Remaining buried for far too long amongst the pages of history, Italian artist Orsola Maddalena Caccia is finally becoming recognised as one of the most important female artists of the 17th century. From her convent in Moncalvo, Caccia fostered artistic endeavour in other women and contributed to the religious painting zeitgeist of the time. She would also be one of the forerunners in the popularity of still-life painting and is now acknowledged to have completed the first flower painting in Italy.
Artistic endeavour ran in Caccia’s blood. Her father, Guglielmo Caccia (1568-1625), was a successful painter. He was also her tutor, and growing up she would often help him in his studio. Here she would learn how to mix colours, to learn composition and proportion. Many of the secondary figures in his works were completed by Caccia and her sister, Francesca (1608-1628). Guglielmo Caccia was keen to encourage artistic endeavour in his daughters.
In 1620, Caccia entered a convent in Bianzè. However, owing to political difficulties in the area which were putting the convent in danger, Guglielmo Caccia sought permission to establish a convent within Moncalvo. His request was approved, and in 1625 the convent at Moncalvo was founded. Neither father or daughter could know that the convent would become the heart of Caccia’s artistic success and devotion.
Guglielmo Caccia did have his hopes for such an outcome. He would unfortunately die in the same year the convent was established, however, he left to his daughters his art tools. This was most likely done in the hopes that they would be able to establish their own workshops in the convent. Nuns who could paint and produce works of art for commissions or to sell could therefore make their own living. It was a worthy endeavour. For someone like Caccia, artistic ability running through her blood and trained under her father, it was also an achievable prospect.
Caccia completed numerous commissions for numerous clients, varying from local people to members of the nobility. She would paint a commission for one of the courtiers of Duchess Maria Gonzaga, and, most significantly, the Duchess of Savoy, Christine of France. It seems particularly significant to mention these female clients, for they demonstrate both the power of women to commission work and their support for female artists. There was a burgeoning art world for women in the 17th century, even whilst it was dominated by men.
It seems that, at first, Caccia drew from her time working with her father in her works. She reused figures and images from his pieces. This has led to some difficulties in attributing her work, as they have become mixed up with her father’s. Nonetheless, and whilst it is difficult to delineate her artistic development into a neat, straight line, she began to hone her own style.
It is unsurprising that Caccia would produce a large number of religious pieces. Indeed, perhaps she saw it as much as part of her faith as praying or any other devotional activity. These would furnish walls or act as altarpieces. In each one, a glorious use of colour illuminates the spirituality of the scene. Motifs and icons of religious meaning are settled into the pieces in their harmonious composition. Many of these paintings are very much in the mannerist style of her father, with their heightened colour and emotion.
Caccia began to blossom in her own right, however, through her interest in still-life painting. Developed predominantly in the Low Countries, still-life had not made many strides in Italy by Caccia’s time. However, there was a great interest in botany, and at her convent, Caccia would have possessed many a book and anthology filled with detailed depictions of plants and flowers. She also had, of course, her own surroundings to draw inspiration from.
With a stunning clarity of detail and colour, Caccia’s still-lifes are the first examples of flower painting from Italy. Each petal, each stem, and each plump piece of fruit has its own individual character. Nothing is lacking, each element contributes to works celebrating nature’s produce. Caccia often features her plants standing straight, vertically drawn towards the top of the canvas. These give her works a life, they blossom across the entire piece.
As Caccia’s interest developed, she began to include still-life imagery in her religious paintings. Indeed, it has been argued that Caccia transformed the contemporary interest in horticulture into a ‘Christian botany.’ ‘Saint Anthony of Padua with the Infant Jesus’ is one among many examples in which a vase of flowers fits into the composition. Caccia often fits lilies into these religious works, symbols of the virginity. Roses are clutched in the hand of Mary Magdalen, with their links to the mystery of Incarnation.
Caccia was very successful in her artistic pursuits. Whilst there were times of struggle for her convent, it earnt itself a reputation as a house of great learning and artistic education for women. A number were sent to Caccia purely for that reason. She would continue to paint well into her old age and until her death in 1676.
Many of Caccia’s works remain in place, installed in churches and as altarpieces in holy houses in the area surrounding Moncalvo. Nonetheless, a number of pieces have circulated throughout time and space, becoming confused for her father’s work or numerous other male artists. This has led to a smaller school of appreciation for Caccia’s work than other female artists of her time. She was recognised in the 18th century by Luigi Lanzi, praised alongside Artemisia Gentileschi and Lavinia Fontana, yet did not quite reach the same heights of acclaim.
Fortunately, her works are beginning to be re-attributed, and their importance is recognised within art history. In 2020, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York acquired works by Caccia which have since raised her prominence and brought global attention to her work. Now, her importance is recognised, and her individuality celebrated. Caccia’s devotion to her faith and her art makes her one of the most fascinating female artists of the 17th century.
Born in Moncalvo, Italy.
Entered the Convent of the Ursulines at Bianzè, Italy.
Foundation of Ursuline convent in Moncalvo, Italy. Father Guglielmo Caccia died.
Sister Francesca Caccia died.
Died in Moncalvo, Italy.