Mischief, thou art afoot

I Macchaioli celebrated at Villa Bardini

Mike Samuda
September 20, 2007

One of Italy’s best-kept artistic secrets, the mid-nineteenth-century Tuscan school of art known as I Macchiaoli, has finally received the recognition it rightfully deserves, as the object of a far-reaching exhibition at the beautifully restored Villa Bardini in Florence. Running until October 14th, the exposition celebrates the technical and ideological achievements of the Macchaioli, a radical group of painters who drank, smoked, and animatedly debated their artistic and political inclinations at the Caffé Michelangiolo in Florence’s early 1860s. The outstanding works they produced for the remainder of the century were so influential that they were later duplicated and exceeded by the emerging group of Impressionists artists in Paris.


The exhibit concentrates on the life and work of Vincenzo Cabianca (1827–1902). Showcasing over 100 of his works, the exhibit gives visitors the rare opportunity to admire paintings by other Macchaioli artists, such as Telemaco Signorini, Giovanni Fattori, Silvestro Lega, Cristiano Banti, and Nino Costa.


The name Macchiaioli literally translates as the ‘spotters’ or ‘daubers’ and was initially intended to be a term of abuse. However, this group of rebels welcomed the insult and quickly adopted the label, realising that in common usage, a macchia is a stain, blotch, or smear. They would soon determine that the technical meaning of the art of the macchia was a quickly executed sketch in colour, typically made outside, in the open air, rather than indoors.


As the term for the wooded scrubland southwest of Florence, macchia has another encoded meaning, for it is the root of the Tuscan word for outlaw: macchiaiuolo. These outdoor painters were attracted to a term that fused their new artistic style to ‘social mischief’ and political rebellion.


Cabianca is an excellent choice as a representative of the Tuscan School, paradoxically because he was not a Florentine. A painter from Verona, he moved to Florence in 1853, where he met other like-minded artists, among them Signorini and Odoardo Borrani. Florence quickly became a magnet for young revolutionary artists from all over Northern Italy—artists who were determined to reflect the birth of a new state in their radical approach to art.


Divided into five sections, the exhibition dutifully traces the evolution of Cabianca the artist, from the technically skilled and conventional, to the gifted and original. The visitor can compare his well-crafted work in the 1850s to the works of others who were influenced by Macchiaoli techniques and attitudes of the 1860s.


Take, for example, his painting called The Disabled Napoleonic War Veteran, dated 1856. It is a fine representation of narrative art from the mid-nineteenth-century English school. The image depicts an old serviceman surrounded by mementoes of his campaigning for Napoleon, while the older man’s grandson shoulders his sabre and wears his hat. The painting, large and detailed, displays the skill of the young Cabianca. It is an excellent example of studio painting in which an imagined scene is carefully constructed to convey meaning.


Five years later, Cabianca’s style was transformed. Instead, he painted using oils on cardboard or on cigar-box lids, working in the open air and at elevated speed. He had abandoned detail and photographic realism in his search for accuracy in light and shade, while perfecting the technique of painting in patches or in spots of colour (or macchia). His subject matter later became the Tuscan countryside and the peasants who laboriously worked the land.


Finally, the exhibition mainly demonstrates how Cabianca continued to produce outstanding works in oil, pastels, and watercolour throughout his entire artistic career. A late masterpiece is undoubtedly the Roman Snowfall, created in 1893. In this painting, a hunched, cloaked figure follows a donkey, leaving behind slushy footprints in the stained snow, as sooty smoke drifts from right to left across an overcast sky. Economic, simple, and entirely unsentimental—it is a work as stunningly beautiful as the view from the newly restored seventeenth-century Villa Bardini.


Cabianca e la civiltà dei Macchaioli


Florence: Villa Bardini, via Costa San Giorgio, 4

Until October 14

Hours: 8:15 to 18:30

Entrance: free


For more information, call 055/2654321 or visit www.mostracabianca.it


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