The 17th-century painter and priest with a documentarian’s eye for detail

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The 17th-century painter and priest with a documentarian’s eye for detail
‘Striped by the signs of recent touch’: one of three canvases that make up the ‘Agliardi Triptych’ by Evaristo Baschenis

A fine layer of dust covers the backs of musical instruments left on a table. The music ceased, the musicians departed: the lute, pit, mandola, and guitar were streaked with the marks of their recent touch. In the surrounding darkness, these artistically illuminated abandoned instruments loom large. Their representation can almost be described as a portrait.

“Still Life with Musical Instruments” is one of three canvases that make up the Agliardi Triptych, the masterpiece of the enigmatic and highly original 17th-century Italian painter-priest Evaristo Baschenis. It forms the centerpiece of the first monographic exhibition of his work in France, at the Galerie Caneso in Paris.

There are no paintings by this little-known artist in French museums; in fact, very few exist outside Italy; even there the core remains in private collections in his hometown of Bergamo. It was the gift of a painting to the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in 1908, and the subsequent discovery of his signature, that launched a re-evaluation of Baschenis – just as Braque and Picasso were also turning to the violin. turned to , mandolin and guitar as inspiration for their Cubist works.

A mandola, lute, citron and small piano-type instrument sit on a red silk damask-covered table top
‘Still Life with Musical Instruments’ (1660)

While Baschenis can claim to have invented the genre of the still life of musical instruments in the 1640s, the questions of why he did so, and the actual subject of his rich but allusive art, continue to intrigue art historians. We know Baschenis was a passionate amateur musician: his estate sale shows that he owned around 14 instruments and numerous scores. His only self-portrait appears as one canvas in the Agliardi triptych and shows him playing the spinet with Count Ottavio Agliardi, who plays a lute. The third painting of the triptych depicts the other Agliardi brothers. Figures are rare in Baschenis’ work, portraits even rarer, and even here the instruments remain the real protagonists, not least the elaborate guitar played by Count Alessandro, clearly drawn by the Venetian maker Giorgio Sellas. Such makers have earned their future.

Cremona, Brescia and Venice, all near Bergamo, produced the largest stringed instruments in Europe. It was also probably no coincidence that many of the artist’s table tops were covered with silk damask, the source of Bergamo’s wealth. In his most theatrical canvases, such as those on loan from the Accademia Carrara (another “still life with musical instruments”), tassels of curtains opened to reveal the entire spectrum of intellectual pursuits involving the town’s refined and cultured elite. A figurine by Alessandro Vittoria and richly patterned “Lotto” rugs suggest their collecting interests, books of books reveal the poetry they read, their interest in law, science, philosophy and mathematics.

A man in a black gown sits playing a spinet with a man standing behind him strumming a bowed lute.  The table in front of them has a cello and a lute sitting on it
Evaristo Baschenis’s only self-portrait (circa 1665), with the artist at the spinet and Count Ottavio Agliardi with a lute

In this sense, the works are not so much allegories of the liberal arts as cultural portraits. Baschenis’ own study of geometry and mathematics is evident in the mastery of his perspectival foreshortening and the almost architectural volume of his full-bodied lutes. He may have used a perspective finder device, such as that described by Dürer in the previous century.

Yet these paintings are not exercises in illusionism and fidelity alone. The melancholic, almost metaphysical Agliardi still life, for example, seems an invitation to contemplate the inexorable passage of time, the ephemeral nature of pleasure and life itself. Dust gathers, the corners of the vellum-bound sheet music curl as they are exposed to the atmosphere, apples slowly rot. It’s the stuff of Northern European vanitas paintings, but the candles, skulls and hourglasses are absent here, as is any obvious moral message.

Fruit and a cut carnation may have been included to also make it a symbolic representation of the five senses: sight, touch, hearing, taste and smell. Baschenis could also have delighted in verbal and visual puns in various languages. The dish of apples – mela — is close melo’s (melody), the trompe l’oeil fly — musk – go off at another point, music. Suspicions of this sort were common in texts of the period, which relished the unlikely juxtapositions of opposites.

A lute and a citrus sit on a table next to a small Greek-style statue of a naked man
‘Still Life with Musical Instruments and Statuette’ (circa 1660)

Perhaps this partly explains why Baschenis set up shop in 1643 as a painter of still lifes of both musical instruments and kitchen scenes. The musical still life in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam even has a representation of fish and dead game as a pendant. Food for the body and the soul.

Baschenis’ paintings have long attracted the attention of musicians, musicologists, instrument makers and conservators who are captivated by the painter’s documentary attention to detail – the grains and shades of different woods, the ribs on the cases, the restorations, the signatures, the inscriptions and notations of musical scores for various instruments. Research for this exhibition identified the exact score on the spinet stand in a work on loan from a private collection – a variant on the composition on loan from the Museo Teatrale alla Scala in Milan. It belongs to a 1568 edition of a book of madrigals by Orlande de Lassus, a setting of 14th-century verses taken from Petrarch’s anthology, Canzoniere. They must have had a special meaning for the artist’s learned patron.

Until December 17, canesso.art

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