The decades of the Risorgimento, the period between the middle and end of the 19th century, represent a moment of intense vitality and renewal in the expressive media of Italian art. A long series of major events – unthinkable until that point – unfolded one after another, involving the population as a whole for the first time. Simultaneously, the world of art witnessed a profound change in painting genres, subject matter and hierarchies and, above all, the birth of a Risorgimento subject matter able to compete with international history painting.
A large nucleus of paintings from the period on the subject of the Risorgimento, currently in the collection of the Fondazione Cariplo, provides an extraordinary dynamic and intensely realistic account of this crucial moment in Italian history and art.
The Battle of the River Tchernaya by Gerolamo Induno, one of the first canvases of monumental size, was presented at the Esposizione di belle arti dell’Accademia di Brera in 1859 and purchased by Vittorio Emanuele II for his collection in the Castle of Racconigi. Painted in 1857 but based on sketches made by Induno when attached to the Piedmontese army on its expedition to the Crimea in 1855 alongside British and French forces to defend the Ottoman Empire against Russia, it takes us into the thick of a military action. The artist himself fought in the battle, which took place on 16 August 1855, as a member of the Bersaglieri corps.
In a composition divided by the line of the horizon and dominated by the figure of General Alfonso La Marmora on horseback, the painter depicts a series of episodes involving groups of soldiers in the foreground as well as two dying Russians comforted by a chaplain. Further minor scenes are spread all over the broad expanse in perspective. The movements of troops by the River Tchernaya, where the Piedmontese fought a number of victorious actions alongside the French army, can be discerned in the glow on the horizon.
Gerolamo Induno, one of Garibaldi’s volunteers in 1859, is the author of The Fall of Palestro, 30 May 1859, a large-sized canvas presented at the Brera in 1860. It shows the first victory won in the Second War of Independence by the Piedmontese army against the Austrians, an episode that led to the annexation of Lombardy by the Kingdom of Sardinia. The painter offers a very realistic depiction of the throng of soldiers in the foreground. The mounted figure on the left gazing at the newly taken town can probably be identified as Vittorio Emanuele II accompanied by General Enrico Cialdini.
The Artillery of the 3rd Division at San Martino, an episode in the battle that determined the outcome of the Second War of Independence in 1859, is the work of Sebastiano De Albertis, another patriot and follower of Garibaldi. It was painted for the Esposizione nazionale of Venice in 1887 at a time when De Albertis had come to specialise in Risorgimento battle scenes, partly under the influence of his master Gerolamo Induno. This canvas again displays his skill at depicting cavalry alongside scenes of blunt realism. In this openly scenic approach, the spectator is caught up in the middle of an artillery manoeuvre in the rear while the actual fighting is hidden from those actually involved by the thick cloud of dust that occupies the centre of the composition. Twenty years had gone by since the battle took place, however, and the genuine tension of the epic events is entangled in the description of genre details.
Domenico Induno’s The Arrival of the News from Villafranca is instead inspired by the coeval episode of the armistice that Napoleon III imposed on the Italians in July 1859. A patriot and follower of Garibaldi like his brother Gerolamo Induno, Domenico addresses this contemporary subject with the most modern and spontaneous techniques of genre painting.
The wholly personal iconography developed is presented on the canvas in free, dynamic brushstrokes and delicate combinations of colour with almost iridescent effects. The painting, which constitutes a different version of a work on the same subject presented at the Esposizione di belle arti dell’Accademia di Brera in 1860, captures the varied reactions of a heterogeneous group of people in a country tavern to the unexpected news of the armistice, which aroused great indignation reached throughout Italy, especially among the common folk. The work was greeted with great interest and admiration for its innovative character and became an example of the evolution undergone by genre painting in the period. Increasingly oriented towards contemporary events and elevated by the use of large formats, these works were endowed with greater realism through attention and sensitivity to the emotions and expressive gestures of the figures, defined here in very precise and lifelike terms.
Giuseppe Garibaldi, the unchallenged leader of the Risorgimento, is presented in the history painting of Gerolamo Induno both as an epic symbol and as a very human figure. In the canvas entitled Garibaldi at Sant’Angelo (Capua), a replica of the work presented by the painter at the Esposizione di belle arti dell’Accademia di Brera in 1861, he stands out in isolation against the sun-drenched landscape of southern Italy on a hill overlooking the plain of the River Volturno, where the distant outline of Capua can be seen. The general is shown in a natural pose, cigar in hand. Two mounted soldiers on the right seem to be waiting respectfully for him as he pauses pensively on the spot where his army of volunteers has just won a heroic victory. Garibaldi was shortly after to meet Vittorio Emanuele II at Teano and hand over the conquered territories, thus marking the end of the expedition of his one thousand volunteers and the beginning of the Kingdom of Italy.
The realism of this portrait is inseparably interwoven with the heroic character of its subject, thus exemplifying the painter’s ability to bring the events and figures of contemporary history closer to the life of the common people, a talent shared by his brother Domenico.
In The Sentry, a work of the previous decade, Gerolamo Induno again chooses a secondary character, this time a young follower of Garibaldi who cannot resist smoking his pipe while on sentry duty, thus allowing the painter to turn a historical episode into an image of everyday simplicity.
The portrayal of the Risorgimento through the faces of common folk and humble surroundings also met with great success among the public in those decades.
Angelo Trezzini’s Reading a Letter from the Camp belongs to the series of works in the Cariplo Collection that exemplify this particular and very popular type of genre painting.
The work is a smaller copy, dated 1867, of a painting for which the artist was awarded a prize by the Brera Academy in 1861.
A Lombard peasant woman, the mother of a volunteer, listens together with all the family as the village curate reads a letter from her son. Trezzini set the scene in the curate’s house, with the king’s portrait and the map of Italy on the wall, so as to mark a distance from the anti-clerical feeling aroused during the struggle for independence and suggest the idea of the reconciliation of State and Church that began immediately after Italy’s unification.
The Wounded Soldier, another work of the same period by Angelo Trezzini, was formerly in the collection of Francesco Turati, a leading representative of Lombardy’s new entrepreneurial middle class. The work is directly inspired by a subject repeatedly addressed by Trezzini’s master and brother-in-law Domenico Induno, whose teaching was to influence the artist throughout his career.
The highly concentrated composition is built up around the figure of a wounded soldier. A feeling of disillusionment pervades the scene together with disenchanted reflection on the end result of a wave of civic passion that had involved all layers of society.
A significant term of comparison is thus provided by Domenico Induno’s earlier Return of the Wounded Soldier, which shows a soldier just discharged from service due to the wounds received in battle with the official letter of notification in his hand. Induno depicts the pitiful situation of the volunteer, tormented by his inability to go on fighting for the cause of independence under Garibaldi, in the intimate setting of a humble dwelling. The light streaming in through the window and the combinations of colour designed to set off the soldier’s red jacket also serve to heighten the narrative tension of the scene.
It was in 1893, many years after the wars of independence in which he played an active part, that Sebastiano De Albertis painted Feeding Call for the Milanese businessman Ferdinando Bocconi. The work was presented at the Esposizione Triennale di Brera the following year.
It presents a simple scene of military life, once again permeated with a sense of nostalgia and solitude, as though to mark the end of an era. Rounded up to be fed and stabled for the night, the horses are the leading figures of an episode painted in crepuscular tones that are very different from the heroic accents of the numerous battle scenes that the artist produced in the years of his maturity. The continuing success enjoyed by the latter works on the art market is indicative of the great interest that paintings of the Risorgimento still aroused among collectors at the end of the century.
Autore — Giovanna Ginex, Domenico Sedini, Laura Casone, Elena Lissoni
Gruppo di progetto —
Lucia Molino, Mario Romano Negri, Cristina Chiavarino —