I Macchiaioli

The Pitti Palace in Florence is a large collection of museums including an enormous garden housed in the former Medici palace.  I have been to the Pitti Palace several times, but in 2010 for the first time I went to the Galeria dell’Arte Moderna (Gallery of Modern Art).  It was then that I learned about a group of late 19th century Italian painters I had never heard of before, I Macchiaioli.  Specifically this group lived and worked in Tuscany at the same time that the Italian regions and city-states were unifying as the country of Italy.

 Giovanni Fattori, Spiaggia Boscosa,1894 (1825-1908)

I was truly impressed by their work and wondered why I hadn’t seen them in a book on 19th century artists or read about them in an overview on painting in general. In fact I am having trouble finding a book written in English about this group of painters.  I bought a wonderful book in Italian from the gift shop which has helped inspire me to keep studying Italian but I must admit I read Italian quite slowly.  I want to introduce this group to a larger audience which may not know of their work, but at the same time I am still learning myself of their styles and influence.

The name I Macchiaioli is derived from the word for “spots” as in spots of light, shadow and color, think of a “café macchiato” which is espresso spotted with milk and it is pronounced much the same way.  The Gallery of Modern Art had the best wall text and gallery overviews, I read them all and took notes too, they gave me a lot to think about- actually they go very in depth. 

 Telemaco Signorini, La Piazza di Settignano, 1881(1835-1901)

I learned how Italian painters of the 18th and 19th centuries were influenced by French artists with Neoclassical art (a branch of the Bourbon family lived in Lucca), Romanticism (a return to early narrative styles), Realism (peasant scenes ala Jules Bastien-La Page), the Barbizon School and Impressionism.  At the same time they were influenced by the centuries of Renaissance art around them.
In thinking of spots of color and in looking at their work it would seem that the Macchiaioli was influenced by the French Impressionists, but in fact they predate them by a decade.  I find it very interesting that both of these styles were developing around the same time in different parts of Europe.  The Macchiaioli painters were subjected to similar ridicule and criticism from art critics as their Impressionist contemporaries.

Guiseppe Abbati, Il Lattaio di Piagentina, 1864 (1836-1868)


Here is a quote from the wall text which describes how early 19th century painters were turning away from Neoclassicism:

“Italian artists felt that in order to overcome canons imposed by antiquated models it was necessary, not only to invoke themes of modern history, but to make them more attractive by reclaiming the grand experience of 16th and 17th century art, considered the most appropriate for expression of sublime concepts and natural passions.”

After centuries of leading the western world artistically the influence of contemporary Italian artists had waned and was supplanted by the French. However those same French artists were coming to Italy to study the Renaissance. In the late 1800’s Italy was uniting as a country but the Risorgimento had a lot of work to do during the transition. Artists from all over Europe and beyond were continuing to travel to Italy for the “Grand Tour” and their work and presence was in turn influencing the artists who lived here.

It seems that I Macchiaioli were using their own experiences and landscape to capture a feeling of rural life and the middle class during the modern age, while at the same time looking toward the great artists of the past who influenced their use of realism and pure color.  Their style was the antithesis of Neoclassical art much in the same way that the Impressionists rejected the painting style of the French Academy.   

One main difference seemed to me to be that the Impressionists were mainly concerned about depicting light and color and the Macchiaioli were interested in depicting modern subjects and exploring a new voice for Italian painters.  It is important to keep in mind that during this historic time of Italian unification (and the wars that were fought for the unification to be successful and to be prevented) that it was significant for the artists to find a new style which was both Italian and modern.

I am personally impressed by the wide range in styles of the artists, the light that was captured by each painting, the colors that were used, the shapes of the canvases and the feelings that were captured using “spots” of color.

 Silvestro Lega, Un Dopo Pranzo, 1868 (1826-1895)

Here is the full list of artists in my book on the Macchiaioli called “I Macchiaioli: La Storia, Gli Artisti, Le Opere” written by Silvestra Bietoletti and published in 2001 by Giunti Editore in Florence.  I have hyper-linked those artists that have biographies listed in Wikipedia:

Giuseppe Abbati          Saverio Altamura          Cristiano Banti               Luigi Bechi
Giovanni Boldini           Odoardo Borrani           Ferdinando Buonamici
Vincenzo Cabianca     Niccolò Cannicci           Adriano Cecioni             Vito D'Ancona
Serafino De Tivoli        Giovanni Fattori             Egisto Ferroni                Lorenzo Gelati
Francesco Gioli           Silvestro Lega                Stanislao Pointeau        Antonio Puccinelli
Raffaello Sernesi         Telemaco Signorini       Michele Tedesco           Adolfo Tommasi

I am hoping to learn more about each artist though it will take a while for me to translate my whole book.  But after I do (or find a reasonably priced book in English) I will write more on this wonderful group of painters. In the meantime I hope to see more of their work in person on future visits to Italy.

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