Food in the Baroque: Examining depictions of fruit in the works of Caravaggio

Whilst we at AHA are particularly wedded to delicious Italian food, as a little change of pace from usual, we’re going to be having a look at depictions of food (well, just fruit really) in the work of everybody’s favourite Baroque painter, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

The Supper at Emmaus (1601)
The Supper at Emmaus (1601)

Caravaggio is obviously best known for his stark usage of dark and light, his hyper-realistic representations of biblical scenes, and of course, for being a bit of a loveable rogue (he famously killed a man after an argument over a game of tennis.) However, as well as all of this, Caravaggio had a supreme talent for still life painting.

Granted many of these depictions are within larger pictures, such as The Supper at Emmaus (1601), housed at the National Gallery, and his Bacchus (c.1597) at the Uffizi in Florence, but there are instances where depictions of food take the centre stage, like the spectacularly originally named Basket of Fruit (c. 1595-96), in the Ambrosian Library, Milan.

1280px-Canestra_di_frutta_(Caravaggio) (1)What is perhaps most interesting in this painting, is that the fruit shown is not perfectly manicured and polished, instead it looks almost as if it is decaying. Some leaves sag wearily under their own weight, whilst others are pockmarked and filled with holes, whilst a central apple bears all the hallmarks of having a worm buried deep in its flesh. Even the grapes, so often shown as glowing orbs of purple and green, are distinctly dusty, and some even look to be rotten, turning to detritus quicker than their friends.

As a painter, Caravaggio was never one to skirt around the truth, or do things by the book. He was renowned for using prostitutes and other folks of ill repute as models in his paintings, in order to portray a gritty realism onto his canvasses, and the slow decay of the fruit in Basket of Fruit is reflective of this style.

610N08952_6G4RZStill Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge (c. 1601-05)

In stark contrast to the slightly tatty, ragged appearance of fruit in Basket of Fruit, the work Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge (dated between 1601 and 1605, but widely disputed) is a veritable smorgasbord of earthly delights. All of the produce seems to scream at the viewer ‘EAT ME!’ with its appeal heightened by the cross-sections of marrow and watermelon portrayed. One can almost see the juice dripping invitingly from the melon. Virtually all of the imagery in the painting is of immense fertility and life – a handful of art historians have even argued that the writhing, bulbous white marrows are decidedly phallic, bringing to mind Nicholas Poussin’s famously censored painting of Priapus (1634-38). The iridescent freshness and life of the fruit is contrasted greatly by the stone ledge upon which it is placed. Not only is it solidly cold and grey, but it also cracked and chipped, perhaps serving as a reminder that the fruits will also perish one day.

A version of this blog post appeared in January, 2013.

The Hermitage, St. Petersburg: Too big for it’s own good?

The museum as seen from the Neva river.

A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel St. Petersburg, Russia for a long weekend. Whilst there I took a trip, two trips in fact, to The Hermitage Museum, and it was quite frankly the most astonishing art gallery and museum experience I’ve ever had. This revelation comes as a result of numerous factors, however the most obvious of these is the sheer size of the place, and the volume of art contained within it. A quick search on the ever reliable Google tells me that the Hermitage is the 4th largest museum in the world in terms of area. I’ve never been to the Smithsonian, the Acropolis Museum, or the Louvre, so I can safely say it is the biggest museum I’ve ever visited. Honestly, it makes gargantuan sites like the Vatican Museum, the Uffizi, the British Museum and others feel very small indeed. As well as the size of the museum, what is equally as astonishing is the sheer variety of art and artefacts on display. Objects range from paintings by Rembrandt and Leonardo, to Japanese Samurai armour and Egyptian sarcophagi, right back to classical sculpture from Ancient Rome and Greece.

'The Sacrifice of Isaac' by Rembrandt (1635)

One issue I have with the museum is that it doesn’t seem, to my admittedly amateurish eyes, to be particularly well curated. Granted artworks are grouped by nation and period, but beyond that, it seems that they’ve all just been hung with little regard for creating a real flow within the gallery. I think this may be something to do with the vast size of the collection held within the Hermitage. To give an example, part of my second afternoon in the museum was spent in the ‘French Painting of the 20th century” section, which is unfortunately tucked away in a stuffy corner, in what is essentially the attic of the Winter Palace. Housed within this are innumerate works by the likes of Cezanne, Matisse and Derain, which are hung with what appears to be little concern towards style, period etc.

Henri Matisse's 'The Dance'. One of numerous works of his held in the museum.

My family and I spent nearly two days in the Hermitage complex and I think we saw most of what was on offer, but I’m certain that I missed a lot, and I feel that I was only really able to see most of the art superficially as there is just so much to look at, and to be to totally honest, one needs to sift through a lot of very average paintings before finding the good stuff.

Canova's 'Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss'

To sum up, I must say that the Hermitage Museum complex holds one of, if not the most impressive collection, of paintings, sculptures and antiquities I’ve ever seen. However it is let down by poor curation, and I think this is a real shame. That said, if you’re a lover of art (and if you’re reading this blog, I assume you are) then I’d say that if you’re ever given the chance to go to St. Petersburg, you should bite off the hand of whomever afforded you the opportunity. Not just the Hermitage, but the entire city, is quite spectacular!

For more information about the Hermitage museum, visit http://www.hermitagemuseum.org/

Art that takes your breath away…AHA alum Catriona Grant on her favourite things

Excuse the cliche, but there are undeniably some geniuses in the history of art who have produced the most truly breathtaking objects ever to have existed.

These are by no means universal, and are rightly subject to each and every person’s individual opinions. What causes this reaction of course varies; it can be the smallest detail, the broadest concept, the emotion or idea it triggers, the person you share it with … the list goes on.

Anyway, to while away a rainy day, here are a few of the works of art and architecture that I find particularly inspiring, I hope you enjoy them too:

The passion of Rodin’s The Kiss.

The intensity of gesture and impasto brushstrokes of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

Starry Night

The staggering photorealism of Luigi Benedicenti’s paintings.

The tangible flesh of Bernini’s sculpture of the The Rape of Proserpina.


The elevating character of the Andrea Pozzo’s ceiling frescoes in the Sant’Ignazio Church in Rome.

The thrilling design and stunning setting of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water.

Falling Water

The wistful nostalgia of Constable’s The Hay Wain.

The Haywain

The quietude of Turner’s Swiss watercolour, The Bay of Uri Above Brunnen.

The simplicity of Durer’s Turf of Grass.

The enigmatic context of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.

The colossal embrace of the Pantheon in Rome.

Oh, and its just started snowing, even more excuse to don a onesie and have a self-indulgent evening looking up beautiful images and sunny places…

(Photos courtesy of Google Images).