Giovanni Garzoni grew up with the arts in Rome. Her parents were minor painters from Venice. She was precocious and learned quickly. The family’s artistic status meant she was well educated in art, music, and letters. Two art tutors were Palma il Giovane, a well known painter, and her uncle Pietro Gaia. At age sixteen she said she was born with the Century, and it was time for her to become officially a painter. She announced this career decision by signing two paintings; “The Holy Family” (1616) and “St. Andrew”(1616). She received her first commission in 1616 from Enrico Corvino, a Dutch pharmacist living in Rome. In seventeenth century Rome, a woman artist had a difficult time making a living. Garzoni turned to nature illustration, calligraphy and embroidery and employed the mediums of tempera and gouache, which were considered minor subjects and media used only for sketching and illustration and that required minimal talent.
Garzoni was a unique woman in that she traveled extensively during her lifetime, aided by her brother Matteo, who served as her constant escort and protector. Garzoni and the woman artist, Artemisia Gentileschi, met briefly in Florence sometime between 1618 and 1620. They became friends and traveled together frequently with Matteo as escort. Garzoni moved to Venice in 1620, joined Giacomo Rogni’s Calligraphy School, and produced her first book of illustrations and calligraphy Libro de’caratteri Cancellaerischi Corsivi. In this early work Garzoni demonstrates her skill with both calligraphy and nature studies. She integrates strawberries, two butterflies, a rose, a bird, a bee, a snail, a peacock, and other flowers into a pleasing and accomplished composition. She used ink and tempera on parchment. During her career she varied her media only slightly, sometimes employing gouache, sometimes black pencil, and worked on vellum. Her works were generally small in scale, measured in inches rather than feet, making her precision and detail all the more incredible. When she was commissioned to do portraits and religious or mythological subjects, she could then paint in oil.
While in Venice Garzoni married Tiberio Tinelli, a marriage she was forced into and she managed to dissolve quickly. A prophesy during her childhood revealed she would die in childbirth; she took a vow never to marry. She was frequently referred to as Chaste Giovanni.
“Plums, Walnuts and Jasmine” (undated) is an excellent example of a Garzoni still life. Like other selections for this article, it displays fruit and nuts ready for autumn harvest. Her extremely accurate depictions of fruit and plants were painted from the living things that changed and aged as she painted them. The plums are seen at different stages of ripeness, some begin to have spots, and some leaves begin to wilt. Nevertheless, the luscious quality of the fruit remains, the composition is interesting, and the whole work holds our attention as we scrutinize the details..
In 1630, Garzoni, Gentileschi and Matteo left Venice together as a result of a plague that ultimately killed of 46,000.
Both artists went to the court of the Spanish Viceroy of Naples (1630) to work for the Duke of Alacala. Garzoni presented a letter of introduction to the court from the Spanish Ambassador in Venice, and Gentileschi was known to the Duke, who had purchased paintings from her in Rome. Garzoni remained a year, and then moved to Turin to serve the Duke and Duchess of Savoy from 1632 until 1637.In the mid1830’s Garzoni and Artemisia traveled together to London. Both were at the Court of Charles I of England for a short time. Sometime between 1640 and 1642, Garzoni traveled to Paris where we painted a portrait of Cardinal Richelieu. For the next several years, Garzoni traveled back and forth from Rome to Florence. During an earlier stay in Rome in 1631, Garzoni gained the patronage of Cardinal Francesco Barberini, nephew of Pope Urban VIII, and Cassiano dal Pozzo, the Cardinal’s Secretary and one of the most prominent intellectuals in Rome. She also was connected with the Accademia dei Lincei, Italy’s first scientific academy.
From 1642 to 1651, Garozini lived in Florence and enjoyed the patronage of the Grand Duke Ferdinand II, friend and protector of Galileo; Grand Duchess Victoria and her brother, Cardinal Leopold de Medici, founder of the Academy for scientific research in Florence; and Cardinal Giovan Carlo. The Medici’s were interested in science, and like many nobles of the time had an extensive Wunderkammer, where they displayed among other items, sea shell, rare books, and illustrations of foreign and domestic fruits, flowers and plants. “Pumpkin” (undated) illustrates a familiar October harvest fruit and perhaps reminds us of All Hallows Eve and Halloween. The simple composition draws our attention to the multicolored skin, the inside pulp, and the pumpkin seeds. Note the attention to the detail Garzoni pays to the aging stem and wilting leaves.
Garzoni retired in 1651 to Rome where she resided until her death. She was an extremely wealthy woman, having cautiously saved her money for future needs. Historians mention that her art was so popular she was able to ask any price for her work. She also maintained significant patrons and sent work to them from wherever she was living. She never stopped painting and her talent did not decline with age. “Figs” (1655-62)(10’’ x 14’’) was completed during this period. The rich purple and red figs are just about ripe and one in about to split. The leaves are beginning to wilt and the leaf to the right has been attacked by some bugs. Simple and direct, always painted with tempera of gouache, both water mediums, each of Garzoni’s paintings reach a delightful and satisfying conclusion. Given the fact that she painted hundreds of works with remarkable details, and despite the fact that they are mostly measured in inches not feet, her accomplishment is amazing.
Garzoni became of member of the Accademie Nazionale de San Luca, Rome’s guild of artists. She left all of her money to the Church of Santa Martine, the official church of the Accademie, on the condition that she be buried there. In a letter written in 1631 to Cassiano dal Pozzo, she expressed her “desire to live and die in Rome.”
In “Pomegrante, Chestnuts, Snail and Grasshopper” (undated) more autumn harvest items are illustrated along with references to the Christmas season to come.
On Women’s Day, March 8, 2020, the Uffizi Museum in Florence, re-opened for the first time after Italy’s COVID shutdown with an exhibition of 100 paintings by Giovanni Garzoni. In the text for the exhibition she is praised: “A Leading player in the cultural affairs of her age, she rapidly built a reputation for herself and was admired throughout Europe…Giovanni Garzoni was endowed with astonishing intellectual inquisitiveness and originality, which translated into penetrating and stringent observation of the natural world. Garzoni focuses her attention on the exotic items in her patron’s collections, organizing them in compositions that speak of the growing cosmopolitanism in the life of Europe’s courts and the intense circulation of goods throughout the works in this particular historical moment when the globalization process was taking its first steps.”
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.