Illustration by Leo Cardini
‘Impulse alone does not make a work of art.' These are the words of one of Italy's most internationally renowned twentieth-century artists. Despite receiving many accolades from the international art world late in life, during much of his career, the artistic brilliance of Pietro Annigoni remained largely overlooked by his contemporaries.
Increasingly stirred by the innovative experimentation of the emerging Modernist and avant-garde movements, Italian and international art criticism failed to give much importance to Annigoni's unique vision and style. Although no one questioned his exceptional talent in the figurative arts, critics were divided: was his artwork passé or was it still relevant in the face of the dominant Modernist culture and informal arts? Because of the wide divergence of opinions, Annigoni would have to wait until the late twentieth century before receiving the deserved critical acclaim from the public.
Born in Milan on June 7, 1910, Annigoni moved to Florence with his family in 1925, where he attended the Scuole Pie Fiorentine on via Cavour. He displayed considerable talent at a young age, and in 1927, he was admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence. There, he received training from some of the most acclaimed artists of the time, such as painter Felice Carena, sculptor Giuseppe Graziosi, and engraver Celestino Celestini.
In 1930, he participated in his first public exhibit in Florence, as part of a group of other painters, and in 1932 he held his first individual show, at Florence's Palazzo Ferroni. His artworks were very well received and earned him not only the prestigious Trentacoste award, but also the recognition of his contemporaries, like that of fellow painter Giorgio De Chirico, a lifelong admirer of Annigoni's work.
In these years, he traveled extensively throughout Italy and northern Europe. A solitary, alienated figure, Annigoni was very much disengaged from the dominant culture. However, during his travels he discovered he was not alone in rejecting the modernist ideals of the time, and he developed friendships with other artists who, like him, sought to defend the merits and importance of Realism.
In 1947, Annigoni signed the Manifesto of Modern Realist Painters along with seven other artists, including Gregory Sciltian, Alfredo Serri and Antonio and Xavier Bueno. Annigoni often proclaimed his disdain for the superficial social and artistic trends of the twentieth century: ‘I am convinced that the works of today's avant-garde are the poisoned fruit of a spiritual decadence, with all the consequences that arise from a tragic loss of love for life'. It was in this period-the late-1940s-that Annigoni made some of his greatest and most important works.
Soon thereafter, he became noticed in Britain and participated in an exhibition held at the Royal Academy in London in 1946. His works were very well received and marked the beginning of a series of exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe that earned him widespread international acclaim.
In 1955, at the climax of his career, Annigoni painted a portrait of Queen Elisabeth II. The romantic portrayal of the young Queen made him the ‘unofficial' portraitist of the royal family and the English nobility. He went on to paint the portraits of many other important international figures, including the Shah and Empress of Iran, Princess Margaret, Italian shoemaker Salvatore Ferragamo, Florentine author Luigi Ugolini, ballet legend Dame Margot Fonteyn, American actress and poet Vanna Bonta (as a girl), and the Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur.
In the 1960s, Annigoni was commissioned seven covers for Time magazine, including, in 1962, a portrait of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, who was the magazine's Person of the Year, and in the same year, a portrait of Pope John XXIII. Other noted subjects were Ludwig Erhard and U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson for Time covers in 1963 and 1968, respectively.
On November 14, 1975, Annigoni was conferred the Cavaliere di Gran Croce Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana. In May 1988, he underwent emergency surgery for a perforated ulcer, but he never fully recovered. He died in Florence five months later, of kidney failure. He is buried in the Porte Sante cemetery at the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte, Florence.
Because Annigoni refused to accept the already widely acknowledged abstract and informal arts, both his personal vision of transcendence and artistic excellence and his artwork were relegated to the margins of the dominant culture. Working against most of the artistic currents of the twentieth century, Annigoni was, indeed, one of the most misunderstood artists of his epoch.
He sought to express the transcendental nature, profound truth and integrity that lie in man, life and nature. His representational, realist style was greatly influenced by the Renaissance masters. With his exceptional talent, he depicted a vast array of subject matter, from still lifes, landscapes, city streets to portraits of strangers, friends and loved ones.
He had his champions. He was considered by some critics to be an artist who possessed a superior ability to find the truth in all things. One of these was art historian and expert in the Florentine Renaissance Bernard Berenson, who considered Annigoni not only one of the best painters of the century, but one of the best in history. Nonetheless, his work was commonly dismissed as being anachronistic. In response, he frequently denounced modern artists for lacking the most important skill in the process of creating a visual work of art-that of being able to draw.
Although he is best known today for his portraits of prominent personalities of the twentieth century, a large part of Annigoni's life's work was dedicated to religious and allegorical compositions in bas relief and on canvas, both large and small, as well as frescos. His masterworks decorate churches across Italy. He began his largest fresco, in the Abbey of Monte Cassino, south of Rome, at age 70 and completed it five years later. An adjacent fresco cycle was completed by another Florentine artist still working in the city today, Romano Stefanelli.
Today, Annigoni's artworks are housed in museums across the world, including the Uffizi Gallery and Pitti Palace in Florence; the Benedetta Bianchi Porro Foundation in Dovadola in Forlì; the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the Royal Collection of Windsor Castle; the National Portrait Gallery of London, England; and the Vatican Museums in Rome. Among his many frescoes located in Florence, where he lived and worked for most of his life, are those in the San Marco convent (which can be viewed on request) and the Monte Senario Sanctuary.
Twenty years after his death, in November 2008, a permanent museum dedicated to Pietro Annigoni was inaugurated in Florence's Villa Bardini. It is the most extensive collection of Annigoni's masterworks yet assembled. The paintings and bronzes there originally belonged to Annigoni and his family and were purchased by the Ente Cassia di Risparmio di Firenze.