Macchiaioli, this is how in 1862 an anonymous Italian reviewer of the “Gazzetta del Popolo” had defined, in the derogatory and popular sense of “scavezzacolli” (young and undisciplined person who leads a free and unruly life), those painters who around 1855 had given rise in Florence, in the context of the transition from the romantic taste to the realist one, to an anti-academic renewal of style, identifying precisely in the accentuated contrast of tone and chiaroscuro of the “stain” the founding principle of their manner.
From the pages of the “Nuova Europa”, Telemaco Signorini, leader of the group, wanted to polemically adopt the new term, around which the artists who constituted the “historical” and main nucleus of the movement recognized themselves: the Tuscans Serafino De Tivoli, Odoardo Borrani, Raffaele Sernesi and Adriano Cecioni, writer and sculptor as well as painter; Vito D’Ancona from Pesaro; Giuseppe Abbati from Naples and Vincenzo Cabianca from Verona, to which was added the then very young Diego Martelli, who was an intelligent critic and sensitive patron of the Macchiaioli. In a certain sense, the other two protagonists, together with Signorini, of the new experience of “macchia” were more isolated: Giovanni Fattori and Silvestro Lega, who joined the group relatively late, in 1861. Already from 1849-50, in parallel with the rise of political passions and common liberal aspirations following the riots of ’48, ferments of rebellion to the dominant painting, romantic subjects but essentially academic style, had animated lively artistic discussions around the tables of the Caffè Michelangelo, a few steps from the Academy, destined to become at this stage the seat and in some sense the symbol of the movement.
But it is in 1856 that such confused aspirations find landing in a more concrete maturity. Date this year, in fact, the opening to the Florentine public of the remarkable collection of Prince Anatoli Demidoff in Villa Pratolino, full of masterpieces of the best contemporary French painting: from Ingres to Delacroix, Delaroche – then loved, paradoxically, for those accents psychological-narrative that weigh down his work – to the landscapes of Barbizon and the bright, contrasting colors of the orientalist Decamps, which exercised a lasting impression among the young Italians.
At the same time, the Neapolitan D. Morelli arrived in Florence, he too having just returned from a trip to Europe which culminated in a visit to the Exposition Universelle in Paris. He had brought to the frigid panorama of history painting a “new, brilliant, Argentinean coloring” – as Martelli put it – and a quick “southern fluency”. Also from Paris, another Neapolitan, S. Altamura, had introduced the “novelty” of the moment, destined to launch the enthusiasm of a new experimentation: that famous “ton grison” used by Decamps, “the black mirror which, by decolourising the multicoloured aspect of nature, allows one to grasp more readily the totality of chiaroscuro, of the “stain” (Martelli). And it is precisely in function of an abbreviated and concise rendering of tonal and chiaroscuro relationships that the stain, in contrast to the priority of the traditional outline and perspective, is proposed as the structural framework on which the spatial relief is articulated and defined in a clear scanning of planes. It is Martelli again who summarizes the intentions and the requests of the young painters: “They said that all the apparent relief of the objects depicted on a canvas is obtained by putting in the thing represented the right relationship between light and dark and this relationship could not be represented at its true value with spots or brushstrokes that would reach it exactly”.
Already adopted as a pure outline in some currents of history painting, even if only as a simple “accentuation of the pictorial chiaroscuro in order to emancipate oneself from the capital defect of the old school” (the flattening on the mezzotints, as Signorini sustains), it is naturally by moving to the direct practice of landscape that the stain reached its most interesting results. But it should also be noted that at the root of Macchiaioli “Synthetism” it is not difficult to see a typically purist cultural component. Anticipated only in part by that “School of Staggìa” which had at its head another future Macchiaioli, De Tivoli, who had also come back in 1956 from the Parisian meetings with Troyon and Rosa Bonheur, in the summers of 1958 and 1960 Signorini, Cabianca and Cristiano Banti were the first to look for the “verification of the truth” of the theories debated until now, in the vivid and full light of La Spezia.
At the same time, between Montemurolo and Piantavigne, Banti, Cabianca and Cecioni experimented with the black mirror. The result was a series of unripe and perhaps too cut paintings, sculpted “with sunbursts in the black shadow” (Boito), which caused a scandal at the Promotrice in Florence and Turin in 1861: Il merciaio di La Spezia (1858, probably the first Macchiaioli painting) and Il Ghetto di Venezia by Signorini, and three famous works, now lost, by Cabianca: Porci al Sole, La Mandriana, Donna con un porco contro il sole, which were considered the “manifesto” of the new painting. Far from the excesses programmatic and more thoughtful depth of constructive autonomous research Fattori, certainly stimulated by the encounter with the Roman Nino Costa, robust landscape painter and speaker of great finesse. In Soldati francesi del ’59 (1859), in the Macchiaiole, in the Acquaiole livornesi (1865) and in all the major works of the Leghorn period: the Signora al sole, the Signora all’aperto and the Rotonda di Palmieri (1866), Fattori reached a perfectly accomplished and already classical equilibrium in the exact scanning of the planes and lights, aided by the adoption of the elongated horizontal format that better follows the metric and “modular” distribution of the large color fields. Sernesi (Cupolino alle Cascine, c. 1860) and D’Ancona (Il Cupolino alle Cascine, c. 1860) also approached the stain at an early age. ) and D’Ancona (Il portico, 1861), both revealing qualities of calibrated and clear vision, as well as Abbati, who to the exact temperament of the southern school knows how to combine a great intensity of matter and color (Chiostro di Santa Croce, 1862), and the Florentine Borrani, who in the rigor of the composition often inserts a gentle but descriptive note of costume (26 April 1859, 1861; Cucitrici di camicie rosse, 1863).
The Sixties saw the development and the clarification of the technique of macchia in parallel but often dialectically different experiences, concentrated especially around the two centers, improperly defined “schools”, of Castiglioncello and Piagentina. The estate of Castiglioncello, inherited from Martelli to the death of the father in 1861, came very soon to replace to the Cafe Michelangelo like animated point of encounter and privileged territory of an active experimentation on the true bright, that it is translated in the admirable Sights and Marine of Abbati, Sernesi and Borrani but above all in the solar burlaps of Fattori, beginning from the ’67 imposed itself like the dominant personality of the group. Despite the fact that the versatile Signorini was still the father and driving force, the true soul of Piagentina, where he settled in 1861 at the home of his friend the publisher Batelli, was Silvestro Lega, whose painting was marked by a lyrical and daily intimism, supported, however, by a solidly classical structure (see the three masterpieces of the Canto dello stornello, La visita and Il Pergolato, from 1967-1968), influencing the path of his companions in the sense of a meditated affective intonation: Abbati, Sernesi and Borrani again.
The death of Sernesi (1866) and of Abbati (1868); the changed political climate, which after the disappointment of Aspromonte cooled the enthusiasm in a darker inner withdrawal; the dispersion, finally, of the continuous travels contributed to the progressive disintegration of the group, only formally represented by the critical and theoretical interventions of Signorini and Cecioni on “Il Gazzettino delle Arti del Disegno” (1867) and the “Giornale Artistico” of 1873-74. A process that Signorini, in a writing of 1974, wanted to anticipate by years: “So around 1862 this artistic research that had made its time died without honor of burial leaving posterity a nickname Florentine Bernese” Through the growing influence of French culture, which offered new links through Boldini and De Nittis that in 1869, after a brief experience among the Macchiaioli, moved to Paris, new motifs and new themes, marked by that anecdotal and bourgeois taste that dictated the fashion salons in Paris, entered to be part of the figurative repertoire. Particularly sensitive was the influence of artists such as Tissot, Stevens and Jules Breton, who had already been admired as models of modern naturalism during the visit of Signorini, Cabianca and Banti to the Salon of 1861, while the relationship with the Impressionist group, whose contacts date back to 1873-74 and found a significant outlet between 1978 and 1979, during Martelli’s last stay in France, should be reduced. In this climate of relative involution there are, however, masterpieces: the Room of the agitated at San Bonifazio in Florence (1865) or Waiting (1867), by Signorini; or again the whole period of Bellariva by Lega, who pursues a progressive, very personal form of interiorization of the truth (The girls who are ladies, 1872).
Extraneous to any temptation of psychologism, on the other hand, but faithful to the principles of structural solidity that had originated in the “macchia”, is the extraordinary, last production of the solitary and misunderstood Fattori. Notwithstanding the scarce resonance that the Macchiaioli movement exercised on its contemporaries – excluding the individual influence of Signorini and Lega on the young Nomellini and Gioli or of Fattori on Modigliani – the historical relevance of the group remains however remarkable for Italian painting, which finds in it a first avant-garde expression able to cross the limits of regionalism in a landing place of coherent maturity.
Poetry of the Macchiaioli
In the current context of the most advanced studies that have as their object the Macchiaioli, studies that make treasure of a literature by now secular and that also find reason and reason for further investigation, accomplices the numerous expositive initiatives that promote new occasions of encounter with this original pictorial movement, as well as new critical points of view, it could result unusual to recall the title of one of the pioneering publications of Mario Borgiotti dedicated to the subject. “Poetry of the Macchiaioli”, the apparently simple title of a volume well known to enthusiasts and dating back to 1958, captures the source element of an art that was able to combine reality and utopia, an art that, immersing itself in the crude truth of its time, was able to rise to express the dreams and ideal aspirations of a generation of young people. “The inspiration of the Macchiaioli responds to the profound movement of ideas and poetry that gave the Italian Risorgimento,” says Emilio Cecchi, who adds that, comparing the story of the Tuscan movement to the contemporary European context, one thing in particular amazes such artists, “the authenticity” of their flowering: “The inspiration of Macchiaioli burst with purity and energy wonderful, and austerity of style to hold up any comparison more egregious.
Together with these qualities (purity, energy, austerity of style) Cecchi identified the linguistic and cultural identity of the Tuscan movement where he asserted that “already at Fattori’s death the analogy of certain landscape views with those of Piero della Francesca was noted; then the relationship, much more stringent, with Angelico. References which may have been abused, but which live on in full formal meaning: in the kinship between the directness of those ancients and those who, above neoclassicism, abstracted as a new gothic, rejoining the simplicity of the 15th century, reaffirmed the inexhaustible happiness of country nature”. Such happy intuitions, resumed and deepened with conscious maturity by the most recent studies, have survived to decades of useless brawl on the presumed provincialism of the Tuscans, on a less than probable (also for chronological reasons) subjection towards the French impressionism, on the presumed “not culture” of our painters, perhaps evoked by the misunderstood evaluation of the characterizing naivety of ways (only apparent moreover) in the approach of them on the truth.
From here, right from the “natura paesana” that Cecchi identifies as the poetic landing place of the Macchiaioli, we want to start again today, proposing a scientifically correct path that, after having analyzed the complex genesis of the “macchia”, dwells on the innovative qualities of the landscapes of Castiglioncello and Piagentina, in which the observation of nature, felt not in its immanence, but rather gently observed and investigated in its subtle luministic and atmospheric variations, generates a sort of “poetry of the domestic landscape” that from this moment on becomes proper to the art of the Macchiaioli. From the union between art and daily life, between simplicity of living and essentiality of the pictorial means, terms within which these painters calibrated their expressive potential, the epos gushes out, a new anti-rhetorical and intimately solemn dimension of the True.
Thus, in the living room of the quiet and hard-working Florentine bourgeoisie, among the seamstresses of the red shirts, there hovers a sentiment of poignant participation in the events of the Risorgimento: a patriotic love that is absolutely not declaimed, but rather effused by the restrained gestures of the protagonists, in the silent exchange of demure glances, in the silence charged with emotion and expectation. Outside the domestic penetration, the reality of the new Italian State offers matter for dramatic reflection: the suffering of the modern Prometheans who drag a boat against the current along the banks of the Arno, a scene that is charged with an effective meaning of dramatic topicality in the contrast with the natural and architectural beauty of Florence, drawing attention to the social problems of the newborn nation; while the statuesque canefore portrayed by Fattori in the verdant Livorno countryside, the macchiaiole, propose a new objective of rural beauty to art and life.
The ethical tension of these years is destined to fade, as the disappointment grows in the minds of these artists, whose expectations of social justice are disregarded, while no moral and economic support is offered to their art. The diversification of the biographical events of the Macchiaioli painters definitively undermines the unity of the movement, the very life of this small, original artistic avant-garde. The times imposed a more “gentle” meaning, that is, narrative and descriptive of truth, and after 1870 some of the supporting figures of the Tuscan group, in particular Francesco Gioli, Niccolò Cannicci and Egisto Ferroni, became interpreters of this, to whom the exhibition dedicates a section, revolving around the rediscovered “Le boscaiole” by Gioli (the unprecedented and extraordinarily fitting comparison with “Le Macchiaiole” by Fattori makes the sense of the diversity between “evoked truth” and “narrated truth” very explicit to the visitor).
The three monographic sections dedicated to Lega, Signorini and Fattori document how the three great Macchiaioli masters knew how to sensitively modulate their substantial fidelity to the principles of truth, delivering the legacy of the Macchiaioli to the 20th century. Origin of the “macchia” The first period of the “macchia” took place at the Caffè Michelangiolo. This café in the historical center of Florence, in the aftermath of the revolutionary movements of 1848, had been chosen as a meeting place by that part of the city’s youth that was determined to emancipate itself from academic teaching. In those early years, which correspond to the “semi-serious” period of its long history, Caffè Michelangiolo was “the meeting place of the pleasant, eccentric, madmen, in short, as the quiet bourgeois lover of the arts has always qualified the painters” wrote Telemaco Signorini. And he adds: “in fact the jokes of all kinds were the order of the day, the popular stornelli of the Tuscan countryside sung with admirable harmony held the crowd that under the window of the cafe flooded the street and framezzo to the clouds of the smoke of the cigars and the legs raised on the tables, you would see someone who splashed on one side a group of friends engaged in a serious matter, and another that, taken from mania of robustness, raised with one arm several marbles of the tables tied together (…. ) and in the midst of all this, the terrible Florentine irony…” which severely tested individual tolerance. In such an environment, where people were willing to sympathize with anyone, even foreigners, who appeared “young and frank”, they were hostile to those who wanted to impose their supremacy with authority.
Therefore, among the concomitant causes that produced the maturity of that artistic society, there was the willingness to welcome and treasure those new friends who emigrated there from other regions, creating the basis for new points of view and more and more in-depth reflections. The generation of Macchiaioli arrived at the Caffè Michelangiolo in 1855. Signorini would have remembered in the course of a little more than a decade (so much would have lasted the Macchiaioli leadership in the life of the Cafe) in addition to the more or less prolonged presence of foreign artists and men of culture, such as Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, James Tissot, Marcellin Desboutin, Georges Lafenestre, fruitful collaborations with artists of the Neapolitan school such as Domenico Morelli, Saverio Altamura, the Palizzi brothers, Federico Maldarelli, Bernardo Celentano, with the Lombard artists Eleuterio Pagliano and Giuseppe Bertini; with the Roman Nino Costa and the Piedmontese Enrico and Francesco Gamba, Vittorio Avondo, Antonio Fontanesi, Enrico Reycend, Federico Pastoris, Ernesto Bertea, Lodovico Raymond, with Alfredo de Andrade and the Genoese Niccolò Barabino. It is very true that the “stain” originated from a complicity of intentions and events that can be measured, in retrospect, by the complexity of the relationships and experiences that Michelangiolo’s society was able to nurture.
For this reason, if the courageous proposal was initially made by the historical Tuscan group (let us not forget that Abbati, Neapolitan by origin and Venetian by training, Cabianca from Verona and Zandomeneghi from Venice, were an integral part of this group), it was shared by the other regional schools, with the underlying aim of gathering under the banner of the “stain” and the flag of “realism”, a national progressive movement that was an expression of the nascent Italian state. As this unitary and progressive design took shape in the minds of the patrons, the tenor of the Caffè’s meetings, which up until then had been marked by mockery and disengagement, also changed.
After the Universal Exhibition of 1855, the painting of the masters of Barbizon came to influence the artistic choices of the painters of Michelangiolo, through the exemplifications that Serafino De Tivoli gave with important works, and through the learned words of Altamura, since both were returning from the halls of the Parisian exhibition. “He was Altamura – recounts Martelli – a beautiful figure of a southern artist, with a thick beard and thick dark chestnut hair, a square lion-like face, a beautiful cogitabond look and smile. He spoke in truncated and broken words, as if he knew much more than he was saying, and between one piece of sentence and another he wet the ends of his fingers in a glass of ice water and cooled his brow.
It was he who, in a sibylline and involute way, began to speak of Ton gris, then fashionable in Paris, and everyone was open-mouthed to listen to him first, and then to follow him along the path indicated, helping themselves with the black mirror, which by discolouring the multicoloured aspect of nature allows one to grasp more readily the totality of the chiaroscuro, the stain”. Having identified the antidote to the excessive smoothness and lack of consistency of so much academic painting, the artists of Michelangiolo gave heart and soul to apply it in different fields of interest, namely the history painting, the landscape, the genre scene. Following De Tivoli’s suggestion, they began to privilege landscape painting, having witnessed directly or indirectly at the Universal Exhibition of Paris in 1855 the enormous progress made by what had always been considered the Cinderella of pictorial genres. “Landscape is the victory of modern art,” stated Edmond and Jules de Goncourt in their article on the exhibition, adding: “Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter have as their servants the greatest and most magnificent talents, who are about to be replaced by a young generation, still anonymous, but promised to the future and worthy of their hopes (…) and from this sincere communion have come our masterpieces, the paintings of Troyon and Dupré and Rousseau and Français and Diaz…”.
5 Having grasped the incipit and directed themselves towards that “truth of portraiture” which had to immediately distinguish the new lovers of landscape from the old school of Markò, Antonio Morghen and Giuseppe Camino, the Macchiaioli, in order to better clarify the sense of the historical evolution of modern landscape, began to frequent the collection of modern painting of Prince Anatolio Demidoff, rich – among other things – of landscapes of the masters of Barbizon. In these works owned by the Russian nobleman, the Tuscans had the opportunity to verify the much-vaunted “ton-gris”, that is the use of a dark monochrome background and a minimal palette that privileging blacks and browns allowed to concentrate on the problems of chiaroscuro and on the contrast of tones; from such examples De Tivoli also derived the effect of the luminous variations on the foliage “pierced” by the clear light that penetrates and moves the undergrowth or the quiet countryside with a golden glitter.
The local connotation of the landscape, already present in the Englishman John Constable, took on new and powerful vigor in the French painters; from the example of these artists the Tuscans drew the inspiration to reject the uniformity of the landscapes constructed in studio by the previous generation, comforted in this by the example of the Roman Nino Costa. Domenico Morelli, whose prolonged stays in Florence were widely echoed by the colony of exiles from the Bourbon Kingdom (a colony that included the historian Pasquale Villari and artists such as Altamura and Federico Maldarelli) was a figure of absolute reference for the society of Michelangiolo.
At the dawn of the movement, in fact, the Macchiaioli were still stalling in the genre of the history painting renewed according to the criteria of verisimilitude introduced by the Frenchman Paul Delaroche and imported among them by the example of the Neapolitan leader. Tracing the origins of modern Italian painting, Zandomeneghi would have written: “The whole movement concentrated entirely on Morelli, who, endowed with the powerful temperament of a young painter and struck by the beauties of the Venetian school of the 16th century in general and by Delacroix, perhaps particularly, found himself in this period with an artistic superiority that all these painters, or rather, the young painters, recognized without dispute. (…) Morelli revealed with his paintings the color and the light that the bad academic teachings of his time had been forgotten…”.
The story of the Macchiaioli in fact starts from the “color”, in antithesis with the secular academic-drawing tradition of the Florentines; the color that behind the example of Morelli is discovered capable of giving substance to truth and therefore, applied to historical and religious subjects, gives them verisimilitude and poignancy of content. Morelli’s recovery of Venetian painting of the 16th century is fundamental and anything but obvious if we consider, for example, how Paolo Veronese was mistreated by Neoclassicism for the presumed superficiality in the historical rendering of the figurations. Now it is extremely significant that Zandomeneghi (reporting a thought shared with his companions of the Caffè Michelangiolo) combines this recovery with the example of Delacroix, among the first to rediscover the expressive potentialities of Caliari’s chromatism and the spiritual closeness with this artist. Delacroix wrote around 1854 in the “Journal”: “There is a man who succeeds in making clear without violent contrasts, who paints plein-air, which was always told to be impossible: this man is Paolo Caliari. He is perhaps the only one who has been able to capture the entire secret of nature. Without having to imitate his manner exactly, one can pass along many roads on which he has placed torches…”.
To illuminate by the light of those torches the many artistic ferments that at that time were disturbing the minds and souls of the young Florentine painters, seemed to some of them a necessity that could not be postponed. At dawn one day in June 1856, after a turbulent evening spent at the Caffè Michelangiolo, Signorini and D’Ancona were awakened by their companions to the cry of “viva i viaggiatori” (long live the travelers) and forcibly accompanied to the stagecoach, once on which they were met by bouquets of flowers “graciously” thrown on their heads.
Once they arrived in Venice (where they would stay for three months), unlike the older D’Ancona, Signorini preferred to the methodical study of the old masters, the search for an emotional path that had to comfort his idea of the “macchia”, as he was elaborating within himself. Cultured and shrewd, Signorini was looking for confirmation of the potentialities of that coloring at first sight and from life that Giorgio Vasari called “macchiare”, attributing that practice to Titian. The practice of “macchiare” as an intermediate stage of pictorial execution was well known to the very young painters of the Caffè Michelangiolo. What Signorini acquired during his stay in Venice in 1956 was the twofold certainty that staining could be the instrument to obtain an effective and rapid grip on contemporary reality and that the latter should be the only repertoire of the modern painter.
In Telemaco, the need to open a new dialogue with nature and the reality of contemporary life is very present, following that intimate instance of truth and sincerity that the positivist philosophy was affirming as the main quality of the modern artist. We know, moreover, how Telemaco had become fond of reading Proudhon and how the contact with what he defines elsewhere as “Macchiaioli masters of antiquity” produced a real “metamorphosis” of the young artist in the light of what he qualified as real “artistic revelations”. It is clear, therefore, that from all this derives a different point of view in observing the painting of the great masters of the past; certainly different from that of Signorini’s friend, the Englishman Frederic Leighton (also in Venice where he had completed the great painting The Procession of the Madonna by Cimabue). Not the reconstruction “in vitro” of an idealized past, a tendency which will be typical of the Pre-Raphaelite school, but the analogical recovery of that same past with the “human feeling” of the present, an attitude which characterizes the new and fundamental relationship established by the Macchiaioli with Renaissance painting.
In the lagoon city Telemaco met among the others the poet Aleardo Aleardi, who, professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence since 1863, a few years later would be the author of an essay on Paolo Veronese defined – in clear harmony with the point of view of his friends of the Caffè Michelangiolo – “the first who felt the courage to present his figures in the open air, in front of the face of the sun modeling with light …”. Then those trembling architectural views of the city were born, well known to be the starting point of the story of the Macchiaioli. The Ponte della Pazienza shows the bright light of day bursting onto the scene, as if from a gash opened in a fake canvas sky and sprinkling itself on the dark Gothic apse of the Venetian Chiesa dei Carmini that rises trembling with plastic vigor against the sky. “What was the stain? It was the solidity of bodies in front of the light,” wrote the elderly Fattori, recalling the times of the artistic revolution of which he had been one of the protagonists. Since his first stay in Venice, Telemaco produced works characterized by violent effects of “stain”, seeking later (with the complicity of his friends Banti and Cabianca) the effect in scenes of common life, whether they were children sitting on the ground in La Spezia, or the colorful haberdasher who wanders in the same place, favored for the clear sea light capable of sharp shadows and sharp contrasts. The determination of the “progressives” also rested on the scientific results (made public in 1857 when the essay “L’optique et la peinture” appeared in the “Revue des deux Mondes”) of the studies of Professor Jules Jamin, according to whom painting, being based on conventions, could only express itself by analogy in its relationship with Truth.
So the stain was first of all a convention; a convention that allowed immediacy in the relationship with the truth, denied instead by the long formal elaborations dear to the previous academic generation. Signorini and the Macchiaioli gave this technique, which was part of their cultural baggage deriving from their academic studies and from their familiarity with the courtly genre with which almost all of them were initially grappling, a completely new value and meaning: it no longer became an intermediate stage of pictorial execution, but rather the instrument to obtain an effective and rapid grip on contemporary reality, as well as the poetic aim of artistic research. But Signorini’s work, technically revolutionary, was also to demonstrate the need to update the contents and that this was more inherent to the “stain”, a tool that since ancient times was preferred for synthesis from life. With regard to the eighteen year old Tiziano, Vasari writes how Vecellio, under the influence of Giorgione, used “to get ahead of the living and natural things, and to counterfeit them as much as he knew how to with colors, and to stain them with raw and sweet colors, according to what the living showed without drawing: holding firm that painting only with the colors themselves, without any other study of drawing on paper, was the true, and best way to do it, and the true drawing…”.
Suggestions in this direction could therefore be drawn from many painters of the past who, from Masaccio to Piero della Francesca to Domenico Ghirlandajo, had drawn inspiration from their contemporary life. So with the stain, the Tuscans inaugurate a new way of relating to the ancient. The wind of 1859 blew in favor of those young painters and men; the urgency of adapting artistic expression to the cultural and social needs of a rapidly changing historical reality strengthened Signorini’s position within the Michelangiolo society. The experience of the war induced in those young people a different way of facing reality: the mere contemplation of natural beauty, however truthfully rendered in painting, gave way to the desire to affect the outside world, to grasp the most intimate aspirations of contemporary society and translate them into painting. “The artist, therefore, continues the work of nature by producing in turn images on the model of certain of his ideals, which he wishes to communicate to us,” Proudhon argues. And he adds: “… the continuer of nature, the artist, is fully immersed in human activities, whose development in all senses, scientific, industrial, economic, political, can be defined as a continuation of the creative work (…). (…). the artist is called to the creation of the social world, continuation of the natural world.
This legitimization by the positivist philosophy of Proudhon, which had in Signorini one of the first and enthusiastic followers, was to encourage the full awareness of the Macchiaioli, of what would become the common goals. First and foremost, to open a new dialogue with nature and the reality of contemporary life, following the intimate need for truth and sincerity that the positivist philosophy was affirming as the main quality of the modern artist. The new aesthetics “For some time now there has been talk among artists of a new school that has formed, and which has been called the Macchiajoli. Macchiajoli painting has appeared several times in the exhibitions of the Promoter Society, and this year it is also abundantly represented. But, the reader will say, if he is not an artist, what are these Macchiajoli? (…) They are young artists, some of whom one would be wrong to deny a strong talent, but who have set out to reform art, starting from the principle that effect is everything. Have you ever found yourself listening to someone who presents you with his box of broomstick tobacco, and in the veins and various stains in the wood he claims to recognize a little head, a little man, a little horse? And the little head, the little man, the little horse is in fact there in those stains… one only has to imagine it. So it is with the details in the paintings of the Macchiajoli. In the heads of their figures you look for the nose, the mouth, the eyes and other parts: you see spots without form. (…) that the effect should kill the drawing, even the form, this is too much…”.
In this review appeared on “la Gazzetta del Popolo” of Florence on November 3, 1862, for the first time the term “Macchiaioli” was used to indicate with ill-concealed irony the group of “progressive” Tuscan painters. The term had a mischievous double meaning in itself, since doing things “alla macchia” meant acting furtively and illegally; the ridiculous nuance of the term was then increased by the implicit allusion to the ink stains with which children are used to smear their sheets, an allusion that seems to have been spontaneously induced in the public, unprepared in front of the “minimalist” works of these painters. Telemaco Signorini, Serafino De Tivoli, Odoardo Borrani, Vincenzo Cabianca, Cristiano Banti, Giovanni Fattori, Giuseppe Abbati, Vito D’Ancona, Adriano Cecioni, Federico Zandomeneghi, Raffaello Sernesi and Silvestro Lega took up the challenge and did not hesitate to use that name. The invention of the “macchia”, whose complex nature we have tried to unveil up to this point, definitely distinguishes the research of the Macchiaioli from their French predecessors, from whom it had partly originated. However, Signorini himself, answering to the anonymous columnist of the Gazzetta, affirmed that the “macchia” was an “incomplete but fruitful idea”, “the first trace marked by the young art in the new gymnasium that was opening in front of it”, surpassed by the new perspectives opened in the meantime to the research of the Tuscans.
Notoriously, historiography has always indicated in 1861 the discrimen between the first and second half of the story of this artistic movement. What had happened? The involvement of those young people in the Second War of Independence, the popular uprising of April 27, 1859 that had peacefully freed Florence and Tuscany from the domination of Lorraine, the consequent, spontaneous annexation to Piedmont, exalted the souls, moved the hearts, originated the strong moral and ethical tension of the spirit that now waited, now saw in part complete the design of independence and unity of their country. But that is not all. It can’t be everything, because the Macchiaioli painting, although contextualized in a given historical and political climate, draws from a deeper source that is well beyond the nineteenth-century nationalist patriotism: the source of the universal values of Man. From here originates the poetry of Macchiaioli; that poetry that springs from love for life, for freedom, for justice, understood in the broadest sense of the term. “Every century has its own task of civilization to provide,” argued Signorini, and this yearning for absolute values springs even from the apparently more naive and contemplative works of Sernesi and Borrani, from those tiny fragments of friendly nature in which the artist measures his daily dialogue with the True. A Truth of which Positivism, with its scientific discoveries, was demonstrating its perfect knowability, classifying its visible appearances, decoding its physical principles, but which the Macchiaioli felt and pictorially rendered above all in its values of Civilization. A new concept of Reality had in fact come to be affirmed: it no longer indicated only the immediately perceptible appearance of the world, but rather its natural and social complexity; therefore, “realism” in painting was no longer measured simply in the ability to mimesis of the natural datum (on the basis of this idea one could speak of various recurrent realisms in the history of art, in addition to that of Caravaggio par excellence), but rather in the ability to return “through Form”, “the spirit” of a society and an era. “Painting is a part of social consciousness, a fragment of a mirror in which generations contemplate each other from time to time,” Jules Castagnary stated.
Therefore, nineteenth-century historical realism was based, on the one hand, on the conviction of the perfect knowability of the external world; on the other hand, on the decisive valorization of the individual and subjective component through which this cognitive process could take place. This second component called for a third, sincerity, a principle that presupposed the ethical sense of the artist, called to a civic and operational role of witnessing his own era and the “feeling” that animates it. The artist, as an individual whose interiority is the result of the confluence in it of the evolutionary processes of his species and his social history, only if he expresses himself with genuineness will he be able to contribute to the knowledge of the contemporary world. “I simply wanted to search in the entire knowledge of tradition the reasoned and independent feeling of my own individuality. To know in order to be able, this was my thought. To be able to translate the customs, the ideas, the aspect of my epoch according to my appreciation, to be not only a painter, but also a man, in a word, to make living art, this is my aim,” Courbet declared in the manifesto of Realism, premised on the 1855 exhibition.
Hence the need to be of one’s own time, effectively breaking with the historical painting of the Romantics. Hence the need for a direct experience of reality that would enhance Nature in its most hidden and modest aspects, as well as Man in his social functions, even the most humble. The opening to realism matures within the Tuscan movement through a complexity of readings and relationships that contemplate Signorini’s enthusiasm for Victor Hugo’s novels and for Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s political and philosophical thought, Abbati’s enthusiasm for Hippolyte Taine and for materialist philosophers, Martelli’s enthusiasm for Herbert Spencer’s evolutionism and for Proudhon. The theoretical writings that supported the Realism of Courbet saw the light in those years: in 1856 Edmond Duranty founded the magazine “Realisme” that in its only six issues, however, gave an important support to Courbet’s position; in 1857 Champfleury gave to the prints the book “Le realisme”, while in 1862 Jules Castagnary coined the term “naturalism” destined to replace little by little “realism”, starting from the field of literature that will prescribe it as more suitable to express the positivist idea of an art that is progressively renewed through science and democracy. This fervor of ideas that in the literary field has a beginning in the “Comédie humaine” of Balzac, extending then to Flaubert, to Victor Hugo, to Emile Zola, is corroborated by scientific discoveries and new philosophical concepts. In 1859 Darwin formulates his theory on the origin of species, while in 1862 Herbert Spencer prints the “First Principles” fundamental text of evolutionism, that is the philosophical thought that sees in progress and evolution the fundamental principle of the cosmos.
In 1866 Hippolyte Taine publishes “La Philosophie de l’Art”, but the determinism of his thought has been in part already divulged by the articles of the “Revue des deux mondes”, of which he is a collaborator (magazine read by ours) and by his previous writing dedicated to the French philosophers of the nineteenth century (1857), considered one of the manifestos of Positivism: art according to Taine interprets things and expresses their meaning, it discovers and makes visible that truly characteristic trait that is in things; the work of art is produced according to precise conditions and fixed laws that respond to the dominant principles of environment, race and heredity. Taine was in Florence in April 1864, during his trip to Italy undertaken to verify the principles of his philosophical determinism on ancient art, significantly compared the cultural vitality of contemporary Florence to that of ancient Athens. Recurring, moreover, in the correspondence of the Macchiaioli are references to the “Moniteur”, and above all to the “Revue des deux mondes”, a prestigious bimonthly independent and progressive magazine that counted prestigious signatures such as Sainte-Beuve, Jules Michelet, Charles Baudelaire, Victor Hugo, Taine, George Sand, Alexis De Tocqueville, Eugène Delacroix, Maxime du Camp, Alexandre Dumas, Théophile Gautier. It was a magazine, the “Revue contemporaine”, which from October 31 to December 15, 1865, published the first biography of Proudhon, written by Sainte-Beuve and accompanied by the letters of the recently deceased thinker. To that same year dates back the posthumous publication of “Du principe de l’art et de sa destination sociale”, a book whose first edition was owned by both Martelli and Signorini.
Proudhon put his hand to this text, an infinitesimal part of his vast work, in 1863 and it soon appeared for what it was: an exposition, reasoned dialectically, of the principles of Realism. The author, hardly concealing his profound esteem for Courbet, to whom he had been linked since his youth, also strove to set up a sort of contradiction, exposing opinions different from his own and rebutting them point by point in long dissertations; crossing in chronological succession the different epochs of the history of art, he identified the main character of each, and then went into the panorama of nineteenth-century painting with greater breadth, concluding with an examination of the main works of Courbet. In fact, therefore, Proudhon filled a gap, since the principles of the new school had been spread in an unsystematic way. The Macchiaioli owed much to this text. Not that they were unaware of the realism of Courbet before this writing, but rather because Proudhon represented a privileged channel because of the deep harmony that some of ours had long established with the political thought of the Frenchman, an advocate of a utopian socialism from the strongly humanitarian, veined with anarchism.
It is known in fact how the reflection on the writings of Proudhon made mature in Martelli, Abbati, Signorini, the gradual detachment from the ideas of Mazzini, also favored by the spread of positivist theories that permeated the writings of Edgar Quinet, Jules Michelet, Saint-Simon, Auguste Comte, authors, however, also frequented by Giosuè Carducci (whose friendship with Martelli is well known), as evidenced by the rich library of Casa Carducci in Bologna as well as the epistolary of the poet. Proudhon was of the opinion that the principle of nationality was a threat to peace and to the future of Europe, and this was the origin of his controversy with Mazzini: nationalities, according to the Frenchman, would make the social question take a back seat. Therefore, pondering in their hearts these antithetical evaluations, our artists had gone to meet the war of independence of ’59 as an opportunity for renewal, purifying the evils of past society, harbinger of social and economic improvement. But already in September 1861 the IX Congress of the Workers, advocated by Mazzini, which saw the participation of 124 workers’ societies, among which the “Fratellanza artigiana” of Beppe Dolfi of which Diego Martelli was an affiliate, had on its agenda the problems of work and wages, clearly demonstrating that the social question would not have found an automatic solution in national unity. This question was put on a par with national independence by our artists and the failure to implement social reforms, verified in the years to follow, was by all that generation who had offered their lives for the homeland, understood as a real betrayal of values. For this reason, many of them remained sensitive to the utopian socialism of Proudhon, to the themes of freedom and social equality; proof of this is the circumstance that still in 1884, Martelli defined himself publicly as a “partisan of the economic doctrines of Proudhon and the philosophical ones of Giuseppe Ferrari”, touching, with disastrous results for his political activity, the burning themes of property and the principle of authority. And even more moving is the critic’s account of his brotherly friend, Beppe Abbati: “A thinker and a poor man, he loved the poor and thinkers. Proudhon was one of his best friends; the book of justice responded to his every aspiration and when Proudhon died in Paris, Abbati wept over it in secret. He saw himself betrayed by death in his desire to shake his hand tightly one day. He would have done for Ferrari’s friendship what he never did to procure a meal…”.
Our artists had certainly appreciated the Frenchman’s interest in the cause of Italian unity, manifested in that 1862 that saw Martelli’s first stay in Paris. Already in September, in Castiglioncello with Abbati, he could read in the “Moniteur” the echoes of the question raised by Proudhon, exiled in Belgium, with the article “Garibaldi et l’Unité italienne” entrusted to the press of the country that hosted him. The idea was that of an economic equality seen as a function of political freedom and “federalism” within and above the individual states; this alone, according to Proudhon could guarantee the improvement of social conditions. Dealing more extensively with the subject in the writing “La Fédération et l’Unité en Italie” he declared: “I have never believed in the unity of Italy; both from the point of view of principles and from that of practice and agreements, I have always rejected it; I could cite in support of my opinion the most respectable and intelligent men in Italy: the much regretted Montanelli; Ferrari, the learned historian and the excellent General Ulloa whom I put on the list of my friends…”.
The name of Giuseppe Ferrari, the weight of his political and philosophical thought on the consolidation of the ideals of the Tuscan group is undeniable and only awaits further investigation. As we have pointed out in another occasion, since 1848 Ferrari had frequented Proudhon and his circle in Paris, meeting also Courbet. His position, an alternative to Mazzinianism and oriented towards a “socialist” perspective of the Risorgimento, was not a winning one, but it deeply marked the ideals of our painters. In the midst of Martelli’s handwritten notes, preserved in the Marucelliana Library in Florence, with regard to Abbati’s personality, the following is written: “Proudhon – Giuseppe Ferrari in Florence”, which would seem to indicate a particular closeness that arose immediately after the arrival of the Neapolitan in Florence, that is, after the month of December 1860. For this reason, we have spoken elsewhere of an “ideological” approach of the Macchiaioli to Realism.
Technically speaking, in fact, the invention of the “stain” immediately placed the Tuscans in such a position of progress as to make Courbet’s painting appear “old”, at least that of revolutionary paintings such as “The Stone Breakers” and “Funeral at Ornans”. The Macchiaioli, by relating themselves “analogically” to the work of the French leader, appreciated the aesthetic principles which, in the meantime, had found a theoretical formulation in Proudhon’s only work on the subject, “Du principe de l’art”, which was avidly read and adopted by some exponents of the Tuscan group, such as Signorini and Martelli, while, as far as Abbati was concerned, as we shall see, we are able to understand a certain reserve. But if it is difficult to separate the reflection on the formal qualities of an innovative art such as that of the Macchiaioli from the political context, from the Risorgimento struggles in which those painters were personally involved, from the strong ethical tension of their souls aimed at the realization of a dream, a united Italy and a society of values, a better world in short; so we cannot give an occasional meaning to the alternation of Signorini to De Tivoli in the leadership of the group, occurred in 1863. The free flow of the principles of realism within the Tuscan group was hindered by those who, for generational, artistic or even political reasons (Proudhon being one of the vehicles of this infiltration) did not share the positions of Signorini and Martelli. Two letters from Martelli to Gustavo Uzielli, then a student at the Sorbonne, give us information on the climate of heated discussion that characterized the discussions at Caffè Michelangiolo at that time. In the first place there was the discussion about the creation of a newspaper that would express the orientations of the group, but the idea fell miserably under the arrows of those who thought it was right “not to have principles” and therefore were in favor of a “non-alignment” of the Tuscan group.
The second missive of Martelli tells about the violent diatribe that arose between Signorini and De Tivoli and that, as we have already indicated in another occasion, marks an important passage in the history of the Macchiaioli. “(…) in the question that he had with Signorini, Tivoli was wrong, but Signorini is also no good. Now I’ll tell you the matter that if it bothers you, you can skip it. Tivoli Napoleonist for the skin saying that it is the greatest socialist of the time. Signorini flaunts or has the most outspoken maxims of Proudhon and exaggerating as usual everything he does to the proportion of his hats he spoke only of Proudhon had a book of Proudhon in his pocket that he never read etc.. These things irritated Tivoli who for some time had been the oracle with Vito D’Ancona of this society where he held the supremacy so that one evening Signorini came to the Café bringing with him a caricature of Proudhon made against him in Belgium and that the same had by chance found on a banquet the catastrophe happened. Signorini enters with the caricature in his hand and shows it to some friends without giving it any importance and only pointing out the grace of the drawing and speaking of it as something of art, Tivoli who did not belong to this group at the time asks what there is to see and knowing the subject of his curiosity, begins to say all testy that of an imbecile like Proudhon, it was not more licit for people of good sense to deal with him, who did not read him but the imbeciles who otherwise would not have dealt with him, Signorini replied to Tivoli who seemed to him to be a very serious writer, when Tivoli attacked Signorini personally, telling him that we are fed up with your superiority and you have broken us. … what do you think we should understand and then Signorini pulls Tivoli’s nose, Tivoli responds glass, Signorini another glass final tableaux, separation of the combatants and after a short time disappearance of Tivoli of which ran fame was in Paris but did not say goodbye to anyone.
Those who thought they had reached the goal of a new art with the achievement of the “macchia” were undermined by Signorini’s verve and by those who judged necessary an ideological-aesthetic configuration of the Macchiaioli movement. To the vision substantially bucolic of the painters of Barbizon, made from counterpart the deep humanity of the figures courbettiane, caught in the reality of which the painter had direct experience, that is, that of the native places, and observed without apriorismi idealistic, Similar to Courbet our artists believed therefore to have to immerse themselves in the reality of the contemporary world, bourgeois or rural that it was and be an expression of the feeling of his own time. They preferred therefore the Tuscan countryside in its different declinations, fascinated now by the sunny and strong landscape of Castiglioncello, now by the domestic quietness of the semi-urban Piagentina. The more their need for renewal of the technical and expressive means led them to refine the effective tool of the “stain” in its extraordinary potential for synthesis and grip on the truth, the more they were passionate about the problems of light, so that, without betraying the purpose felt primary social destination of art, they sought in the surrounding reality the reason that ignited the poetic imagination: an effect of light and shadow in a corner of the country, the backlight of a porch that opens onto the sunny countryside, the white of a laundry hanging in the sun. This way of conducting pictorial research responded to the concept of “sentiment” which Proudhon defined as “a vibration or resonance of the soul with regard to the appearance of certain things or rather of certain appearances considered beautiful or horrible, sublime or ignoble”, attributing to this principle the value of the primary cause of art; in the faculty of perceiving “a sentiment within a form”, that is, “to be happy or sad at the simple sight of an image”, the Frenchman made the artist’s power of invention reside. With the same objectivity of analysis, our artists now applied themselves to a microscopic, apparently insignificant fragment of the real, now they pinned their studies on a more complex subject inspired by contemporary society: the modern Prometheans who hoist a boat against the current, along the Arno, a red wagon abandoned at sunset in the middle of the arid countryside of Castiglioncello.
Because “truth” is to go “in search of the true, the grandiose, the terrible” in the conviction that “there may exist another kind of poetry and a reality worthy of being reproduced even where the ancient school stopped for fear of falling into horror and ugliness”. Champfleury rightly noted how, particularly in his landscapes, Courbet demonstrated his bond with his native land, and Proudhon reiterated how from this bond the painter drew his extraordinary power. For the artist is not made to render a universal idea of the landscape or of man, but “to express an idea, a form which is generally that of his own country and of his contemporaries”. This is in good substance what the Macchiaioli synthesized with the term “character”: to highlight the peculiar quality of the subject depicted – the “local hue” and characteristic of a place, the particularity of a physiognomy – and to ensure that every compositional element, formal, chromatic harmoniously contribute to its pictorial rendering. Castiglioncello and Piagentina The “new aesthetics” was born against the backdrop of radical political upheavals and ideals in which the Macchiaioli are involved. Signorini writes from the pages of the “New Europe”, a newspaper that since 1861, the year of its foundation, was an expression of Garibaldi’s wing of the democratic camp. Founded by Beppe Dolfi, with funding provided by Agostino Bertani, the newspaper was edited by Antonio Martinati, Giuseppe Mazzoni and Giuseppe Montanelli and was closely linked to the work of the Fratellanza Artigiana, an association chaired by Beppe Dolfi. The well-known Florentine baker and leader, friend of Giuseppe Mazzini, Francesco Domenico Guerrazzi, and the Marquis Ferdinando Bartolommei, had played a key role in linking the democratic-popular and aristocratic-liberal forces of the Tuscan capital in the imminence of the events of 1859; He had been a frequent visitor of the Caffè Michelangiolo, so much so that Borrani would have drawn his portrait in pencil (“I have made several drawings among which the portrait of my poor friend Dolfi”, he wrote to Martelli on August 14, 1869).
After 1860, having noticed the prevalence of the moderate monarchic orientation in political matters, Dolfi turned his work of fervent republican to the solution of the enormous social problems. Therefore, he promoted the creation of the Artisan Brotherhood, a corporate structure through which to address the burning issues of social redemption, intellectual training of citizens, and universal suffrage. In this context the Macchiaioli move, engaged in the establishment of a New Society Promoter, able to promote the new painting with foresight. And it is still in this context that the well-known masterpiece by Signorini, “L’alzaja”, sees the light, a painting with obvious social implications, and it is not by chance that it was promptly purchased by the members of the Fraternity itself. To these events of the history of the country, lived and participated by ours, are interspersed those equally important artistic biography. The maturation of the Tuscan pictorial movement passed through well-known circumstances, ranging from the rejection of Signorini’s Venetian paintings at a public exhibition “for excessive violence of chiaroscuro”, to the studies of Telemaco, Banti and Cabianca in Liguria (1858-1859); from the visits of the “rebellious youth” of the Michelangiolo café to the Florentine studio of Nino Costa, after 1859, in order to obtain comfort for the group’s researches, which were now mostly focused on investigating the expressive potentialities of landscape painting, to the conversion to the “macchia” of the reluctant Fattori, by Costa himself; from the arrival of Giuseppe Abbati in Florence (December 1860) to the stay in Paris of Signorini, Banti and Cabianca, visiting the studios of Camille Corot and Costant Troyon (June 1861), to the First National Exhibition of Florence (September 1861).
This last event marked the triumph of the history painting of Domenico Morelli and of the Neapolitan school, and with them the historical picture renewed according to the principles of truthfulness and dramatic concentration; but it was at this point that the Tuscan school, as courageously as in agreement, made a sharp turn towards a bold and original path, diversifying its objectives from those shared until then with its southern companions. It was like turning his back on the success he had just gained, an unpredictable attitude that can be explained, however, in the words with which Diego Martelli justified Abbati’s decision to refuse the medal of the Exhibition: “He had seriously meditated on the direction that art was hinting at taking. He had realized that he belonged too much to the old and conventional way of painting and he gave himself over to renew himself for the intimate and great satisfaction of his soul. So instead of taking advantage of the position he had gained as a celebrated internist, he thought it better to start studying outdoors, since the habit of copying closed walled environments denied him that elasticity of form and manner which comes from the study of animated and living things…”.
With the facts briefly recounted, we have gained the discrimen between the two times of the “stain”, that year 1861 which opens the golden decade, the season of the expressive fullness in which the great themes of the poetics of our artists, first debated and externalized, flow back into the soul, which is a collective soul, and sediment there. The spirit is no less revolutionary; it possesses the great human, civil and patriotic ideals because it has tried them out on itself, even to the point of extreme sacrifice, but it is not possessed by them and therefore dominates, holds its emotions until they flow back into the enchantment of a subdued, privileged, calm dialogue with Nature. Diego Martelli narrates how Silvestro Lega, “reluctant to undress the old skin”, that is, uncertain whether or not to leave the academic-purist direction of his training, on leaving the rooms of the National Exhibition felt “moved” and returned “to the countryside with a quantity of studies from life”, a circumstance that preludes the extraordinary Pergentinean vein of the Romagna master.
It was probably the results achieved by his companions during the summer months of 1861 that convinced Lega of the validity of the new artistic direction. The activities of Signorini and Abbati in Castiglioncello, of Borrani and Sernesi in San Marcello Pistoiese, of Fattori in Livorno revealed a homogeneity of results deriving from the common choice of a pastoral-agrestrial theme, but also and above all in the desire to overcome the polemical meaning of the orthodox ‘stain’, for a more peaceful and relaxed vision of the real, dominated by the reintegrated drawing and by the light as the only regulating principle of the tonal and atmospheric effects. It is worth retracing the biographical and artistic events that led our artists to frequent the Maremma property of Diego Martelli, a young militant critic, generous patron and supporter of the Tuscan movement; and also the motivations that drove Silvestro Lega, Odoardo Borrani, Giuseppe Abbati and Telemaco Signorini to go and paint, since 1862, in the suburban area of Piagentina, just behind the Florentine Porta La Croce. The same artists (with the exception of Lega who frequented almost exclusively the Florentine countryside) were the protagonists of the two “schools”, as well as unitary was the ideal, artistic, social climate that generated, as in a single breath, this great poetic season of painting of the nineteenth century. On 30 July 1861 died the liberal Carlo Martelli, the engineer author of publications on the railways of Tuscany, the collaborator of the Anthology of Vieusseux, the financier – he who was the depositary of the papers and manuscripts of Ugo Foscolo – the first printed edition of the Graces. His son Diego inherited his father’s vast possessions, more than a thousand hectares of land extended between the provinces of Pisa and Livorno.
It was August 4, 1861 when the small group of painters – Signorini, Abbati and Michele Tedesco – who accompanied Diego on his first visit to his properties, proceeding in a gig along the Via Emilia, crossed the hills of Rosignano Marittimo. Extraordinary was the natural spectacle that presented itself to the sight of those first visitors: austere plateaus sloping towards the clear sea dominated in the distance by the wavy profiles of the facing islands of the Archipelago; isolated cottages lost in the ocher tones of wheat fields burned by the sun, dotted with green spots of holm oaks and low Mediterranean vegetation; the white silhouettes of cattle grazing in the flat spaces near the Medici Tower. In Pascoli a Castiglioncello, a painting made on the occasion of that first stay on the Livorno coast, Signorini fully grasped the charm and the primitive beauty of that landscape.
At the same time as Signorini, in the adjacent Livorno countryside, Fattori created a work that was an example of the new course of the “macchia”: Iconographically, La boscaiola-costume toscano (1861) reveals the suggestion of illustrious French precedents, the peasant epic of Jean-François Millet, for example; but Fattori’s shepherdess, even in the noble solemnity of a rural divinity, proud and at the same time modest in her lowered gaze, induces in us, before any reflection on the daily struggle for existence of the people of the fields, an identification with the luminous, solar nature of the Leghorn countryside. From that moment on, the rustic construction of Villa Martelli became the hospitable home of the painters and therefore one of the most recurrent motifs in the production of these artists. In the summer months of 1862 Borrani worked intensely in the vicinity of the Villa, fixing in tiny wooden slats the horizons that could be reached from it by turning the gaze in the direction of the different cardinal points: the result is small masterpieces of refined essentiality, able to evoke in a few inches of painting, the vastness of space, the freedom of breath that the artist feels in front of the soft decline of the hills under the clear sky.
Sernesi was also an assiduous member of the Castiglioncello community, whose figure was soon mythologized by his Macchiaioli companions: in his death at the age of twenty-eight in dramatic circumstances during the Third War of Independence, they saw the spirit of sacrifice of their generation of young patriots emblematized, committed to the construction of a nation that was finally free and united. However, Telemaco Signorini, Sernesi’s first biographer, maintains that the works created in Castiglioncello, together with an admirable “Pastura in montagna” (Shepherd in the mountains) created in San Marcello Pistoiese, were revealing of the genius of the Florentine painter who was little more than twenty years old. Therefore, the splendid Marina in Castiglioncello, formerly owned by Giussani, with the studies that accompanied its realization – one of which belonged to Signorini himself – represents not only one of the lyrical goals of the most poetic season of the Macchia, but also the apex of an individual path, the spiritual tribute of one of the purest souls of the Tuscan group. A tragic destiny also awaited Beppe Abbati, the cultured Neapolitan painter, an intimate of Martelli, who had already paid his tribute of blood to his country in 1860, losing his right eye during the battle of Santa Maria Capua Vetere. Immediately associated with Borrani and Sernesi in this predilection for the landscape Abbati had therefore suddenly turned his back on the success achieved as a painter of monumental interiors, to devote himself to painting from life. “…he successfully tried the open air of the countryside and began a series of studies that were never interrupted in my villa in Castiglioncello, located on the Mediterranean coast 12 miles south of Livorno, where he spent two months of the summer”, writes Diego.
Near Villa Martelli, some children are absorbed in their games. The warm luminosity of the late spring day, the welcoming field dotted with red poppies, the quiet sea that can be glimpsed in the distance beyond the wall, are an invitation to carefree living. The thin painting becomes precious in observing the brilliant results of the tone on tone of the green field, of the brown surface of the rustic building, attacked by mold, and, again, of the gray-blue expanse of the sea, closed on the horizon by the purple profile of the coast. Moving away from the Villa, Beppe frequents the nearby inlets, from the flat and stony Caletta, where he discovers the desolate, almost “lunar” character, to the Porticciolo where the “fishermen’s house” stands. But it is the large inlet of Portovecchio that excites him most: a strip of stony land insinuates itself between the gentle flow of the river and the quiet rolling of the waves, in the first moments of a windless dawn; beyond, the profile of the coast winds and embraces the entire horizon. The silvery veils, the traces of the night that is fading away, light up here and there in the dark greens of the vegetation, in the flashes that the dawning day beats on the smooth surfaces of the stones, in the light foaming of the waves along the shore. In Bovi sulla spiaggia, the shore is animated by the clear silhouettes of animals, while the bright chromatic note of the red wagon suddenly raises the general tone, like a cry whose echo is echoed among the rocks of that solitary inlet. In Casa sul botro, the artist once again measures his melancholic nature against the solitary scenery of the Maremma coast: no detail, no living presence disturbs the sober linearity of the planes, their harmonious setting in chromatic fields which, from the calm waters of the botro, mirror of an almost lunar landscape (poetically prescient of twentieth-century atmospheres), follow one another until they mark the high horizon and the soaring silhouette of the rustic building on its summit.
After all, even when they are inanimate, the landscapes of Castiglioncello always have a domestic horizon and the human presence, even when not visible, can be guessed at a short distance away, alluded to in the affection with which the artist pictorially “caresses” the places of his spirit; the places and presences among which he leads his daily life. During the winter months, the physical distance from his fraternal friend Diego, who lives permanently in Castiglioncello with Teresa, induces Abbati to correspond frequently. From time to time, general news are interspersed with considerations on current political events, on reading, on art: “I’m reading the new book “Force et Matière” by Buchner [Ludwig Buchner, ed.] – it is the quintessence of materialism – you will already know that I like it – but I do not find it very deep – they are things that are already known – and I expected something new – but it is always a very interesting book,” writes Abbati in March 1865. Both were waiting to hear about the fate of the new newspaper founded by Beppe Dolfi and directed by Niccolò Lo Savio, professor of economics at the Fratellanza Artigiana. With regard to the aesthetics formulated by Proudhon, Abbati did not hide his reservations, revealing a different point of view from that of Signorini and Martelli himself. The critic notes in a handwritten note how, although he devoted himself to reading the book of the French thinker, “De l’art et de sa destination sociale”, he denied “in this alone the theories of Proudhon”. And when these theories found through the pen of Angeli, a questionable statement in the opening text of the first periodical of the Macchiaioli, “Il Gazzettino delle arti del disegno”, Abbati resented it in two letters to Cabianca, claiming the free inspiration of the artist (“the art is the product of a personality – it is the truth seen through a temperament”) and the poetic purpose of the artistic creation, that therefore must be preserved from excessive indoctrinations (“L’Angeli says that, nothing is more beautiful than the nature, and he doesn’t realize that it makes useless the art and gives a kick to the poetry”).
Castiglioncello was the theater of the last evolution of Abbati’s art, since it was there that the Neapolitan painter, back from the front of the Third War of Independence and from captivity in Croatia, decided to settle down to work in solitude; and it was there that he died at only thirty-two years of age, due to the hydrophobia contracted by his mastiff dog. It was on the Maremma coast that Beppe “pushed the ambitious flight of his genius higher”. It was then, as Diego Martelli readily attests, that he identified the primary motives of his inspiration: “The sky, the great nature, man, here is the goal he had set himself”. This important poetic moment was shared with Borrani, with Boldini, and above all with Giovanni Fattori, all guests at the Villa of the critic, in the summer of 1867. Fattori, going back to the time of that artistic association, recalled how Abbati had encouraged him to study whites and he had encouraged the Neapolitan painter to study animals. The motif of the oxen on the cart was one of the favorite themes of the creativity of the two artists who developed it now in the direction of extreme synthesis (as in Bifolco e buoi by Fattori) or in large format works such as La raccolta del fieno in Maremma by Fattori and Carro e bovi nella Maremma toscana by Abbati, extraordinary elegies on the theme of nature, man and work in the fields. A favorite theme, but not the only one, that of the yoked oxen. It is enough to remember the high poetic results of the extraordinary portraits that Fattori left us of his friends, Diego Martelli seated on a deckchair with a slouching lectern in front of him, Teresa Martelli seated in the shade of the young pine forest, the lawyer Valerio Biondi.
In the unpublished view of Vada, a village south of Castiglioncello, Abbati depicts a moment of rural life, the departure for fishing: as in Fattori’s Pasture in Maremma, the feeling of primordial nature dominates here, enclosing within itself the meaning of life. The secular rhythms of rustic life are to the vast solitary spaces of the poor Maremma coast as the subtle hands of the seconds to the mechanism of a large clock: Lilliputian anonymous existences they, together with the alternation of the seasons, and of the day at night, mark the flow of existence. The sober chromatics, or to quote Martelli, the “modesty of intonation”, entrusted to the subtle variations of whites and ochres, does not renounce to sudden ignitions of reds and dark greens, while the effect of the sharp light on the town is identified as the primary poetic motif. “Castiglioncello! How beautiful it was when from the old Martelli house one could go down in shirts and maybe without a shirt into the limpid sea, which has become even today in that place an elegant sea and therefore hated by people, like me, who love in theory the civilized progress, but in practice the wild customs”, 38 Gustavo Uzielli would have written to Renato Fucini in 1908, recalling the atmosphere of those summer gatherings, the true contact with the Mediterranean nature, solar and authentic of those who, painters, literati, pleasant types, friends reached Castiglioncello to then disperse in all freedom for the soft slopes of the Martelli property.
A second center of aggregation of Macchiaioli painters and their supporters was the Florentine countryside of Piagentina, today completely urbanized and therefore unrecognizable compared to the magnificent images that have left. In the beautiful winter days when it was too difficult to reach Villa Martelli, the Macchiaioli since 1862 took the habit of going to the countryside outside Porta La Croce, outside the walls from the parts of the current Piazza Beccaria, and walking among the gardens and the villas until they reached the Arno and the fifteenth-century building called “la Casaccia”, at Bellariva. Compared to the stylistic and thematic homogeneity of the production of Castiglioncello, the works of Piagentina appear a less unitary whole, a sensation that can be traced back to the lack of a continuous and constant direction that the charismatic figure of Martelli assumed by force of things in Maremma. The meaning of those meetings – and it is obvious that the term “school” should be understood in the Socratic meaning of free association – is suggested by Proudhon in “Du Principe de l’art et de sa destination sociale”, where we read that “The artist must be in communion of ideas and principles not only with his brothers, but with all his contemporaries (…)”.
The moment the artist ceases to study, inspiration automatically disappears, maintains the French philosopher, theorizing on the necessity of group experience and continuous confrontation with Nature, of incessant research and experimentation. These were the reasons that, together with biographical ones, led the Macchiaioli to create the two artistic communities and their production, although in the unity of poetics, is characterized by the different intonation that comes from the different quality of the landscape. Reason for which the comparison with the nature, irrenounceable motive of the poetic of Castiglioncello, becomes for Piagentina less essential, allowing to this second “school” a not univocally landscape address. The format also changes between the two schools and Borrani demonstrates this blatantly, passing from the decidedly horizontal dimensions of his enameled “predelle”, suitable for capturing the strong light of the Maremma horizons, to the more square and imposing format of works such as Cucitrici di camicie rosse. Since the last months of 1962 Borrani frequents the countryside outside the city of La Croce, but he prefers, together with Lega, the subjects inspired by the domestic life of the Batelli and Cecchini families and their entourage. And it is Lega himself who is the singer of the affectionate and serene atmosphere of Piagentina: in the masterpieces created by the Modiglianese artist in these years, from L’elemosina to La visita in villa, from Curiosità to Il canto dello stornello, La pittura, I Promessi Sposi one finds that unity of inspiration which gives Silvestro’s work the melodic continuity of the same elegiac song.
Silvestro implements a sort of interiorization of the images of domestic reality and of the rural nature in which he finds himself immersed, experienced no longer as an occasional and external fact, but as episodes of his own emotional life. Along the embankment of the ancient Via Piagentina, above which the familiar profile of the hills of Monte alle Croci and San Leonardo rises, five people are surprised to be conversing amiably while, from the green doorway profiled in pietra serena, a sixth figure is preparing to bring them the comfort of a good glass of rosolio. The visit to the villa is an episode of daily life, of that simple everyday life, made up of small joys and intimate feelings, which animates the rural civilization of Piagentina. The composed elegance of the Florentine bourgeoisie of the Batelli and Cecchini families is not a simple external fact that resurfaces in the sobriety of the quietly colored clothes on which the ladies’ chastened white collars stand out, but it is an intrinsic fact of the painting: it becomes bare and essential in outlining the backdrop of the wall of the building, a beautiful rustic of fifteenth-century character that the patina of time has covered with a warm golden hue; it becomes precious in modulating that same hue through barely perceptible chromatic-bright vibrations that translate into a luminous dust the warmth of that sunny, but not clear, afternoon.
While Abbati and Sernesi move along the steep streets of Montughi, Bellosguardo, and Erta Canina, for the most part creating extraordinary syntheses from life with a stringent Macchiaioli syntax, Signorini lingers along the banks of the Arno. In Mattino sull’Arno (Morning on the Arno), the furrows flooded with rainwater seem to trace a path along the embankment with their silver glitter, moving towards the bend of the river that marks the horizon; on the vanishing point, two figures of renaioli (fishmongers) at work hold our attention and the grey tones of their clothes act as a link between the sobriety of the palette with which the bare earth is coloured and the intensely blue background of the sky veined with clouds. In Signorini, therefore, the pure lyricism of Abbati, Sernesi and Borrani, interpenetrating with the ideals of the new aesthetics, strongly seeks legitimation in the illustrious precedents of the genre. Lyricism and reality of the landscape, therefore, with the awareness of its own being in History. The most striking reference is to Hobbema’s The avenue of Middelharnis and it is not by chance that the critic of “La Nazione” (certainly a person very much in the Macchiaioli camp) mentioned this author, noting that “realism has given England and France, as well as Holland with Ruysdael and Hobbema, great landscape painters, whose work soon influenced that of the figure painters”: “and therefore I do not know why we should fear the ruin and the complete decay of Italian art. Let us give time to time, and if today we do not have in Italy the Turners, the Constables, the Corots, the Duprés, the Rousseaus, when art will have passed among us the stages through which it has passed in those countries that preceded us in reform, we will have them”.
The review referred to the prize obtained by Telemaco in 1870 with the large painting Novembre, depicting a wide dirt road invaded by rainwater, along which two peasant girls walk quickly; the curved course of the road is emphasized by the same movement of the furrows impressed in the mud by the wheels of the wagons; the sky dark with rain clouds filters the sunlight, spreading golden reflections on the dark landscape below. “The impression is rendered with evidence, with depth of feeling, with mechanism very simple in appearance, but studied and calculated in substance. Despise those who want, for a misunderstood love of traditions, the school of realists, but do not deny – concluded the critic of “La Nazione” – that from it came great good to modern art, called to a deep and scrupulous observation of the form, to a precision of language not used in the past”. The Epic of Everyday Life During the sixties, therefore, the research of the Macchiaioli produced a radical renewal of country painting and, at the same time, the affirmation of an epic dimension of everyday reality. The principles of Truth, Character, Feeling, constitutive of the poetics of ours who, deduced from the writings on Realism and in particular from those of Proudhon made them their own imprinting on their language, their philosophy of life, their aspirations not only artistic, marked for nearly fifty years the path of the Tuscan realists; a sort of tracing that now marks the extraordinary, unrepeatable moral tension of the moment of Castiglioncello as it will later root the cognitive sense of the form of the last Fattori.
Relating themselves analogically to the precedent of Courbet (whose evolution towards the naturalistic themes of his mature activity our painters appreciated more and more), but above all giving way to their respective personalities to express themselves with “sincerity”, the Macchiaioli painters adopted this double register which is now lyrical, now of social polemic, but always originated from the careful investigation of contemporary reality. For Proudhon, the modern painter must know how to “read the depths of the universal soul” and must know how to “express it with his works”; therefore, it was not only a question of restoring the concreteness of truth to a landscape, assuming its characteristic features, or of highlighting the peculiarity of a physiognomy or a social type, or of pictorially restoring the emotion aroused in the artist by a given visual reality. The artist was asked to do much more, that is to express, through the artistic sublimation of the individually experienced reality, the collective feeling of his own time, the deepest sense of the contemporary age.
What Signorini claims for himself and for his generation, the “task of civilization”, is not to be understood prosaically, as the awareness of one’s civic duty (to which Proudhon seemed to refer in the very title of his book, asserting the “social destination” of art), but rather as the claim of a freedom of expression that found in its own being in History, the most intimate reasons for its poetic inspiration. This sublimation of truth, which underlies the strong ethical and sentimental tension in the hearts of our painters, is more perceptible than ever in those works that measure themselves against the reality of men, rather than against the merely natural reality of the landscape. The domestic reality in which the seamstresses of the Red Shirts work silently is pervaded by a sentiment of poignant participation mixed with a trusting state of expectation while, under the proud gaze of Garibaldi, whose portrait stands out on the blue wall, they sew the shirts of the soldiers; outside that room, History incites to revolution, the hero of the two worlds fights for the unity of the Nation and pursues Rome as capital, although forced to a momentary halt by Aspromonte.
The large window with its transparent curtains supported by golden embrasures, is like a soft curtain that separates that moment of domestic life from the proscenium of the dramatic actuality of the nascent Italian state: the filtering daylight highlights the silent conversation of glances, the restrained manners of the protagonists and makes perceptible in the serene determination of the faces bent over work, the meaning of those simple gestures as heroic as they are “private”. Functional to this “sublimation” of the Real are some technical expedients such as the slight enlargement of the figures in relation to the proportions of the painting that Borrani derives from the comparison with Tuscan Renaissance painting, and again the slightly lowered and closer observation point on the figures that “introduces” them into their sphere of action and finally the idea of backlighting. This last expedient greatly enriches the emotional potential of the subject represented and this is very evident in Lega’s “L’educazione al lavoro” (Education at work), where the humble, everyday gesture between the teacher and the little apprentice is elevated – without any rhetorical emphasis, mind you – to an exemplary fact, a warning to recover the ancient values of civilization of which the Tuscan bourgeoisie has somehow remained the depository.
This sense of politeness, which is therefore first and foremost moral, is expressed with the utmost essentiality of the pictorial medium, resorting to the neo-fourteenth-century quality of the drawing, and exalted by the warm light of a spring morning; illuminated from behind, the beautiful figure that we recognize to be the painter’s companion, Virginia Batelli, is taken from behind, her long black hair gathered at the nape of her neck; she stands out austere, while the backlighting exalts the luminous contour of the figure, enhancing the regal whiteness of the dress, the maternal profile and the mute correspondence of looks with the radiant child sitting at her feet. Carefully observing the reality not with simple mimetic intentions, but to catch the deepest meanings of the contemporary age, “the breath that comes from the century” as the critic Maurizio Angioli puts it, and therefore give a testimony of their own age, this is the aim that, even with the necessary distinctions and the different nuances, the Macchiaioli set themselves during the 1860s. While the epoch of Fattori’s paintings such as Le Macchiaiole or Raccolta del fieno in Maremma comes from the conferral of the elected form to the poetic motifs caught on the motif in the Livorno countryside, determining the intonation now vitalistic, now elegiac of his always serenely assertive vision of the True, the “testimony” made by Signorini is imbued with social content, in response to the strong civil commitment (as well as patriotic) profused by the author during the sixties.
The recent reappearance of the clamorous L’alzaia confirms in principle the critical reading that Diego Martelli has left us of this “social” strand of Signorini’s production; referring in particular to the madwomen of the Florentine asylum of St. Boniface, the well-known La sala delle agitate (The Room of the Agitated), Martelli defined it as a painting constructed “with that same love that only paintings destined to the great deeds of heroes deserve” and decidedly distinguishing such painting from “that real genre painting, destined to make the rich laugh at the misery of the poor” he defined it as “a true page of humanity”. The reading key suggested by Martelli, therefore, links this strand of Signorini’s work to Courbet’s precedent, rightly distances its results from the tradition of sentimental and anecdotal generism, and finally qualifies its character which is not one of social polemic, but of investigation of reality, in the spirit of a modern Humanism.
To go in search of the truth without fear of crossing the threshold of decency, with the aim of giving art new objectives with which to measure its sincerity and its fidelity to the role of witness of the contemporary era. “To put one’s finger in the stinky sore” not to raise political tussles, extraneous to art because of their prosaic nature, but to ensure that Humanity, looking in the mirror, sees and provides. To measure oneself against the madness of a minority of women, whose faces are deformed by dementia and whose cries resound horribly in the austerity of the room of the asylum that contains them like beasts in a cage; or to walk along the bank of the Arno at Cascine, the site of the elegant city promenade, to come across the spectacle of degraded humanity, represented by a group of individuals who, like beasts of burden, drag a boat against the current of the river: all this is a matter for the new painting. “In 1864 I made a painting of my greatest with many figures almost true to life pulling a boat against the current of the Arno, L’Alzaia,” Signorini wrote.
Harnessed to the rope, the towpath, five robust individuals in shirtsleeves and pants rolled up to the calf are towing a boat (out of sight) from the bank of the Arno; their backs are arched in the effort, their arms dangle inertly along their torsoes or bend to wipe the sweat from their faces, their heavy steps nail the staggering figures to the ground. The backlighting enhances the contours, reduces to dark spots the faces already rendered inebriated by fatigue so that every individuality is lost in the monumental and plastic power of an ancient bas-relief; although, turning his face towards us who observe the scene, one of the individuals attests that this is not an ancient episode of serfs, but rather a sad truth of the newborn Italian nation, a reality against which the libertarian dreams of a generation are shattered. The tension of the drama is exalted by the contrast in the clear light of day in which the urban profile of Florence is outlined in the distance; not that of the newly elected capital city corrected by the urban plans of Giuseppe Poggi, but that of the city included in its green hills that takes in air through the wide semi-urban stretches of Bellariva and Piagentina, that breathes along the dirt banks of the Arno at the Cascine Park. From there, looking in the direction of the Ponte Granducale di San Leopoldo, Signorini observes the sequence of buildings on the other side of the Arno and seems moved to perceive the changing reflections of light on the white volumes that the Macchiaioli technique summarily defines, giving them the poetry and clarity of Piero della Francesca’s geometries.
It is precisely this neo-fifteenth-century metric rigor, this calibrating power of light that must prevent us from comparing it with the analogous subject painted about ten years later by the Russian Ilya Repin: in the painting set on the banks of the Volga (Barge Haulers on the Volga, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg), in fact, the same scene is reproposed with narrative pathos and with a wealth of details in the identification of the protagonists’ faces. Just as some years ago, in the midst of the industrial revolution, Courbet’s poverty without perspective caused a sensation, so too the lack of dignity of certain strata of the Tuscan population disappoints and wounds those who had dedicated themselves to freedom and social equality. Signorini’s “alzaja” also presupposes a complexity of cultural references ranging from Proudhon to Giuseppe Ferrari, to the novels of Victor Hugo, the famous author of “Les Miserables” (1862) known for his “antitheses” (and it is this rhetorical figure that Telemaco adopts in structuring his extraordinary painting), but which substantially flows into and nourishes the ethical-moral tension that sustains Signorini’s vision in this specific poetic moment. In order to shed light on the destiny and the critical fortune of this masterpiece, strangely ignored by the critics of the time, and by the sources which, except for Signorini himself, have not handed down either descriptions or images of it (a truly inexplicable circumstance if we consider that the painting, purchased by a public association, was for years kept on display in via della Colonna, the seat of the Promotrice di Belle Arti of Florence, which arranged to send it to the Universal Exhibition of Vienna, where it was even awarded a prize), we believe it opportune to add a piece to our present knowledge. This clarification concerns the existence of a second version of L’alzaja, a circumstance attested by Telemaco himself, in the autograph list of his works sold.
This second version would have been sold in 1867 to the twenty years old Scottish painter James Wingate, leading to doubt that the painting recently reappeared in London and that we present today is the first version, but rather the second, of which we know for sure the English destiny. Well, the examination of the correspondence between Wingate and Signorini seems to resolve the legitimate doubt, suggesting that this Alzaja is the first version, while the one sold to Wingate was probably a small format replica. “…Les artistes et les connaisent les admirent beaucoup, il dissent que vous avez beaucoup d’esprit mais a la meme temp comme esquisses vos tableaux sont brave, comme tableaux il n’ya pas de finiments…” wrote the Scottish painter to Signorini on March 30, 1868. The judgment concerned some works that the painter of Glasgow had been entrusted by Telemaco to try to sell in his country. These works are identified in the autograph list of the works sold, drawn up by Signorini: they are L’agguato and Il riposo, painted in 1865, and L’alzaja, a replica, of sketchy workmanship, executed at the same time as the meeting with Wingate.
Premonitions of Naturalism
At the end of the sixties, at the end of the golden decade of the “macchia”, new inflections run through the production of the Tuscans, although contained for the moment within the solid neo-renaissance metrics of a rigorous painting and the ethical-resurgent sentiment of these artists. In addition to the individual biographical events, this change is influenced by the change in the scenario that welcomes the Tuscan debate. At the end of 1866, the glorious café in Via Larga ceased to exist and was buried with all honors by its affectionate patrons, mostly veterans of the Third War of Independence. From the ashes of its ashes, still hot with skirmishes and ideological battles, a new gymnasium was born in January 1867 – “virtual”, we would say today – namely the “Gazzettino delle Arti del disegno”, the first periodical of the movement, founded and directed by Diego Martelli. Among the many editors, there were Signorini and the critic Maurizio Angeli. The themes debated in the “Gazzettino”, the fight against academy and manner, the opposition to historical falsehood, the affirmation of the “school of nature” and of the “sincerity” of the artist are themes inspired and argued by Proudhon’s “Du Principe”. The correspondence from abroad, the internal debates within the editorial staff, all this made the “Gazzettino” the instrument of the conscious leadership of the Macchiaioli in the artistic reality of post-unification Italy. But the newspaper of the Macchiaioli was also the mirror of what was happening on the national art scene, from the point of view of what we can deduce were the cultural preferences of that group of artists and fellow artists.
Abbati’s poetic season in Castiglioncello, that of the summer of 1867 which we know to have been the last of his brief existence, was encouraged and praised by Martelli who saw in it, rightly or wrongly, affinities with the direction of the painting of the French campi; Elsewhere the critic referred to a “Franco-British” direction taken by the painter with his last paintings dedicated “to the portrait of the life of nature and of the peasants”, an allusion perhaps to the similarity with the scenes of the Breton countryside painted by Jules Breton after 1865. This naturalist inflection, a language that from the 1970s onwards would be developed by the younger painters of the group, such as Francesco Gioli, Egisto Ferroni and Niccolò Cannicci, connotes Fattori’s splendid panel entitled L’Ave Maria or “The Evening Prayer”, not seen for many decades. In a corner of the Tuscan countryside, pervaded by the rosy tones of sunset, two peasant women are standing still in the middle of a slope, absorbed in devotions, their rough hands joined together. They are two common types of the rural class that lives in the countries between Florence and Livorno, but the composure of their gestures and the depth of their recollection are such as to induce respect and even the emotional participation of the observer. They are identified in their characters, as well as in their different physiognomies: one of them is standing, barefoot, almost haughty in her turning her beautiful profile towards the horizon, in the direction of the sound of the bell that can be perceived as coming from the small village lying on the top of the nearby hill; the other one is kneeling, her face inebriated, as if contused by tiredness, bending her gaze towards the ground, while her half-closed lips faintly emit the sounds of prayer.
The juxtaposition of the two figures accentuates the verticality of the composition, underlined by the presence of the two slender cypress trees, while the soul, like the natural reality pervaded by an aura of suspension, is predisposed to the contemplation of the divine. An analogous compositional structure is subtended by the Confidences of two Tuscan peasant women, one standing, the other seated, painted by Cristiano Banti; with respect to the lean and essential pictorial drafting of Fattoriana, however, the painter of Santa Croce puts into action that formal care, those pictorial refinements, through which to pursue an ideal of classical beauty that is a poetic component recognized to him, as distinctive, already by his companions on the road. This tendency to idealize Tuscan rural life, to make it a figure of serene gaiety and classical beauty introduces the spirit that will be proper to the Tuscan naturalists. The bright color, the love for the detail of the environment also evoke the presence of an artist who had found an excellent reception on the pages of the “Gazzettino” and within the Macchiaioli group: Boldini from Ferrara. Protected by the elder Banti at the time of his stay in Florence, this brilliant innovator had revolutionized the very concept of the portrait, building tiny perspective boxes, full of details of the environment, in which his portraits were posed, without seeming motionless, captured with extreme finesse of psychological penetration, in the privacy of their rooms, surprised in their habits and occupations.
At the first appearance of these pictorial prodigies, Signorini had woven praises of the author, observing, if anything, an excessive brightness of the colors. Considerations of this kind reveal how the needle of the scales was now shifting towards those problems of pictorial execution that up to that moment had been secondary to the ethical and austere quality of Macchiaioli painting. The cultural references implicitly introduced by Boldini in the Tuscan cultural debate were the first to find Signorini very sensitive. The Flemish warmth of the bourgeois interiors painted by Signorini from Ferrara as the setting for his portraits was symptomatic of a renewed attention to the ancient painting of Flanders, an attention shared by others in the Macchiaioli entourage: Martelli on the pages of the “Gazzettino” affirmed not by chance that the progress of modern painting took place there where the Venetian and Flemish tradition was wonderfully summarized. Great consideration was given to the Belgian Alfred Stevens: his intimist subjects, his porcelain manner, his virtuosity in the rendering of fabrics had definitively imposed him to the attention of the public and in 1867, at the time of Boldini’s first stay in Paris, eighteen paintings were exhibited at the Universal Exhibition. Paul Mantz in the “Gazette des Beaux Arts” defined him as “one of the best painters of modern elegance”, emphasizing the extraordinary mimetic qualities in the rendering of fabrics and materials.
Stevens’ success was part of the climate of rediscovery of the painting of the Low Countries, of which the French writer Théophile Thoré (better known by the pseudonym of Burger) had been an advocate for some years. Extensive excerpts of the reviews published by the critic in “Indépendance Belge” and related to the modern national schools present at the Parisian Salons were reported in the “Gazzettino”; Thoré-Burger was also responsible for the masterly work on Vermeer, thanks to which the genius of Delft, re-emerged from secular oblivion. Important opportunities of reflection on these themes were offered to the Tuscans both by the works that Vito D’Ancona sent from Paris and by the meetings of the Desboutin house. Marcellin, who in those years resided in Florence, was a famous engraver, but also an antiquarian, a copyist and a collector of ancient art, especially Venetian and Flemish art; he welcomed Tuscans and French friends visiting the city in his splendid residence of the Ombrellino at Bellosguardo, on the Florentine hills. “En literature et en politique Desboutin est (…) francais. Mais dans le questions d’art devant universale. Les Velasquez, les Giorgione, les Tiepolo, les Holbein, les Ruysael, tout cette belle collection de tableaux jadis à l’Ombrellino et aujourduhi dispardée dans les galeries europeannes… “, recalled Gustavo Uzielli . In the double portrait of the Papudoff sisters, Boldini fully reveals his orientation towards the painting that was fashionable at the time, which united elegance of layout and mastery of execution in the rendering of the details of costume and environment (the tactile effects of the silk taffetas of the dresses, the sparkle of the gilded wood, the richness of the tapestries stand out in the work of the Ferrara artist).
From this climate Signorini drew important confirmations to his innate “pittoricismo”, that is to say to the characteristic propensity to accentuate the pictorial effects. In a splendid painting depicting an elegant admirer who, not finding him at his studio, writes a note in which she explains that she cannot wait for the painter to arrive (Non potendo aspettare, is the title), Signorini makes use of the perspective box and the freedom of layout introduced by Boldini’s portraits; his elegant brushstroke gives substance and thickness to the chromatic mixture and therefore the subject, immersed in the sensuality of a warm bourgeois interior, leavens with a body quite different from the austere and neo-fourteenth century tenor of the Macchiaioli production immediately preceding it. This was followed by precise indications from Telemaco, real prodding at the point of the sword to his companions on the road; for example, when, reviewing the exhibition of the Società Promotrice of 1868, he judged Un dopo pranzo (After Lunch) by Lega “too neglected as an execution in all those greens of the pergola, which occupy such a large part in the important choice of this work” and, some time later, motivating the “critique” of the painting Primizie di Borrani, he concluded: “It is truly a pity to see in this artist the puerile eagerness of the diligent and accurate scholastic, and it seems that he wants to be so at any cost, even on the condition of not sympathizing with anyone. Think Mr. Borrani that Meissonier is not smooth, and he is the greatest performer of our times because he is the observer of the infinite parts of nature”. In L’Analfabeta (The Illiterate) painted by Borrani in 1869, a young woman from the countryside is portrayed, standing in front of the painter’s wife, seen from behind while sitting at the living room table, she waits with affectionate willingness to formulate in writing the contents of the note, which the poor woman barely suggested.
The poetry is all entrusted to the suspended atmosphere, to the motif of the light that bursts warmly through the large window and invests the woman’s young complexion with reddish tones, and then reverberates on the brick-colored arabesques of the wallpaper, and lights up with silvery reflections the ample gown swollen with crinoline and again revives the refined lace of the drape forgotten on the chair in the foreground. It is a seventeenth-century light, à la Vermeer, like the one that rages in the contemporary works of Signorini and Boldini; but here the metrics are absolutely Pergentinean (as in Lega de I fidanzati and La pittura), uninterested for the moment in the high-bourgeois condescension of the nervous pictorialism in the fashion of Telemaco. Although in a short time Borrani will reach a greater acrimony in the drafting of the enchanting A visit to my studio, demonstrating how the strali of Signorini arrived to sign. In the years to follow, the Tuscans would be well disposed towards the pictorial “mystifications” of Meissonier, Fortuny and, later, Boldini, for a misrepresentation of the fundamental principles of Courbettian realism; a misrepresentation that only in 1873 Adriano Cecioni will be able to evaluate and correct from the pages of the “Giornale artistico” – the second periodical of the Macchiaioli – declaring among other things to feel offended and nauseated by the “sight of that swarming of detail, which has no other purpose than to be meticulous and full of coquetterie”.
In addition, the cult of the verisimilitude of the detail of the environment or of the character, of the prodigious workmanship, of the chic brushstroke, determined the loss of historical awareness, of temporal perspective, of adherence to the truth, allowing one to contemplate within the term Realism, even scenes in eighteenth-century costume, as long as they were recreated in detail with documented historical accuracy. At the height of these aesthetic differences, however, soon recomposed, it was now crossed the decade. In the opening to the instances of international Naturalism, however, the Macchiaioli movement lost its ancient, vital compactness, accomplice the diversification of individual biographical events: the death of Sernesi, the dramatic disappearance of Abbati, the painful flight of Lega from Piagentina, following the death of his beloved Virginia, in 1870; and again the wanderings of D’Ancona and Signorini in France and England; the settlement of Boldini (1871) and Zandomeneghi (1874) in the French capital, close the golden decade of the Macchiaioli movement. The gentle declination of truth The fading of the ethical tension of the Risorgimento years, the growing disappointment of souls in front of the lack of social reforms, the shattering of the dreams of the Macchiaioli generation, the growing urbanization of the new Italy, favored, after 1870, the affirmation of a more conventional, often idyllic interpretation of truth. It was now based on the formal quality of the pictorial narration of reality: the guideline in principle led from the “synthesis” and from the ideal and ethical tension of the works of Castiglioncello and Piagentina to the “objective transcription” of the truth, initiated by some of those painters (above all Banti, Borrani and Signorini) and taken up as a program by other comprimary figures of the group, such as Francesco Gioli, Niccolò Cannicci and Egisto Ferroni. At the base there was a sort of depotentiation of the metric rigor of the “macchia” caused by the changed conditions of the Italian society which, having reached national unity, let the ideal and ethical flourishing of the Risorgimento epic fade away forever. “I would like to know – Zandomeneghi would have written from Paris to Martelli manifesting the persistence of a never soothed disappointment – what has been done in 24 years, I say twenty-four since we are here. Half of Italy is still uncultivated, emigration is increasing, the Pope and the priests are in charge more than before…”.
On the other hand, the positivist and Spencerian idea of incessant evolution and the faith in its beneficial effects extended from the cosmos to the social reality of Man, placed him in a condition of substantial acceptance of everything that could be understood as the result of this evolutionary process. Even in painting, therefore, it was necessary to think of an evolution of the healthy and passionate realism of Courbetti in the middle of the century: once dignity had been restored in art to the humble classes and to the theme of work, the new generations of painters were motivated to apply themselves to these contents with all known technical finesse The aesthetic principles underlying the poetics, which had become the abbecedario of the late Macchiaioli generation, provided for a path open to non-univocal solutions, without prejudice to the aversion to academic art on the one hand and to Fortuny’s fashionable art on the other. There was also, above all among the young artists mentioned above, the desire and the instinct to satisfy the demands of the critics, who urged a milder declination of the principles of realism (“it is fine not to sacrifice art to fashion; but it does not seem to me either useful or logical to keep the public away from itself by choosing subjects without any attraction”, wrote Ferdinando Martini in 1872).
From their contacts with French society, made continuous by the frequent opportunities for travel and exchange, our realists drew stimuli to deal with the problems of transcribing reality, privileging optical qualities and elegance of manner, with respect to the high ethical and moral content inherent in Proudhon’s concept of “art for society”. This new inflection of the research on the truth did not mean at all a reduction in the scale of merit, although the risk of prosaicity to which these artists were subjected was very high. The Italian naturalist address, represented by the works of Francesco Gioli, Egisto Ferroni, Niccolò Cannicci (but also by those of Eugenio Cecconi, Adolfo and Angelo Tommasi, Luigi Gioli, Arturo Faldi, Luigi Gioli, Filadelfo Simi and others) reached a success that eclipsed even, in the early years of the twentieth century, that of the Macchiaioli. The Macchiaioli, after the conclusion of the glorious unitary season of their history, did not always, or rather not always, succeed in preserving their poetic integrity during their long journey. Even the upright Fattori was sporadically subjected, in the early seventies to the pleasant narrative grace of Francesco Gioli, accomplice friendly relations with the youngest disciple and his wife Matilde Bartolommei and in response to precise occasions of common operation in the villa of Fauglia.
It is also known that Fattori made his only trip to Paris (1875) in the company of Gioli, Ferroni and Cannicci, who hoped in vain to bring the vigorous realism of the older painter and master up to date in a naturalistic sense. Inevitably, therefore, an exhibition dedicated to the Macchiaioli must take into account these secondary figures that represent an important evolutionary stage in the relationship established by the Tuscan realists with Truth. It is significant how Diego Martelli, in his last article in 1896 in “Corriere italiano”, put together the names of the old Macchiaioli with those of the youngest ones under the label of “sana scuola realista” (healthy realist school), where that “sana”, excluding any palliative of fake realism, indicated the Courbettian root of the Tuscan experience. Therefore, it was Signorini who anticipated this generational turnover of the Tuscan school, bringing the artistic debate to the problems of pictorial execution and thus contrasting the “ordinary” workmanship of the paintings made by Lega and Borrani at Piagentina at the end of the 1960s with the “exuberance” (understood as a positive quality) of the pictorial medium revealed by Ferroni in one of his first and most famous paintings, Le trecciaiole; a painting that, according to Telemaco, revealed the strength of the study of the truth, undertaken with the wisdom and ingenuity of the masters of the 15th century, as well as the courage of the young man in choosing a subject and a composition that were at least daring. As we pointed out, quoting Ferdinando Martini’s review, the roughness of these subjects, however, was now beginning to be questioned by contemporary critics. Therefore, it was necessary to move towards more convenient themes and, above all, to assume more relaxed tones. Signorini, for his part, preferred to intensify his already good relations with the English market, while the Parisian artistic scene, which saw the Italian Giuseppe De Nittis at the height of his celebrity and at the same time the rise of the star of Boldini, offered him, during his repeated stays in France, new ideas and new reflections.
Egisto Ferroni drew his beautiful Passeggiata domenicale (Sunday Walk) from Lega’s Pergentine paintings, although the aura of the Renaissance predella is, in our opinion, sought by Ferroni as an essential element of style and not spontaneously evoked as happens in Lega’s pure metrics; from the compositional point of view, the girl slumped at the side of the road, whose conditions of suffering and misery are antithetical to the festive atmosphere that surrounds the procession of villagers, is clearly a stylistic expedient of a narrative nature, impoverished however of the strongly ethical feeling that such a rhetorical figure had, for example, in Signorini’s Alzaia. It is therefore Ferroni’s own willingness to loosen the moral “tension” of the “stain” in order to arrive – in tune with the evolution of contemporary taste – at a more narrative approach to truth. The roundabout of Cannicci is a splendid painting that interprets the reality of rural life with accents of classic elegance and particular chromatic refinement: the intent is to transcribe with all the refinements of pictorial execution the appearances of the true according to the “feeling” that the artist feels, without that rigor that was asked – still in the previous decade – to the painter, called by Proudhon and Courbet to a civic role of testimony of the true and its principles of “Truth”, “Character” and “Feeling”. In the “arruoto di Santo Spirito” Gioli delineates with monumental and narrative style an extraordinary gallery of social portraits, even before the physical ones: various types of people stop in front of the Florentine pawnshop, from the young woman who for the ambition of a pair of fashionable boots has come to pledge her joys, to the poor mother who has given everything away to feed her children, to the elderly middlemen who wait to lend their services to those who are ashamed to present themselves in person.
Situations, physiognomies, social types are pleasantly described with grace and precision. Gioli’s monumental painting Boscaiole di San Rossore, recently reappeared on the American market and exhibited here for the first time, illustrates with rare effectiveness the character of the late Macchiaioli experience and enriches with the necessary nuances the meaning we intended to give to the qualification of “gentle declination” of truth; “gentleness”, in fact, is not intended simply as the result of a more or less idyllic subject, but in a wider sense as a narrative meaning, ethically softer, formally more descriptive of reality. A contemporary critic wrote: “It is a work of vibrant, expressive, energetic realism, and reflects one of the least considered features of the ethnographic physiognomy of Tuscany. Who says Tuscany, often believes to say sweet country, of milk and honey, from the easy life, from the sluggish habits, from the soft fiber, and doesn’t think that it is a country for half alpine and for a good stretch maremmano and that if it is laughing it is also austere very often; with bold populations and stracorrenti as the livornese, proud as those of the Casentino, irose as the senese from the sweet eloquence (…). This energetic type of the physiognomy of their country is often used by some Tuscan painters, Cecconi the painter of hunts, the two Gioli more often, sometimes Ferroni; Adolfo Tommasi has an original page (…). See these macchiaiole of Maremma! Loaded like big beasts of burden, what a look they have, what silhouettes! What expressions of hard toil! With the hooked billhook or the axe hanging from the side, the skimpy clothes, the wide bare feet, the fat and burnt skin, they carry an enormous bundle of branches, which, tied to a larger and straighter branch, they can easily lift from their shoulders to rest when they can no longer stand the great weight (…). They go in groups to chat and help each other (…). At the end of the heath on the left, a strip of the Tombolo pinewood is blackened, marking a vibrating line on the blue sky and the warm clouds of the afternoon hours. In this painting by the talented professor Gioli there is all the austerity and sadness of Tuscany Maremma.
In Gioli’s painting – one of the highest pages of Italian naturalism – the “wide net” of Truth therefore welcomes “Tuscanity” as a value. This was not exactly what Proudhon had intended when he codified the principle of “character”, a principle that the Macchiaioli had initially translated as “local hue”, maintaining its original meaning. If the realism of mid-century had urged to experience the truth of their native places, in order to get to grasp the deeper meaning of the contemporary age, the contribution of civilization in its universal values, the naturalist inflection tended to impoverish this principle, favoring the appearances of a true illustrative often connoted with strong regional characters, made with the linguistic conventions, the executive refinements and artifices of a new pictorial academy. In the course of the eighties, in the context of their individual paths, Signorini, Lega and Fattori were engaged in a sort of solitary meditation on the principles of Realism, from which would spring important insights for the generations to follow. Diego Martelli, the companion of so many political and artistic struggles, continued to hold Fattori’s “scapigliato bad boy” in high esteem, to comment on Signorini’s “improprieties in drawing” as beneficial, and to call attention to the “wild life” that Lega was leading at Gabbro, a village in the Livorno countryside that was the scene of the late activity of the master from Modigliana. These were fragmentary experiences that the critic, however, led with conviction under the label of “Tuscan realist school”, including in it the experiences of the youngest naturalists, touched – at least in part – by the achievements of French Impressionism, artistic movement that had had in the Florentine critic one of the first and most convinced supporters. Reviewing the Florentine exhibition of 1895, Martelli noted the “clearer and brighter” aspect assumed in general by Tuscan painting, as a reflection of the conquests of Impressionism; and although he placed among those who “have severely meditated on the intemperance of Impressionism” mainly the two Gioli, the two Cannicci and the two Tommasi, he did not fail to point out the defect of a drawing that, in his opinion, in some cases “stank” “a bit of instant photography, which is used and abused today, with very serious damage to art that is and must be instantaneous in feeling and thought, but cannot and must not pass through a crystal soul”.
It was natural for the critic to contrast these artists, who were, on the whole, highly esteemed, with the eternal youth of Fattori, defined as “par excellence an artist of feeling, endowed with a marvellous hand and eye; depending on how he is moved, he does, and the more he is moved, the more he exaggerates his defects and his qualities…”. These defects were not substantially important in that category of artists to which – according to the critic – Fattori and Signorini belonged (Lega, who was very ill, was not among the exhibitors) who felt “art really and seriously” and who achieved extraordinary results in the perception and pictorial rendering of Truth. Undeniably, that “subjective” component of art that Realism had implied in the principle of “sincerity” of the artist, became more and more predominant in the sensibility of the end of the century, so much so that even for those painters of sure Realist faith, a more personal approach to truth was permitted. Therefore, without going into a detailed examination of the works of these individual paths, we would like to propose a reading hypothesis that takes into account how each artist has tended to develop his own individual peculiarities, modulating his relationship with reality with different and individual accents. Since the seventies, Telemaco Signorini attended Paris and London, working alongside Giovanni Boldini and Giuseppe De Nittis, and establishing fruitful relationships with merchants such as Goupil, Reitlinger, Vizard. His painting meets the favor of the collectors because it has a safe design, an extraordinary ability to perceive the light phenomena, a pleasant virtuosity, qualities that put his art in tune with international taste. He does not neglect the pleasantness of the subjects, but he is nevertheless attracted by the “characteristic” (see the beautiful views of cities, such as Edinburgh and Leith; and again the narrow streets of Arcola, in Liguria). Soon, the favorite places of his creativity become Settignano, Riomaggiore and the Ligurian hinterland, the Island of Elba. The inclination to privilege the “local tint” of a place, the “character” of a physiognomy or of a type of individual is easily perceivable in those paintings that have as their subject animated views of Florence, Edinburgh, Paris, or easily recognizable urban traits, to which, moreover, Telemaco knows how to imprint the charm of the actuality of a lifestyle. But not less character has the French countryside of Sul sentiero a Combs-la-ville, connoted not only in the natural morphology, but also in the cultural-figurative one, assuming the silver tones of Corot and the chic brushstroke of Boldini, that is to say the near past and the current actuality of the Parisian artistic scene.
In the masterpieces painted in Settignano during the Eighties his well-known “pictoricism” becomes softer, widening the mesh of the visual network, always innovative in its cuts and dense with emotions and cultural suggestions. Nene (Irene Roppele, her little protégé) sits on a small stone wall, one of those that run along the steep roads that lead to the village of Settignano; she wears a simple little white canvas dress – short, as befits young girls – from which dark socks and black leather ankle boots emerge. A feeling of fragility and delicacy hovers around the young girl and the whiteness of her dress is a poetic note that resonates in the enchantment of the surrounding landscape, pervaded by the warm light of a summer afternoon. Signorini’s relationship with reality is therefore accompanied by an intense intellectual awareness, by reason of which the natural datum is transcribed on the pictorial surface with all its load of history and civilization, which makes it particular and therefore decipherable.
We could never doubt that we are looking at a Tuscan landscape, just as we could never fail to recognize the fairy-tale character of the streets of Riomaggiore, where Telemaco stayed repeatedly between 1881 and 1899. In Sulla terrazza a Riomaggiore (On the Terrace at Riomaggiore), a splendid painting oozing with marine light, Signorini does not give much to the grace of the young girls intent on crocheting. Riomaggiore was in fact known not only for its picturesque houses, but also for the characteristic ugliness of its inhabitants; a characteristic that Signorini seems to investigate with the sagacity of a physiognomist in the many paintings he created there. It can be said, therefore, that the painter expresses in the typification of faces and situations his intimate propensity for “character”, accentuating in his mature poetics the value of this first principle of Realism. Beginning in 1881 Lega returned to frequent the banks of the Arno at Bellariva, once the favorite haunt of his friends Signorini, Borrani and Beppe Abbati. The Tommasi Family, who lived in the Casaccia and offered hospitality to artists and men of letters, became an important point of reference in the social and emotional life of the suffering painter; who – teacher of Angiolo and Ludovico – was pleased with the enthusiasm and youthful ardor of those new fighters for artistic progress, the Tommasi, the Cannicci, the Gioli and above all the generation of Tuscan Divisionists who recognized in him their spiritual father. “Now Silvestro Lega works tirelessly, although an eye disease has been tormenting him for some years, an illness that does not offend him in the least in his vision of the masses, nor of the splendor of color; so much so that in his studies he breathes much of the serene gaiety of the French Impressionists…” wrote Martelli, testifying to the overcoming of the long depressive phase that had accompanied the low productivity of the previous decade. During the Eighties, in fact, Lega carried out his linguistic updating in the direction of a very personal interpretation of Impressionism, known through Martelli’s words and through the works he was able to see exhibited in Italy.
It is in this context of emotional serenity and renewed creativity that the image of his pupil Angiolo painting at his easel in the garden of Bellariva was born: we would like to interpret as a physical projection of Lega’s rediscovered spiritual youth the slender figure in a white linen tunic, fully understood and absorbed in his solitary creativity in front of the luxuriant green proscenium. In the half-light of the garden, mottled with confetti of light that penetrating the thick foliage are projected now on the large umbrella, now on the path of the shady park, the shirt shines so brightly as to seem imbued with an inner light. In those years, the house of Lega’s younger brother, Ettore, who in 1880 had married Adele Mazzarelli, offered some warmth to the solitude of the master of Modigliana, who found in the presence of women and children a source of profound inspiration. In this climate, works of great breath and urbanity such as The Lesson and A Mother, and a table of extraordinary material fragrance such as Woman at the Window, made with impressionistic freedom of brushstroke, came to light. In 1886 Angelo Tommasi and Angelo Torchi introduced the sixty year old painter to the Bandini family who lived in the beautiful villa of Poggiopiano al Gabbro; the property with annexed farms was managed by the energetic widow, Mrs. Clementina Bandini, and her companion, Count Odoardo Rosselmini, a friend of Martelli. Lega assumed responsibility for the artistic education of two of Bandini’s daughters, Giulia and Paolina. Almost at the same time of their first meeting, thanks to the liberality of Clementina Bandini, the climate more congenial to the creativity of Lega was created.
The style of Lega’s maturity was thus delineated, that which the critic Mario Tinti will qualify as “excited” in opposition to the “calm” manner of Piagentina. This growing freedom of execution is the character that distinguishes the entire production of the Gabbro years. In another circumstance59 we have reflected on how the images of life in Poggiopiano are true moments of the emotional life of ours within the female universe of the Bandini house. They are works, for the most part small in size, which capture the family’s moments of relaxation; in them one breathes in the gentlemanly climate that hovered in that community of people where, on the margins of an industrious life, they studied painting, kept an eye on the trends of Parisian fashion, and read books and newspapers. At the same time Silvestro was attracted by the exuberant and natural femininity of the local commoners, the “gabbrigiane”. The soft hills of Gabbro, the severe sweetness of the faces of the female protagonists of that rural world are interspersed with images of “serene gaiety” inspired by the domestic life of the women of the Bandini household. In fact, the great Gabbrigiana in piedi could be the manifesto of that artistic campaign, promptly inscribed by Signorini and Martelli in the poetic climate of Naturalism. But the results achieved by Signorini went far beyond the usual positivist premises. Starting from the real datum, from a geographical configuration, from a social type, Lega’s poetic vein, at the height of physical and moral suffering, rises to a lyrical apex, accomplice, as Carlo Sisi writes, “a lean and dry matter almost close to crumbling; as in the Portrait of the Wicked -the nickname by which Lega’s model was known in the village-, in which it is possible to perceive an emotionality by now fully twentieth-century. Lega’s lyrical emphasis could therefore be interpreted as a result of the “sentiment” of the artist who – it has been rightly emphasized – “in the seriality of his investigation into the bold profiles of Gabrigian women, implicitly includes the themes – for him autobiographically urgent – of pain and death”.
Extraneous or almost extraneous to any stylistic complacency, apparently so uninterested in the artistic innovations from beyond the Alps as to seem even obtuse, Fattori is as rooted in the nature and customs of his land, Tuscany, as Courbet had been in his native places. The “Truth” of Fattori is a way of being in nature, even the wildest, a way of feeling immersed in the landscape that bears inscribed in its lines and its forms the secular progress of customs and society. Proudhon had said of Courbet that “in his realism” he was “one of the most powerful idealizers”, but that he did not care to invent, he simply saw “the soul through the body, whose forms” were “for him a language and every stroke a sign”. Not differently Fattori in the stubborn search of his lexical roots, recovers the adherence between reality and pictorial language; his spontaneity conceals a figurative wisdom as deep as the Tuscan civilization of which he sucks the sap like a tree trunk from its roots. In the same years in which Telemaco Signorini portrayed characteristic moments of urban life – the well-known Ponte Vecchio dates back to 1879 – Fattori approached this theme, particularly frequented by international Naturalism, with measure. In Viale Principe Amedeo he portrayed the somewhat provincial but industrious aspect of Florence, an aspect that most satisfied his frank and instinctive temperament.
In the wide avenues, born from the destruction of the city walls, in the shade of the young plane trees, people pass between the wagons that come from the countryside with the raw materials, and the manor carriages that run fast on the dusty dirt road; on the sides, high walls conceal elegant buildings and secret hanging gardens. Not at all conditioned by Signorini’s camera ottica, nor even less subject to the taste for the elegant tranche de vie, which found its greatest interpreters in Signorini and even earlier in De Nittis and Boldini, Fattori does not renounce his robust and virile language. Rather, he demonstrates his extraordinary ductility in capturing the gracefully mundane detail of the slender figurine dressed in blue, a note of bright color in the composite palette of whites, ochre, and burnt colors typical of his work. These same chromatic tonalities characterize the drafting of the splendid L’arrivo dei barrocci, and of the small, intense Sosta sotto la pioggia (Stop under the rain) not seen since a long time. In the last decades – notwithstanding the extraordinary stylistic perfection achieved in the genre of the portrait – the research of the Leghorn artist was preferably based on two strands, the military and the Maremma. Through his military works, Fattori achieved that monochromatic and dusty quality of color, which, springing from a skillful play of tone on tone, would end up conferring a unitary and distinctive character on the last section of Fattori’s production. Not to mention the modern spatial potential of works such as Lo Staffato, in which the Leghorn artist adopts a sort of direct approach, involving the viewer in the temporal development of the scene depicted. With these tools Fattori faces the well-known Maremma subjects, the dominant theme of his late activity.
The cue is offered in 1882 by a prolonged stay at Marsiliana, near Grosseto, in the estate of the Princes Corsini. Penalized by the fact that he did not know how to ride, and therefore could not move at will, Nanni observed and drew for days, bringing back to his mind the violent rhythms and dusty colors of that sort of local far-west. In the Marking of the Foals in Maremma, the artist exemplifies his modern concept of space, so that in this vast canvas, devoid of a prearranged compositional structure, the warping is given by the rhythm of the voids that intersperse the figures caught individually or in groups in their respective fields of action. It is a singular way of composing of which already in 1927 Lionello Venturi grasped the connection with that “speaking in accents rather than in long and round sentences” typical of the writings of Fattori. “Raffaele Monti wrote about these paintings: men so exhausted by fatigue that they seem to be terracotta masks, parched by the sun and the wind, but, as in Testa di buttero (Head of a cowboy), with that something tremulous in their cerulean gaze that expresses a dignified, proud awareness of their own being.