Still Life with Birds and Musical Instruments
Bartolomeo Bettera (1639-1680)

Still Life with Musical Instruments, ca 1680.

Oil on canvas, H. 1.14 m; W. 1.62 m

Signed upper left: Bartolomeo Bettera / F.

Provenance: Private collection, Italy

Italian still life was dominated by Caravaggio, who, at the end of the 16th century, painted the prodigious Basket of Fruit (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana), a monumental still life, starkly lit. The major centres of still life in Italy were places where the classical tradition had not been too strong, namely Naples and the Province of Bergamo. It was indeed in Bergamo that Evaristo Baschenis (1616-1677) introduced a new genre of still life, composed of musical instruments, bringing together the traditional realism of northern Italy with the poetry that arose from an objective rendering of musical instruments. In the context of the vanities and allegories of the five senses, this new genre of still life symbolised not only hearing and sound, but also the very opposite: silence.

Working with the same form of still life, his student Bartolomeo Bettera composed his paintings more densely, and employed softer contrasts of light and dark. In the works completed during his mature years, such as our painting, Bettera adopted a darker chromatic vocabulary, full of different shades of brown. The musical instruments that he depicted were often rare and very elaborate models, such as inlaid Spanish guitars.

Our painting features a precious carpet between a pile of books and sheet music, chord instruments (a violin, an archlute, a stringed bass, a small lute and a guitar) and wind instruments (a sackbut – the ancestor of the trombone – and a cornett). It was typical of Bettera to employ a technique called marouflage, in which he pasted a rough material made of jute, or plant fibre, to his canvas to better render the texture of his carpets.