child with St. Ambrose and St. Michael” is one of Bramantino’s most famous paintings and is notable for the foreshortened slain man before the tough-looking St. Ambrose and the giant dead frog (symbolizing Satan) before St. Michael. The background is featured with architectural elements such as towers, which testify to Bramantino’s interest and training in architecture. Freedberg sees in this painting a Leonardo-based impulse, which demonstrates Bramantino’s contemplation of the master’s use of light and shadow and expression of figures’ psychology such as in “The Last Supper”. However, Bramantino’s execution made the figures appear rather distant and stiff, and their facial expressions confusing.

“The Adoration” by Bramantino

This is an early work by Bramantino featuring a classical architectural background. In front of the arch we see four angels performing a small concert and in the foreground, we see the Adoration.

“The Rest on the Flight into Egypt” by Jacopo Bassano

Jacopo Bassano was an Italian painter who was born and died in Bassano del Grappa near Venice, thus his name. He was very popular in Venice in the 16th century mostly because of his vivid depiction of animals. What’s more, he was called the first modern landscape painter by the American art historian Bernard Berenson.

The painting we see here is exhibited in Room 4 and was among Cardinal Federico Borromeo’s collections. He mentioned that the “distinctive place and good light” characterized the placement of the paintings by Bassano. The iconography depicted here is related to the Flight into Egypt, a story told in the Gospel of Matthew. Soon after the visit by the Magi, who had leant that King Herod intended to kill the new-born babies of that area (Massacre of the Innocents), an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to flee to Egypt with Mary and her son Jesus. In art, the episode is frequently shown as the final episode of the Nativity of Jesus and the Rest on the Flight into Egypt developed after the 14th century. In the center of the painting, we see the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus and on the right we see St. Joseph. These three figures constitute the Holy Family with the Baby playing with Mary’s veil flying with the wind, Mary looking at St. Joseph and St. Joseph looking at the Baby with soft, fatherly love. Through eye contact, the three members are emotionally connected, creating a warm and sweet family scene. The vivid depiction of the animals and figures as well as the touching nature of the painting shows Bassano’s strengths, which made it one of the Cardinal’s favorites.

“The Nativity” by Federico Barocci

Federico Barocci was an Italian Renaissance painter and printmaker. Born in Urbino, he went to Rome in 1548 and after four years, he returned to his native city. Later, he was invited back to Rome by Pope Pius IV but, as I learnt from Wikipedia, while completing the decorations for the Vatican, Barocci fell ill with intestinal complaints. He suspected that a salad which he had eaten had been poisoned by jealous rivals and fearing his illness was fatal, he left Rome again. “Four years later he was said to experience a partial remission after prayers to the Virgin.” He often complained of bad health conditions but remained productive for nearly another 40 years. Giovanni Bellori, who was an Italian painter, antiquarian and prominent artist biographer and was considered the Baroque equivalent of Giorgio Vasari, considered Barocci to be among the finest painters of his time. His paintings are lively and brilliant and their twisting composition and emphasis on the emotional and spiritual are highly influential particularly on the Baroque of Peter Paul Rubens. It is said that even in his Proto-Baroque “Beata Michelina”, the shadows of Bernini’s High-Baroque masterpiece “Ecstasy of St Theresa” can already be seen.

When I was searching for more information about this painting, I found that both Wikipedia and the official website of the Prado Museum claim that it is exhibited in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain. I made a comparison between the painting I saw in the Ambrosian Art Gallery and the one I found on both websites and to be honest, I think they are 100% identical, which means they are very likely the same painting. What’s more, I checked Barocci’s major works and there was no indication that he painted two versions of the “The Nativity”. In this case, did both Wikipedia and the Prado Museum make a mistake? I’m not sure. Anyway, this painting also belonged to the personal collection of Federico Borromeo and it has been hanging in the Cardinal’s office until his death. As commented on the official website of Museo del Prado, when Barocci painted this work, he had a very personal style that merged the Venetian use of color with what has been called Mystic Naturalism. “Barocci was at his best in small compositions like the present one, where his tendency toward affectation was compensated by a great sensitivity in the handling of the highlights, which were able to create a poetic atmosphere all by themselves.” As we can see, a particular noteworthy feature of this work is the special night effect. In the dark stable, baby Jesus is only source of light and he illuminates the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, two farmers, the animals as well as the surroundings. The scene seems to symbolize what was written in the Hebrew Bible, which says “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” The Cardinal loved this painting and once said “this is one of the most precious things I’ve ever had.”

“Landscape with St. John the Baptist” by Paul Bril

Paul Bril was a Flemish painter and printmaker best known for his landscapes, which had a major influence on this genre of painting in Italy and Northern Europe. As you probably know already, in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Flemish painters were the absolute masters of landscape painting. Joachim Patinir and Pieter Bruegel the Elder were pioneers of early landscapes in the Flemish tradition, and Bril together with his friends Jan Brueghel the Elder and Adam Elsheimer, who influenced each other, developed it. Bril spent most of his active career in Rome and introduced Jan Brueghel the Elder to Cardinal Federico Borromeo, who subsequently became Brueghel’s most important patron.

The title of the painting is “Landscape with St. John the Baptist”, and similar to some other works by the same artist exhibited in this room, the biblical figure becomes the second important and nature becomes the actual protagonist. Through detailed depiction, Bril invites us to explore and admire nature together with him.

“Vase of Flowers with Jewelry, Coins and Shells” by Jan Brueghel the Elder

Jan Brueghel the Elder was a Flemish painter and was the son of the renowned Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder. He is said to have created new types of painting such as flower garland painting, paradise landscape and etc. In fact, I first heard the artist’s name and became interested in him when I was visiting the Alte Pinacoteca in Munich, where I saw his “Madonna in a Floral Wreath“, executed together with Peter Paul Rubens. He was a close friend and frequent collaborator with Peter Paul Rubens and the two artists were the leading Flemish painters at the beginning of the 17th century.

Jan Brueghel the Elder was also called “Velvet” Brueghel, “Flower” Brueghel, and “Paradise” Brueghel. The last nickname is easy to understand because as I mentioned in the precious paragraph, he invented the genre of painting of paradise landscape. The first one is believed to have been given to him because of his mastery over the depiction of fabrics and the second one is a reference to his specialization in flower still lifes. In fact, as commented on the info board in the Ambrosian Art Gallery, the painting we are talking about in this section, which renders flower still life, is the oldest of such kind in record. Does this mean Brueghel also initiated this genre of painting?

Always having had an interest in Northern European painters, Cardinal Federico Borromeo met Brueghel in Rome and brought him to Milan into his household. The “Vase of Flowers with Jewelry, Coins and Shells”, together with the other “Vase of Flowers”, twelve villages and “The Elements of Water and Fire” was commissioned by the Cardinal directly and in my opinion, it’s the most impressive among Brueghel’s works in this gallery. Tradition had it that these flowers, leaves and insects were vanitas symbols or allegories of transience with hidden meanings but nowadays, it is more commonly accepted that they are mere depictions of the natural world. In a letter, we learnt that during Brueghel’s appointment as court painter of the Archduke and Duchess Albrecht and Isabella in Brussels in 1606, he had the opportunity to study and sketch the precious, and in some cases rare flowers in their garden, which contributed to a large extent the artist’s realistic and almost scientific rendering of nature. Nevertheless, is this painting really a natural depiction of a vase full of flowers? Not very likely. First of all, the bouquet is composed of flowers blooming in different times of the year so they couldn’t have been arranged together in the same vase at the same time. Secondly, there are more than a hundred kinds of flowers in the painting. Some are big and some are small but how can all their stems fit in such a small vase? In reality, the bouquet would probably have already collapsed. Based on the reasoning above, I guess we can say that Brueghel did observe the specimens closely in the nature but probably not at the same time and the composition we see in the painting is very likely the result of his careful consideration and rich imagination.

The flowers in the vase are arranged by size with the small ones at the bottom, the large ones such as tulips, cornflowers, peonies and roses in the middle and the larger ones such as lilies and blue irises on top. By such arrangement, the viewer’s eye is directed upwards and though the bouquet seems to be floating, almost no flower is overlapped and many of them are even shown at different angles. What’s more, unlike the leaves and stems, almost all the flowers are equally lit, which not only presents to us the explosion of colors but also allows us to “smell” the sweet fragrance of the buds. Brueghel’s this painting for Cardinal Federico Borromeo, featuring a bouquet of unfading blossoms that “will neither wilt in the heat of summer nor perish beneath the winter’s snow” (, symbolizes eternal prosperity and I guess that’s why as commented on, it served the Cardinal as an object of meditation. By the way, I read from the internet that the jewelry and coins painted close to the vase on the surface reveal how much the artist was paid for this commission.

By now, I have finished the second post about the Ambrosian Art Gallery and in conclusion, do not miss Leonardo da Vinci‘s “Portrait of a Musician“, Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis’ “Lady with a Pearl Hairnet“, and Jan Brueghel the Elder‘s “Vase of Flowers with Jewelry, Coins and Shells“. If you are interested in Leonardo, I suggest you take a look at Il Vespino‘s “The Last Supper” and Salaì‘s “St. John the Baptist”. As for the latter, for me personally, his life story and connection to the master are even more intriguing than his painting. Moreover, among the huge collection by Cardinal Federico Borromeo, he expressed his particular appreciation of Jacopo Bassano‘s “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt” and Federico Barocci‘s “The Nativity“, which are also introduced in this post. In the next post, we will finally visit the library and besides the numerous illuminated manuscripts dating back to Medieval and Renaissance times, we will see certain folios with drawings by Leonardo and his pupils from the famous  “Codex Atlanticus“, donated to the library by the Marquis Galeazzo Arconati in 1637. After introducing to you the library and its treasures, we will finish our remaining itinerary of the art gallery in which we will see a few important portraits by Francesco Hayez and a few historical rooms including Room 8 (della Medusa), Room 9 (delle Colonne), Room 12 (dell’Esedra), Room 13 (Nicolò da Bologna) and the Courtyard of the Great Spirits. Isn’t it exciting that we are about to look into the mind of the genius with “unquenchable curiosity”?

Milan – Pinacoteca & Biblioteca Ambrosiana (2/3) was last modified: March 20th, 2020 by Dong

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