Sunday, September 19, 2010


Cristiano Banti

When it comes to painting, Italy is like the attic of an immensely wealthy family: so many priceless treasures are piled up against the walls that sometimes whole clusters of them get overlooked. The Macchiaioli (pronounced "mah-key-ay-OH-li") are perhaps the most obvious example. Their relatively small but fascinating school was born during the 1840s, probably as a direct consequence of the Risorgimento, a movement whose dream was to unite the Italian peninsula under one government. These Tuscan artists were descendants of the early Renaissance painters. In many ways they were the direct predecessors of the Impressionists. Like Russia's Decembrists, they were definitely a product of their time.
By the early 19th century, Italy had lost every last shred of the prominence it had gained under the ancient Romans and again in the 15th and 16th centuries. Its many small states - Piedmont, Lombardy, Tuscany, Parma, Modena, Naples and Sicily, the Papal States - were ruled over by foreign powers that prevented any kind of national cohesion among their citizens. Yet there were local leaders who argued persuasively that this state of affairs should end. Idealistic intellectuals flocked to join the local militias, artillery corps and revolutionary forces who fought the often bloody battles of liberation, and gradually, one by one, the states evicted their rulers, forming a growing independent kingdom. The Grand Duchy of Tuscany was not the largest or strongest of these states (Piedmont was), but it was the only one where the spoken dialect was Italian, and its two million inhabitants considered themselves the most genuinely "Italian" Italians, as well as the natural heirs to the Renaissance.
Eventually, of course, with the help of Camillo Cavour, Giuseppe Mazzini, Giuseppe Garibaldi and his heroic "thousand men," the Risorgimento did unite Italy. But this did not create the idealized democratic state the intellectuals had envisioned. Many of them grew quickly disillusioned with politics. One hotbed of discontent was the Caffè Michelangiolo in Florence, the favorite hangout of two dozen or so veterans who also happened to be painters. Redirecting their rebellion away from the state and toward the artistic establishment of the day, they retreated into the country and developed a style of painting that focused heavily on landscapes and scenes of simple daily life. This, they declared, was the "Italy" they had dreamed of. Unable to contribute to its political birth, they created it in their canvases. Indeed, if we glance again at The Trellis, we will see that a subtle tension exists between the mistress of the house, seated in the shadows on her earthen wall, and the maid, striding proudly across the sunbathed patio.
Even as the first Impressionists were still setting up their easels in the fields of France, the Macchiaioli had developed their technique of capturing the moment, by means of bold strokes and "pools" of color which obeyed the artist's emotional reactions to the scene, rather than his intellectual awareness of it. This technique had always been used by painters, but historically it had been employed for the first draft, as an alternative to the sketch. Because the term for these areas of color was macchia (meaning "stain" or "spot"), the Tuscan artistic revolutionaries soon came to be known as Macchiaioli. Members of the establishment quipped that the word could also mean "renegade" or "outlaw," because of the phrase darsi alla macchia, which means "to hide out in the bush" (which of course is exactly what the Macchiaioli had chosen to do).
At the end of 1850, this group of young painters in Florence began to get together to oppose the academic approach to their art. They would meet in the Caffè Michelangelo to discuss and keep abreast of new trends. Together they were lucky enough to visit the extensive art collection that Prince Demidoff of Russia kept on his Florence estate, a collection enriched by works by French artists such as Ingres, Corot and Delacroix. The young painters included Telemaco Signorini and Serafino De Tivoli who, with Cristiano Banti and Vincenzo Cabianca, were the first to exhibit a completely modernized language in the Promotrice show for new talent held in Turin.
They were called "Macchiaioli" because they used "spots" of color to accentuate the chiaroscuro. In their paintings they abandoned the idea that "drawing" should precede the application of color: instead, they employed the technique of lining up "spots" of colors and chiaroscuro. The visual effect on the viewer was one of flickering light. Increasingly, the Macchiaioli chose to paint in plein air, an essential prerequisite to studying every single vibration of light. Therefore they moved their easels outdoors: in their studios they certainly were unable to catch the tones of light necessary for their way of painting.
(Cecilia Iacopetti - Translated by: Paola Ludovici and Nanette Cooper © Galleria d'Arte Bacci di Capaci – Lucca at
In 1848 Cristiano Banti (Croce sull'Arno PI 1824 - Montemurlo PO 1904) won the triennal competition with the painting "Domenico Mecherino figlio di Pacio colono trovato a disegnare le pecore dal suo padrone Beccafumi" (Domenico Mecherino, son of Pacio the farmer when he was found painting the sheep by his master Beccafumi). The planning out and the emphasis on colour of this work, which reminds of Giuseppe Bezzuoli, show that the young Banti's interests were far away from the Siena Academy. In 1854 he moved to Florence, where he began to attend the Caffé Michelangelo. The 50's production is made up mainly by historical paintings, like "Episodio del Sacco di Roma" (Episode of the sack of Rome), 1856, influenced by Saverio Altamura, an example of the "a macchie" treatment and similar to a sketch, typical of the Florentine historical painting of the period; "Galileo Galilei davanti all'Inquisizione" (Galileo Galilei before the Inquisition), which was exhibited at the Florentine Promotrice of 1857.

The trial of Galileo, 1857

Galileo in front of the Roman Inquisition (above), after a 1857 Painting by Cristiano Banti. Galileo was summoned to Rome by the Inquisition on 23 September 1632, following publication of his Dialogue in February of that year. He arrived in Rome on 13 February 1633, and was housed in the Tuscan embassy. He was called to the Holy Office (the Inquisition's headquarters) and first interrogated on 12 April 1633, sent back to the Tuscan embassy on April 30, and called in again and detained on May 10 and June 21. While detained in the Holy Office, Galileo was housed in apartments usually occupied by Inquisition officials, rather than in the usual prison cells.
On 22 June 1633 Galileo was forced to kneel in front of the Inquisition and recant his belief in the Copernican planetary system and the motion of the Earth. He was condemned to life imprisonment, ostensibly for having disobeyed a 1616 injunction by Cardinal Bellarmino "...not to defend or teach the Copernican doctrine...” The very next day the sentence was commuted to perpetual house arrest, which was rigidly upheld to the end of Galileo's life. Galileo's Dialogue was also put on the Index of Prohibited Books, together with the books by Copernicus and Kepler treating of the heliocentric system, where they all remained until 1835.
In 1859 it was clearly shown that Banti knew the painting of Domenico Morelli of Neaples, who had recently moved to Florence. In the same period he married and frequently stayed in the villas of Montorsoli and Montemurlo, where friends and less wealthy artists were his guests and where he gathered an important collection of works of Fattori, Boldini, Abbati, Signorini, Lega and also some Corots and Courbets and a dozen of Fontanesi.
In 1858 he met in Florence Edgar Degas, who was working on "Famiglia Bellelli" (The Belelli Family). In the spring of 1860, aware of the increasing importance of the "macchia" in the make of the painting, he began to paint "en plein air" in the countryside of Montelupo together with Signorini and Borrani; later on he worked with Cabianca in Montemurlo, then in La Spezia with Altamura and Signorini. Dating back to this period are works like "Bimbi al sole" (Children in the Sun) and "Contadina con un bambino" (Countrywoman with children), where he obtained simplified and vivid colors, of extraordinary brightness.
In May 1861 he went to Paris with Signorini and Cabianca (he will return there again in 1871, 1874 and 1875). Here he deepened the knowledge of Barbizon painting visiting an exhibition organized by the National Fine Arts Society and meeting Troyon and Corot. Back in Florence, he painted "Riunione di contadine" (Meeting of Countrywomen), which shows a new maturity and stylistic refinement. About 1865 he gave birth to masterpieces like "Tre vecchie in riposo" (Three old women at rest), "In via per la chiesa" (On the road to the church), "Le guardiane di porci" (The swineherds). Not in need of money, he preferred to paint for himself, showing a few of his works and not looking for success, only glad of the acknowledgment of valued friends like Fattori and Signorini.
(Written by: Gioela Massagli - Translated by: Cristina Panigada © Galleria d'Arte Bacci di Capaci - Lucca - Italy)

Riunione di contadine
Meeting of Countrywomen
From Ministry of Foreign Affairs at

Three Peasant Women
Oil on canvas, 1881
Galleria Palatina, Florence
From Web Gallery of Art at

Woman Sewing on the Terrace
Oil on canvas, 1882
Galleria Palatina (Palazzo Pitti), Florence
From Web Gallery of Art at

He spent more and more time in the countryside, working hard. In 1870 with Signorini, Cecioni and Raffaello Sorbi he was member of the jury of the National Exhibition of Parma; on this occasion, he broke his friendship with Signorini, later he will begin a long fellowship with Giovanni Boldini, who had not yet moved to Paris.
In the 80's he reached high levels of quality with paintings like "Tre contadine sedute dinanzi a una siepe" (Three Countrywomen seated in front of an hedge) and "Le lavoranti di paglia della Val d'Elsa" (Straw workers of Val d'Elsa), 1886, which he gave to the Minister of Education and where even Raphaelesque and sixteenth-century reminiscences are recognisable, filtered through the knowledge of the European contemporary painting. In 1884 he was appointed Professor at the Florence Academy and member of the Reorganizer Commission of the Uffizi.
He died, eighty-year-old, in Montemurlo.
(Written by: Gioela Massagli - Translated by: Cristina Panigada © Galleria d'Arte Bacci di Capaci - Lucca - Italy)
At first, and indeed for most of the rest of their lives, the Macchiaioli were misunderstood, criticized and ridiculed. Many of them died penniless. They were soon overshadowed by the Impressionists, who came along 20-30 years later. It wasn't until the first half of this century that critics began to look at their work with understanding and praise. Today, thanks to several very successful shows in countries around the world, the Macchiaioli have taken their rightful place among Italy's many schools of painting. And yet, because we tend to focus on the country's other two millennia of artistic output, few travelers ever actually see a work by Giovanni Fattori, Giuseppe Abbati (one of the very best of the bunch, despite having lost an eye fighting with Garibaldi), Telemaco Signorini, Giovanni Boldoni, Cristiano Banti, Odoardo Borrani, Adriano Cecioni, Raffaello Sernesi, Vito D'Ancona, Vicenzo Cabianca or Silvestro Lega. The problem is compounded because the vast majority of their many, many canvases are in private hands.

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