The Roman painter Mario Nuzzi made flower painting his exclusive genre. It was for this reason that he adopted the nickname Mario de’ Fiori, which already appears in 1650 in his marriage certificate, where he is defined as "Marius, Pictor Romanus, vulgo Mario de’Fiori".1 The appealing arrangement of our bouquet of flowers, inventively and beautifully expressed, makes this canvas a masterpiece by the artist; and the delicate and refined composition demonstrates his skill in painting nature's beauty and rendering its freshness and chromatic diversity. Depth is conveyed by light streaming from the left onto the background wall. Gaps in the foliage reveal the warm background browns, contrasting with the cool greens of the vase and foreground leaves. This is nothing less than a theatrical display of flowers in which the bouquet is distinctly set apart from the background and clearly established in space and depth. The picture's easy legibility also derives from the selection of flowers, each a different species and each created with a distinct tonality. Form and colour are thus juxtaposed and contrasted, lending a vivid character to the whole. The cluster of red and black berries, inspired by compositions transmitted by the Northern painters in Italy, is one of the artist's signatures: it reappears, for example, in the lower part of the Garland of Flowers with a Figure of Danae.2 The almost naturalistic precision with which the painter describes pistils, open, curling petals, and coiled stems, belongs to his mature pictorial vocabulary. But this bouquet is not merely an attempt to decorate; it provides a radiant reflection of nature, fresh and burgeoning, albeit put in order for the occasion.
It is not easy to reconstruct the artist's career, since we only know of one signed and dated work, from 1650: the Garland with Joseph's Dream in the Escorial Museum, Madrid. Documentation exists for a whole series of canvases painted in 1659 for Flavio Chigi. The series of Four Seasons (Ariccia, Chigi Collection) -- where the execution of the figures was by such established, prestigious painters as Filippo Lauri (1623-1694), Carlo Maratta (1625-1713), Giacinto Brandi (1621-1691) or even Bernardino Mei (1612-1676) -- as well as the Self-Portrait with an Easel also in Ariccia, where the figure is by Giovanni Maria Morandi (1622-1717), demonstrate his adhesion to Baroque ideals. A comparison with the style of the canvases in Ariccia would suggest a similar dating for our painting.
Mario de' Fiori's long career was exclusively Roman, in the wake of the Caravaggesque painter Tommaso Salini (c. 1575-1625), said by some source to have been his relative and even teacher. This family tie has not, however, been proved by documents, and one can only state with certainty that in 1621 he lived in the Via Paolina, very close to Salini. If Mario de’ Fiori took as his starting-point the post-Caravaggesque still-life painting of Salini -- of whom Baglione notes that he was the first "che pingesse, e accomodasse i fiori con le foglie ne’vasi, con diverse invenzioni molto capricciose, e bizzarre" ("to paint and arrange flowers and foliage in vases with a variety of very fanciful and eccentric inventions")3 - he developed the genre in a sumptuous and independent manner.
1- L. Laureati, entry for “Mario Nuzzi detto Mario de’ Fiori” in La natura morta in Italia, 2 vols., Milan, 1989, vol. II, p. 759.
2- L. Laureati, as above, 1989, p. 767, fig. 899 (formerly London, Christie’s, 7 July 1978, lot no. 15).
3- G. Baglione, Le vite de’ pittori scultori architetti ed intagliatori, Rome, 1642, p. 188.
Monte Carlo, Francesco Queirazza collection
- Alberto Cottino, Natura morta italiana tra Cinquecento e Settecento, cat. exp. Munich, Kunstalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, 6th December 2002 - 23rd February 2003; Florence, Palazzo Strozzi, 26th June - 12th October 2003, pp. 236-237 ;
- Francesco Solinas, in Flora Romana, Fiori e cultura nell’arte di Mario de’ Fiori (1603-1673), Francesco Solinas (dir.), Tivoli, Villa d’Este, 26th May – 31st October 2010, pp. 154-155, n° 28.
- Natura morta italiana tra Cinquecento e Settecento, cat. exp. Munich, Kunstalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, 6th December 2002 - 23rd February 2003; Florence, Palazzo Strozzi, 26th June - 12th October 2003, pp. 236-237 ;
- Flora Romana, Fiori e cultura nell’arte di Mario de’ Fiori (1603-1673), Francesco Solinas (dir.), Tivoli, Villa d’Este, 26 May – 31 October 2010, pp. 154-155, n° 28.