Some of the most remarkably original still-life paintings of the seventeenth century were created by a little-known nun who practiced her art for some fifty years in a small convent in northern Italy. Theodora Caccia was one of six daughters born to Laura Olivia, herself the daughter of an artist, and Guglielmo Caccia (1568–1625), a Piedmontese painter of religious subjects also known as Il Moncalvo. Guglielmo taught at least two of his daughters to paint in his prolific studio, which received commissions from courts and churches throughout northern Italy. In 1620, at the age of twenty-four, Theodora followed in the footsteps of her four elder sisters and entered the Ursuline convent in Bianzè, a town midway between Milan and Turn; in a conventional sign of marriage to God and participation in a religious order, she took a new name, Orsola (for the Ursulines) Maddalena (for Saint Mary Magdalen). Bianzè was situated on frontier lands between the battling houses of Gonzaga and Savoy, however, prompting Guglielmo to petition the bishop of Casale Monferrato to agree to the establishment of a new Ursuline convent in his safer home city, Moncalvo. This modest convent, founded in 1625, was actually an extension of the family’s home and was funded largely by Guglielmo and Orsola’s painting practice. When Guglielmo died the same year, he left his extensive library, tools, drawings, and other materials for his daughters’ use, thereby encouraging the perpetuation of his style. Indeed, his will outlines several outstanding commissions that Orsola was to complete and monies owed to her for other shared commissions. One of her few dated paintings, The Mystic Marriage of the Blessed Osanna Andreasi
(Museo Diocesano, Mantua), commissioned in 1648 by the same bishop of Casale Monferrato, documents Orsola’s continued use of Guglielmo’s figure type: reductive, Mannerist geometries painted with softly blended strokes. But it also includes her tendency toward denser compositions and her characteristic flowers sprinkled across the canvas, each based on her combined study of nature and botanical prints. Beyond her professional success in sustaining the convent, Caccia’s most outstanding accomplishment in terms of painting would be her development of these still-life elements into deeply contemplative, independent paintings. Although they are the most famous of her works today, they constitute only a small percentage of her artistic production. Caccia’s petitions to the court in Turin in the 1640s for commissions and willingness to take in nuns already proficient in painting in the 1660s demonstrate how fundamental the sale of paintings was for sustaining the Ursuline nuns of Moncalvo.
Moncalvo’s present-day town hall includes structures that were once part of the Caccia convent, and the city maintains the largest collection of her works. An inventory from 1681 indicates that some of these paintings may have never left their place of execution. Caccia’s works are rare outside of her native region and The Met’s holdings, a gift of Errol M. Rudman, are the most significant outside of Italy. Nuns as Painters:
Painting was one among many arts, including manuscript illumination, textiles, horticulture, music, and sculpture that nuns are documented as producing in Italy from the medieval period onward. With the rise in the sixteenth century of drawing and painting as aristocratic pastimes suitable to well-educated women, these skills might have been put to use in religious life; in light of such talents, dowries that were normally presented as part of the entry procedure to a convent may have been waived or reduced. In theory, the Catholic tenants of enclosure (whereby nuns were strictly isolated inside the convent) kept such production outside of circulation, let alone the art market. In reality, however, financial strains often forced convents’ participation in the regional economy through commissions from both the church and private citizens. By the sixteenth century, a number of individual nuns had accrued fame outside their convents’ walls. The most famous, mentioned among the great painters of Italy by Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574), was Plautilla Nelli (1524–1588), who established a flourishing studio in Santa Caterina da Siena, Florence, that lasted into the eighteenth century. This phenomenon coincided with the rise of several Italian women artists, including Sofonisba Anguissola (ca. 1532–1625), Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614), Fede Galizia (ca. 1578–1630), and Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–after 1654). Anguissola and Galizia were, like Caccia, specifically Lombard painters, but all of these artists would have been in the minds of those living in the convent of Moncalvo.
Among painters who were also nuns, Caccia might be compared with her almost exact contemporary, Lucrina Fetti (ca. 1590–ca. 1673), sister of the better-known painter Domenico Fetti (1589–1623). Lucrina traveled with her brother to the Mantuan court in 1614, where she painted several portraits. Shortly thereafter, Duke Ferdinando Gonzaga paid her dowry for entry into the Mantuan convent of Sant’Orsola, where she appears to have painted religious subjects, although her works are poorly documented.
In 1796, Luigi Lanzi perhaps rightly compared Caccia’s career less to nuns working in convents and more to the more public-facing Fontana and Gentileschi. Through a close inspection of the archival documents, Antonella Chiodo has recently argued that in her convent’s initial decades, Caccia may have more or less painted alone, building on her father’s well-established reputation. For Caccia and her convent, however, painting was far more than a pastime: evidence points to painting as fundamental to sustaining her order’s finances. It seems reasonable, moreover, to assume that in his initial petition to establish a new convent in 1625, Guglielmo’s lively business was factored into its financial feasibility. A painting studio was even included in the architectural plans reviewed by the approving bishop. In 1643, Orsola addressed two letters to Madama Reale Christine of France (1606–1663), Duchess of Savoy, soliciting commissions that, she presented, would support the pressing financial needs of her religious community; in 1665 and 1667, the sisters Laura and Angelica Bottera were accepted to join the convent without committing dowries in light of their talent and willingness to work as painters. Although little is known of their work, the convent’s inventory of 1681 includes “Three others [paintings] / piece of fruit bowls / [all of] the same size by the Misses Bottera”, suggesting that at least part of their practice included still lifes, the genre for which Caccia has become best known.
An eighteenth-century painting at The Met by a follower of Alessandro Magnasco (1667–1749; see 1982.60.13
) depicting nuns occupied at spinning provides an evocative, if fanciful, image of how such workshops might have appeared. A high window with bars makes their separation from the outside world clear; at left, a simple shelf supports a still life that seems to await the paintbrush of a talented nun.The Painting:
Of The Met’s three paintings by Orsola Caccia, this still life best captures her original contribution to the history of art: meticulously painted flowers, each individuated in a highly stylized, symmetrical composition. Through a combination of studying botanical prints and natural specimens, Caccia derived calm, meditative images well suited to a spiritual life. Caccia’s core group of such paintings has remained in Moncalvo: Still Life of a Grotesque Vase with Peony, Tulips, and Birds
(see fig. 1 above), Still Life of a Grotesque Vase with Sunflower, Flocks, Peonies, Daffodils, Fruit, and Birds
(fig. 2), and Still Life of a Grotesque Vase with Lilies, Tulips, Delphinium, and Parrots
(fig. 3). The Met’s painting and another that is sometimes referred to as its pendant (private collection; fig. 4) come closest to this group, but are of a squarer format and do not include birds; related, but distinct, are the artist’s two experiments with a horizontal format that incorporate piles of fruit with flowers (see 2020.263.2
and fig. 5).
The Met’s painting is organized around a large peony, a flower that Alberto Cottino calls a kind of “classico” for Caccia, so favored that it almost served as her signature. The similarities of the peony in The Met, the Museo Civico (fig. 1), and the private collection (fig. 5) compositions suggest the possible use of a cartoon slightly modified and changed in orientation through counter-proofing (a process of “printing” a chalk drawing in reverse) or flipping a stenciled pattern in order to trace or pounce the motif. Close comparison of the stem of white lilies in The Met’s painting and the stem of white lilies at the center of one composition of fruit and flowers (fig. 5) demonstrates that in this instance Caccia followed the outline of the form exactly, albeit in reverse and with the addition of morning glories that disguised this repetition.
An oil study attributed to Caccia that lines up birds, snails, and flowers across a monochrome ground documents how early modern artists often held motifs in reserve for future use; it is tempting to imagine that in Caccia’s case such studies would have also been consulted by other nuns painting in her convent. Caccia appears to have arrived at these individual motifs through the combined attention to nature (she does not include species that did not plausibly grow in Moncalvo and some works [such as fig. 1], contain plants that bloomed in a specific month) and botanical prints. Individual plates or entire volumes of works such as Basilius Besler’s Hortus Eystettensis
(1613) were likely found in the library that she inherited from her father in 1625. Not unlike the tradition of pressed flowers, or herbaria, these prints typically presented flower stems as if one with the picture plane, resulting in a meticulous attention to detail and a strong two-dimensionality that lends itself to a patternlike effect. Caccia’s artistic originality—and idiosyncrasy—was to retain the individuation of each motif when placing it in her still lifes and to arrange them symmetrically and evenly across the surface of her pictures. The formal effect is extremely calm and stable, but also leans toward a sense of abstraction and decoration. Prints after Jakob Hoefnagel (50.562.103(5)
), which juxtapose flowers with blackwork ornament, provide an insightful comparison and make more explicit the way in which botanical and decorative aspects were explored simultaneously in Caccia’s paintings.
For the devout, Caccia’s still lifes would have had a more complex relationship to the language of flowers or a “Christian botany” (see The Timeline of Art History “Botanical Imagery in European Painting”
). In this context, the repetition of motifs is not just a result of artistic practice or formal concerns, but also a means of composing units of information. Gatherings of flowers in general were understood as symbolizing the Garden of Eden, while the convent was conceptualized as a closed garden, the walls of which protected the purity (or, more explicitly, the virginity) of its inhabitants. In the present still life, the white lily, representative of the Virgin Mary’s purity, was often included in Annunciation scenes (for example, 17.190.7
) and attested to Christ’s divine conception; another floral stand-in for Mary was the peony, a “rose without thorns” that Saint Ambrose claimed was part of the Garden of Eden prior to the fall of Adam and Eve. Inclusion of large, bearded irises, also known as sword lilies, may refer to Simeon’s prophecy to Mary of Christ’s death in the Gospel of Luke that “thy own soul a word shall pierce.” As described by Saint Francis of Sales (1567–1622; canonized 1665), flower bouquets might be “read” in this way as a series of thoughts during meditation. Caccia would almost certainly have known his Devout Life
(1609), a popular text in the Piedmont region, Savoy court, and Ursuline circles, in which he used the bouquet analogy not only for the individual in prayer, but also for the composition of his book: “The flower-girl Glycera was so skilled in varying the arrangement and combination of her flowers that out of the same kinds she produced a great variety of bouquets; so that the [4th B.C., Greek] painter Pausias, who sought to rival the diversity of her art, was brought to a standstill, for he could not vary his paintings so endlessly as Glycera varied her bouquet. Even so, the Holy Spirit of God disposes and arranges the devout teaching with which He imparts through the lips and pen of His servants with such endless variet . . . I offer you the same flowers, dear reader, but the bouquet will be somewhat different.”
In contrast to the fidelity with which Caccia treated individual plant species, her zoomorphic vases, which often allow multiple openings for protruding flowers, appear to be wholly fanciful. The Met’s example, with a mouthlike spout and leafy scales around its body, is particularly exuberant. Scholars have cited possible sources in Milanese metalwork, and similarly asymmetrical ewer forms are known in Medici porcelain, but many of Caccia’s vessels could only exist on canvas or on paper (see, for instance, the handles of fig. 1). In terms of how they animate her still lifes, such vases relate to the group of seventeenth-century Italian painters known as “I Maestri del vaso a grottesche” (Masters of the Grotesque Vases) who either invented forms themselves or looked to prints sources such as Enea Vico (1543; 2012.136.400.4
), Aegidius Sadeler II (1605), and Stefano della Bella (2012.136.99.1
). Caccia typically picks out the eyes of her zoomorphic forms in black, evocative of inlay, but the overall white palette further suggests monochromatic prints as her source. By the middle decades of the seventeenth century, a number of printmakers, such as Nicolaes de Bruyn's (1571–1656) engravings after Jacob Savery I (1566–1603; 51.501.1135
), brought together these fanciful vases with the birds and meticulously depicted, symmetrical bouquets of flowers found in Caccia’s paintings.
No doubt it was through not one but a wide range of printed and, perhaps, painted sources in dialogue with actual specimens from nature that Caccia arrived at her remarkable still-life paintings. In a much broader sense, print culture probably also best explains the striking phenomenon of artists exploring such meticulous, individuated treatment of flowers and fruit across Europe in the first half of the seventeenth century. Rather than follow Fede Galizia, the pioneer of Lombard still life, Caccia’s most remarkable paintings actually have greater affinities with artists much farther afield, such as Hoefnagel, Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625), Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560–1627), or Francisco de Zurbarán (see 27.137
). Responding to similar trends and sources, each painter arrived at their own original contributions to the genre. The abstract quality that these painters achieved has often proved appealing to modernist sensibilities, and reverberations of their legacy can be seen in artists such as Honoré Sharrer (1920–2009; 1996.404
) and Kehinde Wiley (b. 1977; 2009.14
The letter "F" on the reverse of this painting (fig. 6) connects it with the significant early group of works by Caccia and her father that were in the collection of Ferdinando Dal Pozzo (1768–1843) in her hometown of Moncalvo.
David Pullins 2020
 From the extensive literature, see Jeffrey Hamburger, “Art, Enclosure and the Cura Monialium:
Prolegomena in the Guise of a Postscript,” Gesta,
31.2 (1992), pp. 108–34 and Marilyn Dunn, “Convent Creativity” in The Ashgate Research Companion to Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe,
eds. Allyson M. Poska, Jane Couchman, and Katherine A. McIver, Burlington, Vermont, 2016, pp. 53–74.
 See Suor Plautilla Nelli (1523–1588): The First Woman Painter of Florence,
ed. Jonathon Nelson, Florence, 2000.
 Luigi Lanzi, Storia pittorica della Italia,
vol. 3, Bassano, 1796, p. 243.
 Antonella Chiodo, “Orsola Maddalena Caccia. Note in margine alla vita e alle opera di una monaca pittrice,” Archivi e Storia
(2003), pp. 153–202.
 Andrea Longhi and Timothy Verdon, Fede e cultura nel Monferrato di Guglielmo e Orsola Caccia,
Casale Monferrato, 2013, pp. 35–38.
 Schede Vesme: L’Arte in Piemonte dal XVI al XVIII secolo,
vol. 1, ed. Baudi di Vesme, Turin, 1963, pp. 188, 230. Antonella Chiodo argues that it was not until the Bottera sisters’ arrival that a larger workshop was active at the convent; she also notes that all documents underscore Orsola Caccia’s continued role as master of any workshop: see Chiodo 2003, p. 173. As Mindy Nacarrow has pointed out, nuns entering with such skills that reduced or replaced their dowries always stood at a lower social standing. See Mindy Nancarrow, “Art and Alienation in Early Modern Spanish Convents,” South Atlantic Review
, 65 (Winter 2000), pp. 24–40.
 “Tre altri / pezzi di fruttiere / della stessa grandezza della M. Bottera.” Cottino 2000, p. 22.
 On the group and additions to it, see Cottino 2000, pp. 18–23; Cottino 2012, pp. 41–43. Two strongly horizontal compositions, arguably intended for overdoor or other decorative functions, are in the Amata Collection, Rome, and the Yale University Art Gallery. See Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque,
exh. cat., National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, 2007, p. 218 and Dorotheum, Vienna, October 18, 2016, no. 229.
 Cottino 2000, p. 20.
 Sotheby’s, London, May 7, 2020, no. 28.
 Angela Ghirardi, “Dipingere in lode del cielo: Sour Orsola Maddalena Caccia e la vocazione artistica della Orsoline di Moncalvo” in Vita artistica nel monastero femminile,
ed. Vera Fortunati, Bologna, 2002, p. 121. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life,
New York, 1885 (1609), pp. iii–iv.
 By contrast, the vessels in Vases of Flowers
(1615–25), a still life at the Yale University Art Gallery, have been identified with faience works.
 Morandotti 2010, p. 68; Cottino 2012, p. 43.
 Caccia may have seen works by Brueghel and other Northern still-life painters in the collections formed by Duke Carlo Emanuele I of Savoy (1562–1630), for whom her father painted, and Federico Borromeo (1564–1631), Archbishop of Milan; however, there is no documentary evidence of her travel to either city. See Cottino 2012, p. 43.
 See Antonella Chiodo, "Il collezionismo di opere di Guglielmo Caccia detto il Moncalvo e della figlia Orsola Maddalena: il caso della collezione Dal Pozzo," Annali di Storia moderna e contemporanea,
1 (2013), pp. 297–322.