by Roderick Conway Morris

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Café Rebels Who Painted Italian Light

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 15 July 2000
Studio d'Arte Nicoletta Colombo, Milan
Gabbrigiana by Silvestro Lega, 1888



As with the French-led Fauves (Savages), the Italian 'Macchiaioli' acquired a name that stuck from the comment of a hostile critic, whose response to their daring use of contrasted light and shade, color and darkness was to dub them the 'Blotchers' or 'Daubers.' In due course these radicals - one of whom anonymously attacked his own work in print for excessive subjectivity and individualism - adopted the label as a badge of honor.

The group flourished in the 1850s and '60s, shortly before the advent of the Impressionists - with whom they have often been compared - but never achieved the same level of fame. Consequently, even their best work remains comparatively little known. And there has not been a major exhibition devoted to them for nearly 25 years. So, 'The Macchiaioli, 1856-70' at the Museo del Corso here until Sept. 24, comprising nearly 100 pictures, the vast majority from private collections, is a welcome initiative.

The movement was a self-conscious reaction against Academic art and its politics were revolutionary. It was born among the young idealists that frequented the Caffe Michelangiolo in Florence, then the meeting place of progressive artists and intellectuals.

Some of its members were from Florence, such as Telemaco Signorini and Raffaello Sernesi, or like Giovanni Fattori and Silvestro Lega from nearby Tuscan towns, but others came from farther afield: Giuseppe Abbati was born in Naples and raised in Venice, and Vicenzo Cabianca came from Verona.

They not only painted together but went to war together - notably when they volunteered to fight the Austrians in the 1859 War of Independence. This experience gave rise to some of their most striking early works. But, paradoxically, it was Giovanni Fattori, the only 'macchiaiolo' not to join up, who excelled at this genre, and using his observations as a civilian onlooker of the peninsula's conflicts, went on to become the unified kingdom's leading producer of large-scale battle canvases in a more conventional style.

Just as the Impressionists drew on earlier artists as diverse as El Greco, Velazquez, Watteau, Delacroix, Constable and Turner, the Macchiaioli sought initial inspiration from foreign painters, notably Corot and the Barbizon school, from photography and more traditional Italian techniques.

Indeed, although unkindly intended, the label coined by the dismissive Florentine critic from which the group took its name, pointed to a primary source of their method. For the macchia stage in a painting - when chunks of the picture were blocked out in basic shapes and colors -- was a familiar concept in Renaissance painting, noted, for example, by Vasari in 1550.

By the 17th century the term was being used for the kind of scaled-down sketch or design roughed out by an artist - often for the benefit of a patron -- to give an idea of how the finished version would look.

The immediacy and spontaneity that could be achieved by painting in this fashion presented a bold alternative to the painstaking and potentially stultifying procedures taught in the Academy. And the complete abandonment of drawing that this implied was certainly revolutionary in Florence, where drawing had been regarded as the absolute

foundation of painting since the Renaissance. Also, like the Impressionists, the Macchiaioli abandoned the studio and went forth to confront nature and capture fugitive effects outdoors, 'en plein air.'

As to subject matter, the Macchiaioli favored country and coastal views and scenes of rustic life - although several of them also kept up an interest in portraiture - and the demands of their direct, open-air approach meant that many of their works were executed rapidly and were modest in size.

As the present show reveals, the classic macchia technique produced some miniature gems - although Giovanni Fattori's habit of painting on the panels from dismantled cigar boxes has left some of his virtuoso small pieces looking rather grainy and distressed today.

The group found a patron and champion in Diego Martelli, an energetic and magnanimous Florentine writer and critic. After he inherited his father's estates at Castiglioncello near Livorno in 1861, Martelli regularly played host to extended visits by members of the group, who did a great deal of painting there.

Martelli also wrote perceptively about Impressionism and came to know Degas, Pissarro and Manet. Telemaco Signorini, too, met Degas when the latter came to Florence in the 1850s and established a lifelong friendship with him. But by the time Impressionism was fully established, the Macchiaioli experiment was coming to an end.

The dissolution of the Italian group had several causes. Raffaello Sernesi died of his wounds when again fighting the Austrians in 1866, Giuseppe Abbati from hydrophobia after being bitten by his own infected dog in 1868, and Silvestro Lega suffered a series of personal tragedies and found himself battling against depression and failing eyesight.

The rest of the group were profoundly disillusioned, as rightist monarchists consolidated their hold over the reins of power and the brave new republican world of which they had dreamed failed to materialize.

Nor was the Macchiaioli's work much appreciated - except by a few dedicated and more far-sighted enthusiasts, such as Martelli - in an increasingly conservative atmosphere.

Nonetheless, the survivors of the group carried away with them some vital lessons, particularly in the handling of light. Even after they abandoned the pure macchia technique, its touch can still be detected in many of their pictures.

And, as this timely show confirms, although the Macchiaioli enterprise did not achieve the Impressionists' international impact, it gave rise to some fresh, genuinely innovative and still underrated works.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023