10 September 2021

For Eighty Cents!: Angelo Morbelli

 "Italy is made.  We have still to make the Italians."

     -  Massimo D'Azeglio (1798-1866).  D'Azeglio did not live to see Rome designated as the capitol of new Italian state in 1871 but the Risorgimento (Resurgence) was almost complete when  the statesman/ novelist/painter died.

Look at these women cultivating rice: they are the 'essential workers' of 19th century Italy. Just for clarification, the title For Eighty Cents! indicates the anger of the painter Angelo Morbelli at the wage paid to rice farmers in the Po Valley circa 1890.  Indeed, working conditions for the women who worked the fields of the Piedmont region were so shameful that a name was coined for them - the mondine. We know there is a sky above from its reflection in the water the women stand in but the artist allows us no more respite from the prospect of their back-breaking toil than their overlords permitted. By using the broad horizontal canvas typical of landscape painting, we can almost feel the weight pressing down on the hunched figures.

The path fir Italian artists in the 19th century was not the triumphal march that historians ascribe to the French Impressionists. Stylistically, the Italians were all over the place and, on this account, art historians have not been kind to their works. Yet these artists made lively and daring experiments, more so than the Italian peninsula had witnessed in a long time. Together painters as varied as Silevstro Lega, Emilio Longoni, Plinio Nominelli, an Aneglo Morbelli were dubbed I Macchiaiolli (meaning painters of patches of light). 

Morbelli and his fellow artists were berated from all sides, for choosing ugly and unpleasant subjects rather pleasing ones that the bourgeoisie could hang in their parlors and, at the same time, for imbuing ugly realities with dignity and even nobility.  The Roman poet Horace had that art's purpose was to "instruct and delight" but the Macchiaioli would have none of that.

Full of idealism, they found their inspiration in the economic upheavals that accompanied political unification. Like their painterly styles, their politics were all over the  ran a gamut from progressivism to anarchy. The early 1890s were a period of strikes and protests in  northern cities where workers labored for impoverishing wages, under poor working conditions, if they could find work at all. Conditions were no better for the poor in rural areas where new industrial workers had migrated from.

Image - Angelo Morbelli- For Eighty Cents!, 1895, oil on canvas, Civico Museo, Borgogna.


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