I Macchiaioli: A Florentine Discovery
By Melissa Muldoon
When I studied Art History in Florence, I was astounded by what I saw around every corner and down each narrow side street. Everywhere I looked there was a new treasure to behold, either hidden inside a tiny chapel or standing proudly in front of a civic building covered in Florence’s famous pietra serena marble. One of the best parts of living for an extended period in Florence was having ample time to explore the Uffizi galleries. To stand only inches away from one of Cimabue’s Byzantine masterpieces inlaid with gold, or one of Botticelli’s allegorical canvases that incorporate luscious jewels tones rendered in egg tempera, is an Art Historian’s dream come true.
I used to walk about the city with the intent of finding famous frescos and sculptures by Giotto & Donatello, as well as works by their students Ghirlandaio & Michelangelo. Every morning, as I made my way to classes, I admired the elaborate and sumptuous facade of Santa Maria del Fiore – and I would marvel over the masterfully constructed Duomo built by Filipo Brunelleschi. I was also enthralled by a style of painting called Trompe l’oeil that fools us into thinking that the ceilings in the Palazzo Pitti have literally been rolled back to give us a glimpse of heaven and beyond.
Amidst all the glorious art that Florence dishes up and lays out in a magnificent banquet for it’s hungry patrons, interestingly enough, it was in the Pitti Palace, (the former Medici residence), that I discovered a group of 19th c artists, who painted in a rustic and simple style called i Macchiaioli. Today the work of i Macchiaioli isn’t that well known outside of Italy, so when I stumbled upon the collection in the Pitti galleries, it was quite a revelation. On free Saturdays, when I wasn’t visiting Chianti country, studying about Cosimo di Medici, reading Dante or conjugating Italian verbs, I would buy myself a cappuccino and a bombolone and then head over to the Pitti Palace to lose myself in the works of i Macchiaioli.
Wandering the galleries at the Pitti, that since 1748 has been home to Florence’s modern art, I soon became enamored by the work this small band of Florentine artists. Many of these men were revolutionaries, who came together through shared political views around 1866, with the intention of breaking political and artistic norms. These artists, led by Giovanni Fattori, Silvestro Lega and Telemaco Signorini, much like another group of revolutionary visionaries in France – the Impressionists, wished to paint common themes instead of highly elevated historical subjects or triumphant commentaries on war.
I Macchiaioli, like the Impressionists, were drawn to a new interest in natural light and plein air studies of rustic life, but unlike the Impressionists they were fascinated by a more intense chiarascuro (light and dark) that had its origins with Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Tintoretto. They were also influenced by the golden natural light effects of the French Barbizon school, as seen in works by Corot and Manet. I Macchiaioli differ also from the Impressionists in that they were not committed to finishing their work out of doors, as was Monet’s practice, but instead used small sketches done from life that they later completed in their studios.
The compositions created by i Macchiaioli emphasize bolder and geometrically simple designs. To convey light and shadow they relied upon larger distinct patches of color or “macchie” which in Italian means spot. Like the Impressionists in France, they were mocked for daring to break with traditional painting techniques. Infact the term i Macchiaioli itself originally was intended as a derogatory slur and it first appeared in the Gazzetta del Popolo in 1862. It was demeaning for several reasons. In the first place it gave rise to the notion that the artists’ works were unfinished drafts or sketches, in the second place it was a direct reminder of the phrase “darsi alla macchia” which is an Italian idiom which means to disappear from polite company or to abandon civilization as an outlaw does, thus equating the artists with a counter culture movement and thus something to be feared and not to be trusted. As with all new artistic ideas however, prejudices, after shrewd and vigorous study, eventually soften allowing for and paving the way for new insight and artistic discoveries.
I Macchiaioli were just one of the many discoveries I made during my stay in Florence. It is not hard to fathom, how a place steeped in so much art and culture, can permanently change a person. My time in Florence did just that. It was my renaissance, my reawakening. Not only did I drink in the art and architecture, I was also charmed by the Italians and their language. After my study abroad program, I returned home and earned a Masters in Art History from the University of Illinois. I am now a graphic designer and continue to study the Italian language. It was my passion for art that first opened the door to Italy for me and now my love for the language continues to hold it open!