by Roderick Conway Morris

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Ca' Pesaro, Venice
Snow and Fog on the Grand Canal by Ippolito Caffì, 1840

From the mists of Venice to the spectacle of the siege

By Roderick Conway Morris
BELLUNO, Italy 4 November 2005


Few painters have led such hazardous lives as Ippolito Caffì, or treated danger as so much in the normal line of an artist's business.

Born in 1809 in this small town in the Dolomites, he embarked when still in his midteens on a peripatetic career that would see him wandering throughout Italy, through France, Spain, Switzerland, England and the Near and Middle East. A passionate supporter of Italian liberty, he fought in battles and sieges, chronicling them with pen and brush. He was imprisoned, tortured, exiled and, on one occasion, narrowly escaped being hanged.

One of the first war artist-cum-reporters, his determination to record the action on the front line eventually cost him his life.

Caffì was a major force in revivifying 19th-century Italian view painting, yet his name is now little known outside his native land. Unfortunately, of his many works that found their way abroad, almost all remain unseen in private collections. A good number of these have temporarily returned to Italy, to join a total of more than 180 pieces from public and private collections, for 'Caffì: Lights of the Mediterranean.' The show continues until Jan. 22, before goingto Palazzo Braschi in Rome (Feb. 15 to May 2), and St. Petersburg (June to August).

By the age of 17, Caffì was studying at the Venice Fine Arts Academy and became a prize winner. But he rebelled against what he saw as the stuffy academicism of his teachers and resolved to move to Rome to go it alone. (He was later offered a professorship at the Academy, but turned it down.) His talents blossomed, as had Canaletto's before him, in Rome. He even began there as a theatrical scene painter, as Canaletto had, although unlike his predecessor he was not professionally trained in this craft.

But Caffì soon secured other commissions for frescoes and launched himself as a view painter, often choosing unusual angles that caught the eye of local and foreign buyers. But above all in these early days, he proved himself a master of teeming festive scenes, especially nocturnal views of them, with dramatic chiaroscuro contrasts, illuminated by the flares of Roman candles and exploding fireworks. One of these, 'The Last Night of Carnival in Rome,' proved such a success that he eventually produced more than 40 versions of it. He went on to do no less popular renditions of similar events in Venice.

The urban views of Canaletto and Guardi were for the most part relatively static. But Caffì's often contained surging crowds, hundreds of revelers, reflected and silhouetted in a spectrum of colors and shades of light and darkness. As he noted himself: 'Pictures of spectacles are not for every artist.' It required a peculiar, almost hyperactive kind of mentality to capture a whole spectacle, 'holding this entire vision in the mind's eye until the picture was painted.'In another departure from Canaletto and other previous view painters, whose compositions were customarily bathed in spring, summer or autumn light, Caffì turned his attention to Venice out of season, when the visitors had departed, the streets fell silent, and the locals took refuge indoors from the biting cold.

These scenes enabled Caffì to demonstrate his subtlety in catching the effects of mist, fog and veiled, filtered light. One of the most supremely atmospheric of these 'Venice Under Snow' sequences, on loan from the Revoltella Museum in Trieste, is of a view down the Grand Canal toward the snowcapped domes of the Salute church. The icy green water has a glassy, almost viscous quality, barely ruffled by the oars of a couple of gondolas and barges; the rays of a wintery sun catch the smoke rising from one of the stacks of a paddle steamer at anchor and, more distantly, in the icy mist we fleetingly discern the outlines of the hull, masts and rigging of a sailing vessel. This intense, melancholy image can lower the temperature even on a summer's day.

In 1848, as revolutions against absolutist regimes erupted in several European cities, and the Austrians were expelled from Venice in a popular uprising, Caffì answered the call to arms and hastened north, where he found himself swept up in the action as part of a force of ill-prepared patriots trying to block Habsburg forces from retaking the largely liberated Friuli region northeast of Venice. After their positions were overrun - he later did an oil sketch of the event in which soldiers in motion are indicated by nervy, impressionistic brush strokes - Caffì was captured by the emperor's notoriously brutal Croat troops. He was suspended from a beam, beaten, and escaped lynching by a whisker when an officer intervened. Following further maltreatment in prison, he found refuge in an artist friend's house and, after hiding out in the mountains, Caffì succeeded in crossing the lines of the Austrian Army now besieging Venice.

He enrolled in the civic guard taking part in the defense of the city. He also obtained a pass from the revolutionary Committee of Public Vigilance that allowed him to move freely along the front line, where he made a series of sketches recording the progress of the siege. His experience of night painting equipped him to execute one of his most outstanding works, immortalizing the final hours of the Venetians' desperate resistance in their last remaining fortress on the mainland, 'Nocturnal Bombardment at Marghera, 25 May 1849.'

While the terms of the surrender granted a general amnesty to most of the combatants, except the leadership of the revolt, inexplicably Caffì found himself on the list of those condemned to exile. It turned out that one Michele Caffì (unrelated to the painter), who was wanted for purely criminal offenses had turned police informer and named Ippolito Caffì to escape punishment for his own crimes.

A decade later, and only after the artist's mother had petitioned Emperor Franz Joseph (whose uncle, the former Emperor Ferdinand, had been an appreciative patron of Caffì, buying two canvases from him depicting the celebrations organized for the monarch's state visit to Venice in 1838), the error was finally admitted and the artist was allowed to return to Venice.

He was again imprisoned shortly after his return for three months on suspicion of revolutionary activities, but acquitted and released.

When Italy's third war of independence broke out in 1866, Caffì managed to get himself embedded with the Italian fleet to cover the conflict at sea. He was on the flagship at the Battle of Lissa, a disastrous defeat for the Italians. The flagship was rammed by an Austrian warship and sank, with almost the entire crew drowned. Both Caffì and his pictures of the campaign were lost without trace below the waves of the Adriatic.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023