This is among the earliest surviving independent still lifes in European painting. It playfully refers to a celebrated but long-lost work by the fifth-century-BCE Greek painter Zeuxis, who “produced a picture of grapes so successfully represented that birds flew up to it.” This sort of classically-inspired picture appealed to erudite patrons such as Isabella d’Este (1474–1539), marchioness of Mantua, for whom we know Leonelli painted a still life in 1506; he was, in fact, compared to Zeuxis by a scholar writing in 1513.
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Title:Still Life with Grapes and a Bird
Artist:Antonio Leonelli (Antonio da Crevalcore) (Italian, Crevalcore, born by 1443–died by 1525, Bologna (?))
Medium:Oil on canvas
Dimensions:15 5/8 × 15 5/8 in. (39.7 × 39.7 cm)
Credit Line:Promised Gift of Stanley David Moss
The Artist: Although of some repute in his own day—especially as a student of nature and painter of animals and fruit—a clear idea of Crevalcore as an artist has only emerged in the last four decades, and in particular with the appearance at auction (Sotheby’s, Monaco, 1984) of a three-part altarpiece (on canvas) with the Madonna and Child in the center and, as laterals, the apostles Peter and Paul, shown seated in a ruined enclosure with a plethora of still life details. This constitutes the most ambitious work that can be attributed to the artist, whose only signed and dated work (of 1493) was a devotional panel of the Holy family formerly in the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, Berlin (destroyed WWII). A monograph by Vittorio Sgarbi (Antonio da Crevalcore e la pittura ferrarese del Quatttrocento a Bologna, Milan) appeared in 1985; a fine review of the current state of scholarship can be found in Elisa Bellesia’s entry in the Dizionario biografico degli italiani (vol. 64, 2005, accessible online).
Though born in Crevalcore, he was godfather at a baptism in Bologna in 1461, already identified as a painter and a resident in the city. Given this, he must have been born no later than 1443. He was administrator of the four guilds (massaro delle quarto arti) on five occasions between 1478 and 1508. In 1480 he was paid for painting a Madonna and Child within a terra-cotta frame over the door of San Giacomo Maggiore, Bologna (in ruinous condition), and in 1492 he painted a curtain for a crucifix in the basilica of San Petronio. The Madonna and Child with Saints Peter and Paul cited above seems to date to about 1488–89, based on the artist’s documented association with the Malvezzi family and his employment by the chapter of San Pietro (see Antonio Buitoni, "Antonio da Crevalcore a Bologna," Nuovi studi 21 , pp. 61–69). Unquestionably the most interesting notices relate to his standing as a master of still lifes. In 1513, the Bolognese philosopher/poet Filoteo Achillini (1466–1538) compared Crevalcore to the ancient Greek painter Zeuxis in painting fruits (see below) and in 1650, Antonio di Paolo Masini records that the artist was famous as a musician and very celebrated for painting flowers, fruit, and animals. These notices are borne out by some notes we have on Bolognese collections (for this information, see Sgarbi 1985, p. 30) and, in particular, by a famous letter to Isabella d’Este, the marchesa of Mantua, from the poet Girolamo Casio, who acted on her behalf with Bolognese painters. It concerned gifts he had sent her in 1506, among which was “uno quadro pieno de fructi facto per Antonio da Crevalcore tra nui in questo exercitio singularissimo, ma assai più longho che la natura” (a painting filled with fruit done by Antonio da Crevalcore, who amongst us is most singular in this kind of work, but takes more time than nature; see Sgarbi 1985, p. 29). Most interesting is the record of six paintings in the sacristy of San Michele in Bosco, just outside Bologna, in each of which there appeared a goldfinch with an ear of grain in its beak—evidently an emblem of the artist. This would seem to associate his still lifes with the art of wood inlay, or intarsia—evident in The Met’s painting. The formative influences on his art were Francesco del Cossa and Ercole de’ Roberti, with their tautly drawn forms and obsession with meticulously rendered details and mastery of perspective. A well-known profile portrait of a man set within a trompe-l’oeil marble window embrasure with a landscape view beyond a suspended curtain (Museo Correr, Venice) is arguably his earliest picture (ca. 1475–80) and is deeply indebted to Cossa (see Keith Christiansen in The Renaissance Portrait: From Donatello to Bellini, ed. K. Christiansen and S. Weppelmann, New York, 2011, pp. 276–78). In the sixteenth century his art softened under the influence of the next generation.
The Painting: A bird—a grey shrike—has lit on a bowl of grapes set on a wood shelf; another bunch of grapes, still attached to a branch of the vine, is suspended outside the shelf by a nail. The aesthetic has close analogies with sacristy cupboards in intarsia, in which illusionistic effects involving still-life elements were common. However, the image cannot help but recall a famous story related by Pliny the Elder (1st century A.D.) in the Natural History (XXXVI:9–10): “The contemporaries and rivals of Zeuxis were Timanthes, Androcydes, Eupompus, and Parrhasius. This last, it is said, entered into a pictorial contest with Zeuxis, who represented some grapes, painted so naturally that the birds flew toward the spot where the picture was exhibited. Parrhasius, on the other hand, exhibited a curtain, drawn with such singular truthfulness, that Zeuxis, elated with the judgment which had been passed upon his work by the birds, haughtily demanded that the curtain should be drawn aside to let the picture be seen. Upon finding his mistake, with a great degree of ingenuous candour he admitted that he had been surpassed, for that whereas he himself had only deceived the birds, Parrhasius had deceived him, an artist.”
It is quite clear that Crevalcore intended to call to mind the famous painting of Zeuxis and to present himself as a modern Zeuxis. The picture was intended to elicit precisely the kind of praise lavished on the artist by the poets Achillini and Casio (see above) and to appeal to a humanist-educated patron such as Isabella d’Este. It is worth observing that in addition to enhancing the still life of grapes with a strongly wood-grained cupboard, the stem of grapes projecting into the viewer’s space serves as a sort of substitute for Parrhasius’s curtain: a trompe l’oeil effect to fool the viewer rather than the bird.
The importance of the effect of trompe l’oeil in establishing still-life painting as a worthy endeavor should not be underestimated, as it was related to the geometry of perspective and thus to art as an intellectual endeavor rather than a merely mimetic craft. Trompe l’oeil is the motivating factor of a painting by Jacopo de’ Barbari of 1504 in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, and it is employed as well by Caravaggio in his astonishing Basket of Fruit in the Ambrosiana, Milan. Crevalcore’s far more primitive painting inscribes itself into this notable trajectory.
The Attribution and Date: The picture was unknown prior to its appearance at public auction in 1994 (Sotheby’s, London, December 7, 1994, no. 213, as unknown Lombard painter, 17th century). Acquired by Stanley Moss, it was ascribed to Crevalcore by Federico Zeri (unpublished opinion, confirmed to the present writer by a personal phone conversation prior to Zeri’s death in 1998); it was then published as the work of Crevalcore by Daniele Benati (2000). The attribution seems to this writer completely convincing. The tendency to geometrize the forms with shading that rigorously enhances their rotundity, whether the white bowl or the spheres and ovals of the grapes; the emphasis on surface effects—the grained wood, the stem of grapes; the turned-up edge of the grape leaf; and the clearly delineated shadows, are features found in all of the work that can, with confidence, be ascribed to Crevalcore. Again, they underscore his close scrutiny of work in intarsia, and in particular of the work of the Lendinara brothers. There is also a certain analogy to be drawn with the work of Marco Zoppo (1433–1478), and especially the fruit swags in Zoppo’s altarpiece now in the Collegio di Spagna, Bologna. The date of the promised gift to The Met is not easy to establish, but given its oil technique and the analogies it has with the smoother forms of the Holy Family in the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart—a picture convincingly ascribed to the artist—it is likely to date from the very early sixteenth century. It is tempting to associate it with the picture sent by Casio to Isabella d’Este. Certainly, this is the kind of conceitful work the poet had in mind in his praise of the artist.
Keith Christiansen 2016
sale, Sotheby's, London, December 7, 1994, no. 213, as North Italian School, 17th Century, to Moss; [Stanley Moss, Clinton Corners, N.Y., from 1994; sale, Sotheby's, New York, January 26, 2012, no. 32, as by Antonio da Crevalcore, bought in]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "European Paintings: Recent Acquisitions 2015–16," December 12, 2016–March 26, 2017, no catalogue.
Madrid. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza. "Hiperreal: El Arte del trampantojo," March 16–May 22, 2022, no. 3 (as a promised gift of Stanley David Moss).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Cubism and the Trompe l'Oeil Tradition," October 17, 2022–January 22, 2023.
Federico Zeri. Letter to Stanley Moss. February 5, 1995, judging from photographs, suggests an attribution to Antonio da Crevalcore.
Daniele Benati inLa natura morta in Emilia e in Romagna: pittori, centri di produzione e collezionismo fra XVII e XVIII secolo. Ed. Daniele Benati and Lucia Peruzzi. Milan, 2000, pp. 18, 38 n. 21, fig. 1 (color), notes that Keith Christiansen and Vittorio Sgarbi concur with Zeri's attribution to Crevalcore; accepts the attribution and dates the work to the first years of the sixteenth century; adds that Mario Modestini, who oversaw the restoration of the painting, favors an earlier dating.
Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann. Arcimboldo: Visual Jokes, Natural History, and Still-Life Painting. Chicago, 2009, pp. 180, 280 n. 46, fig. 7.6, as by Antonio da Crevalcore(?); dates it about 1520; calls it a fragment, noting that "the image does not seem to have been designed as an independent composition; it instead most likely functioned as a panel in some sort of interior decoration, much as did contemporary 'intarsie' or frescos with similar subjects".
Carl Brandon Strehlke and Machtelt Brüggen Israëls. The Bernard and Mary Berenson Collection of European Paintings at I Tatti. Florence, 2015, p. 356, incorrectly reports that Daniele Benati has attributed it to Giovanni Antonio Bazzi.
Virginia Brilliant. "In the Light of Caravaggio: Still Lifes from a Private Collection Sold Without Reserve." Master Paintings. Sotheby's, New York. May 22, 2018, p. 75.
Maria Eugenia Alonso inHiperreal: El Arte del trampantojo. Ed. Mar Borobia and Guillermo Solana. Exh. cat., Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza. Madrid, 2022, pp. 53, 56 n. 5, no. 3, ill. p. 59 (color).