Who were the Macchiaioli?
Unless you are a nineteenth century art historian, an Italian native, or have spent a significant amount of time in Florence, chances are that you have never heard of the Macchiaioli. However, this short-lived artistic movement indigenous to Tuscany, which shared many conceptual similarities with Impressionism but pre-empted the French movement by nearly a decade, represents one of the earliest developments of European modernism. Not only do the Macchiaioli hold a unique place in this transitional period in art history, the artists that formed the movement were also deeply involved in the political transitions occurring across the Italian peninsula at that time, which would lead to the formation of the modern Italian state. Often overlooked outside of Italy, the works of the Macchiaioli are worth exploring for the freshness and authenticity with which they captured the world around them, at a time when that world was undergoing critical cultural and political change, and traditional rural life was giving way to modernity.
“-their movement, the first flowering during the modern period of a truly indigenous Italian art, was…inescapably the product of their own time and place, a reflection and a consequence of their country’s stormy political and social history and its unique cultural heritage.”
– Norma Broude, The Macchiaioli: Italian Painters of the Nineteenth Century
Who were the Macchiaioli?
The Macchiaioli were group of young Italian painters who lived and worked in Tuscany during the period of the Risorgimento (Italian national unification). Their members are typically listed as Giuseppe Abbati, Cristiano Banti, Odoardo Borrani, Adriano Cecioni, Vicenzo Cabianca, Vita D’Ancona, Serafino De Tivoli, Giovanni Fattori, Silvestro Lega, Raffaelo Sernesi, and Telemaco Signorini.
These artists were drawn together by shared ideals on two fronts. First, they were opposed to the restrictive formal standards of the Florentine Academy in which many of them had trained, and wanted instead to convey something more personal in their painting. Second, they were united by deep patriotism. Many of the group had taken part in the First Italian War of Independence in 1848-1849, and in the early 1850s they began to meet regularly to to discuss their ideas about art and politics at the Caffè Michelangiolo on via Larga (now via Cavour) in Florence – a meeting place for radicals, bohemians and artists from all over Italy and Europe. Motivated by simultaneous desires to reinvigorate Italian art and to express their national pride through authentic depictions of contemporary Tuscan life, they began to experiment with a new approach to painting from nature. The period of artistic experimentation from which they would take their name took place from approximately 1854 to 1862, after which, each of the members of the group went on to develop in their own individual direction.
To understand the Macchiaioli, it is essential to place them in the historical, cultural, and political context in which they lived and worked. Not only was their movement inextricably linked with the Risorgimento, their approach to painting was also a direct response to – and a product of – the path that Italian art had taken since the Renaissance.
Italian art from the end of the Renaissance to the Risorgimento
At the end of the Renaissance, the city-states and principalities of the Italian peninsula fell under the foreign domination of rival European powers, in particular France and Austria. Under foreign rule, the Italian peninsula went from being the cultural and artistic leader of Europe to - by the eighteenth century - a “living museum” without its own artistic identity (1).
In addition, the centuries-long fragmentation of the Italian states, as well as foreign rule, had precluded the development of a “national” Italian art. There was little in the way of cultural exchange between the different regions of the divided peninsula, and the Italy of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century is therefore often described as suffering from cultural provincialism.
This situation with respect to the arts was exacerbated by the decline of the old aristocracy and the church as a source of patronage of artists:
“-with the weakening of the older aristocracy and even of the church as a source of patronage and inspiration for artists, and without the emergence of a wealthy and cultivated middle class to take their place, Italian artists during this period essentially lacked an audience for their efforts. And without the sense of identity and he national standard of cultural achievement that a central government might have provided they seem to have lacked a cause, a focus, a raison d’être for their art as well.”
– Norma Broude, The Macchiaioli: Italian Painters of the Nineteenth Century
In this context, the art that was being produced by the academies during the early nineteenth century tended to cater to the tastes of the French and Austrian rulers. The Macchiaioli, with their passionate nationalist ideals, were the first to reject these imposed tastes and the academy that catered to them.
The Macchiaioli were instead interested in conveying truth, simplicity and sincerity in their work, reflecting a concurrent movement in European art of the mid-nineteenth century away from idealism and towards realism in general. They turned to everyday Tuscan life for their subject matter, and were inspired by the French Barbizon School and by the old masters - Rembrandt, Velasquez, Caravaggio and Tintoretto. The Macchiaioli were particularly attracted to the forcefulness of the paintings of the old masters, which they felt had been lost and replaced with bland academic formalism. They rebelled not only against forms of artistic expression that were symbolic of foreign domination, but also against art that was dull, impersonal and formulaic.
The Macchiaioli in historical and political context
Italian unity was a concept that had been discussed by scholars for centuries, from Dante to Petrarch to Machiavelli. However, the catalyst for the Risorgimento was the occupation of Northern Italy by Napoleon Bonaparte from 1800 to 1814. The Italian campaigns of the French revolutionary wars removed the Austrian aristocracy from the north of Italy and replaced them with new forms of government based on republican principles. When Napoleon was defeated in 1814 and the north of Italy was returned to Austrian rule, resistance to foreign domination grew. By the 1820s, this resistance had turned into multiple insurrections. In 1831, the Austrian army moved to crush this revolutionary movement and arrested many of its leaders. Although the revolution was temporarily suppressed, nationalist sentiment remained strong, and revolts began again in 1848, starting in Lombardy, then Sicily, Naples and Tuscany.
However, ideological differences between radicals and moderates, unitarians and federalists, republicans and monarchists, as well as old dynastic rivalries, prevented unity among nationalists in the fight for independence. The Neapolitan king Ferdinand II and Pope Pius IX, who both initially supported the revolution, withdrew their support from the war against Austria, and the revolutions of 1848-1849 were crushed, with mass executions of pro-independence fighters and the fleeing into exile of the revolutionary leaders Giuseppe Garibaldi and Giuseppe Mazzini.
In the wake of these defeats, what followed was a period of diplomacy led by Count Camillo Benso di Cavour, prime minister of Piedmont-Sardinia. Cavour was able to produce a majority consensus among the various factions of Italian nationalists that Italy should be united under the House of Savoy of Piedmont-Sardinia. By 1859, Cavour had negotiated French military backing in a war against Austria, and had secured of the support of the Italian National Society. Austria was forced out of Lombardy in the north, the rulers of the central Italian states were overturned, and Garibaldi unseated the Bourbons in the South. On March 12, 1861, the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed in Turin (capital of Piedmont-Sardinia) by an elected parliament, and Victor Emmanuel named King of Italy. The seat of government was moved from Turin to Florence in 1865, and it was here that the first Italian parliament was summoned. Florence was the capital of the Kingdom of Italy from 1865 to 1871, after which the capital moved to Rome.
Tuscany had remained relatively peaceful throughout the Wars of Independence. The ousting of the Austrians from Florence in 1859 had been a relatively peaceful one, and preceding this the period of Florentine rule under Grand Duke Leopold II, known as a liberal monarch, had been characterised by its progressiveness. Grand Duke Leopold II had granted Tuscany a constitution in 1848 during the First Italian Wars of Independence, however this did not prevent street fighting in opposition to his regime, and in 1849 Leopold II left Florence and a provisional republic was established. Leopold II returned with Austrian support in 1852, but when the Second Italian Wars of Independence broke out in 1959, Leopold fled again, and Tuscany was captured by Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia. The House of Habsburg-Lorrain was formally deposed in 1859.
The relative absence of bloodshed in Tuscany meant that Florence had become a haven for political exiles and refugees from around Italy, many of whom found themselves at the Caffe Michelangiolo. Here they would have interacted with the young men who would go on to form the Macchiaioli movement. Several of the Macchiaioli painters had participated in the military campaigns of the First Italian War of Independence, and many of them would fight again - and some die – in the subsequent military campaigns of 1859.
The Macchiaioli, with their nationalist ideals, were concerned with giving artistic expression to the new Italian identity born of the Risorgiomento. They moved away from historical and literary themes in their art, and turned instead to depictions of every day Italian life: the local landscape, the work of ordinary people, contemporary city streets, and rural life in the villages of Tuscany.
Their emergence onto the national stage and subsequent widespread recognition in Italy was made possible by the Prima Esposizione Italiana (“First Italian Exhibition”) that was held in Florence in 1861, shortly after Italian unification. This exhibition was presented as Italy’s first national exhibition, and in this context, the work of the Macchiaioli – with its depictions of contemporary Italian life and its patriotic motifs – resonated with the national spirit of the time. As a consequence, the Macchiaioli were to become the artists most closely associated with the Risorgimento.
What is important to note when discussing the Macchiaioli is that the Risorgimento was more than just a political and military movement, was also about cultural renewal. Artists were therefore critical to the consolidation of the united Italy, and would be called upon to commemorate its battles and to help to construct the new national identity. The Macchiaioli were the first artists to lead this charge.
What the Macchiaioli artists particularly admired in the works of Rembrandt, Velasquez, Caravaggio and Tintoretto was how these old masters achieved powerful expressive effects of light and shadow in their work – that is, their use of chiaroscuro. Chiaroscuro was still routinely taught in the academies of the time – however, the Macchiaioli artists differed from their peers and diverged from their academic training by adopting a practice of first capturing the effects of natural light all’aperto (en plein air, or outdoors) in quick paint sketches that would then be completed in the studio.
The second way in which the Macchiaioli were unconventional was in the extent to which they exaggerated the effects of chiaroscuro in their paintings, which provoked strong critiques. The root term “macchia” literally means “spot” or “stain”; however in an artistic context the term refers to the quality of paintings or drawings that are rendered quickly from life and roughly capture the overall tonal effect of the subject or composition. The name “Macchiaioli” was first applied to the group in 1862 by a critic who intended to disparage the lack of finish and emphasis of chiaroscuro in their work.
"-what are these Macchiaioli? Permit me to explain. They are young artists, some of whom are undeniably gifted, who have taken it into their heads to reform art, starting from the principle that effect is everything...If things continue at this rate, the Macchiaioli will end by painting with a brush on the end of a pole and will scribble upon their canvasses from a respectable distance of five or six meters. In this way, they will be certain of obtaining nothing but effect."
“These Macchiaioli” were therefore branded by critics as rebels against academic discipline, and “were critized for painting in formless “patches” and for daring to display in public pictures that seemed, at least to conservative eyes, mere unfinished “sketches””.(1)
In reality however - although the Macchiaioli artists were dissatisfied with what they perceived as the blandness and irrelevance of nineteenth century art - their methods were firmly rooted in the academic tradition in which they had trained. Their studies at the Florentine Academy had involved exercises in chiaroscuro and mezza-macchia (studies of objects in a dark and light tone only), and they had been specifically trained to see in terms of broad tonal compositions, which would then form the basis for finished compositions.
In fact it was their academic training that made the experiments of the Macchiaioli possible. When they first stepped out of the studio to begin painting all’aperto, the only technical experience they had to draw on was that which had been taught to them by the academy. The Florentine Academy of that time had no tradition of landscape painting. So the Macchiaioli used the techniques that they knew – chiaroscuro and mezza-macchia – to translate the landscape in front of them.
Ultimately, their period of experimentation with intense contrast of light and shadow barely out-lived its critique. By the end of 1862, the painters of the group had largely moved on to more formalised paintings in the style of the old masters that they so admired. By 1869, Giovanni Fattori would himself become a professor at the Florentine Academy that they had supposedly rebelled against.
“Thus around 1862, this artistic research which had had its time, died without honor of burial…In spite of this the development of modern art continued”
- Telemaco Signorini
The place of the Macchiaioli in art history
The Macchiaioli are often referred to as the “Italian impressionists”, on the basis that - like the French movement - they were particularly interested in capturing their impressions of nature through all’aperto/plein air painting. Yet, whereas the French impressionists were wholly-committed to painting en plein air and the direct study of nature, the Macchiaioli only sought to make preliminary sketches out of doors. These sketches were used as the basis for full paintings, completed in the studio. Thus the approach of the Macchiaoili was to capture their immediate responses to the landscape by making expressive sketches that were defined in terms of light and shadow, and then to use these as a source of motifs for larger compositions that would be finished in the studio. These preliminary sketches were never meant for exhibition, but were instead given away to friends and student as gifts, frequently painted on pieces of dismantled cigar boxes.
It is also important to note that the Macchiaioli movement began nearly a decade before the French Impressionists began to paint en plein air. It is therefore not the case that the Italian movement was inspired by the French Impressionists. Why the French movement should be world-famous whereas the earlier Italian movement is largely unknown has much to do with the relatively brief period of the Macchiaioli’s unified form of artistic experimentation. Each of the members of the group went in different artistic directions after 1862, and they had never had any interest in codifying the artistic principles and processes of their movement, since this kind of dogma and formalism was exactly what they had rejected from their academic training in the first place.
As the eighteenth century moved on, each of the Macchiaioli artists had a different response to modern developments such as the emergence of photography, the increasing influence of science on cultural life, and increasing exposure to foreign artistic influences such as Japanese prints. At the same time, the situation for the visual arts in Italy towards the latter half of the nineteenth century was complex. Italian artists were expected to contribute to the construction of the new Italian national identity, whilst simultaneously overcoming the perceived provincialism of the previous century.(3) In this milieu, the movement of the Macchiaioli came to an end, but numerous new artistic movements were following close behind to take Italian art into the modern era.
1. The Macchiaioli: Italian Painters of the Nineteenth Century. Norma Broude. Yale University Press, New Haven and London.
2. The Macchiaioli: Painters of Italian Life, 1850-1900. Tonelli E and Hart K, eds. The Frederick S. Wright Art Gallery, University of California, Los Angeles, 1986.
3. Art in modern Italy: from the Macchiaioli to the Transavanguardia. Paulicelli E, in The Cambridge Companion to Modern Italian Culture, Baranski ZG and West RJ eds. Cambridge University Press.