Until the Renaissance, elements of still life, often imbued with symbolic or ritual significance, appeared as subordinate subject matter in religious or allegorical paintings. Hellenistic frescoes and mosaics from Pergamon, Alexandria, Rome, and Pompeii included depictions of plants and food in which a trompe l'oeil illusionism was often stressed. In early Christian and Byzantine religious paintings still-life elements were handled in a schematized and symbolic fashion until the end of the Middle Ages. Franco-Flemish paintings of the late Gothic era revealed close observation of natural details, as seen in much of the period's manuscript illumination.
At the beginning of the Italian Renaissance such detail was handled far more formally and was utterly dominated by the religious theme of the work, as in the paintings of Giotto. By the 15th cent. still-life objects were used to enhance the illusion of scientific perspective, a subject of passionate study in the new humanism. At that time still life became a separate genre in Italy; it was used to great effect by masters of marquetry.
It was in the religious works of Northern European masters that the revival of the study of nature was most completely revealed. The van Eycks, van der Weyden, van der Goes, and Robert Campin, to name but a few, observed carefully and recorded exactly objects of everyday use and subjects from nature. They incorporated these into religious works, giving them more and more importance until the still-life elements appeared in the foreground and diminished the religious, or landscape subject, as in the works of Aertsen and Beuckelaer.
Specialists in the handling of specific textures or effects such as glass, fur, plants, and the translucence of grapes came into being. Where Italian artists had communication with Northern masters, their works reflected the Northern interest in still-life subjects. The direction of this influence was reversed by the time of Caravaggio. Specialty pictures were the first major separate still lifes. These included works on the vanitas vanitatum theme featuring skull, hourglass, candle, book, and flowers in their iconography, as well as the banquet pieces that had become popular with collectors of 1600.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.