by Roderick Conway Morris

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Milan's Elusive Bohemians

By Roderick Conway Morris
MILAN 12 September 2009
Private Collection
Naviglio under Snow by Giovanni Segantini, 1879-81



The 19th-century novelist Carlo Righetti coined the term 'Scapigliatura' (from scapigliato, meaning disheveled, unkempt, loose living) to describe Milan's version of Paris's artistic Bohême. Like their French confrères, the Scapigliati were against the church, the establishment, the bourgeoisie and tradition, and in favor of individualism, hedonism, sexual freedom, drunkenness and general degeneracy.

Arrigo Boito, author of the librettos of Giuseppe Verdi's last works, including 'Otello' and 'Falstaff,' and now the best remembered of the Scapigliati outside of Italy, was a founding member. In 1863, Boito published 'All'Arte Italiana' (To Italian Art), subtitled 'A Sapphic Ode with Glass in Hand,' to which he drinks to the health of Italian art, newly liberated from 'the blindness of the old and cretinous,' whom he excoriates for having besmirched the altar of art 'like the walls of a brothel.' Unfortunately, Verdi interpreted the verses as including himself among the geriatric vandals and subsequently resolutely refused to work with Boito - thus postponing for two decades what turned out to be a fruitful partnership.

There was a strong progressive political element in the Scapigliatura, whose adherents were often almost as hostile to the post-unification royalist regime as they had been to the Austrian occupiers, from which Milan had been liberated in 1859. Manifestations of the phenomenon in journalism, literature, theater, even in music, are fairly clearly identifiable. But trying to define the Scapigliatura in the visual arts has proved a far more thorny issue.

This is the challenge taken up by 'Scapigliatura,' an ambitious exhibition of more than 260 paintings, sculptures and drawings at the Palazzo Reale, curated by Annie-Paule Quinsac. A parallel, smaller show, 'La Scapigliatura e Angelo Sommaruga,' at the Biblioteca di Via Senato, concentrates on the periodicals and books of the era and the subsequent eventful career of Sommaruga (who escaped a lengthy prison sentence by decamping to Argentina), the precocious young editor of 'La Farfala,' a leading publisher of Scapigliatura writing and caricatures.

All the painters Ms. Quinsac classes as precursors of the Scapigliati - notably Federico Faruffini, Filippo Carcano and Mose Bianchi - and full-blown representatives of the movement - Tranquillo Cremona, Daniele Ranzoni and the sculptor Giuseppe Grandi - attended the Brera Fine Arts Academy in Milan. 'The Reader,' Faruffini's tribute to the female intellectual - the painting is of a young woman enjoying a book and a hand-rolled cigarette, 'In Church' and a Faruffini self-portrait are three of the most striking images in the first rooms of the exhibition. He was clearly one of the most talented of the Brera graduates, but he abandoned painting for photography, and he committed suicide in 1869, while in his late 30s.

The core of the show is thereafter devoted to Cremona, Ranzoni and Grandi, who were dubbed the 'Trinity of Giant Dwarves' because all three were diminutive in stature. The painters turned their backs on the historical, classical, genre themes and landscapes that had been the staple of Italian art in the first half of the 19th century, favoring portraiture, intimate domestic vignettes and whimsical, sentimental scenes - often involving small children and furry animals. Cremona, Ranzoni and their followers (the most remarkable of whom was Luigi Conconi) liked to paint rapidly, believing this would help achieve a sense of spontaneity and immediacy. They cultivated an extreme form of 'sfumatura,' blurring lines and colors and creating, in the words of the critic Anna Maria Brizio, 'chromatic variations that envelope the figures in a vaporous halo of indeterminacy.'

These decorative but insubstantial works, hardly calculated to alienate bourgeois clients, are redolent of chocolate box art. Ranzoni became artist-in-residence with a studio of his own at the villa of Prince and Princess Troubetzkoy and teacher to their three children. One of them, Paolo, became a sculptor and another, Pierre, a painter. Their pieces in the exhibition show what a marked influence Ranzoni had on them.

The third member of the 'Giant Dwarves' trio, the sculptor Giuseppe Grandi, was also influenced by his painter colleagues, his pieces becoming increasingly indistinct in outline during the 1870s, while achieving an expressiveness greater than that of Cremona and Ranzoni. Grandi was in turn to have an effect on subsequent sculptors, including the Futurist Medardo Rosso.

In 1881, Grandi won the commission to design the 'Cinque Giornate' monument to the fallen of the Milanese uprising against their Habsburg rulers in 1848. For this dignified but dynamic work he adopted a style that was in some respects more conventional, but informed by his more experimental impressionist pieces. Grandi spent much of the last 13 years of his life on this project and his scale model for the monument and full-scale gesso casts of components of it are on show here.

On May 5, 1881, King Umberto I and Queen Margherita opened the 'Esposizione Nazionale' of Italian arts, industry and commerce in Milan's Public Gardens. Just over a month later the Scapigliati issued a counterblast with their 'Indisposizione di Belle Arti' (Indisposition of Fine Arts), sending up the official event. The catalog of the show, 'The Golden Book' - wrapped in gilded confectioner's paper - instructed visitors 'to deposit their shadows in the place provided to avoid excessive overcrowding.' The catalog was full of joke artists' names and satirical descriptive entries, the entire absurdist performance the forerunner of later Futurist and other avant-garde 'happenings.'

Prominent among the organizers of the 'Indisposizione' was Vespasiano Bignami, founder of 'La Famiglia Artistica,' an alternative artists' club that came to be nearly synonymous with the Scapigliatura. In the early 1890s Bignami's wife, Beatrice Speraz, published a novel under the pseudonym Bruno Sperani titled 'La Fabbrica' (The Factory), in which she deplored the destruction of Milan's picturesque architecture and green spaces by speculators and the construction of cheap, substandard housing for the working classes. Concern for the plight of workers and revolutionary remedies were common themes in Scapigliatura literature. But unlike painters in France and Britain, Milan's bohemian artists seem to have shown little inclination to record city life.

Exceptions were painters on the fringes of the Scapigliatura, like Mose Bianchi, Giovanni Segantini and Emilio Gola. And a section of evocative urban scenes by these and others has some of the most attractive and atmospheric canvases in the exhibition.

Scapigliatura. Palazzo Reale, Milan. Through Nov. 22.

La Scapigliatura e Angelo Sommaruga. Biblioteca di Via Senato, Milan. Through Nov. 22.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024