BETWEEN FERVID LIFE AND MIRRORS REFLECTIONS. Female figures, genre scenes and portraits in Venetian painting and in life stories (1861-1911), by Annarosa Maria Tonin

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Francesco Dall'Ongaro


While I was looking at a large building with sparse, melancholy and desolate windows on one side, and on the other many humble and squalid hovels full of busy and ragged people, I read on a heavy cracked wall: Androna de' pozzo; and not far away: Androna of the well of love”.1

Entering the alleys of Trieste, the protagonist of the novel The well of love he observes places and people, ready to be led by an evocative toponym, imagining a story with a tragic ending. The traveller, intent on "looking for the true and original people", is none other than the author, Francesco Dall'Ongaro (1808-1873). Originally from Treviso, in the 1840s he directed the Trieste patriotic newspaper “La Favilla” and Venice founded “Fatti e parole”; Garibaldino, he is a member of the Constituent Assembly of the Roman Republic and directs the "Monitore romano". Forced into exile first in Switzerland then in Belgium, in 1859 he returned to Italy, settled in Florence, where he published with the publisher Le Monnier Old and new stories (1861), a collection in which he appears The well of love.

In his poetic and prose works, Dall'Ongaro is attentive to the serious conditions of poverty of the people and does not hesitate to denounce them. The Italian unification process confronts politicians and intellectuals with deep-rooted and complex social inequalities. On the one hand, the parliamentary agricultural commission directed by Stefano Jacini (1877-1886), on the other, for example, the academic art institutions, do not hesitate to shake consciences, inviting us to observe the reality.
Already in 1850, the secretary of the Academy of Fine Arts of Venice Pietro Selvatico (1803-1880) urged artists to enter churches, hospitals and workshops to look at the truth, to renew painting. The invitation to bite into social errors without fear, certain that people will appreciate seeing themselves portrayed, is aimed at ensuring that art should no longer be just an elitist affair, but also and above all a popular one.
Going towards the fervent life, telling reality through images, therefore, will be the poetics of the Venetian artistic school from life. The same instances will be collected from literature, in particular through the short story and the novel.
At the beginning of the Seventies, the generation born twenty years earlier portrayed and described the poorest classes, family tragedies, orphans, poorly dressed and malnourished children, street life, women who care for the sick, life among domestic walls, pain, prayers, also following an educational perspective, which sees the family as the beating heart of society.

Domenico Bresolin, Dilapidated house (1840-60), oil on paper, 36 x 53 cm – Venice, Gallerie dell'Accademia

After the season of seventeenth-century naturalism, which will be discussed in the essay contributions of the coming months, the eighteenth-century artistic glory with its followers is still present in Venice; only a small group of artists combines academic study with observation of nature. However, important academic figures support Pietro Selvatico's vision: Pompeo Molmenti (1852-1928), professor of figure painting, and Domenico Bresolin (1813-1899), professor of landscape painting, who in Dilapidated house (1859) captures the variations in light and color during the day. The composition of the painting recalls the close-up photographic cut, while the natural light hits the peeling stones of a small country house.

Since the 1980s, the Venetian school of life, whose exponents are united by themes and techniques, has seen a large group of artists, often friends, bond also from the point of view of success, thanks to multiple exhibition experiences in Italy and abroad. Among these Alessandro Milesi (1856-1945), who attended the Academy of Fine Arts in the early seventies, under the guidance of Napoleone Nani (1839-1899), who was called to direct the Academy of Verona. The young painter will follow him, obtaining some commissions from the Pindemonte marquises, but in 1876 he will return to Venice and in the following years he will present numerous works at the Brera Academy and in other contexts open to Italian artists, including The pumpkin seller And The pearlies (1883). Home interiors are inspired by The Guidini family by Giacomo Favretto (1873), friend and reference model of Milesi, while the scenes of daily life outdoors meet the taste and requests of foreign collectors and artists and depict subjects such as groups of women at work, or the family and the figure of the fisherman and the gondolier, as in The fisherman's family (1887) e The gondolier's breakfast (1892).

Alessandro Milesi, The gondolier's breakfast, 1892, oil on canvas, 72 x 105 cm – Rome, National Gallery of Modern Art

The painting, awarded the gold medal at the National Exhibition in Rome in 1893, portrays a gondolier in the foreground, sitting on a bench, eating lunch, probably brought to him by his wife, who is portrayed behind him with her daughter waiting for the man to get back to work. In the background Milesi paints the moored gondolas. It is a humble, everyday scene, which the painter makes alive and strong through the frayed brushstroke, thanks to which the color defines the shapes and their depth, creating a succession of visual planes for the eye of the observer. In this work he combines painting en plein air with the family portrait, giving it a connotation that is both realistic and intimate. From 1895 to 1935 he was invited to all the Venetian Biennials, also presenting some portraits, including in 1903 Portrait of Richard Wild.

Ten years earlier, as mayor of Venice, Selvatico had worked for the establishment of a national artistic Biennial, which included an invitation section dedicated to Italian artists and an international section, which would start in 1910 with Klimt, Renoir and Courbet.
Even if his painting veers towards other instances such as Symbolism and the subsequent existential and stylistic shattering of the Ego, Alessandro Milesi at the beginning of the 20th century continues to paint scenes of everyday life, orienting himself, however, to a greater extent towards portraiture.
In 1912 he performed Portrait of John Lavery (1856-1941), painter of Irish origin, author of genre scenes and landscapes, but above all a portraitist, member of the Royal Academy and other European Academies including Rome and Brera. TO Venice the Ca' Pesaro Modern Art Gallery preserves Lady in rose (ca. 1900), one of his best-known works and a model, as will be seen, for others artists.

John Lavery, Lady in pink, 1901 – Oil on canvas, 228 x 119 cm – Venice, Ca' Pesaro, International Gallery of Modern Art

Already in the last decade of the 19th century, the female figure in works of art and literature as protagonist of everyday life, inserted in many group scenes, flirtatious with friends or workmates and loving caretaker of the family, became a solitary figure, according to the new sensitivities linked to the representation of the inner self. It is no longer the whole body that speaks of the woman, dynamic, active and protective; it remains still, statuesque or collected in itself. For the female figure, the face and hands speak, which always express the state of the soul.

Numerous works by Luigi Nono (1850-1918), like those of Milesi, tell us the foundations of the Venetian school from life not only through the look at nature, but also in the depiction of the common woman, while the portraits of Lino Selvatico (1872- 1924), belonging to the next generation, tell the beauty, grace and torments of the elegant woman of the early twentieth century. The choice of themes and subjects therefore constitutes a social fact, not just an individual one, linked to the training and career of a single artist.

Wild Flax, The purple pillow, 1923, oil and tempera on wood, 32 x 41.5 cm, private collection

Starting from Luigi Nono, we can see how he began his career as a landscape painter, exhibiting in Brera in 1873 The sources of Gorgazzo, Towards evening near Polcenigo And On the Ave Maria in Coltura, works that, with The mouse by Giacomo Favretto, exhibited five years later, constitute the manifesto of Venetian realism.

In the second half of the 1970s, with the exception of a few portraits, he concentrated his attention on subjects linked to field work (The return from the fields), domestic life (Convalescence), the family (The brat, The first steps), the village festivals (Before the procession, The morning of the festival). He continued to exhibit in Brera, made trips to Florence, Rome and Naples, was also invited to the International Exhibition in Paris in 1878 and at the beginning of the 1980s he stayed in Chioggia, a fundamental place in his artistic life. Here, in fact, he paints Refugium Peccatorum (1881), purchased by King Umberto I for the National Gallery of Rome, replicated several times until 1917, and Ave Mary (1892), preserved at the Revoltella Museum in Trieste.

Luigi Nono, Ave Maria (1892), oil on canvas, 272 x 142 cm – Trieste, Revoltella Museum, Gallery of Modern Art

The models are his wife, Rita Priuli Bon, and his son Mario, father of the future composer Luigi. The subject portrays a common woman with her son in her arms praying at the foot of the statue of the Madonna that adorns the balustrade overlooking the Perotolo canal in Chioggia, the same place that inspired him Refugium Peccatorum. Also in Ave Maria only the base of the statue of the Virgin is depicted. The comparison between the Mother of Christ, a marble statue, and the real mother, portrayed as the Madonna of the people, becomes clear to the observer. It is, therefore, a work with a strong social and intimate impact, a combination by which Luigi Nono was strongly struck, after his Parisian encounter with the works of Millet and Corot.
In the early twentieth century he moved to Venice, where he continues to paint works purchased several times by Queen Margherita, to replicate the most famous ones for the art market, to exhibit new subjects at the Biennials, always linked to outdoor painting, such as the The first rain (1909), preserved in the Museum d'Orsay, or to the genre scene with groups of women intent on embroider.

Luigi Nono, The first rain, 1909, oil on canvas, 170 x 202 cm – Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Even literature, in particular through the short story, presents the same thematic and stylistic characteristics which indicate the co-presence of the history of gender and popular environment with certain reference values and of history with more elitist contours, with more nuanced and murky values: the love, desire, sin, marriage, the social role are in both contexts fundamental axes that cannot be ignored, because society is founded and woven on them Italian.
Between romantic nuances and clear desire to adhere to the reality of facts and things, between flashes of exasperated sensuality and uniform, inexorable grayness of everyday life, marked by marriage and family, in the novella, very congenial to Italian writers of the 19th century, the female figure, for example, she is a victim, as in the story imagined at the well of love, or a narcissistic manipulator, as in Juliana, short story written by Paolo Valera (1850-1926), author from Como who participated in Garibaldi's campaign of 1866. In 1884 he published Bestial loves for the Roman publisher Sommaruga, a collection in which the novella appears cited.
«She seemed born in pomp, blossomed in abundance, lorded over among the gentry bending to her whims. He knew how to twist a ribbon, point at a flower, put on a glove, break a seal, let out a command from his mouth, with coquetry, grace, elegance."2

Wild Flax, Countess Anna Morosini, 1910, oil on canvas, 228 x 119 cm – Venice, Ca' Pesaro, International Gallery of Modern Art

This is how the Como writer describes Giuliana. This is how the protagonist of the pictorial work of Lino Selvatico (1872-1924) appears to the observer. Countess Anna Morosini (1910), in which the noblewoman is wrapped in a black walking dress, illuminated by the refined and linear white blouse. Her face and hands speak of her, of her awareness in looking at the observer, hinting at an elegant, non-vulgar smile, accompanied by the shine of bright eyes in a snowy complexion. The left hand gracefully encircles the neck of the greyhound who looks at her adoringly, admirer of the mistress and at the same time a reflection of the countess, in a whole of sinuosity, regal gait and complicity without excess. No background element delimits the environment in which Anna Morosini is portrayed. Only she exists and the awareness of her beauty and rank, represented by the coat of arms at the top right. The only charming note of color, also without excess, is the blue collar of the greyhound.

The reference model is undoubtedly the portrait in black which from the time of Titian to Hayez favors posture and psychological rendering over compositional and stylistic choices that distract the observer from wondering: who is, or who really was, the character portrayed ?
Anna Sara Nicoletta Maria Rombo, known as Annina, was born in Palermo, where she lives in comfort. Yes transfers to Venice, where it passes adolescence.
It's still Paolo Valera who writes about his heroine Giuliana: «It woke her up acrid the need for a powerful being that the adored".3

In these lines we find Anna, whose beauty given by her dark hair, snowy complexion and green eyes cannot help but open the doors of the aristocracy to her. In 1885 she married Count Michele Morosini, without assets but of high lineage.
The two experience a brief happy season at Ca' d'Oro. After the birth of Morosina, their only daughter, the count moved to Paris. Anna is the most beautiful woman in Italy, she becomes the reference of high society. She had her portrait painted not only by Selvatico, but also by Corcos and Kirchmayer, and became friends with Rilke, Maeterlinck, Shaw, Kaiser Wilhelm II (from 1894 to 1918) and D'Annunzio (from 1896 to 1938).

Wild Flax, Blue Symphony, 1923, oil and tempera on wood, 21 x 35 cm – private collection

In this lively, elegant, elite environment, Ercole, known as Lino, Selvatico moves and paints. Son of the already mentioned Riccardo, founder of the Biennale, nephew of Pietro, famous art historian, and younger brother of Luigi, also a painter, Lino studied law like his father and then dedicated himself to painting in the workshop of Cesare Laurenti, specialized in portrait.

Selvatico seals friendships through portraits, drawing many preparatory studies. As in the best Venetian tradition since the sixteenth century he was commissioned to go and paint the portrait of crowned heads. In 1922 he went to Madrid to the court of Alfonso XIII of Bourbon (1886-1941), who remained enthusiastic about a painting that we can no longer admire today, as it was destroyed during the Spanish civil war, but which bore traces of a very long and luminous history of portraiture in black, which has already been mentioned, which in Spain was adopted by Goya and then by Ignacio Zuloaga (1870-1945), present at the Venice Biennale with a solo show since 1903; the Spanish painter also envelops views and landscapes in black Castilian landscape (1909) and painted female portraits with a clear Goyesque imprint such as The Marchesa Luisa Casati (1923), whose fan recalls Maja naked.

In such a fertile context, in the wake of Titian and Giambattista Tiepolo, Lino Selvatico therefore leaves his mark in the history of Venetian painting, anchored to his land of origin and at the same time a citizen of the world. 



1 Francesco Dall'Ongaro, The well of love, in “The most beautiful love stories of the Italian nineteenth century”, a edited by Riccardo Reim, Newton Compton 2003, pg. 37
2 Paolo Valera, Juliana, in op. cit., pg. 304
3 Ibidem, pg. 306

Work on the cover: Giacomo Favretto, The mouse, (1878), oil on canvas, 59 x 90 cm, Milan Pinacoteca di Brera


Annarosa Maria Tonin was born in Vittorio Veneto (TV) on 22 April 1969. Graduated in Modern Literature at the Cà Foscari University of Venice with a historiography thesis entitled “For a history of the Prague court of Rudolf II. The Venetian Envoys (1595-1609)”, carried out journalistic and research activities in the historiographical and historical-artistic fields and was a teacher of Literary Subjects and History of Art in middle and high schools.
Author of short stories, novels and essays, she organizes events related to the promotion of reading. Editor of "Digressioni", a quarterly paper cultural magazine, for which she writes a History of Art column, she conceived and edited the exhibition "Meeting in via Manin", held in the former Jewish Ghetto of Vittorio Veneto in 2017 and 2018.
In 2019 he published “The man in the shadow. Stories of art, power and society” (Digressioni Editore).

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