Still Life with Musical Instruments, c. 1710–1715
Cristoforo Munari, Italian (Emilian), 1667–1720
Oil on canvas
52 1/2 × 38 1/4 in. (133.4 × 97.2 cm)
The Samuel H. Kress Collection

Habits of Mind

  • DEVELOP GRIT Develop endurance / grit / desire to rework ideas / open to a range of ideas and solutions/ possess self-discipline and self-confidence

Still Life with Musical Instruments

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.






Develop Grit

Connecting to the Work of Art

A specialist in still-life painting, Cristoforo Munari worked in Rome, Florence, and Pisa. His wealthy patrons included members of the powerful Medici family. Although we know little about his training, Munari was influenced by German and Dutch still-life painters, as well as the many Italian artists who specialized in still-life arrangements containing musical instruments. Toward the end of his life, Munari continued to paint while also restoring paintings for cathedrals throughout Italy.


Still Life with Musical Instruments features an array of luxurious goods, including an elegant Oriental tapestry, fruit of various seasons, musical and scientific instruments, Chinese porcelains, Mexican earthenware vases, Florentine vases, Venetian glassware, and rock crystal. Similar objects—such as the musical instruments and colorful fruit—are often seen in the still-life paintings that influenced Munari’s style.

Beyond its realistic depiction of these objects, the painting also serves as an allegory of the five senses. Hearing is represented by the recorder, violin and bow, and sheet music. Sight is associated with the mirror and the reflection from the glass and metalware, such as the inkpot at the right of the composition. Taste is symbolized by the fruit on the plate and the wine in the Venetian glass. Fruit and flowers allude to the sense of smell, a common association in this type of work. Touch is suggested by the texture of the Turkish carpet prominently displayed in the foreground. Known as a Star Ushak, this type of rug appears in both English and Dutch still-life paintings.


Like the Dutch still-life artists who influenced him, Munari included convincing details throughout his work. In this painting, subtle reflections and judiciously placed transparencies highlight the artist’s skill. Note the blue-and-white porcelain reflected in the pewter plate. The rich tones and varied surfaces are typical of Munari’s work. Notice the care with which he rendered the texture of the rug. Munari’s clientele admired his skill but also enjoyed the aura of elegance and prosperity associated with the luxurious goods he depicted.


Conversation Starters


  • Look at all the different objects in this still life. Try to categorize them in as many ways as possible—what their use is, whether they are in light or in dark, if they are natural or hand-made… How many kinds of things can you define?
  • Conveying light and texture was important to Munari. Note the varied textures of these objects; how would you describe them?
  • How did Munari use light in this painting? Consider not only the use of light and shadow, but also the reflections and transparencies you can see in this image. 


  • Some art historians view this still life not merely as a collection of interesting objects, but also as an allegory of the five senses: hearing, sight, taste, smell, and touch. Which objects in the painting represent each sense?
  • This still life brings together many objects from many different cultures. Can you identify some of those objects and cultures?
  • Like many painters of his time, Munari worked a great deal on commission for wealthy clients. If this painting was displayed in their home, what would it say about Munari’s client?


• What other objects could an artist use to illustrate the five senses? Create a still-life painting using varying objects to represent all five senses. Pay close attention to the composition and design. Can your friends and family members determine which sense is represented by each object?

• The powerful Medici family ruled Florence from the early 1400s to 1737. Research the Medicis and their role in Italian politics and culture. Why were they so important? Which artists did they support? What is their legacy?

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.