The Civic Museum of Mazzetti Palace keeps four still-lives made by the miniaturist Octavianus Monfort, about whom we still have fragmented information. The name of the artist appears for the first time in 1935 about a still-life included in a Parisian collection, signed and shown during an exhibition dedicated to still-life painting set in the Stein Gallery of Paris.
A more important authentic series of works is the one already located in the Castle of Settime d’Asti, which brought Monfort to prominence in 1937 and 1963, on the occasion of the great exhibitions in Turin about the Baroque art. The likely origin from Piedmont (or Asti) of the miniaturist is due to Andreina Griseri who in 1963 recognized the author of the parchments of Settime as a painter of French background, but in relationship with the medicean illuminator Giovanna Garzoni, arrived in Turin by the will of Christine of France and working at the court of Vittorio Amedeo I from 1632 to 1637.
The connections with the parchments of Gaston d’Orléans, especially with the french Nicolas Robert who was active until 1685 and with the treaties and repertories of miniaturists like Claude Boutet (1674) and the noble amateur Catherine Perrot (1686), are mentioned in the monograph written by Marco Rosci and Paride Chiapatti (1985); it was the first critical study of Monfort’s art, where they faced the chronological reconstruction of his catalogue, that included the accurate analysis of variations on the theme of fruits and flowers, with many works dated to the last twenty years of the seventeenth century. Although Monfort followed a line that in Paris saw the still-lives created by Louise Moillon (Paris 1610 -1696),his parchments show a more lively and rustic appearance, from which the symbols alluding to the transience of life are excluded.
Behind the figure of this author, perhaps there is a fair connoisseur of botany and herbal medicine, a distributor of recipes as well, but also an expert in labelling, as two cartouches of domestic type suggest, showing the same year of the parchments (1865, 1869), similar to the ones created for wines in the castles of Piedmont.
In the luxuriant compositions, in the fruitstands in embossed metal, in the white and blue ceramic basins painted by Monfort, you can see the deep connection with cooking and pantries, where supplies for winter months were preserved. The still-lives were those of a poor cooking, based on products just picked up. The parchments are made with a “pontillisme” technique mindful of details and the quiet intimism through which fruit and vegetables are offered to the viewer puts these works in a more rustic atmosphere, suitable for the country houses of Piedmont.
To piece together the biography and activity of Monfort, the archival results of the following researches conducted in 1990 were very important. The hypothetical date of the artist’s birth in the third decade of the seventeenth century is based on the important document of Christine of France, Duchess of Savoy, dated 24 March 1646, that is the License of approval for “the vassal Ottaviano Monfort”, who “having studied miniature and having earned a not mediocre profit from it” is beneficiary of a pension of “twelve hundred silver liras”. Therefore on that date the painter was already active in Piedmont and the License proves not only the appreciation acquired by Monfort at the court of Turin but also an extension of his activity by several decades.
The high level of quality and execution places the four paintings of Asti at the beginning of his career, around 1646. In addiction to the white background, distinguishable in few cases including the two tempera paintings kept in the Basilica of Superga, that show moreover the activity of Monfort for the Dukes of Savoy, you can see a bigger brightness in the chromatic application, the accentuation of the graphic line, the attention to the naturalistic aspect to characterize better fruits and flowers.
These works can be also compared to the Lombard and Flemish figurative sources dating back to the early seventeenth century, in addition to the parchments of Giovanna Garzoni, also because of the use of white and light backgrounds. Another reference to the models of the paintress is recognizable in the presence of the river crayfish, which appears in the miniatures of Garzoni described in the inventory of the Castle of Valentino. Fruits and vegetables are combined with few flowers compared to the following miniatures: one carnation, peonies and bindweeds.
The origin of the paintings from the house of the Mussi Isnardi family adds other precious data about the customers of Monfort and the destination of his works to the noble residences of the province. The paintings reached the Civic Museum of Asti in 1989 through the donation of Maria Teresa Bona, the nephew of the lawyer Carlo Mussi Isnardi (1860-1954). The document brought to completion the rich bequest in favor of the Municipality of Asti by the latter, magistrate and cassation councillor, as well as the last member of one of the most important families of Asti. The handwritten will dated 1954 helps to understand the most remote collecting events, especially about the nucleus of paintings already preserved in “La Quaglina” villa located in San Marzanotto, in that time a building just become a property of the Congregation of “Oblati di San Giuseppe” by the will of the lawyer; but we know it will be inhabitated in the eighteenth century by Lodovico Cagna, a canon of the Collegiate church of St. Secondo, who was the promoter of the construction of the Chapel of St. Luis in that same family house.
The donation included the miniature portrait of the royal notary Francesco Benedetto Mussi, a well-known exponent of the ruling class of Asti in the eighteenth century and great-grandfather of Carlo Mussi Isnardi. In this character we can recognize the commissioner of the altar piece depicting the “Madonna with the Child and St. Benedetto” painted in Rome in 1764 by the Sicilian Michele Vecchio and destined to the church of St. Anastasio, no longer existing today. The canvas, now preserved in the Historical Archives of Palazzo Mazzola, is one of the rare non-aristocratic commissions involved in the Baroque renovations of the religious buildings of Asti during the second half of the eighteenth century (Rocco, in La città di Asti in Piemonte, 2017, pp. 126-127). The important relations of this family with prominent figures of the Asti clergy, including Urbano Isnardi, the founder of the homonymous Opera Pia, is another aspect that helps to define better the nature of this rich donation. Only in the case of the parchment depicting “The Shroud inside a garland of flowers” (n. Inv. 70) the will mentions the ancient properties of the canons Bernardo Quaglino (1666), Claudio Cagna (1732) and Secondo Mussi, who was the chapter vicar of Asti and uncle of the legatee (Rocco in Nella città d’Asti, 2017, p. 126). However, it is not excluded that also the “Portrait of the Cleric” made by the famous miniaturist abbot Felice Ramelli and especially the still-lives of Monfort belonged to the religious collectors of Asti, certainly accompanied by the seventeenth-century parchments showing birds and flowers created by an anonymous Piedmontese painter based on the models by Carlo Battaglia called Paiola (Turin, news since 1620 – before 1664) and Carlo Conti.