Ottone Rosai: Enchanted visions

Exhibit Review

Christopher Saint-Amand
February 7, 2008

Anyone who has seen the work of Ottone Rosai (1895–1957) will feel immediately familiar with the San Niccolò area of Florence. And anyone who knows Florence will immediately recognize the subject of his paintings. Rosai painted the small back streets, olive groves and walls near his via San Leonardo studio for over 30 years.


Until March 25, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi will host an exhibition of 50 paintings spanning Rosai’s career and marking the 50th anniversary of his death. The location of the exhibition gives visitors the opportunity to view his paintings then promptly view the landscape that inspired him.


Rosai’s career began in the era of Italian Futurism, just prior to the beginning of the World War I. The exhibition begins with his early work and while the post-cubist influence is easily recognizable, it is immediately apparent that his touch is far too human to be Futurist. Interestingly, however, it is the human figure he renders most awkwardly: distorted, elongated and caricatured.  But the viewer should not be put off—just around the corner are his most famous works of the 1920s and 30s.


Influenced by French post-Impressionist Paul Cezanne, Rosai finds his voice in the Tuscan landscape and street scenes of Florence. Paintings like Il Giramontino (1920) and Via Toscanella (1922) with their bending streets and moody shadows draw the viewer into a dreamy twilight world. Yet their sparseness and vividness evoke feelings of isolation and anxiety, a reminder that they were painted in an Italy rife with paranoia and struggling to define its identity. 


The 30s found Rosai at the peak of his career. Sulla strada di Compiobbi (1932) and Via San Leonardo (1938) are magic-realism masterpieces. They are beautiful and abstract in their simplicity. Scraped free of detail, the colors vibrate across broad, flat surfaces. His use of color is inventive and harmonious. Blue meets pink to form the sky. Warm under-painting balances snowy blue-white walls. His skill at handling paint is paralleled only by his contemporary, Bologna’s Giorgio Morandi.


In the final part of the retrospective, which represents the last decade of his life, Rosai returns to painting the human figure. Several gigantic, crudely painted nudes of his lover, Valentino, dominate the walls and seem to confirm that Rosai’s true love is the Tuscan landscape.  The concluding picture, Strada fiorentina (1954) depicts the last splash of sunlight disappearing down a Florentine street, a curatorial gesture which manages to fall to just the right side of saccharine.

It is a 15-minute walk from the exhibition to via San Leonardo, on the side of Forte di Belvedere, where countless scenes of blue-green cypress trees, winding streets and walls dappled in sunlight wait to burn themselves into your imagination—just as they did Ottone Rosai’s almost a hundred years ago.



Cinquanta dipinti di Ottone Rosai a 50 anni della scomparsa

(50 Paintings by Ottone Rosai 50 years after his death)

Palazzo Medici-Riccardi  via Cavour, 3, Florence

Until March 25. Thursday through Tuesday, 9am to 7pm; closed on Wednesday.

Entry 5 euro



more articles