Ligozzi: wonders of an expanding world

In 1577, Ligozzi was called to Florence by Francesco I Medici, a despotic Grand Duke with refined tastes, son-in-law of Ferdinand I of Habsburg, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

In Florence, despite the Renaissance cycle being exhausted, there was still a dense network of international relations, it was crossroads for people and knowledge, there was an interest in science that would soon see the advent of Galileo Galilei and the scientific method.

Ligozzi came from a family of Veronese painters and embroiderers, he was able to master the most varied artistic techniques. However, for the ten years he stayed in Florence, he ventured exclusively for the Medici, in the creation of a large corpus of naturalistic illustrations, life-size, now kept in the Uffizi Department of Prints and Drawings (GDSU) -and to a small extent at the University Library of Bologna-. The Medici repaid the exclusivity by granting him a very high salary, lower only than that of Giambologna.

This kind of painting was in great demand at that time, thanks to the geographical discoveries that extended the boundaries of the known world and brought back wonderful flora and fauna, which aroused much interest in the European courts. Thanks to Ligozzi’s extraordinary gifts, suche animals and plants would have lived forever.

In 2014 ArtTest, commissioned by the GDSU and in collaboration with S.T.Art-Test, had the extraordinary opportunity to conduct a diagnostic campaign on 16 painted panels attributed to Jacopo Ligozzi with plants, flowers, mammals, birds and reptiles from the most disparate areas of the world and which Ligozzi studied to the point of making portraits, which according to his contemporaries “lacked nothing but spirit”.

These are, in fact, out of the ordinary works both for the particular technique of realization, tempera on paper, with gold and silver highlights, and for the indisputable perfection they show.

The appreciation by the court and important natural history scholars of his time, first of all Ulisse Aldrovandi, made him the prototype for all subsequent documentary images, for example for the choice of describing subjects without setting.

The meticulous study of details by Ligozzi still arouses amazement and invites us not to leave out even an inch of what is painted and, considering that this is the feeling experienced by scholars and by those who visited the exhibition entitled Jacopo Ligozzi “Universalissimo Painter ”(Palazzo Pitti, Florence, 27 May-28 September 2014), we can only imagine what the reaction of the people of the sixteenth century was.

Despite the exceptional nature of this artist, the technical and scientific investigations of his works represent a rarity. The study performed by ArtTest remains the most important in terms of data acquisition and interpretation of results.

The client’s request had been to investigate and document, through the use of exclusively non-destructive analyzes, the modus operandi in the compositional system of the work and the materials present in the color backgrounds and in the preparation of the paper, so as to confirm, for the 16 tables under analysis, the attribution to Ligozzi or disproving it in favor of imitators.

The XRF elemental data relating to specific spots of the tables were accompanied by imaging investigations in natural light, under the microscope, in IR reflectography, in UV and with the Multilayer © Method, favoring infrared reflectography and X fluorescence as investigation methods for the characterization of the drawing technique and the kind of pigments present in the individual sheets.

After having collected a substantial amount of data, starting from the study of each single painting, we proceeded to an overall analysis and a comparison between the various works in order to determine if within the investigated corpus there were discrepancies and significant recurrences.

The interpretation of the results made it possible to identify the presence of classical type pigments, compatible with the proposed dating, or with the period of activity of Jacopo Ligozzi, on all the works analyzed, even if it is good to consider that these were used for a long period both before and after the end of the sixteenth century. A characteristic aspect found only on some tables, however, is the considerable use of dyes, generally organic materials, which unfortunately are not directly detectable with fluorescence X, but are deducted by exclusion. There are other analyzes that could be complementary and therefore useful, for example, to the collection of detailed information on the organic-based dyes used and probably obtained from the pressing or maceration of plants and flowers.

However, the research and study of the preparatory design showed further differences within the group of tables examined. The signed and dated works show a preparatory drawing probably carried out with a pencil sometimes passing over these traces with a pen, or with a brush with carbonaceous ink. The pen or brush used made it possible to obtain  very thin lines of the order of hundreds of micrometers. These tables show no variation of the initial design compared to the final version.

In a second group, that is almost all the other unsigned paintings in the series, the outlines in pencil are still present, but these are overlaid with a more full-bodied stroke, probably with ink.

In a third group, composed by the works of the Santarelli collection, however, a drawing traced with a carbon based medium is not visible. The Santarelli collection, comprising a large number of ancient and modern drawings, collected by the Florentine sculptor Emilio Santarelli and donated to the Uffizi Gallery, also includes paintings that are very similar, at first sight, to those of Ligozzi, but not on a technical level.

During this diagnostic campaign, two tables from the Santarelli collection were studied in detail, depicting a fish and a crustacean respectively. These, as already mentioned, unlike the other paintings not only do not show any preparatory drawing made with a carbon-based medium and, although the same pigments were found as the others, they show a different use of white lead and a different preparation of the support, characterized by the presence of Pb, absent in the other tables, and by a greater intensity of the signals relating to Fe and Mn which suggest a different preparation of the paper.

Therefore, the “Santarelli” tables, while presenting to the naked eye observation, a strong resemblance to those attributed in a certain way to Ligozzi, do not present elements to argue that they are the work of the same hand as those signed by Ligozzi.

It can, therefore, be hypothesized that Ligozzi’s modus operandi envisaged a preparatory drawing, made in pencil, and overhauls in pen or with a very fine brush. Corrections in progress, when present, are always minimal compared to the original design. We also have reliable data on the preparation of the paper and the materials used, including a copious use of organic dyes.

In conclusion, we can say that through these non-invasive analyzes the way has been opened for a more in-depth understanding of the technique of making Ligozzi’s spectacular naturalistic tables and a few more secrets about this multifaceted artist and his mastery of pictorial means.

Art-Test had the opportunity to study other works by this artist, now in private collections.