Four Gaels in Italy

Irish artists find inspiration in Tuscany

Anne Callanan
June 20, 2013

As an artist and art historian, it was only a matter of time before I would call Florence my second home. Like many artists before me, Florence stole my heart and has never let it go. In meeting both locals and non-locals here over the past 10 years, however, I realised that Ireland is not associated with the visual arts and few had heard of the wealth of Irish talent in that area. I decided to do something about that misperception, to educate people about Irish visual artists, figures other than world-famous writers such as James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, William Butler Yeats, Oscar Wilde and Seamus Heaney. In the process, my research revealed that Ireland has had numerous links with Italy through the ages, in commerce, gastronomy and as a finishing school for many Irish artists.

 

I found my way through the streets of Florence to locate Paddy Campbell, an artist and sculptor who proves that the Emerald Isle is not merely an island that oozes literature and lore, a man who waxes lyrical about his love not only of art but also for Florence. Campbell typifies the old-school artisan who works pleasurably from dawn to dusk and has very little to do with the world of social scenes and networking. Campbell is a modest man who produces wonderful sculptures in what can only be described as a feat of engineering. At present, he is working on two projects. In July, he has a solo exhibition entitled Di Cuore—From the Heart, at Palazzo Medici Riccardi, featuring 50 variously sized sculptures in bronze and marble and a small number of what he calls Scenarios, depicting life in Florence. In September, a sculpture commemorating war victims will be unveiled in Vicchio, in the Mugello, the birthplace of Giotto and Fra Angelico.

 

When I asked Campbell why he became a resident of Florence, his answer did not surprise me. ‘Visual arts are low on the cultural spectrum in Ireland, certainly compared to Italy, where they learn, from an early age, how to look, how to see. Here, you are right at the heartbeat of art and Ireland seems peripheral.’ However, even the food and artistic heritage of Italy are not enough to sustain this Irishman: he needs a ‘rub of the Irish every now and then.’

In southern Tuscany, I met with ceramicist Carol Brannigan. Born in Northern Ireland, Carol moved to Italy after studying design in industry at the University of Ulster in Belfast. After working for Deruta Ceramics, she set up her own studio, where her majolica is well suited to her terrain. Her hands lovingly glide over her pieces, producing the finest brushstrokes as if by magic.

 

Brannigan lists her main influences as stemming from the countryside: ‘flowers and fruit, bright light, general well-being and the Italian lifestyle have all come together to help me produce my work.’ Recently, Brannigan has worked with the celebrated architect Michele De Lucchi on a project called Maioliche Deruta 2012, for which he designed a set of 14 vases. These vases were presented for the first time at the Salone del Mobile 2012 in Milan, then at the International Festival of Architecture in Perugia Festarch, at Umbria Jazz in July, at the Deruta-based ceramics museum in August before moving on to the Venice Biennale. At present they are on display in Moscow.

 

Now based in Ireland, Therese McAllister trained in Florence at the highly regarded Studio de Nera Simi and lived in the city with her family for 20 years in what she described as ‘the halcyon days.’ (She recalls Florence in the late 1970s as la dolce vita, a time when locals would promenade after Mass, showing off their Sunday best.) McAllister, who worked mostly in still life and portraiture while in Florence, raising her daughter, had the advantage of being critiqued by Pietro Annigoni and his contemporaries. Her artistic vision shines through her work, which bears all the hallmarks of the realist techniques of precise drawing and observation according to the classical traditions of the Simi school. Her work is of such a high standard that it could be compared to that of sixteenth-century artist Artemisia Gentileschi. Ireland has certainly gained a national treasure, yet one indebted to Italy for all she has learnt.

 

With Anglo-Irish origins on his mother’s side and Italian on his father's, the late Don Niccolo d’Ardia Caracciolo spent most of his adult life in Italy. Caracciolo, who was a member of the Royal Hibernian Academy, was surrounded by creativity as a child and studied with Nerina Simi at the Studio di Nera Simi in Florence. I spoke with his sister Maria Levinge, herself a talented artist, who described his infectious personality and his propensity for painting or drawing ‘anywhere.’ A celebrated artist who lived a full life between Florence and Ireland, Caracciolo produced a large body of work demonstrating acute observation. He was known for his masterful use of drawing to underpin his work. Levinge recalled that he was very encouraging and always tried to persuade her to draw.

 

These are but four Irish artists whose life and work have deep connections to Italy, but judging even from this small sample, Ireland has much to be proud of as a nation of visual artists.

 

DI CUORE/ FROM THE HEART.

From July 5 to August 28.

Pal. Medici Riccardi - Limonaia 9am–6pm

(closed on Wednesdays)

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