Foods and the Body in Italian Genre Paintings, about 1580: Campi, Passarotti, Carracci

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Butchers, fish vendors, and poultry sellers appear quite abruptly in northern Italian art, in paintings by Vincenzo Gampi, Bartolomeo Passarotti, and Annibale Carracci, all made in Cremona and Bologna between about 1580 and 1585.1 Curiously, these mundane figures appeared primarily in series of paintings rather than in single compositions. The first series, of about 1580, produced by Vincenzo Campi for the wealthy Fugger family of Augsburg, comprises five paintings, three of which represent fish vendors, together with one of a vegetable and fruit vendor and another of a poultry display (Figs. 1-5). Campi's second series, presumed painted about 1585 for an unknown patron, later finding its way into the Cremona monastery of S. Sigismondo, also contains five paintings, in which fish vendors, poulterers, and fruit sellers are joined by a group of cheese eaters and a kitchen scene (Figs. 6-10). Passarotti's four paintings have only recently been reconstituted as a series similar to Campi's two groups of paintings, thanks to an inventory that establishes their presence in the Mattel collection in Rome by 1614.2 He added the depiction of butchers to the display of fish, vegetables, and poultry (Figs. 11-14). Annibale Carracci's genre works from the 1580s are the exception to this rule of the early genre series in Italy at this time. The Bean Eater (Fig. 20) recalls the bean-eating families in Campi's fish scenes (Figs. 1, 3, 6), while his Butcher Shop (Fig. 17) echoes Passarotti's meat handlers (Fig. 11), but there is no evidence that either of Carracci's paintings was conceived as part of a series.

The sudden appearance of these scenes from daily life signals the birth of a realist genre painting in Italy, very close to the moment in which the better-known realist genre art of northern Europe was first produced. These paintings are clearly related by format and subject to the earlier Flemish market scenes by Antwerp painters Pieter Aertsen and Joachim Beuckelaer. The Affaitati banking family, with its holdings in both Antwerp and Cremona, and the Farnese in Parma, after Alessandro Farnese's long military sojourn in Flanders, both imported Antwerp paintings, and especially those of Beuckelaer. Several of these made their way, along with other paintings from the Famese collections, into the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples (Fig. 15).3 It is highly likely that Vincenzo Campi in particular had some of these works before his eyes when he painted his first fish vendors in about 1580. Moreover, the fact that the Italian works were initially produced in series of four and five paintings tics them to the later generation of painters who elaborated on Aertsen's and Beuckelaer's market formats in the 1590s, such as Lucas and Frederick van Valchenborch in Frankfurt and Jan Baptiste Saive in Brussels.4 These later northern market scenes use the format of a series to create allegories of the four seasons or the labors of the months, rooted in long-standing allegorical traditions. Despite numerous northern Italian precedents for such allegorical series in the works of the Bassano family, among others, the new iconography of the food vendors in Italy does not openly call on such well-known allegorical references.5

The other important alteration that Italian artists made to the Flemish models was the removal of biblical motifs from the backgrounds of the contemporary markets: scenes of Christ and the Miraculous Draft of Fishes are replaced in Campi's works by laborers catching the fish or picking the fruit. While it is true that some of Beuckelaer's market scenes, such as his depiction of a Osh market in the Museo di Capodimonte (Fig. 15), did not have any religious reference, their complete absence in Italy is striking and important. Gone from these Italian works are the religious and ethical issues concerning market and commerce that were the driving force behind the creation of this genre in Antwerp.6 In fact, the Italian paintings can only be called market scenes by a kind of slippage of terms derived from the northern models. …