Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio Basket of Fruit


Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana


1594 - 1598


608 x 470 mm


Still Life

historical period


Exhibit Artwork

Artwork Details

Located in Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Caravaggio’s Basket of fruit is the only remaining artwork together with the Supper at Emmaus of Pinacoteca di Brera in the city where the artist was born. The scene represents a wicker basket on the edge of a ledge filled with a variety of fruits and leaves. The still life is strongly three-dimensional thanks to playfully shifting lights and shadows and the basket stands out in two-dimensional light background which gives the subject an importance and centrality that is usually found in historical or mythological scenes. The painting is characterized by extreme realism and details such as the hole on the apple peel or the crumpled vine leaf, which give the canvas extremely naturalistic appearance. The fruit is represented in the process of decay which symbolizes the “vanitas” of human existence and fading nature of all things in life. The light seems to come from a natural source which gives the subject a great volume, bringing the light grapes to the foreground and leaving the leaves to the background. According to Maurizio Calvesi, the basket would be linked to Christian symbolism. The fruit is attributed for both Christ and Virgin Mary. The basket in the Song of Canticles symbolizes the bride or the Church itself and the forward placement of the basket would represent the propensity of this institution towards man. This parable would have given Borromeo, the owner of the work since 1607, a moral justification to have an interest towards illusionism and natural symbolism, typical in the Tridentine artistic culture. Still life paintings existed long before Caravaggio’s basket. However, Caravaggio has been credited as the original father of the subject. Del Monte, the commissioner of the work remembered his words “it used to take as much workmanship for him to do a good picture of flowers as it did to do one of human figures”. The Basket was commissioned by Cardinal Del Monte, who probably wanted to donate it to Federico Borromeo during his stay in Rome. The latter, having become the cardinal archbishop of Milan, later built the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana (next to already existing library) where he merged his collections, among them the artwork of young Merisi. The Basket of fruit is an oil on canvas painting probably made between 1594 and 1598 and certainly not after 1601 (which was the last time Borromeo stayed in Rome) and today it is displayed in Pinacoteca Ambrosiana of Milan.

Artist Details

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Michelangelo Merisi was born in Milan in 1571 where he studied Lombard painting with Simone Peterzano, characterized by strong naturalism and realism. When he was about 20 years old, he moved Rome and lived there at the house of Pandolfo Pucci and then with the painter Giuseppe Cesari d’Arpino. He mostly painted still lifes and flowers in his workshop.

In 1597 Caravaggio met Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, who was his most important supporter. Thanks to him Merisi met other important Roman noblemen and broadened the subjects of his paintings from simple scenes and still lifes to more complex themes. During this period he painted Rest on the Flight into Egypt. With the help of the cardinal he received his first important commission, The Calling of St. Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew for Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, where he also painted St. Matthew and the Angel. He was then commissioned to paint the chapel of Cerasi in Santa Maria del Popolo where he painted The Conversion of St. Paul and The Crucifixion of St. Peter.

Because of his difficult character, Caravaggio often found himself involved in brawls and violent incidents, when one of them culminated in murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni in May 1606. Caravaggio was sentenced to death so he fled Rome and found refuge with the help of the prince Filippo Colonna.

At the end of 1606 Caravaggio escaped to Naples, protected by the Carafa Colonna. There he was able to live in tranquility and he painted many works such as The Flagellation of Christ (Rouen, Musèe des Beaux Arts) and The Seven Works of Mercy for the Pio Monte della Misericordia.

During his years in Naples, Caravaggio’s paintings were characterized by great naturalism, strong contrasts of light and shadow and figures of common people that emerge from dark backgrounds. The paintings were more dramatic compared to the works of his time in Rome. His artistic revolution influenced a lot southern Italian painting of the time.

Caravaggio traveled to Malta in 1607 where he met the Order of the Knights of Malta and their great master, Giovanni Alof de Wignacourt. Caravaggio made a portrait of him, which today is in Louvre, Paris. In Malta he painted The Beheading of St. John the Baptist and St. Jerome for the St. John’s cathedral.

In 1608 he became a knight of grace but his turbulent and rebellious character caused problems once again. After a fight with another knight the Order found out that he was sentenced to death for his crimes and jailed him. He managed to escape and fled to Sicily, where he was hosted by Minniti. He started to study archeology and painted the Burial of St. Lucy, The Raising of Lazarus and Adoration of the Shepherds.

In 1609 he traveled to Naples, where ended up in brawls once again. Meanwhile his friend Colonna was able to get him a pardon in Rome. In July 1610 Caravaggio left Naples to travel to Rome, but he arrived to Porto Ercole where he died of an untreated viral infection.

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.