Love, death and flowers. The brevity of life according to Genovesino

Genovesino's (Luigi Miradori; Genoa?, c. 1605-1610-Cremona, 1656) vanitas are among the paintings that best convey to us the character of the 17th century. They include the masterpiece preserved at the Cremona Civic Museum.

Luigi Lanzi wrote, in his Storia pittorica d’Italia (Pictorial History of Italy), that Genovesino succeeded in all themes, but especially in the “most horrific” ones. It is difficult to blame the abbot when one admires certain vanitas by the Ligurian painter, starting with the one that is perhaps the most famous, the Sleeping Cupid in the Civic Museum of Cremona. A painting, however, little known outside the circles of scholars and enthusiasts: the small canvas pays, after all, for the poor fortune of Luigi Miradori, to whom critics have almost always reserved little attention. Forgotten early in his homeland, since Miradori left Genoa at the age of thirty and never returned, the artist had a life and a professional career between Piacenza and Cremona that was not stingy with satisfaction; he enjoyed a certain consideration in the eighteenth century, especially in the Lombard area, only to be mentioned again in local guides during the nineteenth century. We owe to Mina Gregori the beginning of the long work of critical repositioning of the artist: the great art historian dedicated her graduation thesis to Genovesino in 1949, thus rekindling interest in the artist, although it was not until 2017 that she was able to boast of the first monographic exhibition entirely dedicated to him, a splendid exhibition full of insights and novelties, held precisely at the Civic Museum of Cremona.

And in the itinerary of that exhibition, the Sleeping Cupid was among the most appreciated and photographed works by the public, who were captivated by the violent contrast between the quietly slumbering cherub and the horrifying skull with its gaping mouth, which, a further gruesome detail, gives shelter to a frog sprouting between its teeth: the amphibian, like the saprophagous insects, in the memento mori recalls the dissolution of flesh. The little god of love, a tender little angel with blond curls and soft flesh, similar to many seen in Genovesino’s paintings, has fallen asleep on a heavy tome. Between his plump fingers he holds an arrow, his classic iconographic attribute, and with his left arm he leans on the toothless skull. Closing the composition is, on the right, a still life piece: a lush vase of flowers.

Luigi Miradori detto il Genovesino, Cupido dormiente
Luigi Miradori known as the Genovesino, Sleeping Cupid (canvas, 76 x 61 cm; Cremona, Museo Civico Ala Ponzone)

We do not know the name of the painting’s first owner (perhaps, as we shall see later, the Ponzone family), but we can hazard some speculation about the circumstances under which it was born, trying to give it a date in the 1740s and imagining the painting as a product of a cultural climate rich in stimuli on the theme of the transience of life. The sleeping Cupid is already in itself an obvious and effective symbol of its era: nevertheless, the strength of this extraordinary painting could also feed on cultural references that, perhaps, suggested to Luigi Miradori its image. We can surmise that many of Miradori’s vanitas were painted as part of the inexhaustible patronage of Don Álvaro Suárez de Quiñones, a Spanish military man who became governor of Cremona in 1644: from the inventory of his art collection, compiled post mortem, we know that the governor was in possession of a very large number of works by Genovesino, most of which are untraceable today. And we also know with certainty that the governor had fought alongside Pedro Calderón de la Barca, who for his services in the Catalan War was also praised, on October 19, 1641, by Quiñones. It is therefore safe to assume that Quiñones was well acquainted with Calderón’s literary work: one would not otherwise explain a Genovesino work such as Zenobia Queen of Palmyra, which, Marco Tanzi has rightly noted, is to be related to the Spanish playwright’s comedy La gran Cenobia , published in 1640.

Now, there is perhaps no work that sums up in itself the climate, the mentality, the atmosphere of the central decades of the seventeenth century better than La vida es sueño: and in Calderón’s play there is an image that could well fit Luigi Miradori’s picture. It is one of the story’s most tense and intense passages: it is the moment when, on the third day, toward the drama’s finale, two soldiers go to the protagonist, Prince Sigismund, to report to him that the Polish people want to ask him to take up arms against their father, King Basil of Poland, who is plotting to leave the kingdom to a foreigner, Astulf, Duke of Muscovy. Before he agrees, Sigismund is hesitant at first, and he demurs, replying that he does not want illusions that fade like almond blossoms (“como el florido almendro / Que por madrugar sus flores, sin aviso y sin consejo, / Al primer soplo se apagan, marchitando y desluciendo / De sus rosados capillos belleza, luz y ornamento”), because he knows that life is a dream and he does not want to be deceived like “cualquiera que se duerme,” “someone who sleeps.” The Renaissance topos of the sleeping putto on the skull, which Genovesino may have inferred from a print by Hendrick Goltzius in which the cupid is in an attitude similar to the Miradorian one, could be reinterpreted here: sleep not as an allusion to death, but in continuity with the theme of dreams. Illusory and vanity.

And in the vase of flowers, among the essences that allude to the brevity of life (tulips, anemones and daffodils, and one of them has already wilted), we also see a sprig of almond blossoms, a presence certainly attested in seventeenth-century still lifes, but still not so frequent. In the bouquet, the painter then inserts the tulip, which in the seventeenth century was a very expensive flower, a status symbol, a sign therefore of luxury, but short-lived: in contemporary Flemish and Dutch vanitas it is a ubiquitous flower. Anemones recall the myth of Adonis, the handsome lover of Venus who, according to the myth, stained anemones with his blood when he died, dyeing them red. The narcissus reminds us of another character from mythology, the Narcissus who is mirrored in the water, in love with himself to the point of consuming himself to death.

Obviously the idea that the almond blossom insert was dictated by such a conscious choice can be no more than a suggestion, since we do not even know for sure when this painting was executed: if, however, as Desiderio Arisi, the first biographer of the Genovesino, tells us, Quiñones loved to spend “whole days” watching him paint, and if that "triangulation between the painter, the castellan and the Siglo de Oro champion of Spanish literature", as Marco Tanzi defines it, may also have found ground in the numerous Miradorian vanitas , those flowers might somehow suggest a reference to Calderón de la Barca’s masterpiece. And perhaps for this Pindaric flight it is not even necessary to imagine a commission from the governor: the painting, after all, came to the museum with the Ponzone legacy, and it is therefore likely that it was executed by the artist for the noble family of Cremona, on a par with the portrait of the young Sigismondo Ponzone, dating from 1646.

We are also uncertain about the painting’s complete authorship: some scholars, noting how the flowers have an eminently Flemish soul, have proposed names of possible collaborators. Mina Gregori, for example, has advanced the names of Stefano Lambri or Giovanni Battista Tortiroli: collaboration between Genovesino and Lambri for works under Quiñones’ commission is moreover still attested in Arisi’s biography. There are, however, also paintings that Miradori executed independently that demonstrate his talent in floral ornaments: the question is, in short, difficult to resolve.

But, in any case, the possible presence of other hands would not detract from a masterpiece that could become a symbol of the seventeenth century: in this painting, dominated by a taste for excess and the extravagant, love and death, tender and macabre, childhood and end, ephemeral and eternal, beauty and horror coexist. In an irresistible interplay of contrasts, fully baroque.

If you liked this article, read the previous ones in the same series: Gabriele Bella’sConcert; Plinio Nomellini’s The Red Nymph;Guercino’s Apparition ofChrist to His Mother; Titian’s Magdalene; Vittorio Zecchin’sOne Thousand and One Nights; Lorenzo Lotto’sTransfiguration; Jacopo Vignali’sTobias and the Angel; Luigi Russolo’s Perfume; and Antonio Fontanesi’sNovember; Cosmè Tura’s St. Maurelio’s Tondi; Simone dei Crocifissi’s Madonna and Child with Angels; Francesco Gioli’sScales at the Mouth of the Arno; Pellizza da Volpedo’sMirror of Life; Elisabetta Sirani’sGalatea; Luca Cambiaso’sMadonna of the Candle; Gaetano Previati’sDance of the Hours; Pietro Bernardi’sHoly Family, Anrea Previtali’s Crucifixion, Giacomo Balla’sPessimism and Optimism, Pinturicchio’sMadonna of Peace, Umberto Boccioni’sUnique Forms of Continuity in Space, Alessandro Magnasco’sRetention in an Albaro Garden, Ambrogio Lorenzetti’sMadonna of Milk, and Nino Costa’sWomen Embarking Wood in the Port of Anzio.

Warning: the translation into English of the original Italian article was created using automatic tools. We undertake to review all articles, but we do not guarantee the total absence of inaccuracies in the translation due to the program. You can find the original by clicking on the ITA button. If you find any mistake,please contact us.