“Uccellami e Fiorami” for History and Poetry in Grand Ducal Florence. The naturalistic drawings of Suor Maria Benigna Cavalcanti (Convent of Le Murate) and Suor Caterina Angelica della Vacchia (Convent of St. Chiara)
The interest in nature—expressed through artistic gardens and works of art with botanical and zoological subjects—widespread in grand ducal Florence, had a reflection in some conventual chronicles and poetical collections. The naturalistic drawings made by Suor Maria Benigna Cavalcanti in the frontispiece of the Cronache she wrote in 1598 for the convent of Le Murate (BNCF, MS Fondo Nazionale II II 509) and those of Suor Caterina Angelica della Vacchia that illustrate the manuscript of her Laudi (1634-36), in the convent of St. Chiara (BNCF, MS Conv. Sopp. B VIII 1853), are cases in point.
The Cronache of Le Murate convent is one among conventual Florentine texts that has received a wide scholarly attention. Yet, its decorated frontispiece has passed unnoticed. In it, Sister Maria Benigna shows how she was well versed in representing animals and insects, and even grotesque figures are not lacking, as the ostrich seen frontally. On the contrary, the manuscript of Laudi written and decorated by Suor Caterina Angelica never received scholarly attention. In her drawings, she adopted an objective approach, according the modest acorns, medlars, primroses, and wild green-peas’ flowers the same attention as that given to the rarest plants in the grand ducal collections as, for instance, in the drawings of Jacopo Ligozzi.
It is the aim of this paper to cast light on the sources of Suor Maria Benigna’s and Suor Caterina Angelica’s drawings, investigating the role played by manuscript illumination, printed book illustration, and direct observation of naturalistic subjects. In addition, will be examined their concern with ‘engaged imagination’ and ‘staged nature.’ Finally, by comparing their works with Jacopo Ligozzi’s and Giovanna Garzoni’s productions, special attention will be paid on the contribution both sisters made to the development of naturalism in Florence in the first half of the seventeenth century.