In 1577 Grand Duke Francesco invited a young, practically unknown artist from Verona to join his court. Born into a family of artisans and embroiderers, Ligozzi had already visited Vienna and impressed the Hapsburg court with a series of remarkably realistic paintings of animals on vellum. In Florence, where he remained until his death, Ligozzi produced elegant paintings depicting the plants and animals found in the Medici gardens and menageries. The artist combined technical refinement with a deep sensitivity to the minutiae of the natural world, not unlike Leonardo and Dürer before him. Painting directly from live models, he adopted a rigorous, new approach: he shows many of his plants with their intricate root systems intact, and he includes newly formed buds as well as fading petals and leaves, not just a flower in full bloom.
In his later years, Ligozzi became the head of the Galleria dei Lavori, or grand-ducal workshop, where he provided botanical designs for sumptuous embroidered textiles and the newly popular medium of pietre dure, mosaics of semiprecious stones and colored marbles.
Giovanna Garzoni, one of the most important female artists in Italian history, was renowned throughout the courts of Europe. Born in the region of the Marches in central Italy, she studied in Rome, dedicating herself to botanical painting and the new genre of still-life painting. During the nine years she spent in Florence (1642-1651) in the service of Ferdinando II and his brothers, the cardinals Giovan Carlo and Leopoldo, she became one of the preferred artists of the Medici court. Her paintings depict plants with their roots and flowers, in the scientific tradition of Ligozzi, but she animates her compositions by adding insects, reptiles, and small fruits and nuts, each casting a faint shadow on the page. Overflowing ceramic bowls of fruit were another favorite theme, containing fruits that were sought after in the seventeenth century to grace the tables of the aristocracy not only as a pleasure to the palate but also as a delight to the eye.
These vibrant paintings display a conscious yet subtle balance between scientific realism and decorative effect. Garzonis abundant bouquets, some in reflecting glass vases, are set on a marble slab or table, adding for the first time a sense of space. She preferred cultivated varieties of anenomes (the favorite flower of Giovan Carlo), tulips, narcissi, carnations, jasmine, bellflowers, and buttercups.
Bimbi, a Florentine artist with little formal training, painted still lifes of remarkable scientific accuracy. He specialized in portraits from nature, that is, the portrayal not of persons but of flowers, plants, and animals. His canvases decorated the walls of many aristocratic villas. These large-scale scenes of monstrous and odd specimens of flowers, vegetables, and fruits, which were grown in gardens amid fierce competition for the largest or most unusual hybrid, are complete with inscriptions listing the name of each specimen and when and where it was gathered. Notwithstanding this scientific approach, Bimbis subjects are arranged in picturesque compositions against landscape backgrounds, piled high on costly carpets and drapery, or placed among antique statuary. His patron, Cosimo III (1642-1723), was a gloomy and eccentric ruler, but he had a decided interest in botany, perhaps spurred by his rigid vegetarian diet, and the arts flourished under his reign. Also fond of exotic animals, he constructed a large menagerie in the Boboli garden behind Palazzo Pitti in Florence.