Sicily and the Mediterranean Landscape

"Without Sicily, Italy creates no image in the soul: here is the key to everything". J. W. Goethe

By Gallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

Sicilian countryside (1891) by Giovanni LombardoGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

The nineteenth century was called ‘the century of Nature’ since in painting the landscape with its different atmospheric variations becomes concrete. Nature is investigated with a positivistic tension, its unique topographic characteristics enhanced by a realistic description, and it is animated by lyrical elements used as tools for aesthetic exploration.

Isola delle Femmine (1885/1890) by Michele CortegianiGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

Sicily had been described and celebrated by foreign travellers, from J.W. Goethe to Jean Houel, already since the eighteenth century and had become a paradigm in Europe for the beauty of its nature and landscape. The ensuing local developments of landscape painting greatly contributed to this artistic trend.

Town’s street with staircase (1882/1885) by Antonino LetoGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

Landscape painting collected the legacy of eighteenth -century Vedutisti artists but during the century it went beyond the mythological or archaeological influence stemming from the images linked to the Grand Tour. It achieved remarkable heights in the island and crossed the regional and, sometimes, national borders.

Fishermen in Sferracavallo (1892) by Luigi Di GiovanniGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

It was thanks to the work of some painters that made the fortune of the genre and allowed a Sicilian and Mediterranean iconographic repertoire to be established, one that is still universally shared today. It reflects the great artistic currents and historical upheaval of the time and is drenched with links to the literature of the time.

Portrait of Francesco Lojacono (1930) by Onofrio TomaselliGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

Francesco
Lojacono and a new image of Sicily

 

It was the genius painter Francesco Lojacono to project landscape painting and the Vedutisti genre into an ideal dimension detached from time and focusing at the same time on the experimentations around reality in the aftermath of Italian unification. He received immediate acknowledgement for his role as revolutionary protagonist not only locally but also internationally for his constant participation in the most prestigious Italian and international exhibitions.

View of Mount Catalfano (1865/1870) by Francesco LojaconoGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

The use of a large panoramic size, an almost photographic vision characterized by long shots, and the in-depth, realistic analysis employed in the careful and detailed rendering of the details are the main features of the wonderful Veduta di Monte Catalfano, the eastern promontory which demarcates the gulf of Palermo.

View of Palermo (1875) by Francesco LojaconoGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

The same features are to be found in the Veduta di Palermo dallo stradale di Santa Maria di Gesù, probably the best known and most reproduced of his paintings. It was purchased by the Ministry of Education and that marked the peak of his official success and credit he acquired as an heir of the protagonists of the Grand Tour. Between the late 18th and early 19th centuries, they had succeeded in promoting Sicilian landscapes, making them become part of European imagery.

Wind in the mountain (1872) by Francesco LojaconoGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

The painting Vento in montagna is certainly one of the best of the painter’s production of the time. In comparison to the bright rural views from the same years, the painting shows a harsher and more menacing nature with the whirling wind bending the vegetation and ruffling the sheep’s fleece. It provides one of the first examples of landscape conceived as a response to a mood.

Mount San Giuliano (circa 1875) by Francesco LojaconoGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

Monte San Giuliano has a vertical format, is smaller and shows a different subject. The painting depicts a corner of the old village of Monte San Giuliano, present-day Erice, on a cloudy day from a clear, oblique viewpoint, which confines the human presence to the foreground. Beyond the farmhouse, the dome and eighteenth-century bell tower of the church of San Giuliano stand out against the sky.

Rocks in the Sea (1895/1905) by Francesco LojaconoGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

In his late production Lojacono’s research into atmospheric changes is combined to a less meticulous and descriptive brushwork, which becomes the expressive vehicle for a new conception of landscape as ‘mood’. The shift from wide, panoramic views to close-up and cosy views is evident in the series of marine, seascapes, a genre Lojacono particularly loved. He painted many pieces with this theme and became commercially successful.

Small rock by Francesco LojaconoGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

In Piccolo scoglio the solitary meditation against a landscape deprived of human presence goes hand in hand with other typical features of the painter’s late production. His brushwork is fast and full of contrasts, the colour sometimes thick some, others thin, and the technique does not define the silhouettes but sketches them, especially on the foreground, and yet it reproduces exactly the same optical effect of the landscape.

Sea Storm by Francesco LojaconoGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

In Mareggiata, a small-sized painting on wood belonging to Lojacono’s late production, it is possible to identify those features that bear witnesses to his new techniques and expressive research. The sea is the only and solitary protagonist of a crepuscular meditation on nature which provides the last examples of landscape painting as a response to a ‘mood’.

Pond with leaves (1897) by Francesco LojaconoGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

As an alternative to the bright views, which had made him famous as the ‘sun thief’, a crepuscular, autumnal image of Sicily starts to emerge, it lacks those Mediterranean elements that had become traditional to identify Sicilian landscape. The new paintings investigated the tangle and mysterious darkness of swamp surfaces, nooks between the vegetation or the setting of the sun, as in Vasca con foglie, which depicts the aquarium of the botanical garden of Palermo.

Portrait of the painter Antonino Leto (1899) by Vincenzo IrolliGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

Antonino Leto
and the fortune of Mediterranean landscape

The last years of Lojacono’s production already hinted at his intimist shift and were the precursor of the sentimental features Antonino Leto and Michele Catti in particular used to approach the themes of landscape and view. The section devoted to the artist from Monreale is opened by the friendly face of Antonino Leto painted by his friend and follower Vincenzo Irolli.

The temple of Castor and Pollux (1862) by Antonio LetoGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

The Tempio di Castore e Polluce is an early work. When he started his career, he became interested in Francesco Lojacono’s work so he left aside the historical themes on which he had been trained to embrace landscape painting. He was clever, creative and inquisitive so he had immediately felt the need to challenge himself with the most innovative fashions of figurative culture. It was probably to meet such need that he decided to use towns as subjects of his paintings.

A Hundred and Ten Years in Ischia (1881) by Antonino LetoGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

In 1864 his desire to learn new things led him to leave Palermo and move to Naples where he was soon attracted by the themes of the School of Resina as it emerges from the painting Centodieci anni a Ischia. Although it was painted years after his training, yet it reflected the ideas of that circle of Neapolitan artists whose work was intended to establish similarities between the values of form and evocative scope of feelings.

The Olive Harvest (1874) by Antonino LetoGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

He then moved to Florence for a residence he had been granted as a prize for the painting La raccolta delle olive and there he met the local artistic circles. Consequently, he became interested in new themes, in particular in the possibility to combine humble subjects with the sparkling Mediterranean cheer, which was fundamental to his research aimed at examining fully the painting and emotional potentials of light and colours.

Study for Funari di Torre del Greco 4 (1883) by Antonino LetoGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

I funari di Torre del Greco is probably Leto’s most famous painting and was presented at the International Exposition in Rome in 1883. Here, D’Annunzio saw it and showed his appreciation for the ‘linen flakes’ lit up ‘by a lively blondeness’ and hovering in the blue sky ‘like strange trees, in the dazzling nudity of the soil.’

Study for Funari di Torre del Greco by Antonino LetoGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

The painting had been executed in Capri where the painter had found refuge after returning from France, being exhausted both morally and physically due to the excessive work he had done in Paris following the success he had reached.

Trapani Salt Pads (1881) by Antonino LetoGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

The first to provide him support was senator Ignazio Florio who had generously received him in his house also giving him the opportunity to make his debut as a fresco painter. Here he had the idea of paintings such as Le saline di Trapani. A shift that paved the way to Leto’s new approach to painting which was perfectly in tune with the most contemporary expressions of European Naturalism and in particular with Giovanni Verga’s realistic sentiment.

White Houses, the Great Sea View of Capri (Circa 1882) by Antonino LetoGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

The first to provide him support was senator Ignazio Florio who had generously received him in his house also giving him the opportunity to make his debut as a fresco painter. Here he had the idea of paintings such as Le saline di Trapani. A shift that paved the way to Leto’s new approach to painting which was perfectly in tune with the most contemporary expressions of European Naturalism and in particular with Giovanni Verga’s realistic sentiment.

Red Cave by Antonio LetoGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

In that period Leto created his most intensely poetic works where he depicted visions of a mysterious and unspoilt nature, like in Grotta Rossa. ‘Here the rock plunging into the water is portrayed with the same delicate tones you would use for human skin: pink and lilac with dark scars. The rock looks like skin, is warm like a living woman trapped among slabs of emeralds and sapphires,’ wrote the art critic Maria Accascina.

Portrait of Ettore De Maria Bergler (1892) by Ettore CerconeGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

Ettore De Maria Bergler and end-of-century lyrical Naturalism

 

The section dedicated to Ettore De Maria Bergler begins also with the image of the artist portrayed by Ettore Cercone, which provides precious details in learning more about De Maria’s personality and culture. During the Palermo National Exposition in 1891, he had been nicknamed ‘the gentleman painter’.

image-MQH2wyYJqs-MCQ-largeGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

When Cercone portrayed him, De Maria had already achieved his expressive maturity and independent style, which he had been relentlessly pursuing after having concluded his apprenticeship with Francesco Lojacono. However, he never repudiated his master’s teachings, on the contrary he drew on them for some original ideas. In his early paintings, such as Paesaggio con fiume (1877), it is evident how he still depended on his master’s technical solutions.

To the Water Fountain (1889) by Ettore De Maria BerglerGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

His urge to work out his own painting style pushed the artist to reflect again on a series of models and to spend time in Naples, Florence and Rome to study and experiment various genres, from landscape to figure painting to portraiture, and different techniques. He mastered the use of the pastel, as shown in All’acqua, a large sized painting depicting a young girl carrying a water jar on her head, and also in making frescos.

Swans in the fountain of Piazza Pretoria (Circa 1892) by Ettore De Maria BerglerGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

In that same period, he worked on the decorations of Villa Whitaker in Malfitano, an assignment which kicked off his brilliant career as decorator and paved the way for similar, more prestigious jobs. In particular, De Maria was asked to work in two of the most prominent construction sites of Palermo at the end of the century: the Teatro Massimo and Villa Igiea. Paintings such as Cigni nella fontana di Piazza Pretoria, permeated with a very soft illustrative touch, carry the echo of that important aspect of his career.

Portrait of Mrs Lecerf (1900) by Ettore De Maria BerglerGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

The Ritratto della signora Lecerf brings us back to the educated and fashionable circles of Palermo’s high society during the Art Nouveau years, which had chosen him as their favourite portraitist thanks also to his friendship with the Florio Brothers, with whom he often traveled. Venice was the artist’s usual destination and he regularly participated in the Biennale. In 1909, he even had a room all for him with furniture purposely made at the Ducrot factory based on designs by Ernesto Basile.

Taormina (1907) by Ettore De Maria BerglerGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

The large-sized painting Taormina was exhibited in Venice and bought by Vincenzo Florio for the Gallery of Modern Art of Palermo. His way of spreading colour confidently shifts from quick brushwork to making subtle filaments, from juicy touches to thick layers of colour to the point of shaping the objects through the texture of the colours. The outcome is an intense and extraordinarily lively view, enhanced by the bright colours made even warmer by the soft and golden light.

Portrait of Michele Catti (1905) by Nicolò GiannoneGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

Michele Catti and the inner landscape

Having distanced himself from an investigation of nature based on the principles of Realism followed in the second half of the nineteenth century, starting from the late 1880s Michele Catti had developed a very personal and internalized view of the multiple facets of city life to the point of opting for a type of painting carefully planned and realised in his studio. 

Autumn Shiver by Michele CattiGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

Here, his en plein air take of reality became only a figurative excuse to trigger sentimental motivations and uncover hidden existential threads. While the filter of memory provided the same painting texture from a visual point of view to the many small figures, dividing walls or vegetation he was misinterpreting objective reality in the name of the interiorization of the vision.

2nd November by Michele CattiGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

His best-known, large sized urbanscapes, grey due to the autumnal mist and low street lights, i.e., Due novembre, Porta Nuova, La fiera dei morti or Ultime foglie, became figurative projections - exquisite and totally independent from the Sicilian artistic scene-, of the painter’s intimate crepuscular and melancholic temperament. In his finest works, a state of deep empathy emerged between the real world and the artist’s psychic disposition.

Porta Nuova (1908) by Michele CattiGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

However, some of his late paintings having towns as their subject were still following the principles of aestheticism which had driven the critic Diego Angeli at the Venice Biennale of 1899 to coin the slogan ‘landscape as a state of the soul,’ as Fréderic Amiel had said.

Sunrise (1910) by Michele CattiGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

A painting such as Alba made clear, also for the enthusiastic clients who commissioned the paintings and patrons, the sentimental implications attached to the landscape as a subject. It resulted from an imaginative work, which unveiled a status of deep emotional identification with the world of nature.

The fair of the Dead by Michele CattiGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

However, around the 1890s, Michele Catti’s paintings had triumphally reached all the aristocratic salons in the city, bearing witness to the credit they had gained in the most exclusive circles of the new Palermo of the end of the century, such as the Florios, the Tascas and the Lanza di Trabias.

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

Catti reached the peak of his fame only in 1910, although he never made it across the regional borders, when a solo exhibition was organized in a school of Piazza Castelnuovo in Palermo. It had a happy ending as the museum purchased the painting Ultime foglie.

The river (1909) by Michele CattiGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

It was Girolamo Ragusa Moleti however to outline a review of Michele Catti’s painting style for the newspaper Giornale di Sicilia where he clarified those inner drives of his artistic inspiration, which had achieved a comprehensive feeling for nature.

Reverberations (1905/1910) by Michele CattiGallery of Modern Art "Empedocle Restivo"

‘’His painting is not only a symphony of colours, it is also made of vibrating feelings. He tries to obtain pictorial effects but he is at the same time an interviewer of the secret soul of things. Among the landscape painters I have met, very few succeed in finding the secret voice, the mysterious and meaningful soul, the eternal, immutable and always new poetry of things in the peaceful dusks or wet dawns; in the scorching sun, under the splendid sky or among the grey and wet fog; in the joyful countryside inebriated by the sun or its green fertility; in the autumnal sadness of urban streets; among the burnt and dry rocks or in the shivering of the sea; among the narrow mountain paths and calm and mossy water springs; or among the silence of solitude.’’

Credits: Story

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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