February 20, 2024

There are so many garden-like pictures that flower lovers wish they could get into more than one. Contrary to what one might think, in many of these works the plants are not a mere aesthetic resource with which to accompany those portrayed in the main scene. They are exceptional actresses who narrate what happens on the canvas or on the stage, silent narrators who explain who the person with whom they share the limelight is.

A walk through any of the abundant and beautiful Spanish museums can provide almost the same pleasures as one through the garden. There are flowers, there are birds… there is life. Plants appear that we did not see the day before: could that strawberry yesterday not be in this flight into egypt and that it has sprouted at night? When you go to a museum a lot and carefully observe its botanical part, then a garden will never be the same again.

In the park there are daisies (Bellis perennis) by Juan de Flandes, the dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) by Jan Brueghel the Elder, The Scarlet Pimpernels (Lysimachia arvensis) by Fra Angelico. That tree in the square that is now beginning to open its buds under the beneficial March sun is the same one that shelters the Holy Family in that painting. And, in this way, one day we even want to go to the museum with a watering can full of water so that a rose is encouraged to open another flower.

Vittore Carpaccio, a Venetian painter between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, appreciated plants and their flowers. In many of his works they appear represented here and there. He had a special weakness for mullein (Verbascum thapsus), a plant also much loved by many contemporary landscapers who value the strength and beauty of these wilder plants. Carpaccio portrayed the mullein in many of his works. Also appears in Young gentleman in a landscape (circa 1505), in the background and silhouetted against the lake, to the left of a predatory inn that devours some prey with relish.

'Young Knight in a Landscape', by Vittore Carpaccio.
‘Young Knight in a Landscape’, by Vittore Carpaccio.
© Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum, Madrid

This canvas, guarded by the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum, is also another pictorial garden worth analyzing. Just below the knight’s foot, to the left of the painting, grows a periwinkle plant (Vinca minor). From the same family as the oleander (nerium oleander), is a perfect ground cover, capable of vegetating in the shadows. It seems that the artist has placed it in a very striking place, also adorned by seven of its characteristic bluish flowers. Precisely because of that color, the periwinkle was often associated with the Virgin Mary in religious works. But it also has a very powerful funerary connotation, being considered in ancient times a mortuary flower, which was even planted in cemeteries or offered to deceased children. In the Middle Ages, garlands of its flowers were braided to give to those sentenced to death on their way to the gallows.

On the opposite side of the painting, in the right corner, there is another herbaceous plant with blue flowers: a violet (Viola odorata). Although she is closely linked to everything that has to do with her love, she is also related to Persephone, the Greek queen of the Underworld, who was collecting violets when she was kidnapped by Hades. Like the periwinkle, its connection with the funerary is evident, when violets were placed in the tombs of Ancient Rome. In addition, a lily flower is seen (iris germanica) visually brushing the knight’s right knee. Her scientific name is related to the Greek goddess Iris, who carried the souls of deceased women to the Land of Eternal Peace. Perhaps for this reason, since Ancient Greece it was planted in graves, a tradition that can be observed today in the Middle East.

Thanks to the work of Eduardo López for the Factum Foundation, it is possible to see how Carpaccio conceived them when he painted this work, by performing a digital reintegration that recreates those yellow lilies.
Thanks to the work of Eduardo López for the Factum Foundation, it is possible to see how Carpaccio conceived them when he painted this work, by performing a digital reintegration that recreates those yellow lilies. Eduardo López for Factum Foundation

To the far left, another lily appears (florentine iris) of white flower. The leaves of the lilies were also a symbol of the pain that the Virgin felt for the death of her son Jesus of hers. Her blades, sharp as swords, were like sadness piercing the heart. Not coincidentally, this entire area of ​​the painting is dotted with lilies, as well as other yellow lilies (Iris pseudacorus) of which only its leaves can be seen. Where are your flowers? Faded, the result of old restorations, but still visible if you look closely. Thanks to the work of Eduardo López for the Factum Foundation, it is possible to venture how Carpaccio conceived them when he painted this work, when a digital reintegration is carried out that recreates those yellow lilies, lovers of waterlogged places.

It may be that all these flowers are an offering to the gentleman, who would have already died when he was portrayed. But in this garden with funerary connotations by Vittore Carpaccio many other species arise: blue columbine flowers (Aquilegia vulgaris), the reddish fruit of the ring (Arum italicum) or feverfew daisies (tanacetum parthenium). All of them appear in a conference in the museum itself about this overwhelming botany. Spring is here, full of life, ready to be reborn in the gardens and in the paintings.

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