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Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation

Persons, Collections and Topics


The Art Department has 232 watercolor paintings by Marilena Pistoia (1933–2017). Of these, 99 were published in Francesco Bianchini and Francesco Corbetta, I Frutti della Terra (The complete book of fruits and vegetables); 52 were published in their Le Piante della Salute (Health plants of the world: Atlas of medicinal plants); and 80 were published in Laura Peroni, Il Linguaggio dei Fiori (The language of flowers), all published in Italy by Arnoldo Mondadori between 1973 and 1984 and subsequently in America by Crown and by Newsweek. The artist donated all the original paintings for these books to the Institute. An additional painting of onions was commissioned by the Institute for inclusion in the 4th International Exhibition of Botanical Art & Illustration in 1976.

Among the most widely admired modern botanical artists, Marilena Pistoia created a treasured collection of watercolors covering a wide range of botanical subjects, all abounding with vibrant colors, minute details and playful compositions. Observations can be made with a magnifying glass of the tiniest prickly hairs along the swaying stem of a poppy or of a drop of water delicately gripping the edge of a plum, and her deft hand is able to illustrate as many textures through watercolor application as there are in nature, from the fuzziest leaves to the crinkliest of husks. Because of her meticulous yet graceful style and impeccable attention to detail, her works are among the most requested of the collection for study by artists and admirers of the medium.

Pistoia was born in Milan, Italy, in 1933. She received diplomas from the Artistic High School, Monza, in 1951; Academy of Fine Arts, Milan, in 1955; and the Anatomical Design School, Bologna, in 1957. From the 1970s onward she divided her time between freelance artistic practice and teaching at the Academy of Fine Art, Bologna.

Marilena Pistoia was an enigmatic character, unique in that she produced hundreds of incredible watercolors and drawings to illustrate several publications and then all but ended her practice in favor of abstract work and a teaching career focused on etching. In a letter from 1990, Pistoia stated that she "felt it was time to move on to something else," a sentiment echoed in a letter from 2002: "I met my challenge with the three books and moved on to other subjects ... I have now moved on to doing larger scale imaginative ink sketches."

Thumbnails of the Pistoia images have been added to the Catalogue of the Botanical Art Collection at the Hunt Institute database. To locate these images in the database, search on the artist's last name.

Other resources

The Hunt Institute has included work by Marilena Pistoia in numerous exhibitions and their accompanying catalogues over the years, including Flora Portrayed (1983), Fields of Grass: The Varied Uses of Grasses (1986), Botanical Watercolors by Marilena Pistoia (1989), Orchids from the Hunt Institute Collection (1990), Pretty Deadly: Poisonous Plants of Forest, Field and Garden (1991), Ensigns of the Rainbow Goddess (1993), Gifts of Winter (2000), Virtues and Pleasures of Herbs through History: Physic, Flavor, Fragrance and Dye (2007), Flora's Lexicon (2011), Duets (2014), Dangerous Beauty: Thorns, Spines and Prickles (2014), The Mysterious Nature of Fungi (2015) and Exquisite Patterns in Nature (2017).

For information about portraits of and biographical citations for the artist, see the Hunt Institute Archives Register of Botanical Biography and Iconography database.

Corn Poppy: Papaver rhoeas [Papaver Linnaeus, Papaveraceae], watercolor on paper by Marilena Pistoia (1933–2017), 35 × 25.5 cm, for Laura Peroni, Il Linguaggio dei Fiori (Milan, Arnoldo Mondadori, 1984, p. 125), HI Art accession no. 6773.56, reproduced by permission of Mondadori Electa, S.p.A., Milan.

Selected Artworks

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