Art versus Nature

Helen Glanville

Toward the beginning of Mellini’s rhyming inventory (on folio 1 verso), an artist is described as one who gives “life and breath to those mute colors.” Thus from the outset we are presented with a vision of the painter as a creator, a summum artifex1 who in his painting emulates the Creator of the world, breathing life into inanimate matter. This type of reference recurs frequently in Mellini’s poem, whenever he wants to denote the excellence of the painters whose works were represented in the family’s collection. Within the first two stanzas is described a nude Venus by Paolo Veronese, “so lifelike and of such beauty, that she seems to breathe” (“par spirante e vera”). In part II of the poem, on folio 8 verso, Mellini refers to the painters of the school of Domenichino, who, like their master, were able to “breathe life into paint” (“Dare ai color . . . il fiato”).

The concept—and the literary conceit—of painting emulating the act of creation is found frequently in the literature of art from Leonardo’s time onward; the act of painting is no longer seen as merely “copying” Nature but as creating in the same way as Nature does. Venetian painters, as Marco Boschini2 writes in his poem La carta del navegar pitoresco, published in Venice in 1660, do not copy Nature but create, as Nature does (“praticar la Natura, e no copiarla”). Giambattista Marino,3 in describing the way Titian painted a St. Sebastian, writes of “the hand that emulates the hand of the Creator” (“la mano imitatrice de la man creatrice”). Similarly, Boschini, in describing figures painted by Titian, says that “only breath was lacking to give them life.”

In very early texts—both literary texts of classical antiquity and those of the early church fathers—the supreme Creator is compared to a painter who creates a work of art. In Mellini’s poem, the comparison is inverted: the painter’s creation is seen as rivaling that of the Creator. Thus, in describing Jacopo Bassano the Elder’s painting The Prodigal Son (item I, 2 on folio 1 recto), Mellini tells us that “the artist shows that his art conquers Nature” (“Mostra che l’arte sua vince Natura”). In Marino’s eulogy of his friend Caravaggio, Nature “is vanquished in every image / That you created rather than painted” (“Da la tua mano in ogni imagin vinta, / Ch’era da te creata, e non dipinta”). The recurring conceit is that the art of painting triumphs over Nature and Death because it outlives both its creator and its subject.

Painted objects that appear so real as to delude the viewer constitute another recurrent theme in Pietro’s poem, as it was in the literature with which he was certainly familiar. In the case of a portrait attributed to Giorgione (item I, 23 on folio 4 recto, depicting a man wearing a fur-lined mantle), we are told that not only is the viewer’s sense of sight deceived but also the sense of touch: “He has mimicked in such a natural way / The fur mantle in which the sitter is wrapped, / That the eye is deceived, as is the sense of touch.” A still life (item II, 28 on folio 10 verso) attributed in both the 1680 inventory and the 1681 poem to Guercino but more likely painted by Guercino’s younger brother, Paolo Antonio Barbieri, is “so lifelike, the eye is deceived” (“Tanto simile al vero l’ochio deluso / A stimarla non finta ogn’hor s’indura”). This same conceit is found in Marino, in Bellori, and in many other writers from the sixteenth century onward; it is linked to anecdotes in classical texts that sing the praises of the great painters of antiquity such as Apelles4 and Zeuxis,5 extolling the power of painting to deceive the eye. By also deceiving the eye, these “modern” painters of Pietro Mellini’s time were raised to the same level as their great forebears. Pietro could imagine no greater praise than to say that they rivaled or even surpassed Apelles or, indeed, the Creator of the world.


  • 1. The Latin expression “greatest of all Creators/the Absolute Creator” was applied to the Primum Mobile (Prime Mover) in antiquity, and in Christian times to “God the Creator.”
  • 2. Marco Boschini (1613–1678) was a Venetian painter, engraver, and art dealer noted for several publications: La carta del navegar pitoresco (1660), a panegyric poem about Venetian painting; Le minere della pittura veneziana (1664), and Le ricche minere della pittura veneziana (1674), two city guides to Venice; and I gioielli pittoreschi: Virtuoso ornamento della città di Vicenza (1676), a guide to the city of Vicenza.
  • 3. Giambattista Marino (1569–1625), a Neapolitan poet who spent the greater part of his career in Paris, was most famous for his epic poem L’Adone (Adonis), first published in 1623. La galeria del cavalier Marino, Distinta in pitture, & sculture (The Gallery of the Cavalier Marino, Divided into Paintings, & Sculptures), first published in Milan in 1620 and reprinted numerous times during the following decades, is a poetic description of a “virtual gallery” of real and imagined paintings and sculptures. A full digital facsimile is available at
  • 4. A Greek painter of the fourth century BCE, Apelles is considered one of the greatest painters of his day.
  • 5. A Greek painter of the late fifth century BCE to early fourth century BCE, Zeuxis created works renowned for their realism.