by Roderick Conway Morris

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Gallery of Modern Art, Milan
'The Fourth Estate,' by Pelizza da Volpedo.
Shows in Rome, Florence, Venice and Rovigo demonstrate
how Italians struggled to adapt their art to a changing world.

Italy from Bonaparte to the Belle époque

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 2 May 2008


The 19th-century Italian critic Saverio Altamura expressed his envy of 'those who had the good fortune not to be carrying on their shoulders the glorious but fearful legacy of Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Leonardo and a hundred other forerunners, difficult to equal and impossible to surpass.'

These sentiments were shared by many Italian artists and critics throughout a century that saw the long struggle for the unification of Italy. For the Risorgimento, or revival, of the country as a political entity did not seem to have delivered an equivalent contemporary Renaissance in the visual arts.

This spring has been marked by an unusually rich crop of exhibitions focusing on this period. 'The 19th Century: From Canova to the Fourth Estate,' at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome (until June 10) offers a tour d'horizon of the age. The show constitutes a kind of overlapping sequel to the 2003 'Majesty of Rome' (at the Scuderie and other venues), examining the international art scene in the Eternal City that continued to thrive between the defeat of Bonaparte and the incorporation of Rome into the Kingdom of Italy in 1870.

The more than 120 works in the new show are entirely by Italian artists from all over the peninsula and Sicily. At the beginning of the exhibition two larger-than-life Roman pugilists by Canova square up against the backdrop of 'The Fourth Estate,' an immense romantic canvas of the workers on the march toward a better, socialist future by Pellizza da Volpedo. The painting was unveiled in 1901, its title referring to the term used then to describe the laboring classes. When Canova made his boxers, he was on the verge of becoming the most famous artist in Europe. It is a sobering thought that hardly any of the artists of the scores of works that follow are known outside their homeland.

There are some real gems here, particularly in the fields of landscape and portraiture, but many were far from well received at the time. Efforts to produce a new, specifically pan-national painting gave rise to countless obscure scenes of past historical events. Francesco Hayez's costume-drama-style 'The Kiss,' which is also on the cover of the catalogue, was first shown in Milan in 1859 and seen as a symbol of the Risorgimento. It later became a more ambiguous memento of broken political promises and widespread disillusionment in the face of the realities of unification.

Domenico Induno's canvas of a disconsolate crowd receiving news of the peace terms of 1859, whereby much of northern Italy was liberated, but Venice and the Veneto remained in Austrian hands - largely thanks to the cynical self-interest of the Piedmontese monarchy - perfectly sums up the growing sense of alienation of patriots and war veterans, and their distrust of their new rulers.

The small section on the 'Macchiaioli' comes like a breath of fresh air. This homegrown Tuscan school of 'en plein air Impressionism' of the 1850s and '60s took its name - which means the 'daubers' or 'blotchers' - from the rude remarks of a critic, which they subsequently proudly adopted. The Macchiaioli were republican in politics and not only painted together but also fought together in the wars of independence (in which Raffaello Sernesi lost his life in 1866). Artistically they were reacting against the traditionalism of Florence's Academy. They enjoyed the self-sacrificing patronage of Diego Martelli - of whom there is a charming informal portrait by Giovanni Boldini here - who not only bankrolled and promoted these impoverished young artists, but had them as long-term guests at his seaside property.

There are some excellent pieces by several of the most important Macchiaioli, including Giovanni Fattori's brilliant application of the 'macchia' technique to a group of women under a beachside awning at the Palmieri resort. The artist painted this in 1866 and kept it in his bedroom until his death in 1908.

The centenary of Fattori's death is the occasion for several initiatives. The first, 'Fattori and Naturalism in Tuscany,' at Villa Bardini in Florence (until June 22), is of works by Fattori himself and other painters who to varying degrees were influenced by him. Fattori's varied output, firmly rooted in his love of the countryside, embraced battle scenes of the wars of independence and lively images of the cattlemen and cowpunchers of the Tuscan Maremma. The Museo Fattori in his birthplace, Livorno, will be displaying nearly 300 of his works (April 22 to July 6); and there will be an exhibitions of his portraits at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence from this October.

The Macchiaioli never achieved the acceptance and success of the French Impressionists. The late Mario Taragoni, an Umbrian-born banker, was a passionate collector of these unfashionable works from the 1930s onward. 'The Macchiaioli' at Palazzo Franchetti in Venice (until July 22) brings together again 60 works of the now partly dispersed original collection. The first room is given over to Fattori, the second to Silvestro Lega (1826-1895). At least half of Lega's pictures were portraits, and there are some striking examples here, such as 'Gabbrigiana.' This is of a local girl from Gabbro, where the painter stayed with the Bandini family. By the time Lega painted 'Near Gabbro,' a scene of women on a rustic road, in 1889 his sight was failing. But this stunning picture is one of the most convincing 'Impressionist' images ever painted.

Conservative artistic tastes and a lack of sympathetic buyers encouraged some of the peninsula's most talented artists to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Giovanni Boldini, Giuseppe de Nittis and Federico Zandomeneghi all spent much of their lives, and died, in France. All three are represented both in the Scuderie show in Rome and in 'La Belle Epoque: Art in Italy 1880-1915,' at Palazzo Roverella in Rovigo. This show continues until July 13.

Just as the Hollywood from the 1920s to the '40s was dominated by female stars, it was images of women that defined the Belle époque, that golden age, for the leisured classes at least, before the outbreak of World War I (which Italy did not join until 1915). This entertaining lineup of 145 paintings and posters of women by over 60 Italian artists (none a woman) shows them in the full gamut of guises from domestic goddesses to femmes fatales.

There is a notable progression here from the 'upholstered woman' of the beginning of the period, through the advent of tighter, figure-hugging fashions, to portraits of women in their boudoirs, invitingly relaxed in their peignoirs, culminating in Giacomo Grosso's 1914 'In Front of the Mirror,' a supposed study of naked female narcissism, unashamedly calculated to arouse male desire.

More risqué still is 'The Morphine Addict,' painted by Vittorio Matteo Corcos in 1899, in which the marble-white skin of the alluring siren elegantly slumped in an armchair is set off by her flame-red hair and jet-black dress, which has slipped off one of her finely sculpted shoulders, in this early manifestation of 'heroin chic.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024