Bonaventura Bettera (Bergamo 1663-1718)

A Pair of Still-Lives with Musical Instruments

Oil on canvas

20 ½ x 38 in. and 22 ¼ x 39 in. (52.5 x 96 cm and 55.5 x 98 cm)
Framed 25 ½ x 43 in. and 27 x 43 ½ in. (65 x 109 cm and 68.5 x 110.5 cm)

Alessandro Morandotti has kindly confirmed the attribution to Bonaventura Bettera.

Marco Abate, ed., Evaristo Baschenis e la natura morta in Europa, exhibition catalogue, Accademia Carrara, Bergamo, 1996
Marco Rosci, Baschenis Bettera & Co, Milano 1971

Originally serving as over-doors, this pair is a rare example of the work of Bonaventura Bettera, the son and pupil of Bartolomeo Bettera (1639-c.1688). Both father and son produced still-lives with musical instruments in the tradition of their fellow Bergamasco Evaristo Baschenis (1607-1677), who was responsible for introducing this genre into the Bergamo School of painting in the 17th century. The proximity to Bergamo of the important Lombard stringed instrument manufacturing centre Cremona made it a natural city to specialise in still-lives based on a musical theme.

The attribution to Bonaventura is based on this pair’s similarities to two signed works by the artist in private collections, one dated 1718 and made for the Palazzo Passi, now Pesenti, in the Via Porta Dipinta, Bergamo and still in situ, and the second now in a Bergamo private collection, painted for the scalone of the Palazzo Grepi in Milan. Bonaventura’s work differs from his father’s in employing a cooler tonality and a broadening of the pictorial space with a decorative sense already more dix-huitième in spirit. Also unlike his father, most of Bonaventura’s work remains in private hands, although a still-life of musical instruments with a globe and armillary sphere is in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow.

Both canvases are framed on one side by similar striped curtains draped theatrically over stone parapets. In one, a celestial globe, two lutes, a violin and a trumpet are arranged on a table covered with a Turkish carpet along with musical scores and several books. The second picture includes a guitar, a recorder, a lute, a violin, a violoncello, and more unusually, a theorbo. Both paintings incorporate the motif of broken strings and a haphazard composition, suggesting the instruments have been unused and indeed forgotten for some time.

Still-life as a category of painting had been uncommon in Italy prior to the 17th century and was given an impetus by both Caravaggio and the increased awareness among Italian artists of the still-life tradition in Northern, particularly Dutch, painting. The oeuvre of Baschenis and the Betteras in Bergamo and the more eccentric Arcimboldo in Milan represents the first appearance of the genre in provincial Italian centres, and it quickly adopted very local characteristics including an emphasis on form and texture rather than the more elevated religious and mythological themes of history painting – what has been called ‘their silent geometry’. The broken strings and general sense of neglect may also be intended to evoke a vanitas theme, all the more appropriate given the ephemeral and intangible nature of music.