On Being Planted and Portrayed: Horticulture and Floral Imagery in Seicento Rome through the works of Anna Maria Vaiani
In the early seventeenth century, Roman nobles prized flowers for their exoticism and beauty. They constructed decorative gardens, collected rare and exotic plants, and commissioned paintings of flowers in vases to display in their palaces. Simultaneously, the proto-scientific intelligentsia of Rome, who communed under the name of Accademia dei Lincei, or Academy of the Lynx, were beginning to see the world through the lenses of telescopes and microscopes.
This radical and novel mode of looking and understanding gave way to a new era of documenting the natural world and decorating the built environment.
The field of horticulture emerged out of this combination of cultural obsession with visual delight and perceived power gained from knowing the natural world. Horticulture both drew and deviated from the long-standing study of botany. Like botany, it focuses on the practical cultivation of plants and flowers, but with the additional motive to create a delightful and aesthetic-centered result consistent with the Baroque era of symbolic grandeur. This increasingly popular study of ornamental plants quickly became a major force behind the Roman nobility’s investment in flower gardens and floral images.
In the 1630s, Jesuit professor Giovanni Battista Ferrari wrote the first western text on horticulture, Flora overo cultura dei fiori, which concerns both the practice and rhetoric of cultivating ornamental flowers in Rome. Within the book, Ferrari included practical instruction, allegorical myths, and detailed descriptions accompanied by prints drawn by the most sought- after and costly artists in Rome. These artists, as well as Ferrari were key members of the intellectual and artistic cohort patroned by the papal Barberini family and were responsible for executing vast rhetorical programs relating to the family’s power throughout Rome. The visual works commissioned by the Barberini family and their uncle, Pope Urban VIII, perpetuated an image of divinely ordained union with and power over the natural world.
This paper goes beyond the traditional confines of historical studies of gardens, botanical illustrations, and still life imagery in seicento Italy. Instead, it focuses on the element common to all three genres: flowers. Three case studies on selected works by lesser-known female painter and illustrator Anna Maria Vaiani each consider Ferrari’s rhetoric, seicento horticultural practices, and material culture to understand how nobles such as the Barberini considered and used flowers. By uniting the works through the lens of the emerging interest and investment in horticulture as an intersection of global power and delightful beauty, the traditional boundaries set by previous scholars between botanical images and still life paintings become less clearly defined.
The practice of horticulture, as primary sources suggest, used botanical data to produce visually delightful objects, such as flowers in vases and ornately planned gardens. Once flowers were visually represented in paintings, they became tools to signify the social and financial status of the nobles who owned these images, while also serving as everlasting and enchanting, portable proxies to the patron’s garden. The four works by Vaiani considered in this paper, (two still lifes, one horticultural illustration, and one plant portrait) indicate the Barberini’s habitual patronage of this female artist, Vaiani’s familiarity with horticultural practice and rhetoric, and Barberini’s leveraging of artists and flowers to inspire delight and express power at all stages of the blooms’ lives and beyond.