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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Macchiaoli

One of the things that never ceases to amaze me is the gaping gaps in my own knowledge of art history. I presume others may have the same or similiar yawning lapses in their own understanding of art that went before and that which came after. If this is the case, then one of the largest is in the area of Italian art. The text books do a superb job of elevating the Italian Renaissance, sitting it up on a pedestal not unlike a classical column to be admired, often at the expense of a similar resurgence of art, music, drama, and literature in the North. Then they let all things Italian fade into the background in favor of all things French. The result is that everyone, myself included, has the impression that Italian art began and ended with the Renaissance with perhaps a brief flicker of light at the beginning of the twentieth century and the emergence of the Italian Futurist movement--De Chirico, Carra, and Morandi.

Silvestro Lega Painting, 1866-67, Giovanni Fattori
Actually, there is some justification for the emphasis on French as opposed to Italian art during the period following the Renaissance inasmuch as the moving forces in the art world did tend to emanate from Paris. But Rome didn't exactly become an artistic backwater. Instead, it took on more the role of a museum or school rather than studio. Rome was where the French went to study the past before going back home to do their serious work. As a result, Italy developed a tremendous Academic tradition that was dificult to shake. Yet by the second half of the nineteenth century, there was occurring, simultaneous to that in Paris, all the same "movements" in art--Romanticism, Realism, even Impressionism, except with Italian sounding names.

Giuseppe Mazzini, Dying, 1872, Silvestro Lega
The Italian sounding name given to all this was the Macchiaoli. But before we can understand this movement we must come to realize that since the Academic style went back much further in Italy. It had a much firmer grip on the prevailing tastes than it did in France (no small statement given the Academic stranglehold in France). Thus the Macchiaoli had to struggle first against traditional Academic subject matter before it could make painting on location and the resultant Impressionistic influences flowing from France a fact of life. Artists such as Nino Costa, Giovanni Fattori, and Silvestro Lega worked to demystify art by introducing contemporary subject matter, gradually working more and more in the field, and as a result, gradually to begin working with the "Macchie" or spots of color from which the movement derived its name. They even had their own meeting place not unlike the Cafe Guerbois in Paris. Ironically, it was named for the godfather of the Italian Renaissance Academic style against which they were rebelling--The Cafe Michelangelo.
Nettuno Vista da Anzio, 1855-60, Nino Costa

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