The Light of Southern Italy: Paintings from the 19th-Century Neapolitan School”

Ettore Cercone, At the Pyramids, 1888 Courtesy Italian Cultural Institute, New York City“The Light of Southern Italy: Paintings from the 19th-Century Neapolitan School,” which was on view at the Italian Cultural Institute of New York from October 5 to November 5, 2015, explored the works of a too-often-neglected group of painters, who captured the beauty of Abruzzo, Puglia, Molise, Calabria and Sicily.

Among the many talented artists represented was Giuseppe Laezza (1835–1905), a devoted  topographer  of  his  native  region,  as  seen  in  View of   the  Neapolitan  Coast   (1884).  Laezza  carefully  documents  the evolving changes of the bay of Posillipo. In the foreground, the beach— with a fishing boat surrounded by several fishermen tending their nets—is filled with stones. A rake-like object on the stony sand indicates the beginnings of construction of Naples’s port. The man-made promontory is filled with rocks found at the bottom of the ocean, a by-product of years of Mount Vesuvius’ cooling lava. The whole composition is  an  attentive  study  of light that slowly comes from the left, creating shadows on the stony beach. As our eye moves towards  the  right,  the  morning light brightens the other side of the now-luminous bay, marked by glistening white house fronts overlooking, in the not-too-far distance, Vesuvius with its plumes of smoke.

This exhibition featured many vedute (views) of Naples and Capri by artists such as Consalvo Carelli (1818–1900), Attilio Pratella (1856–1949) and Augusto Lovatti (1852–1921). Palermo-born Francesco Lojacono (1838–1915) was represented by his desolate Marina (c. 1885–90), which features a Sicilian sunset masterfully created with delicate brushstrokes of blue-white and grey. Soft lights and shadows shape the humble port, which consists only of rocks and a bit of vegetation.

The works in “The Light of Southern Italy” differed from those of the Macchiaioli, a better-known group of nineteenth-century Italian  painters  who formed the focus of a show at the Institute last year. Macchiaioli such as Giovanni Fattori often represented the battles of the Risorgimento. Yet war did not trouble us at this year’s exhibition: despite southern Italy’s oppression under the Spanish Bourbons, Papal States and Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the works here offered only a celebration of its luminous natural beauty and the charms of its simple folkways. In fact, most of these Southern artists, unlike their Tuscan counterparts, were oblivious to the project of Italian unification; some even opposed it.

Ruben Santoro, Rustic Homes and Spinners, 1878 Courtesy Italian Cultural Institute, New York CityUnder the influence of the Dutch expatriate-artist Antonio Pitloo (1791–1837), Naples provided inspiration for plein-air-styled views of the bay of Posillipo, where the ubiquitous Vesuvius spewed smoke in the distance. But there were many other subjects. The Neapolitan Michele Cammarano (1835–1920), for example, lived in Italy’s one-time African colony, Eritrea. He documented its landscape in bold swatches of color, akin to the Macchiaioli style of synthesizing light and shadow, to create expressive compositions of everyday life.

Ettore Cercone (1850–96), a self-taught Sicilian artist and naval lieutenant, traveled extensively to the East Indies and Egypt.  His  At  the Pyramids (1888) depicts, rather humorously, a petite, affluent lady tourist in fashionable dress. She wears a large bonnet to protect  her pale skin, and the tight-fitting bodice of her ruffled white gown appears con- strictive, yet she moves with a visible smile. Her hands are held tightly by her dark-skinned, barefoot, kaftan-clad guides, as she carefully places a minute and slightly heeled shoe onto a slope of rocks. Its steepness mirrors the strong diagonal shape of the pyramid in the background.

Painted by Rubens Santoro (1859–1942), Rustic Homes and Spinners (1878) uses the compositional techniques of foreshortening and dramatic verticality to create an effect that shifts the main subject of the painting off-center. Our eye first settles on female spinners in traditional garb, consisting of kerchiefs tied on their heads, shawls draped around their shoulders, and aprons tied to their waists. These women are working at the foot of a succession of small flatroofed houses. The entire scene, including the blue sky, is saturated with light that renders the white of fading plaster even whiter. Only the bottom right of the canvas is bathed in shadow, creating a sharp contrast with the rest of the sun-soaked scene. This image reminds us of southern Italy’s dire poverty, yet Santoro also pays homage to his native Calabria’s artisanal traditions and com- munity life.

Other depictions of people in this exhibition, particularly women of higher social status, indicate that these artists were frequent travelers to London and Paris, and that they won commissions for portraits from high-society patrons. (A key example is the internationally known Giuseppe De Nittis.) There was also a rising demand for portraits among Italy’s middle class, particularly after the nation’s unification. Such is the case for Antonio Mancini (1852–1930),  whose portraits of the emerging bourgeoisie are of  particular interest. He   was the subject of a small retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (October 20, 2007–January 20, 2008), and was admired by John Singer Sargent, who considered him “the greatest painter alive.” In Mancini’s 1919 Smile, an alluring female sitter’s dark dress and black hair dissolve into a black-brown backdrop, offset by the intense whiteness of her skin, collar and gloves. These are executed with very thick layers of white paint, hinting at Mancini’s avant- garde insertions (in other paintings) of mirror fragments, broken glass or even metal foil underneath his colors.

One of the most poignant works in “The Light of Southern Italy” is Giuseppe Palizzi’s (1812–88) Excavations of Pompeii (1870), representing a hard-working, barefoot young woman on a large mound set against a bright azure sky. With a workbasket beside her, she pensively observes the unearthed magnificence of still brilliantly colored frescoes, evidence of her people’s luxurious imperial past.

This exhibition was curated by Marco Bertoli, a leading dealer in nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Italian painting and sculpture.  Running private galleries in New York City and in Italy, Bertoli is also a consultant for the department of nineteenth-century European art at Christie’s. The illustrated catalogue is available for purchase from the Italian Cultural Institute of New York, 686 Park Avenue, New York, New York 10065. Telephone (212) 879-4242 x 338.

—Cristina La Porta

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2016, Volume 36, Number 1