Food For Thought is a series in which tastemakers from different fields consider their knowledge in relation to Old Masters, asking how they might offer a fresh perspective in the way one engages with the art of the past. For the inaugural installment, we asked art historian John Spike to share an art-infused dining experience.
When Nicholas Hall asked me to jot down a reminiscence that would combine ‘eating and drinking’ with ‘Lombard still lifes’, I had to think back decades to New York in the summer of 1982, when I was a young art historian embarked on my second curating assignment.
Two years before, I had guest-curated ‘Italian Baroque Paintings from New York Private Collections’ for the Art Museum at Princeton, meeting many aficionados of old Italian paintings in the process, and having lots of dinners surrounded by paintings, usually fueled by French wine, then the best available. The Princeton show was meant to be an homage to the small and informative shows staged by Robert and Bertina Suida Manning in the 1960s at the tiny Finch College Museum of Art on East 78th Street. Great collectors and experts, they had done this out of sheer love – for Italian art and for each other.
After the Princeton show, a few nostalgic New Yorkers set out to encourage more such shows, if possible. Italophiles like Bob Manning (of course), the paintings conservator Marco Grassi, the art historians Stephen Pepper and Ann Sutherland Harris, as well as John H. Dobkin, director of the National Academy of Design, settled on the idea of an impressive exhibition of Italian still lifes, which had never been done in America. The plan was to open “Italian Still Life Paintings from Three Centuries” in the National Academy’s handsome galleries on Fifth Avenue in January 1983, slightly more than a year away. As the youngest member of the group, the job of curating fell to me.
This backstory was needed to set the scene for the summoned-up reminiscence to which we have finally arrived. Beginning in late 1981, I was immersed in the pursuit of the forty to fifty pictures that would constitute a triumphant array of still lifes ranging from Lombardy to Naples. The first step was to read everything on the subject – which fortunately wasn’t too much – and make lists of the best works, then go to see them. The months passed quickly as I studied, travelled, viewed, selected, and met the twenty or so prospective lenders, mostly museum curators in Italy.
By spring of 1982, although everything was going smoothly, it dawned on me that art museums, however supportive of our plan, would be disinclined to lend more than one or two paintings at most. Much of curating consists of counting the exhibits. The following museums had generously agreed to lend more than one: Brera (2), Pinacoteca in Faenza (2), Uffizi (2), Palazzo Pitti (4), Galleria Borghese (2), Capodimonte in Naples (4), Museo di Duca di San Martina in Naples (2). The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. patriotically lent us two (2) fine still lifes. Adding the lenders of one precious picture each, the total looked to be around thirty, just enough. I was disappointed that the list did not yet include the two most important Lombards, namely, Fede Galizia and Evaristo Baschenis.
Thus it was with mingled hope and trepidation in the summer of 1982 that I accepted Marco Grassi’s offer to introduce me to Silvano Lodi, who was said to have the world’s largest and best collection of Italian still life paintings. After making a fortune as an art dealer specializing in the still lifes and landscapes by Jan Brueghel the Elder, Lodi had moved from Munich to Campione d’Italia, an elegant enclave between Milan and Switzerland. Lodi invested heavily in the pictures that he liked, and he was an expert in them too. Grassi had seen a number of magnificent still lifes at his house. As we drove the short distance from Lugano, Grassi also told me that Lodi had at least one still life attributed to Caravaggio, adding graciously, ‘but that would be up to you to decide’. (Lucky me.)
Many years later, I showed a photograph of the Ceruti to a Venetian friend in the hope he could explain the strange assortment of fish, turnips, onions, wine vinegar and a red earthenware pot. My friend smiled and said, ’These are the ingredients of a typical Venetian zuppa di pesce. The fish are the red mullet and sole of the upper Adriatic.’ As Marcella Hazan tells us in The Classic Italian Cook Book, “The very idea behind fish soup, is that it can turn virtually any combination of fish into a succulent and satisfying dish.” ❖
John T. Spike