Historically, “Shambles” referred to a table or stall for presenting goods, especially meats, for sale. Thus, the assigned title of this painting merely describes the setting of the drama and does not indicate a disorderly mess. Present at the Museum for more than 200 years, this painting still lacks an attribution to a specific artist, although scholars suggest an origin in mid-seventeenth-century Italy, perhaps in Naples. Close stylistic examination reveals two artists at work, a well-documented practice in seventeenth-century Italy. The human figures present a gentle matte surface, creating softness in the flesh and fabrics. In contrast, the sharply rendered fish shine forth in metallic brilliance. This collaboration between two talented artists results in a painting unified through the effects of light and shade.
Edible Species of Mediterranean Fish
The bravura fish still life at the core of the work features a dozen distinct species captured with an ichthyologist’s precision, tantalizingly realized in crisply painted textures, curious shapes, and vibrant colors. On the left, a female monk fish, her great jaws agape, flashes rows of pin-sharp teeth beyond which lie creamy innards. Hanging from hooks in the center, an iridescent striped perch and partially gutted skate gleam with brilliant silvers and whites. To their right, a rather stiff cod lies diagonally, its open mouth and ribbed gills darkened in shadow. Across the front of the fish seller’s stone slab, a small upturned skate hangs over the edge, its pearlescent underbelly beaded with water droplets. Surrounding it, a scattered mess of six small and two large gurnards stick out their massive boney heads. Pairs of dark perch and brilliant red groupers complete the table’s display, which is framed by coins on the left and dark spikey sea urchins on the right. Hanging above, a small shark with spotted fins and a winged ray flank the disemboweled skate.
Associate Professor of Art History, Bowdoin College
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