Jan Brueghel the Elder or “Velvet” Brueghel Allegory of Fire


Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana


1608 - 1610


1460 x 660 mm



historical period


Exhibit Artwork

Artwork Details

In a large forge inside a cave and between the ruins of an ancient building, group of workers produce various objects using the fire. Armors, jugs, work tools, glass, jewelry, crystals and various instruments are piled on the ground or on tables in the foreground. This representation of fire as an instrument that is used and tamed by man for his needs contrasts with the background scene on the right. Here, beyond the objects in the foreground, stands out a wooden relief with the ruins of an ancient temple, resembling the temple of Vesta in Tivoli, which Brueghel copied during his stay in Rome. There is also a fire, perhaps an eruption, evident reference to the fire and lava coming from an active volcano and to the enormous power of this element of nature that man does not always manage to tame. On the left side of the painting there is a big brass chandelier, decorated with an eagle with two heads, that contrasts the scene illuminating the cave and the plants. There are also Venus and Vulcan in the scene, recalling the art of the classical world. Vulcan is the god of fire in ancient mythology, who forged a special armor at the request of his wife Venus, that would protect Aeneas, son of the goddess, during the Trojan war. On the walls of the cave and the old ruined building there are various writings, such as “salmonia”, “acqua” and “mercuria” alluding to the work of Pieter Brueghel the Elder, father of the artist, which represents the Alchemist. The painting is teeming with demons and other fantastic creatures and it has been defined as a real museum for its many details and various different figures and objects. In fact, the copper here is reminiscent of the collections of rare and precious small objects, plants, minerals and alchemist artifacts, gathered by educated amateurs and exhibited in their cabinets. This idea of representing the knowledge in an encyclopedic way was very popular during the 16th and 17th centuries. The artist repeated the theme in other works and he painted the series of the Four Elements several times, a sort of encyclopedic representation of the world. The cycle is characterized by an imaginative and original interpretation of elements, also included in the Allegory of Earth, painted in 1611 (Paris, Louvre), the Allegory of Water, completed in 1618 and also preserved in Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, and the Allegory of Air from 1621, preserved today at Louvre museum. The four paintings remained in Milan’s Pinacoteca Ambrosiana until 1796 when the French took them to bring them to Napoleon’s Museé Universel. In 1814 only two copper panels returned to Italy. The historic resources claim that cardinal Borromeo commissioned the works for his collection and according to the correspondence between him and the artist, they were also for his delight. Pinacoteca Ambrosiana’s painting is signed and dated 1608 and it is the first one of the series and the most original of all.

Artist Details

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Jan Brueghel came from a family of artists. He was the second son of Pieter Brueghel the Elder, who died when Jan was only 1-year-old and he was the brother of Pieter the Young and father of Jan the Young, who became famous Flemish artists between the 16th and 17th centuries.

He trained in his family’s workshop studying his father’s works, then he went to school in Antwerp with Pieter Gotkind and in the end of the 16th century Jan stayed twice in Italy, the first time for four years. In 1595 he met Cardinal Federico Borromeo in Milan, the great collector and patron of artists. The prelate took Jan under his wing and he did the same with his son, who was also a painter.

Borromeo admired still lifes and the silent and naturalistic painting of the Flemish artist, which was very different from the modern interpretations of Caravaggio’s style, dark and dramatic. Jan worked also in Rome and he painted small paintings for Cardinal Borromeo that can be grouped into two allegorical series; the series of Elements and that of Five Senses which today are preserved in Museo del Prado in Madrid.

In 1598 he returned to Flanders, Antwerp and enrolled in the Guild of St. Luke, the guild of painters. Brueghel continued to paint similar subjects, still lifes and flowers, but also landscapes often in collaboration with other artists, such as Peter Paul Rubens. In fact, he often painted the natural landscape while the collaborators painted the figures.

In Brussels the artist painted small landscapes, also on copper, for Archduke Albert and his court, but then he moved again to Antwerp where he had become very famous and where he eventually died of cholera epidemic.

In Italy Jan is also known as Brueghel of Velvets or Flowers for his extraordinary capacity to represent clothes with that fabric and flowers, such as tulips, daisies, sunflowers that came from America and were considered rare and exotic species.

Brueghel is also known as Paradise painter because the flowers, plants and fruits he painted were so perfectly represented that they seemed to have been collected in Paradise.

Collection Details

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Pinacoteca Ambrosiana was established in 1618 by cardinal Federico Borromeo, when he donated his art collection to the Ambrosiana library, which was founded by him as well in 1607. The building was named after the patron saint of Milan, St. Ambrose.

It was the first museum in the world to be open to the public. The history of the Pinacoteca and the library goes hand in hand, as this was also the first library to be open to the public. The book collection includes prestigious volumes, among them Petrarch’s Virgil with illuminated manuscript by Simone Martini and Da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus, donated in 1637 by Galeazzo Arconati.

In fact, cardinal’s plan was to display art with its symbology and evocative power to serve Christian values reaffirmed by the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which were threatened by the diffusion of the Protestant reformation.

The academy was added in 1637 and transferred to Brera in 1776. It was supposed to be an artistic school of painting, sculpture and architecture which would allow the students to learn from the great models of the history.

The building was designed by architect Fabio Mangone (1587-1629) and it is located in the city center. The space is expanded over 1500 square meters and divided into twenty-two rooms. The cardinal illustrated the works and the objects himself in his book in Latin, Museum (1625), which still today represents the main nucleus of the Pinacoteca.

Through commissions and purchases Federico Borromeo’s collection grew with the paintings of Lombard and Tuscan schools, among them works by Raphael, Correggio and Bernardino Luini and casts from Leone Leoni’s workshop, arriving to a total of 3000 artworks of which 300 are exhibited.

There are great masterpieces such as the Portrait of a Musician by Leonardo Da Vinci (1480), Madonna del Padiglione by Botticelli (1495), the cartoon for the School of Athens by Raphael (before 1510), the Holy Family with St. Anne and Young St. John by Bernardino Luini (1530) and the Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Jacopo Bassano (1547).

A great part of the collection is dedicated to landscape and to still life, because the Cardinal saw the nature as an important tool raising the human mind into the Divine. For this reason, Federico collected Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit and the miniature paintings by Jan Brueghel and Paul Brill.

After the cardinal’s death the collection was enriched with the donations of the artworks from 15th and 16th centuries, such as the frescoes by Bramantino and Antonio Canova and Bertel Thorvaldsen’s marble self-portraits. Museo Settala, one of the first museums in Italy, founded by canonical Manfredo Settala (1600-1680), was joined to Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in 1751. The museum is a sort of science history museum with a variety of curiosities of all time.

During the period of growth, the museum required some structural and architectural changes as well, including the expansion of the exhibition halls between 1928 and 1931, which were decorated with 13th century miniature motifs of Ambrosian codes, and between 1932 and 1938 a new series of restorations was implemented under the guidance of Ambrogio Annoni. The renowned readjustment in 1963 was curated by architect Luigi Caccia Dominioni and the museum excursus was concluded with the current reorganization between 1990 and 1997.