The Macchiaioli painters were Italy's Impressionists

I Macchiaioli
Pioneers or Bandits?

[Regions of Italy]

The Trellis,
by Silvestro Lega (1886)

There is a painting in Milan's Brera Gallery that looks like a window onto a dream world. Golden afternoon sunlight streams in from the west, illuminating the long grey dress of a dark-haired maid, who carries a teapot across a terra cotta patio towards three women seated beneath a luxuriant grape arbor. One of the women sits with a girl in a pink "Sunday dress" of the kind often worn by little Renoir girls when they were romping in the park with hoops. In the distance of our painting is a broad field planted with wheat, and beyond that a barn protected by a line of black poplars. Not one element of the composition invokes luxury. There is no gold, no velvet, no brocade. The women aren't even sitting on chairs; they're resting on a low earthen wall shared by ample terra cotta pots filled with humble wildflowers and geraniums. Yet, perhaps because of the warm sunlight streaming across the floor and dappling the grape leaves, you look at these five females in their simple, natural world, and you realize they have everything any human being ever needed. The painting is called The Trellis. It was painted in 1868 by Silvestro Lega, and it is a shining example of the philosophy and technique championed by i Macchiaioli, a small group of painters who worked in Tuscany in the mid-19th century.

The Penitentiary Bath,
by Telemaco Signorini

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.

Self Portrait,
by Beppe Abbati
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 who 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.

Taking a Break,
by Giovanni Fattori (1861)
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.

It's Freezing!,
by Giuseppe De Nittis (1874)

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).

Singing a Round,
by Silvestro Lega (1867)

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 the 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 is in private hands.

Diego Martelli
in Castiglioncello
by Giovanni Fattori (1867)
Fortunately, one of the Macchiaioli's earliest and staunchest fans, the art critic Diego Martelli, owned a large collection which was bequeathed to the city of Florence upon his death. Although he was not a wealthy man, Martelli gave as much financial support as he could to his painter friends. More than anyone else, he is to be thanked for keeping the movement alive both spiritually and physically. One very important series of Macchiaioli paintings, those painted at the seaside resort of Castiglioncello, would not even have existed if the Martellis had not offered summer hospitality to one and all at their estate. You can see Martelli's collection, along with other works, in the Gallery of Modern Art at the Pitti Palace in Florence. Other excellent showcases are the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome and the G. Fattori Museum in Livorno. A fairly comprehensive list follows.

The Gallery of Modern Art is on the top floor of the Pitti Palace, Piazza Pitti, Florence. Click here for information and tickets.

Rome's National Gallery of Modern Art is not terribly far from the Borghese Gallery, on Viale delle Belle Arti. Open Tues-Sat 9-7, Sun 9-1. 4 Euro.

The G. Fattori Civic Museum is in Villa Mimbelli, Via San Jacopo in Acquaviva 63, Livorno. It also has a number of works by Modigliani.

Other places where you'll see one or more works by the Macchiaioli:

A Virtual Gallery of i Macchiaioli

Click on the pictures to see them enlarged.

The Morning Toilette, by Telemaco Signorini (1898)

Self Portrait, by Giovanni Fattori (1894)

The Female Insane Asylum, by Telemaco Signorini (1865)

Villa di Poggio Piano, by Silvestro Lega (1890)

Watchguards, by Giovanni Fattori (1872)

Lady in the Garden, by Vito D'Ancona (1861-2)

Red Wagon in Castigioncello, by Odoardo Borrani (1867)

Alaide in Convalescence, by Giovanni Boldoni (1864)

Appennine Landscape, by Guiseppe De Nittis (1867)

The Visit, by Silvestro Lega (1868)

Red Cart with Oxen, by Guiseppe Abbati

Grey Day, by Giovanni Fattori (1893)

Pergentina, by Telemaco Signorini

The Goddaughter, by Giovanni Fattori (1889)

[Regions of Italy]