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« Perceiving Italy | Main | Headline for the Day »

October 15, 2007

Modern Art, Italian Style

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Rome has the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna in the Villa Borghese park area and Florence the Galleria d'Arte Moderna in the Palazzo Pitti museum aggregation.

The former deals with art from the late 18th century to the mid-20th century while the latter's time frame is 1784 to 1924 or thereabouts.

Italians seem to view art with a longer perspective than do Americans or even northern Europeans: something to do with Etruscans, Greeks and Romans, perhaps. To them, "modern" is something that happened after the Renaissance as well as the Baroque and Rococo periods.

Recent art? That would be called "contemporary" -- for what it's worth, Rome does have its Museo di Arte Contemporanea.

I visited the "modern" museums and found them worthwhile. As many Faithful Readers know, I'm especially interested in non-Academic, non-Modernist art from the second half of the 19th century and the first few decades of the 20th. This is because I think that Modernism (and its PoMo guises) was a probably necessary experiment that largely failed aesthetically, even though it has remained commercially successful. Non-Modernist art might offer clues as to the direction art might take once Modernism shrinks to proper place in the art pantheon of movements and styles.

The web site for the Rome Moderna is here and that for Florence's is here.

The Florence gallery features the Macchiaioli movement, and I'll deal with them in a later post. For now, I'll discuss the Rome Moderna.

The building is divided into four main gallery blocs along with connecting spaces. The bloc containing works from the first half of the 19th century was closed the day we visited, so we had to begin with art from 1850 or a little later.

Yes, I'm letting my biases show, but I found the paintings from 1860 to 1910 fascinating. Here was gallery after gallery, most with several eye-catching paintings by artists I'd never heard of in college art history courses or seen mentioned in art history books. I've taken some heat from readers regarding my "peripheral artists" pun when I wrote about Finnish, Russian and Polish artists from the same era, but here were artists not peripheral geographically who have been consigned to art-historical oblivion.

Why? Most likely because they fit neither the Paris-centric 19th century art history narrative nor the teleological Modernist narrative of mid-late 20th century writers.

If you feel like mousing around on your own, the link above offers a secondary link to pictures of paintings and sculptures in the collection. Or you can click here for a Google-based set. Otherwise, below are a few painting I found interesting.


Domenico Morelli - Ritratto di donna in rosso - circa 1855
"Portrait of Woman in Red" interests me because it has an Impressionist feel even though it predates the movement by about a decade.

Domenico Morelli - Le tentazioni di Sant'Antonio - 1878
Another Morelli --"The Temptation of Saint Anthony" -- is earthy and dramatic. Like certain examples of Italian cinema, perhaps?

Giacomo Favretto - Dopo il Bagno - 1884
"After the Bath" compares well with its contemporary genre paintings from elsewhere in Europe. Illustrative, nicely painted, but no special social statement. Which is fine by me: not every painting needs be a manifesto to be enjoyable.

Salvatore Postiglione - Pier Damiano e la contessa Adelaide di Savoia - 1887
This is one that has to be seen in person to appreciate its impact. In the gallery it comes off as mostly silver and black, relieved only slightly by flesh tones and other colors. A true "Wow!"

Vittorio Corcos - Sogni - 1896
"Dreams" is more Academic in flavor than the previous pictures. While it's more "hard-edged" than I normally prefer, I can't help but liking it.

Giovanni Boldini - Ritratto della Marchesa Casati - 1911-13
"Portrait of Marchesa Casati" is one of the many flashy portraits by Boldini who, unlike the other artists shown above (so far as I know), spent nearly all his career in Paris. I'll have a detailed article about him posted soon.

Again, this might be a reflection on my warped (by contemporary standards) taste, but I found that the art rapidly became less interesting once we progressed from 19th century to 20th century galleries. An exception was a large gallery with Fascist-era art, and that was interesting largely because it was shown at all. Apparently the Italians are less hung up on their past than the Germans.

Be braced for more material from Italy. Although my policy is to mix up subjects, I'm violating it because I have a lot to report and want to do so while things are fresh in my mind.



posted by Donald at October 15, 2007


I wonder whether Morelli was influenced by Corot? The loose handling and dreamy/melancholic air of Woman In Red falls within the Frenchman's "sphere of influence." Given the date, 1855, when Corot was at the height of his influence, I think it's at least a possibility. That's three influences. That's four.

The Corcos is also appealing, in a completely different clean draftsmanlike style. Dreams is not a title I would have given it, however. She's a thoroughly modern no nonsense gal.

Posted by: ricpic on October 15, 2007 9:13 PM

Wow, amazing stuff. What often strikes me about Italian visuals is 1) how many visually talented Italians there have been, and 2) how often the word "dramatic" suits their work. Shadows, moods, fleshiness, bold and rich colors, charged situations ... Something about what it's like to be Italian, or to live as an Italian? Combine the power of this with refinement and taste, and the results can be amazing, like the paintings you've pointed out here. Thanks again -- once more, so many good artists whose lives and work I know nothing about ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 16, 2007 12:47 PM

The Favretto and Morelli are great paintings. I wouldn't know much about either one if you hadn't posted them. Thanks!

Boldini is much better known, and his style stands out amongst the latter 19th/early 20th century realists. I'm more familiar with his work, and again, its very impressive. These guys were well-trained AND could express emotion through their work--they had it all going.

Michael Blowhard--there are lot of great painters of a variety of european nationalities--you've probably never heard about them. Its a real gold mine, and fun too, to look these guys up.

Also, check out Antonio Mancini, another great Italian painter. He's having a show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art this fall. Good stuff.

Posted by: BTM on October 16, 2007 2:24 PM


Are you acquainted with, or did you see much from, the Italian Macchiaioli painters? Some include Telemaco Signorini, Vincenzo Cabianca Odoardo Borrani, Giovanni Fattori, Vito D'Ancona, Raffaello Sernesi, Silvestro Lega, Cristiano Banti and Giuseppe Abbati. Historically they at least partially derive from Corot and the Barbizon painters on the one hand and preceed the Impressionists by a decade or more. Some of their stuff--which can be very uneven--is genius, and (perhaps oddly) prefigures a good deal of California painting from the 1950s and 1960s (and earlier as well). I saw a small female nude in a Florentine gallery 10 years ago that was astonishing; it delicately combined a high level of draftsmanship, tonalism and a very delicate but radical colorism, if that makes any sense. I love those guys. (Didn't take out a second mortgage to buy the painting, though, which was probably stupid on my part.)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 18, 2007 2:54 PM

Friedrich -- Yes, I came across them and plan a post to appear pretty soon. Even bought two books about them. And made an effort to see their stuff in the Palazzo Pitti "Moderna" gallery.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 18, 2007 5:33 PM

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