by Roderick Conway Morris

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Art in northern Italy under Germanic rule

By Roderick Conway Morris
TRENT 7 August 2004
MART, Rovereto
Venus Playing with Two Doves by Francesco Hayez, 1830



For centuries Trento was a predominantly Italian city ruled by German-speaking emperors, a position that only changed in 1918, when the town and its region, the Trentino, belatedly became part of Italy.

The importance of Trento fluctuated greatly over this time. In the mid-16th century it became the center of the Roman Catholic universe, when the Council of Trent sat here, in three extended international conferences between 1545 and 1563, and gave its name to the new Tridentine Mass. At other times it lapsed into provincial obscurity, a territory on the fringes of both the Italian and Austro-German worlds. Yet, whatever its political fortunes, it remained a point of exchange between Italian and Germanic culture.

The local reawakening of consciousness of Trentino's historic cultural role has led over the last decade to a number of initiatives, the most ambitious being the creation of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rovereto and Trento. The first site, dedicated to 20th-century and contemporary art, was opened in its splendid new building, designed by the Italian-Swiss architect Mario Botta, about 18 months ago.

The Trento section of the museum, located in the restored Palazzo delle Albere and devoted to 19th-century and pre-World War I art, has just been unveiled. The 16th-century palazzo was the summer residence of the prince-bishops who, under the German imperial aegis, presided over the religious and temporal affairs of the region until 1796; it provides a charming setting for the arts of the period.

As with the opening of the Rovereto museum, the inaugural exhibition is built around the permanent collection and works on long-term loan - both impressive in quality - augmented by appropriate shorter-term borrowings from major international collections, which will be periodically substituted over time. The present exhibition, 'The Century of the Empire: Princes, Artists and the Bourgeoisie from 1815 to 1915,' continues until Oct. 31.

An early stimulus to the artistic scene in Trento in the post-Napoleonic era was the arrival there of the leading Italian Romantic painter, Francesco Hayez. His initial involvement with the Trentino was the result of a commission by Count Girolamo Malfatti of Trento to execute a nude study of his mistress, the celebrated dancer Carlotta Chabert, in 1830. Shown with the title 'Venus Playing with Two Doves,' the subject in question was regarded as shockingly realistic by contemporary standards, and caused a considerable scandal at the time.

An even more influential patron in the region was a poet, littérateur and translator of German classics, Andrea Maffei, who was amassing an art collection at his villa on Lake Garda - or the 'Gardasee' to German-speakers, who tended to view the lake as their very own sunlit, God-given playground. Maffei not only commissioned Hayez, but was also often intimately involved in his pictures' themes and composition.

Two studies of a mournful young girl sitting in a high-backed chair, her shift fallen from her shoulder and exposing a shapely right breast, are telling examples of the poet and painter working together to develop an image.

The picture started life as a slightly risqué depiction of a girl who has lost her lover, but as the struggle for Italian independence was gathering pace, the girl was recruited to the nationalist cause. In the later version, Hayez added the words 'The History of Italy' to the spine of the book she is holding and a crucifix, and the painting, with the title 'Meditation,' was subtly transformed into a political allegory of Italy's melancholy lack of freedom under Austrian rule.

By 1886 most of Italy had won independence, but the Trentino found itself on the wrong side of the fence when peace was concluded between Austria and the newly reunited peninsula.

Popular feeling to free the so-called terre irredente (unredeemed lands) continued, but successive governments found it unpolitic to make it official policy.

And when in 1882 the country signed on to the Triple Alliance with Austria and Germany, renouncing its claim to the Trentino, the region looked set to remain part of Austria for ever.

While Trentino's Italian majority was crushingly disappointed in its nationalist aspirations, in artistic terms the period that followed was strikingly productive, as the varied, lively and attractive contents of Palazzo delle Albere's permanent collection amply testify.

In 1855 Rovereto acquired a new Italian-language vocational school, where in line with the Austrian empire's educational reforms - inspired by the English Arts and Crafts movement - practical artistic and design skills were fostered. Many of the Trentino's most accomplished artists, from the Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) exponent Luigi Bonazza to the Futurist Fortunato Depero, were students of this institution.

Inevitably, given the limited possibilities offered by this outpost of the Austro-Hungarian empire, many Trentino artists ended up working in Italy, where they proved themselves among the most distinguished practitioners of the second half of the 19th and the early 20th centuries.

Giovanni Segantini, represented unusually here by a series of still lifes, and Bartolomeo Bezzi, the master of atmospheric land-, town- and seascapes, are among the best-known artists. But as the display demonstrates, they are by no means the only ones worthy of attention.

Outstanding among the less familiar figures is the post-Impressionist Umberto Moggioli. Born into a Trento family of modest means, his talents were recognized locally, and with the help of two other Trentino artists, Eugenio Prati and Bezzi, he was able to study at the Fine Arts Academy in Venice. One of his most fruitful projects, inspired by the example of Gauguin and Van Gogh, was to take up residence on the lagoon island of Burano and paint the daily life of the people there. Moggioli died in 1919 of the Spanish flu at the tragically young age of 32, but he left behind a fine body of work, some of which can now be seen at Palazzo delle Albere as a result of his family's donation.

Toward the end of the 19th century, in many ways more exciting things were happening in the art world in Austria and Germany than in Italy, reflected in the breakaway 'Sezession' movements in Munich, Berlin, Vienna and Darmstadt. Several Trentino artists took advantage of this, going north rather than south to continue their training and careers.

Luigi Bonazza traveled to Vienna in 1897 and found himself at the heart of the Klimtian revolution there, in due course becoming a contributor to it.

Bonazza created some wonderful works, including a magnificent triptych on show in Trento: 'The Legend of Orpheus,' an extraordinary fusion of classical Italian skills in figure painting, French pointillism and Austrian Jugendstil.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024