6 September 2020

Giovanni Fattori - painter

Landscape artist who painted Risorgimento battle scenes 

A self-portrait of Giovanni Fattori as a young man
A self-portrait of Giovanni
Fattori as a young man
The painter Giovanni Fattori, who campaigned to free Italy from Austrian domination and captured Risorgimento battle scenes on canvas, was born on this day in 1825 in Livorno.

Fattori became a leading member of a group of Tuscan painters known as the Macchiaioli, who have been described as the Italian equivalent of the French Impressionists but whose images were more sharply defined.  The group, largely comprising painters from a working class background, saw themselves more as a social movement who expressed themselves through art.

Born into a modest household in the Via della Coroncina in the centre of Livorno, the Tuscan port city, Fattori’s family hoped he would seek a qualification in commerce that would equip him to prosper in the city’s trade-based economy.

But his skill in sketching persuaded them instead to apprentice him in 1845 to Giuseppe Baldini, a local painter of religious themes.  The following year he moved to Florence to study under Giuseppe Bezzuoli and enrol at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence.

It was while he was in Florence, in 1848, that he became politically active, joining the Partito d’Azione - the Action Party - a liberal-socialist group that campaigned against the Austrian occupation of northern Italy. He distributed leaflets and is said to have taken part in an uprising in his home city of Livorno.  

Fattori made a breakthrough with The Italian Camp at the Battle of Magenta in 1859
Fattori made a breakthrough with The Italian
Camp at the Battle of Magenta
in 1859 
When he returned to a calmer life in Florence in the early 1850s, Fattori began to frequent the Caffè Michelangiolo, on Via Larga, which was a popular gathering place for Florentine artists to discuss politics and the latest ideas in art. A number of them visited Paris for the Exposition of 1855 and returned keen to pursue the then-unusual practice of painting outdoors, directly from nature. 

Fattori was influenced by meeting the Roman landscape painter Giovanni Costa and decided to join his colleagues in taking up painting landscapes as they really appeared, subject to variations in daylight, as well as scenes of contemporary life.  The Florentine group evolved as the Macchiaioli. 

In terms of his personal finances, Fattori’s important break came in 1859, when his depiction of The Italian Camp at the Battle of Magenta (Il campo italiano dopo la battaglia di Magenta) won him a competition organised by the government to produce a patriotic battle scene. It came with a large enough cash prize for him to be married for the first time, to Settimia Vannucci.

Sadly, they were together for only eight years before Settimia succumbed to tuberculosis. During most of that time, Fattori lived in Livorno and painted mainly scenes of rural life, before moving back to a larger studio in Florence after receiving a number of commissions to paint epic battle scenes from the struggle for Italian unification. Famous among these was the Storming of the Madonna della Scoperta, an episode of the Battle of San Martino (1859).

A detail from Fattori's Maremma Cowboys
driving the Herds
After his wife’s death, the 1880s saw Fattori painting scenes from rural life in the Maremma, the area in the southwest of Tuscany.  His canvas Maremma Cowboys driving the Herds, one of his most famous works, is on permanent display in the Fattori Gallery in Livorno.

Fattori regarded his battlefield compositions as his finest works, in contradiction to modern critics, who prefer what they regard as his more spontaneous works, such as The Rotunda of Palmieri (1866), Woman with an Umbrella (1866), and his landscapes of the Florentine countryside, then of the Roman countryside, between 1873 and 1880, including his landscapes of the Maremma. 

Fattori fell into poor circumstances after marrying for a second time in 1891. Unable to buy frames for his paintings, he was prevented from exhibiting his works at the exhibition in Dresden in 1896.  After his second wife died in 1903, he was married for the third time, in 1906, but as a painter became increasingly disillusioned.

He died in 1908 in Florence and is buried in the loggia next to the Sanctuary of Montenero in Livorno, along with other important figures from the city’s history.

Livorno's elegant Terrazza Mascagni is an attraction of the Tuscan port
Livorno's elegant Terrazza Mascagni is
an attraction of the Tuscan port
Travel tip:

Livorno is the second largest city in Tuscany after Florence, with a population of almost 160,000. Although it is a large commercial port with much related industry, it has many attractions, including an elegant sea front – the Terrazza Mascagni - an historic centre, the Venetian quarter with canals, and a tradition of serving excellent seafood.

A view of one of the hillier, greener parts of  the Maremma region of southern Tuscany
A view of one of the hillier, greener parts of 
the Maremma region of southern Tuscany
Travel tip:

Maremma is a large coastal area in southern Tuscany known for the variety of its territory, from blue seas and long beaches, black rock, wooded hills and thermal baths to marshes and flat lands.  It has traces of Etruscan and Roman civilisations, as well as the towers and castles of the Middle Ages built by the Aldobrandeschi families and later the Medici.  For centuries, the area was a hotbed for malaria and the reclamation of land from the vast marshy areas begun by the Medici was completed only just after Second World War.

Also on this day:

1610: The birth of Francesco I d’Este, the military leader who built the Ducal Palace in Modena

1620: The birth of Baroque composer Isabella Leonarda

1925: The birth of best-selling author Andrea Camilleri, creator of Inspector Montalbano


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