PANFILO NUVOLONE (Cremona 1581 - Milan c. 1651)

Basket with Fruit
Oil on panel, 46 x 46 cm

Private collection, United Kingdom

A history painter as well as a specialist in still life, Panfilo Nuvolone was born in Cremona and undertook his training in the late-mannerist, counter-reformed climate of Milan under the religious rule of Archbishop Federico Borromeo (1564-1631).  The frescoes executed by the artist for the Sansoni chapel in the Church of Sant’Angelo and for the apse of the Church of Santa Maria della Passione reveal that Nuvolone achieved a certain success in the Northern Italian city, employing a theatrical style that recalls the work of Giulio Cesare Procaccini (1574 – 1625) and Piero Francesco Mazzucchelli called il Morazzone (1573 – 1626).  

His recognition as an artist by the 1620s is attested to by the presence of his name in the renowned excursus of Milanese painters compiled by Girolamo Borsieri in 1919, while after this period the production of Nuvolone’s figurative work seems to decline, perhaps due to his inability to keep up with artistic developments.[1]  Fortunately, the decrease in commissions for altarpieces and frescoes was met with a growth in Nuvolone’s production as a still-life specialist, an activity that first received critical attention from De Logu in a ground breaking analysis of two works on panel of Fruit on a metal stand in a private collection, signed and dated 1617 and 1620 respectively.[2]Characterised by rigorously symmetrical and paired-down arrangements, Nuvolone’s compositions are among the most inspired examples of the archaic still life in early seventeenth-century Northern Italy, along with those of Fede Galizia (1578-1630). The artist’s refined treatment of the painted surface, which allowed him to render impeccable illusionistic effects, ensured that the Nuvolone’s works were received with instant success by collectors of the day.  Indeed, documentary evidence has revealed the presence of early still-life examples by Nuvolone in the collections of the Dukes of Savoy (1635) and the Archbishop Cesare Monti in Milan (1638).

This tactile composition, probably executed around 1610, when the young artist was in Milan, reveals an innovative approach to the still life: Caravaggio’s Basket of fruit, now in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan, is thought to date between 1595 and 1596, and in 1607, Caravaggio’s painting was documented in the inventory of Cardinal Federico Borromeo in Milan, along with a number of works by Jan Brueghel the Elder. It is possible that Nuvolone had seen these works, along with Figino’s, and was influenced by their intense realism, imitating the spots of decay on the surface of Caravaggio’s fruits and the curling parched leaves of Brueghel’s blooms in his own creations.  

A sense of monumentality together with marked naturalism is in the fruit basket here exhibited, where under a warm light coming from the top left, two ripe pomegranates, simbol of fertility, magistrally laid down one towards the viewer and the other towards the dark back of the composition, remind a plastic sense of malleability. On the left side, behind a yellow apple, an open pomegrante shows its shimmering red seeds of different sizes. A ripe apple and a peer, partially in the shade, are on the right side; beautiful black and white grapes are laid down as a drape framing the fruit, showing under brush strokes of white lead reflects of the light.

On the left, the crisp, tactile curling vine leaves, characteristic of Nuvolone’s delicate and sensitive manner of painting, expand in the space in a skillful harmony of well calibrated shadows and light.

The elements represented are described in isolation as single entities that the viewer assimilates one by one.  While still archaic, the image displays a sophisticated use of light, which creates a series of intense contrasts that allows the painter to define the minute details of every surface.  The tendency to define volume using gradual chromatic cadences and the glazed effect of the vimini basket are also typical of Nuvolone’s work. This formal abstraction aims to give new dignity to a humble theme which, contrary to a tradition itself was made subject of a picture. Fruits signify abundance and are attributes of charity, of love for one’s neighbour, of well being. Still lives of fruit usually allude to summer, to the fullness of life, and this is the generic premise which suffices to explain the widespread diffusion for pictures of this sort in the early seventeenth century.