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Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Cafe Michelangelo

The Macchiaioli crowd at the Cafe Michelangelo
--looks like a fun bunch.

With the passing of the Renaissance, Rome didn't exactly become an artistic backwater, but it did take on more the role of a museum or school rather than a 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 difficult to shake.

Yet by the second half of the 19th century, there was occurring, simultaneous to that in Paris, all the same "movements" in art--Romanticism, Realism, even Impressionism--except with Italian sounding names. The Italian sounding name given to much of this was the Macchiaioli (pronounced MACK-key-a-OLy). And. just as the impressionists in Paris had the Cafe Guerbois, the Catalonians at the turn of the 19th century had the el Quatre Gats (the four cats), and the New York School in the 1950s had their Cedar Tavern, the Macchiaioli held up in their own drinking establishment in Florence. Ironically, it was named for the godfather of the Italian Renaissance Academic style against which they were rebelling--The Cafe Michelangelo.
The Cafe Michelangelo, 1861, Adriano Cecioni

The Red Ox Truck, 1868, Giovanni Fattori
Like their mid-19th century French counterparts, the Macchiaioli found themselves first struggling against Academic subject matter before they could make Impressionism and painting on location a fact of life. Cafe Michelangelo artists such as Nino Costa, Giovanni Fattori, and Silvestro Lega worked to demystify art by introducing contemporary subject matter while gradually working more and more in the field. As a result,  they eventually begin working with the "macchie" or spots of color from which the movement derived its name.

Women on the Beach at Anzio, 1852, Nino Costa
The Macchiaioli painted during a turbulent period in Italian history amid rebellion and revolution--conflict which eventually resulted in the unification of the many geopolitical factions into the Italian state of today. In the middle of all this, Nino Costa struggled to spring free of classical content in his paintings to depict the evolving middle classes while Giovanni Fattori embraced the Impressionism seeping across the border from the south of France. Sylvestro Lega was a revolutionary in both art, war, and politics, leaving us images of the conflict and turmoil itself as well as portraits of those leading it. With all this in the background, the riotous nightlife at the Cafe Michelangelo must have made the endless "artguments" of the Cafe Guerbois seem as effete as a little girls' tea party.

Bersaglieri Leading Prisoners, 1859, Sylvestro Lega

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