Printer Friendly

Radical light: Italy's divisionist painters: Lucy Riall explores the social and political issues in Italy following the country's unification. She shows how these issues became the focus for a dynamic new artistic movement of the 1890s, Divisionism, a forerunner to Futurism and the subject of a current exhibition at the National Gallery.


Enthusiasm for Italian art is nothing new but until quite recently the art of the 'Ottocento' (1800s) was either ignored or forgotten: seen as a symptom of Italy's cultural decline since the glories of the Renaissance or as merely derivative of the artistic innovations taking place elsewhere.

Like so much else about the nineteenth century, this dismissive attitude now seems outdated. A re-evaluation of Italian art in the decades following the Risorgimeuto has led to the rediscovery of a whole series of avant-garde movements--the Macchiaioli ('sketchers'), the Scapigliatura ('dishevelled') and last, but by no means least, from the 1890s, the Divisionisti or Divisionists.

All these movements influenced each other and some artists used more than one of their techniques. The word 'divisionism' refers to a technique in painting which aimed to portray light by the application of individual strokes of pure colour on to the canvas. As a movement, however, Divisionism involved a commitment to radical politics and social themes, and these concerns are clearly expressed in their choice of subject matter. The Divisionists, in particular, can be seen as the precursors of the much more famous Futurist movement, which in a manifesto of 1909 proclaimed its 'hate of the past', challenging it with a dynamic, aggressive and mass-orientated embrace of the future. 'I wish to paint the new, the fruits of our industrial age', wrote the twenty-five-year-old Divisionist painter Umberto Boccioni in 1907: 'I am nauseated by old walls and old palaces, and by old motifs, by reminiscences.' Instead of being relegated to the cultural periphery, then, these Italian artistic movements of the late nineteenth-century can be seen as an important harbinger of, and contributor to, European modernism.


The importance of these movements within Italy itself also merits reassessment. Italy was a recent nation, united only in 1860, and it was not until 1870 that the Italian state captured Rome from the Pope and made it the capital city (acquiring the enduring enmity of the Catholic Church in the process). The Risorgimento, the mid-century movement of national 'resurrection' or 'revival' associated with the process of national unification, was never fully successful. Yet it was a vibrant cultural moment all the same. Indeed, the part played by culture--the role of novels, poetry, history, music and painting--in encouraging and defining a new sense of italianitdz ('Italian-ness') seems undeniable. Many historians now argue that it is in culture, for example in the poetry of Ugo Foscolo (1778-1827), in the operas of Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), and in Italian painting from Francesco Hayez (1791-1882) to Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), that we can locate the origins and motivations of political change in modern Italy.


Men like Hayez and Verdi were not especially interested in politics, and they were still less concerned with the social problems of their time. By contrast, their successors in the Macchiaioli, Scapigliatura and Divisionist movements, some of whom had fought as volunteers in the wars of the Risorgimento and after, were passionately engaged with social questions and with political activity.

Most of all, perhaps, the Divisionists reflect the changes taking place in Italian society and their difficult, often contradictory, impact. The movement was centred in Milan, the modern and dynamic power-house of the Italian economy, and around one gallery in particular, the Galleria Fratelli Grubicy, which from the early 1880s took on young Lombard artists such as Giovanni Segantini, Angelo Morbelli, Gaetano Previati and Emilio Longoni. However, they were never a single, uniform group. From the outset, and thanks to the work of avant-garde art critics like Vittore Grubicy, the artists were alive to what was happening outside Italy; at the same time, many of them chose not to live in Milan and had studios in the Alps or the Piedmontese countryside.

Painters interpreted the Divisionist technique in different ways, and the result is an enormous variety of individual styles. Most denied that they were ever a school at all. According to the leading Divisionist Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, Divisionism was 'not a school ... it is nothing more than a technical means for reproducing with colouring materials, the luminous vibrations of rays which go to make up light.' Their roots lay in Romanticism, and in the bohemian rejection of bourgeois society; this rebellion took many forms, but the Divisionists shared a basic unhappiness with the injustices of the modern world.


The subject matter of Divisionist painting reflects both a concern with political and social issues and a personal freedom of interpretation. In their paintings, rural idylls co-exist with moments from metropolitan life, and motherhood appears alongside scenes of striking workers. So it was more by design than by chance that Gaetano Previati's Divisionist painting 'Motherhood' (1890-91), a deeply spiritual work, appeared with the overtly radical but equally Divisionist 'The Orator of the Strike' (1890-91) by Emilio Longoni. The paintings were both shown at the first Brera Triennale of 1891, an exhibition which marked the birth of modernism in Italy, and the arrival of the Divisionist movement.

It says much about the politics of Italian culture that Previati's 'Motherhood', by combining religious images with symbolist technique, caused more controversy than any of the political exhibits at the Brera. Bad relations with the Church meant that religious subjects were a sensitive issue in liberal Italy. Critics also hated the deliberate subversion of the religious iconography of Madonna and Child by the use of flowing curves and indefinite forms; they saw, correctly, Previati's challenge to naturalist representations of this central Christian symbol and his attempt instead to convey the essence, or 'feeling', of maternal and filial love.

In this way, the Divisionists expressed the ambiguities of modernization in Italy as well as the complex legacy left by the past. The movement's beginnings coincided with the start of a prolonged crisis in Italy. In 1890, socialists organized May Day as an international celebration of worker solidarity, and strikes were held across Europe and the Americas. May Day strikes in Milan were banned by the authorities, but workers turned out anyway leading to violent clashes with the police.

This turn to radicalism was signalled by the Divisionist painters. One of the most spectacular works to come from the movement is Emilio Longoni's 'The Orator of the Strike', which the painter worked on while he was under police surveillance as an 'anarchist painter': the setting is the May Day 1890 strike in Milan, and a passionate workers' leader dominates the painting, encouraging the crowd who respond with clenched fists. In the background, a tram blocks the entrance to the piazza and the army charges the crowd.

Another Divisionist painter, Plinio Nomellini, marked the emergence of this so-called 'end-of-century crisis' with a series of politically-inspired paintings: 'The Strike' (1889), 'The Call to Work' (1893), and 'Piazza Caricamento, Genoa' (1891). The latter painting, which shows two dockers in Genoa advancing out of a murky background with confidence and resolve, was probably a crucial influence on Pellizza's celebrated work, 'The Fourth Estate' (1898-1901), which is now a well-known representation of twentieth-century worker militancy. In the early years of the Divisionist movement, Nomellini became an active supporter of left-wing politics. His home in Genoa was a centre of political activity and a meeting place for radicals, artists, writers and musicians. Nomellini himself was arrested in 1894 for involvement with anarchist activities.

The work and activities of the Divisionists reflected the broader political tide. Inspired by the ferment in Italy, in 1891 the Milanese poet and lawyer Filippo Turati founded the magazine La Critica Sociale. This quickly became an important vehicle for the discussion and dissemination of Marxist theory. In 1892, the first national workers' party was established at a congress in Genoa: just three years later it became the Italian Socialist Party (PSI). Although it initially struggled to win over the disparate groups of anarchists and 'labourites' who were extremely powerful in Italy, the party rapidly grew in strength and support and gained the adherence of many intellectuals, artists and university professors.

None of these developments halted the spread of popular disturbances. In the Italian countryside, from the Po valley in northern Italy to the vast grain estates of Sicily, militancy among agricultural workers added to the atmosphere of hostility and instability. In Sicily, peasant fasci (organized rural unions) challenged the forces of order, and a wave of land occupations and strikes followed. Worker unrest also multiplied beyond the industrial cities of Milan, Turin and Genoa: in Rome and Naples, rioting broke out in 1893 leading to violent clashes between protestors and police.


In 1893, embarking on his second regime and faced with successive waves of disorder, prime minister Francesco Crispi, himself a Sicilian and a former radical, decided on a general crackdown. Martial law was declared in Sicily, censorship was introduced and public meetings were banned. The Italian Socialist Party was dissolved. Yet all this action was to little avail and, in 1898, a rise in grain prices and taxation led to renewed rioting and a further round of repression. In Milan, the workers took to the streets in protest. The government sent in the army which opened fire on the unarmed crowd, killing around a hundred demonstrators and wounding at least 400 more. Radical newspapers and trade unions were banned, and Socialist leaders were arrested and imprisoned.


The 1890s marked the end of an era, in the words of historian Adrian Lyttelton, 'a dark decade in Italian history': the collapse of Risorgimeuto dreams of an Italian 'resurrection' and the beginning of a more mundane set of problems. The transition was a violent and uncomfortable one. In less than ten years, the arrival of worker militancy announced with such confidence by Divisionist painters had been crushed by police action and government repression. A major banking scandal, involving leading politicians and senior banking officials, rocked the government for several years after 1889. In 1896, Italy suffered a disastrous and humiliating defeat in Ethiopia, at the battle of Adua, when an Italian force was destroyed by the Abyssinian army under the emperor, Menelik. Matters reached a climax in 1898. The general responsible for the massacre of civilians in Milan, Bava Beccaris, received a special medal from the king, Umberto I, for 'the great service ... rendered to our institutions and to civilisation, and to attest to my affection and the gratitude of myself and the country.' In the elections of 1899, the Crispi government won a majority thanks only to government corruption and heavy use of local influence on electors in southern Italy; elsewhere radicals, socialists and republicans attracted a greatly increased share of the popular vote and returned to parliament with nearly a hundred seats. In July 1900, Umberto I was assassinated by an Italian emigrant, Gaetano Bresci, in revenge for the king's role in the repression of 1898.

While the turbulent events of the 1890s were both anticipated and reflected in their political works, Divisionist painters also engaged with slower but no less dramatic changes affecting Italy during this period. A number of them, notably Giovanni Segantini and Umberto Boccioni, used the technique to depict extraordinarily vivid scenes of rural life and rural landscapes, and in this they followed their precursor (and sometime teacher) Giovanni Fattori, the Macchiaiolo artist. The timeless beauty of the countryside depicted in their canvases can at first sight distract from the social concerns. Still, Angelo Morbelli's luminous paintings of the female rice workers (mondine) of the Lombardy plain, 'For Eighty Cents!' (1893-95) and 'In the Rice Fields' (1898-1901), express the artist's protest at the conditions and low wages suffered by this seasonal labour force. Social commentary lurks even in the more lyrical landscapes of Segantini and Boccioni.

By moving to the countryside, Divisionists made a deliberate choice to depart from Italian academic tradition, with its emphasis on the urban past and iconic figures and moments in Italian history. Their focus on peasants and rural activity denotes an entirely new interest, and is another aspect of their forward-looking approach to art. The decision to look at rural life may also reflect an awareness of its transformation, as peasants reacted to the impact of economic change and migrated to the cities, and overseas to Europe and the Americas.

Also new was the Divisionist (and Futurist) focus on modern industry and the daily life of towns. Industrial development in Italy had long been perceived as a problem. From the early nineteenth century onwards, Italy was seen as a backward nation, which lagged behind the industrializing might of Britain and France and which, after 1870, failed entirely to keep up with the dynamic economic growth of Europe's other new nation, Germany. The financial crisis of the late 1880s, and the banking scandal which engulfed Italy's ruling class the following decade, further intensified feelings of economic failure. Yet when the world's economies began to expand again after 1896, Italy was in the lead. Its industry finally took off, and for the next ten years, its industrial growth was the fastest in Europe.

The speed of industrialization in Italy radically altered the life and landscape of the peninsula. The growth of the cities in its 'industrial triangle'--Milan, Turin and Genoa--was based around the new industries of electricity and the internal combustion engine, and it led to a few families, such as the Agnelli who made Fiat motor cars and the Pirelli who made rubber tyres, rapidly amassing huge fortunes.

Two paintings that capture the new pace of modern urban life are Carlo Carra's 'Leaving the Theatre' (1909) and 'Piazza del Duomo' (1910), which depicts a city of trams, motorized vehicles and bustling crowds. Economic growth led to an increase in mass consumption and the media; Milan opened Italy's first department store; newspaper readership, traditionally low in Italy, rapidly increased; cinemas sprang up all over the country along with a film industry; and streets in the major cities began to be lit by electricity (an event marked by Giacomo Balla's first Futurist painting, 'Street Light', in 1910-11). Everyday life seemed transformed by machines.


Still, all was not what it seemed. Italy found it hard to rid itself of the feeling of backwardness. Industrialization was overwhelmingly concentrated in the northern industrial triangle, while in central and southern parts of the country it only existed in small pockets. At the end of 1910, nearly 60 per cent of the population was still employed in agriculture. The south, above all, failed to industrialize and much of its agricultural production was stagnant; to observers, both the landscape and its inhabitants seemed weighed down by the remnants of its feudal past. Across Italy the traditional elite resisted the arrival of industry and rejected the challenge of modern culture. Moreover, from the temples of Sicily to the monuments of Rome, Italy's illustrious past was everywhere: it was 'the stones of Venice' that the tourists came to see, not the industry of Milan.


After 1900, Italy's political situation stabilized. A new administration was formed under the leadership of Giovanni Giolitti (1842-1928). Giolitti aimed to broaden the basis of the liberal state by a combination of social welfare legislation and political appeasement, and he sought a compromise with the government's two main enemies: the Socialists and the Catholic Church. In 1913, he reformed the voting system in Italy, broadening it to establish universal manhood suffrage.

Giolitti was a bureaucrat, and the first prime minister not to have participated in either the politics or the wars of Italy's Risorgimento. Uninterested in culture and despising intellectuals, he inaugurated what was called Italy's 'age of prose', or a period of political compromise which contrasted with the heroics and 'poetry' of the Risorgimento. But the age of prose proved controversial and short-lived. Giolitti's politics of appeasement were opposed on the left by revolutionary syndicalists (a branch of the anarchist movement) and on the right by extreme nationalists. In 1912, socialist reformists who had co-operated with Giolittfs government were challenged by 'intransigents' within their own party, inspired by a charismatic young leader, Benito Mussolini. Shortly before the outbreak of European war, in August 1914, a 'Red Week' saw the collapse of law and order in central Italy, with open insurrection in Romagna and the Marche.


Political opposition was not the only threat which Giolitti faced. His prosaic style of government was derided by poets, most famously by Gabriele D'Annunzio, and by Futurist artists. Futurism is usually associated with the right, and especially with a patriotic belligerence which found its way into fascism, but its political and cultural roots are more complicated. Many leading Futurist artists--Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carra--had started their careers as Divisionists, and they continued to be interested in left-wing politics and social issues.

CarrS's 'Funeral of the Anarchist Gallf (1910-11) is a celebration of one of Italy's most vigorous political traditions, and marks the artist's move from Divisionism to Futurism. Angelo Galli, an anarchist leader, had been shot dead in Milan during a general strike in 1904 and, during his funeral, the police tried to stop the crowd from entering the cemetery. There followed violent clashes between protestors and police, which quickly developed into a full-blown riot. Carra witnessed these events, and his written memory of them provides a descriptive guide to the painting:
   I saw the coffin in front of me,
   covered in red carnations, wavering
   dangerously on the shoulders
   of the pallbearers. I saw the horses
   becoming restive, the sticks and
   lances clashing; so it seemed to me
   that at any moment the corpse
   would fall to the ground and be
   trampled by the horses.

'Funeral of the Anarchist Gallf is remarkable for its modernity, for its combination of Divisionist values and Futurist composition. Carra's enthusiasm for the energy of the crowd is irresistible, and by placing the spectator 'in the centre of the picture' (as the 'Technical Manifesto of Futurist painting' had declared in 1910), he also conveys a political message about the need to sympathize with, and participate in, the crowd's chaotic passions.


'The art of the past is great nonsense', wrote Carra: 'only with Futurist art does true art emerge'. Boccioni became fascinated by the 'feverish epoch' in which he lived. This fascination led both him and Carra to espouse a new, more radical definition of modernity influenced by Cubism, and Boccioni, in the end, came to reject socialist politics as obsolete and associated too closely with nineteenthcentury realism in art. Others were not so harsh. In the creative 'shout of rebellion' published in the Manifesto of Futurist painters, only three artists of the previous generation were exempted from the general condemnation. They were the Divisionist painters Giovanni Segantini and Gaetano Previati, and the sculptor Medardo Rosso.

Historians have long debated the significance of Italy's 'end-of-century crisis' and the Giolittian era that followed. Did Italy turn a corner after 1900, and had Giolitti laid the foundations for a stable, democratic system? Was the rise of Fascism inevitable, with its roots in the Risorgimento and liberal Italy, or was Fascism an aberration, yet another legacy of the violence and extreme nationalism of the First World War? The answers to such questions are far from obvious but, politically and socially, Italy in these years seems to present a typical example of the strains, complexities and ambiguities of modernization.

Yet in the case of culture, and of art in particular, the road to modernity seems more clearly signposted, if no less interesting. Divisionism, along with its nineteenth-century precursors and Futurism, its twentieth-century successor, offers proof of one of modern Italy's more remarkable characteristics: the avantgame was consistently inventive and inspiring, and its culture was often out of step with the country's shabby politics and deeply traditional society. In cultural terms, with the arrival of the Divisionist movement in 1891, Italy's past came to an end. The future had begun.

Further Reading

A. Boime, The art of the Macchia and the Risorgirnento, Representing culture and nationalism in nineteenth-century Italy, (University of Chicago Press, 1993); E. Braun (ed.), Italian art in the twentieth century (PresteI-Verlag, 1989); C. Duggan, The Force of Destiny.A History of Italy since 1796 (Penguin, 2007); S. Fraquelli et. al., Radical Light Italy's Divisionist painters, 1891-1910 (National Gallery and Yale University Press, 2008); A. Lyttelton (ed), Liberal and Fascist Italy, (Oxford University Press, 2002).

To read 161 other relevant articles, visit:

Lucy Riall is Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London, and the author of Garibaldi. Invention of a Hero (Yale University Press, 2007).
COPYRIGHT 2008 History Today Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Riall, Lucy
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Aug 1, 2008
Previous Article:Wish you were here? Britain between the wars: Martin Pugh argues that life during the interwar years was brighter than has often been suggested, in...
Next Article:Streicher, Fips & Der Sturmer: Mark Bryant looks at the cartoons that adorned one of the Nazis' most reviled newspapers.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters