The foundation of the Gallery of Modern Art

The origins of the museum and the great National Exposition of Palermo

Last Leaves (1906) by Michele CattiGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

the great National Exposition of Palermo of 1891-92 was a momentous event for the cultural and civic life of the City in a period of enthusiasm for Modernism and great expectations for the coming century. It bore witness to Palermo’s successful participation in the development of contemporary art and exposition policy of the recently unified Italian nation. It was then that the city felt the need to establish a new museum following the example of what had been done in other Italian cities to display works representing the most recent artistic production.

Sicilian Vespers by Erulo EroliGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

As a result of the crucial contribution made by Empedocle Restivo, the City Councillor for Public Education, Ernesto Basile, the great architect, and Vittorio Ducrot, works of the finest quality were purchased and became the core of the collections of the Gallery. The latter was solemnly opened before the King Victor Emmanuel III on 24 May 1910 when Palermo was the capital of the splendid age of Art Nouveau, or Liberty as it was called in Italy, with its stunning architecture and refined decorations.

Dante and Virgil in front of Charon’s Boat (1874) by Paolo VetriGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

As Empedocle Restivo explained at the time, the Galleries in Palermo and other cities were founded also with the intention to reach an education goal, i.e., to develop and consolidate the idea of a unified Italy not only from the political viewpoint, as it showed a wealth of deeply different traditions and historical developments.

Il vittimaro by Giuseppe SciutiGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

The first acquisitions bear witness to another goal they meant to achieve. They mostly selected large-sized paintings of historical themes with the aim of educating citizens and decorating the main public buildings. Those paintings showed episodes of Italian history celebrating the recently achieved unification by reviving past memories and establishing bonds with the recent uprisings and Garibaldi’s undertaking. At the same time, they were also in line with the contemporary romantic taste emerging in the vivid depiction of emotions.

Sicilian Vespers by Erulo EroliGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

During this early stage of the collection, the City purchased I Vespri Siciliani, a large-sized painting the Roman artist Erulo Eroli depicted for the occasion. The artist approached this theme in a theatrical, bold and realistic way. The abuse of a young Sicilian woman perpetrated by the French soldier Droetto, which triggered a popular uprising that ended with the ousting of the French invaders under Charles of Anjou, is rendered by the Roman painter with dramatic excitement and suggested a link between the previous cry for freedom and recent pre-unification events.

Il vittimaro by Giuseppe SciutiGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

So, next to the dramatically realistic painting by Eroli, made even more theatrical by the strong bright colours he used in the foreground, were placed two paintings donated by the City of Palermo to the Gallery in 1925. The first is I funerali di Timoleonte by Giuseppe Sciuti, one of the most remarkable pieces of the painter’s production dated 1874; the other is Il Vittimaro painted in 1895 and representing the climax of the painter’s artistic career.

I funerali di Timoleonte (1834/1911) by Giuseppe SciutiGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

With I funerali di Timoleonte, depicted by Giuseppe Sciuti in 1874, the museum acquired an extraordinary example of realistic and neo-Pompeian painting which had become extremely popular in Naples during the last quarter of the century. The large canvas combined the new developments introduced by the Macchiaioli artists with the grandiose sets and architectures the Roman artists loved, which prevailed during the first decades of the Kingdom of Italy and were used especially for the great official decorative cycles. The episode describes, with a grandiose set as in a historical film, the funeral of the Corinthian general Timoleon who had ensured a period of peace and prosperity to the city and encouraged the creation of an association among the Greek cities of Sicily. He was praised as a hero and the red cloth covering his coffin hinted at Garibaldi, the hero of the two worlds.

Portrait of Giuseppe Garibaldi (1860) by Salvatore lo ForteGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

A place where crucial clashes and events for the creation of the new country took place, Sicily received and magnified the myth surrounding the figure and achievements of Garibaldi who had always opposed the Bourbons. Iconic is the official portrait of General Garibaldi by Salvatore Lo Forte based on a well-known photograph taken in 1860 in Palermo by the French photographer Gustave Le Gray who, together with Alexandre Dumas, cut short his trip to the Far East to go there when they learned that the City had been conquered, a piece of news the population had welcomed with patriotic fervour.

The night of 19 July 1812 by Francesco PadovanoGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

In 1874 Francesco Padovano painted La notte del 19 luglio 1812 in Palermo which earned him the first prize at a competition called by the City. The title refers to the Sicilian aristocrats surrendering their rights to land, an unusual subject used to commemorate the long session of the Sicilian Parliament when the Prince of Castelnuovo confronted the Prince of Belmonte and aristocrats waived their right to the land. The episode could also be read as a foreboding of Italian unification.

Garibaldian burial by Filippo LiardoGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

In the painting by Filippo Liardo entitled Sepoltura Garibaldina, exhibited at the Salon in Paris in 1866, we find an attempt at combining patriotic themes and intimist painting to satisfy the taste and meet the political ideals of the bourgeoisie, which commissioned the paintings. However, it belonged to the genre of historical paintings.

Donna Olimpia Pamphili and Innocenzo X by Guglielmo De SanctisGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

While it is true that during the first half of the century the latter expressed patriotic desires and civil unrest, once the process of the country’s unification had been started and completed, other necessities emerged and the painters conveyed their new themes and forms of expression.

So, a type of painting based on documents and history for its descriptions and aiming at expressing and rendering emotions at the same time spread across Southern Italy. The painting Donna Olimpia Pamphili e Innocenzo X by Guglielmo De Sanctis was a late example of the desire to renovate historical painting starting with realistic aspirations and genuine painting inspired by imagination, which Domenico Morelli had promoted and shaped since the first half of the 1800s.

The joys of the family (1898) by Pietro PajettaGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

While Realism spread in literature, painting increasingly took interest in social issues and in the world of society’s outcasts especially in the pre-industrial and poor South. The need for ethical beauty led to appreciating so-called minor genres and themes which had been neglected until then. This trend provided fertile ground for experiments in painting which went hand in hand the civil struggles of the time, the new awareness of social classes and the aesthetic and literary theories of Capuana and Verga who thought that art had to mirror reality.

The betrayed girl (1865) by Francesco PadovanoGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

Artists started to deal with emotions with greater involvement and realistic reliability, and celebrated the concrete sentimental drives of a young girl without rhetoric and with extreme precision as it emerges for example from the painting Fanciulla tradita (1865) by Francesco Padovano.

The sorceress (1899) by Francesco PadovanoGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

However, it was not until the end of the century that the time was ripe to produce paintings such as La fattucchiera, it too by Padovano, or Le gioie di famiglia by Pietro Pajetta. The latter has become iconic for the subject, a common one at that point, i.e., the poor inside a cowshed depicted with extreme realism, which becomes a genuine manifesto of the artist’s heartfelt participation in that poor daily life.

I carusi (1905/1905) by Onofrio TomaselliGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

The most prominent artist of this realistic current in Sicily was Onofrio Tomaselli, a pupil of Morelli’s, with his large-scale painting I carusi. The painting is sorrowful and scathing starting with the ‘burnt’ selection of colours and describes the existential fight for survival, which is also outlined in the preface of Verga’s novel I Malavoglia. The book brought to the fore the dramatic situation of inner Sicily, tainted yellow by the sandstone, whose harshness had been unveiled by the inquiry Leopoldo Franchetti and Sidney Sonnino had carried out to gather data about the situation in Sicily. This report laid the foundations for outlining the so-called Southern Question which the Italian government had started to investigate.

The violinist (1880) by Antonio ZonaGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

Although Sicily was saturated with positivist and realistic culture, it was still tempted by the aestheticism circulating in Italy, as well as in France and Great Britain in those years, with its sensual and elite overtones being found in some works by Verga himself. So southern culture in general seemed to be caught between attention to nature and formal complacency in the years straddling the 19th and 20th centuries.

Girl with a Fan (1894) by Luigi Di GiovanniGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

In Naples, Morelli had paved the way for foreign influences to reach local artists by utilising pictorial tools in a bolder way, similar to what the Macchiaioli had done in Florence, and by exploring genres such as realistic portraiture which had absorbed the lively inputs of the Neapolitan environment.

Girl getting out of the bath (1870/1873) by Paolo VetriGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

The painter Paolo Vetri incorporated this lesson and in Fanciulla che esce dal bagno shows his awareness of the ‘painting of light’ developed by the Spanish painter Fortuny in the interplay of the wallpaper and rendering of southern light.

Rinaldo and Armida (1912) by Ettore De Maria BerglerGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

Open to meeting and rediscovering other cultures, be they oriental, folk or regional, at the end of the century southern Italy received heterogeneous cultural and figurative contributions, which gave life to diverse outcomes. The enhancement of local tradition then took on an exotic touch in Palermo, a pioneering city in this field thanks also to the fresh scientific and intellectual interests developed in particular by Giuseppe Pitrè, a humanist physician and founder of folkloric science.

Sicilian woman in the traditional costume of Piana degli Albanesi (Circa 1933) by Ettore de Maria BerglerGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

This was the background milieu of the paintings Armida e Rinaldo by Ettore De Maria Bergler and Donna in costume di Piana degli Albanesi by the same artist. The latter, in particular, portrays the traditional costume of the town of the same name, which was awarded first prize at the competition among regional costumes in Italy, which had been held in Venice in 1928.

Spanish Costume (1915/1918) by Antonio ManciniGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

The theme of exoticism of the end of the century, shaped by Spanish or Japanese influences and enhanced by fashionable operas of the time, also affected the late production of Antonio Mancini, who had trained between Naples and Paris.

Japanese fan (1915) by Antonio ManciniGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

The daring experimentation in the technique and brushwork turn the subject into a mere figurative device in paintings such as Costume spagnolo or Ventaglio giapponese where the flamboyant vitality of matter and colours create a strong visual and emotional impact.

Credits: Story

Coordinamento Rosanna Piscione, testi Gabriella Sciortino per Civita Sicilia.
Texts by "Galleria d'Arte Moderna. Catalogo delle opere" a cura di F. Mazzocca- G. Barbera- A. Purpura, SilvanaEditoriale, 2007.

Credits: All media
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