29 August 2016

I Macchiaioli: Silvestro Lega's Winter Visit

"There's silence between one page and another.
The long streets of the land up to the woods
where gathered
shadows escape the day
and nights show through
discrete and precious
like fruit on branches
in this luminous and geographic frenzy
I am still unsure
whether to be the landscape I am crossing
or the journey I am making there."
  "There's a silence between one page and another" by Valerio Magrelli (1957-), translated from the Italian by Jonathan Galassi, The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry, edited by Geoffrey Brock, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York: 2012.

Although Silvestro Lega's The Visit may be unfamiliar, there is something familiar look about this scene.  What we see is the terrace of a country house where two young sisters (we assume the relationship based on their identical attire, a custom of 19th century Italian dress ) are welcomed by the mistress of the house, an ordinary scene from small town life.  To the right, the  mother lingers slightly behind, her presence may be taken as an avatar of regeneration and continuity.  This is the sign, if you will, of the symbolic connection to Lega's model: Fra Angelico's Annunciation, painted some four centuries before in nearby Florence.   Lega had often walked the corridors of the Convent of San Marco as a student at the Accademia: Angelico was Lega's intimate,if you will.

His use of  blocks of color marks Lega as  one of the Macchiaioli and a subtle one, but  his compositions  are rooted in the simplicity and balance of the Florentine Renaissance painters. There is no doubt that the women in The Visit  walk paths laid out by the artist, there is a formality that, in Angelico's work, expressed the sacred but  for Lega the poetry of affection and gesture is less definite, more allusive.   The transparency of his colors and their rendering of atmosphere earned the artists a nickname as the poet of the movement.  His contemporary Diego Martelli  wrote of Lega: "he was not one of those who, artistically speaking, can fling themselves into novel developments...."  

Born in Modigliana, a small commune in  Emilia-Romagna, Silvestro Lega  (1832-1895) studied at the Accademia di Belle Arte  in Florence, where  he learned the  principles of composition originally promulgated in the 15th century.  I think here of Piero della Francesca and Fra Angelico in particular, whose works so visibly influenced Lega's best.

At the high tide of revolutionary fervor in 1848, Lega volunteered to fight against Austria under Garibaldi, like many of his fellow art students.  This may be an odd detour but I note a likeness between  the Macchiaioli, art students whose ideas were shaped by revolutionary politics,  and the working class students who attended art schools in post World War II England only to make a revolutionary impact on popular music and film. A highly charged atmosphere, whether political or artistic, is a gift that buoys up creative energies; lucky are those born to such moments.
During his most  fruitful decade as an artist, the 1860s, Lega lived with a family named Batelli at their home near Florence.  Several family members can be seen in Lega's works; among them The Visit (1868). and The Pergola (also 1868, Pinacoteca di Brera).

Lega received a prize at the 1870 National Exposition held at Parma but the death of his close companion Virginia Batelli, followed in quick succession by three of his brothers, profoundly affected his temperament.  Also,  during the decade he began to be plagued by eye problems that eventually left him almost completely blind.and unable to paint.  The end came  in 1895 when died he of stomach cancer  at the  Hospital of San Giovanni in Florence. 

1,. Silvestro Lega - The Visit, 1868, National Gallery of Modern & Contemporary Art, Florence.
2. Fra Aneglico - The Annunciation, c.1440, Monastery of San Marco, north corridor, Florence.

19 August 2016

I Macchiaioli: The Radical Light of Giuseppe Abbati

"Splendour of noon outspread,
when trees cast no shadow, and more and more excess of ligth gives to everything around
a tawny shimmer.

Above, the sun - and the dry shingle,
My day, then, isn't done. Not yet:
the loveliest hour lies beyond the wall
enclosing us in a wan sunset.

Drought all around: over a relic
of life, a kingfisher hovering.
Beyond dejection lies the bliss of rain,
but happiness won is in the waiting."
 - Eugenio Montale, poem originally published in  Cuttlefish Bones (1925), translated from the Italian by William Arrowsmith, from The Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale, edited by Rosanna Warren, W.W. Norton, New York: 2012.

Radical in art, radical in life, that was Giuseppe Abbati and the artists known collectively as the Macchiaioli.    While Abbati has been admired for his luminous landscapes,  I am  intrigued by his most radical use of the contrast between darkness and light, how the two coexist in a single moment.  And how he extended this to working people in images of almost metaphysical stillness, as though time itself was bemused by the starkness of the Mediterranean sun.  Macchia means patches or spots in Italian and Abbati's fellow painter Telemaco Signorini gave the group its name, as a poke in the eye to their critics.

I haven't been able to date the picture Young Girl Standing in the Sun but  there are similarities to Interior of the Cloister, painted in 1861.  Both feature architectural settings - a crumbling archway in one, a glorious arch in the other.   The prevalence of stone, usually cold, takes on another meaning  in the rocky Italian countryside where the soil, difficult to farm at best and depleted of nutrients after centuries, would drive a mass outward immigration of its people for decades to come.

What made the Macchiaioli different from their predecessors?   Teachers of the academic approach to painting believed that drawing a perspectival framework on the  canvas was the foundation  for all  spatial relationships; connecting those elements through color then followed.  What the Macchiaioli did was to paint patches of contrasting color first and let that determine composition.   In contrast to the French Impressionists who recreated light through layers of brush strokes, the Macchiaioli worked with patches (macchia) of color.   Both were keenly interested in translating the new theories of optics  on to canvas but the Italians were also deeply concerned to put their artistic skills in service to improving the social conditions of the people and places they painted.  (The debate over whether art can move beyond evoking empathy in the viewer to causing collective action is too large for this article.)

During two decades, a short period in art historical terms but a long time in politics,  the Macchiaioli created  a body of paintings that have lost none of their freshness. They aspired  to change art and to change to society, to them it was all one.   Giovanni Fattori is considered the greatest for his mastery of bold effects to delicate ends, Telemaco Signorini is beloved for his integrating his social consciousness into works of beauty, and Silvestro Lega is admired for his poetic sensibility, while Abbati may have made the most impressive use of  pure color.

Even in its cropped simplicity Interior of the Cloister is recognizable to  lovers of the Florentine Renaissance.  workman, possibly a stone cutter, rests against one of Michelozzo's fluted columnspietra serena or serene stone, that line the interior courtyard of the Convent of San Marco.  With his back turned to the sun, his face is cooled by the shade.  The blue cap he wears draws our eye, as the artist intended, to remind us of the human aspect that built one of humanism's great architectural achievements.  Fra Angelico, who lived there for a time, decorated the cells, corridors, and cloisters of San Marco.   Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), the philosopher  whose blistering Oration on the Dignity of Man was the declaration of Renaissance humanism is buried there. 

Giuseppe Abbati was born in 1836 in Naples; his father  Vincenzo Abbati,  a mural painter, was the boy’s first teacher.  The elder Abbati’s  profession required the family to move around  to wherever work was on offer, first  to Florence in  1842 and then to Venice in 1846.   When Abbati enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts, there he met Telemaco SignoriniFlorence in the 1850s, although part of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, was a free city, a significant attraction for young men who involved themselves in Italian revolutionary politics.  Abbati volunteered for military service more than once, losing an eye in 1860 and then again, being taken prisoner by the Austrians and imprisoned in Croatia. After he was released, Abbati returned to Florence and painting.  On December 13, 1867, he was bitten by his faithful dog Cennino who was suffering from rabies.  The artist died thirty-nine days later; he was only thirty-eight years old.  

A haunting memento of his brief life exists in Giovanni Boldini's  portrait of a serious-looking young artist in his studio, dressed in black with a black patch covering his right eye, his black hound Cennino at his side.  Paris in the 19th century was the center of the art world and since Boldini had the foresight to move there, he is  the best known member of his generation of Italian painters.
We are the heirs of a century in which revulsion at art-as-propaganda, or agit-prop,  was challenged by an austere vision that turned away from  Renaissance humanism.  Still, the word aesthetic contains  wisdom in its roots,  of something created with feeling, the opposite of anesthetic

1. Giuseppe Abbati - Young Girl in the Sun, no date given , Pinacoteca provinciale, Bari.
2. unidentified photographer - The Macchiaioli group at Caffe Michelangelo, circa 1900-1903. Biblioteca Marucelliana, Firenze.
3.. Giuseppe Abbati - Interior of the Cloister, 1861,  Galleria d'Arte Modenra, Pitti Palace, Flornce.

12 August 2016

I Macchiaioli: A Picture and a History

"I have so much faith in you.
I could wait for your voice
silently through centuries of darkness.

Like the sun
you know all the secrets.

You could make geraniums
and wild orange trees bloom
deep in marble quarries
and legendary prisons.

I have so much faith in you.  I'm calm
a an Arab wrapped in white barracan
listening to God
making the barley grow around the house."

 -  "To Trust" by Antonia Pozzi, translated from the Italian by Lynne Lawner, from The Farrar Straus Giroux Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry, New York: 2012.

I don't know the identity of the young woman in red in Federigo Zandomeneghi's Young Girl With a Bouquet of Flowers but everyone who knows Leonardo da Vinci's work will be reminded of his  Ginevra de' Benci. 

The name of Federigo Zandomeneghi is unfamiliar outside his native Italy where most of his paintings are held;  he belonged to I Macchiaioli along with Telemaco Signorini.   To be born in Venice sounds like the beginning of a fairy tale  but Venice in 1841 was subject to the rule of the  Austrian Empire and its male citizens  to the draft by a distant army.  It was to escape conscription that Federigo Zandomeneghi  moved to Pavia in the Lombard Kingdom but, in  his absence, he was convicted of desertion.  Unable to return home, Zandomeneghi moved  to Florence, where he met a group of like-minded artists, I Macchiaioli.   In 1874, he planned a short visit to Paris; seeing the first public exhibition of the Impressionists,  he decided to stay on.  In spite of support from the influential dealer Durand-Ruel, Zandoemeneghi had to earn a living as a fashion illustrator.   He achieved success in the 1890s with his distinctive portraits of young women, a genre at which Italians had excelled for centuries and, thus, a satisfying continuation of the tradition.

It was during the Renaissance that Italian artists began to paint living, identifiable women rather than depictions of characters from mythology or religion.   Jacob Burkhardt, in Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), saw them as early  expressions of developing individualism: "the educated woman, no less than the man, strove naturally after a characteristic and complete individuality."   Burkhardt's enthusiasm led him to overreach, claiming these paintings as evidence of female equality with men, an odd claim to make for an era when women were excluded from the public realm.  It took only 117 years for art historian Joan Kelly-Gadol to correct his misrepresentation in a famous essay "Did Women have a Renaissance?"

Antonia Pozzi (1912-1938) lived her entire life in the northern Italian city of Milan.  Her mother was a countess and her father an attorney.   Pozzi studied at the University of Milan where she became friends with other poets, including  Dacia Menicanti and Vittorio Sereni.   Pozzi loved hiking  and was known as a talented photographer.  In despair at the passing of the Fascist racial laws in 1938, Pozzi committed suicide; she was twenty-six.  She left behind an unfinished thesis on Gustave Flaubert and many poems that were published the year after her death as Parole (Words).

To read:
1. Virtue & Beauty: Leonardo's Ginevra de' Benci and Renaissance Portraits of Women  by David Alan Brown, Princeton, Princeton University Press: 2001.
2. "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" By Joan Kelly-Gadol, in Becoming Visible: Women in European History, edited by Renate Bridenthal & Claudia Koonz, Boston, Houghton Mifflin: 1977.

1. Federigo Zandomeneghi  Young Girl With a Bouquet of Flowers, no date given, Pinacoteca Proviciale, Bari, Italy.

2. Leonardo da Vinci - Ginevra de' Benci, c. 1474-78, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

06 August 2016

I Macchiaioli: Telemaco Signorini

"And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,Sermons in stone, and good in every thing." 
 - William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II, Scene I

For the young peasant girl in Telemaco Signorini's painting, a stone wall is a hard yet welcome resting place, a good thing in the middle of a work day.   Her weariness is underlined by the position of  her arms,  one cradling her cheek, the other protectively curled around herself.  This subtle but impressive structural gesture is just one in a beautifully  plotted composition. The panoramic format,  familiar now from its use in films,  (its height to width ration of 05:1) was often used by Italian painters in the 19th century.  For them it was a way of connecting their work to their Renaissance predecessors whose expansive works often filled entire rooms.

Telemaco Signorini (1835-1901) was the son of a Tuscan court painter.  As a student in Florence he gathered with fellow artists  at the aptly named CaffĂ© Michelangelo.  Together,  they soon attracted a name to themselves - the Macchiaioli - or painters of patches of light and dark.  As such, their work anticipated the experiments  of the Impressionists in France.  In 1887 the painter Giovanni Segantini wrote that the characteristic art of their time was all about light.

Italians in the  19th century were confronted by a different reality than their  counterparts in France; industrialization had not yet blemished the landscape and economic conditions were bleak.  For Italian artists, social and political concerns were just as important as new techniques or theories. Overpopulation and over-farming had exhausted the  soil; droughts and epidemics left the people undernourished and overworked by a depleted landscapes.  If the stones could speak, sermons  indeed.

The artists collectively known as the Macchiaioli began to meet at Caffe Michelangelo in the late 1850s.   A decade later the writer Vittorio Imbriani arrived in Florence and in 1868 he published a pamphlet about the group La quinta Promotrice.  According to Imbriani, the macchia was "the image of the first distant impression  of an object or a scene, the first and characteristic  effect, to imprint itself on the eye of the artist."    Further, "And this organization of light and dark, this macchia, is what really moves the spectator..." (quoted from Known and Strange Things by Tejo Cole, Random House, New York: 2016, p.186.)

"Who knows if the sky has another sky above it?....Who knows if the light itself isn't  inside another light?  And what kind of a light is it, if it's a light you can't see?" 
 -   Antonio Moresco, Distant Light, translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon, Brooklyn, Archipelago Books : 2016.

Not enigmatic really, Antonio Moresco's Distant Light (La lucina: 2013)  is a story of two characters, a man living in an abandoned village and a small boy living in an abandoned house.  The man has chosen to live simply, in a house without electricity,  hoping to hear answers to his questions as he walks,  he talks with any living creature he encounters.   He talks to the trees, asking one that appears to be dying,  “How do you live like that?”   In the dark when he startles two badgers, one scurries across the road but the other is frozen in fear.  “Cross the road!” he urges the frightened animal.  “There’s someone waiting for you on the other side.  I’ll stay here, don’t worry, I won’t hurt you.”   

As he lies in bed at night, he begins to notice strange lights twinkling from across a ravine, emanating from the spot where a deserted stone house stands.   When he consults an old man in the village, he learns  to his amazement that the farmer has plotted what he takes to be alien sightings on his computer.  Still  unsatisfied, the narrator traces the light from his bedroom window to the house where a little boy, shy but  preternaturally self-possessed, lives alone.  Their tentative, growing connection suggests answers to questions the narrator, and by extension the reader, deeply wish to learn the answers.

Antonio Moresco (b.1947) began publishing his work when he was forty-seven, he has written more than twenty books,  and  has been a finalist for the Strega Prize.  Among  his favorite writers he names  Dante, not the Divine Comedy but rather the Vita Nuova, Shakespeare,  Cervantes, and the Swift of Gulliver’s Travels.  Italian critics have reached for comparisons  to Canticle of the Creatures and De rerum natura.  Moresco describes his intentions as being "far away from the idea that it is just entertainment...I try to broaden its horizons, as the boys try adventure, risk, not the reconfirmation of myself. Scripture is the eye of the needle that allows me to pass by on the other side.”  As for Distant Light, “ The fairy tale is a revolutionary thing, everything becomes possible”

"Here and there, along the side of the lane, are stones jutting out that were once used as steps for climbing up to the small vegetable plots above, planks impregnated with lime and half-broken, abandoned flower pots, invaded by relentless lichwort or other plants and other forms carried by the wind.In one spot, over a low wall where there must once have been a vine, the large indefinable leaves of vegetables gone wild spread along the ground and then spill over  with tendrils searching for anchorage."
 -   Antonio Moresco, Distant Light, translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon, Brooklyn, Archipelago Books : 2016.

For relaxation the urban dwellers of ancient Rome liked to walk along their stone walls,  walls that were  built thickly to keep enemies and weeds alike at bay.    In a country where volcanic rock was plentiful, stone masons made  art out of necessity; it is said that a good mason can "see" the inside of a stone.  Artists responded to the strong aesthetic appeal in walls, even  crumbling ones, recognizing in them the organizing principle for a good story. As for the dog in Signorini's End of August at Pietramala,  working farm dog or household pet, he has a front row seat in the shade.

Revised 09/1//2016.
1. Telemaco Signorini -  Girl Resting on a Parapet, no date given, Galleria d'Arte Moderna, Florence.
2. Telemaco Signorini -  End of August in Pietramala, no date given, Galleria d"Arte Moderna, Florence.