Stories: From Myth to History

Myth and history: 2 subjects favored by painters and recounted by the great artists, both Italian and international, whose works can be found in the collections of the Galleria d'Arte Moderna (GAM).

The Parnassus (1811) by Andrea AppianiGalleria d'Arte Moderna - Milano

The Parnassus

An aesthetic icon of the European Neoclassical movement and the last finished work of its creator, Appiana's Parnassus fresco is framed by the lavish surroundings of the dining room in the Villa Reale. It forms part of a dialog with the other artworks exhibited in the rooms, adding to the overall effect of the art collections of the GAM. The fresco was produced in 2 short months in 1811, although after precise graphic and iconographic preparation. It recalls and innovates on the theme of Apollo surrounded by the muses on Mount Parnassus, which was already depicted by Raphael in the Room of the Segnatura and by Anton Raphael Mengs (1728–79) in the Villa Albani in Rome. Appiani's work demonstrates a greater flexibility and compositional complexity in comparison to the last of these predecessors, as can be seen in the classical nude interpretation of Apollo playing in the center. The refined choice of iconography depicted in this piece, commissioned by Viceroy Eugène de Beauharnais, was crafted on the suggestion of Luigi Lamberti (1759–1813), an expert on Greece, who immediately published a descriptive brochure about the fresco in Parma. In it, he explained certain details that illuminate the incredibly precise and accurate study of antiquity involved. Lamberti emphasized how Appiani moved closer to the spirit of ancient poetry compared to the work of Raphael, and especially compared to Mengs' more recent depiction, creating an even more fitting representation than those of the venerated Greco-Roman sculptors. They had always depicted the 9 muses as being isolated from one another, each separated into their own figurative space and removed from their leader, Apollo. As Lamberti saw it, "The esteemed painter has not only removed anything that could be viewed as alien from the picture, but has oriented all of the elements that comprise it in a single direction. Apollo is depicted at the center, seated on a throne, and is the painting's central figure." The motif of the richly decorated zither that the deity is playing reveals an awareness of Marcantonio Raimondi's print from the first design of Raphael's Parnassus. In Raphael's final fresco, it is replaced with a violin (a more modern instrument)—a decision that Lamberti was not happy with. Appiani has been innovative in his depiction of the muses, drawing on complex erudite references to ancient statuary and classical texts, while also reflecting a precise study of emotions, in keeping with the Lombard tradition of Renaissance paintings. Take, for example, Euterpe's gesture, with one hand "expressing wonder and delight as her sire and master's gentle action becomes one with her soul," or the careful attention with which Terpsichore listens to Apollo's song, having placed her lyre on the ground so as not to interrupt him. The artist's initial drawings can be seen in The Vallardi Album at the Brera Academy and at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, while a large preparatory cartoon can now also be found in Brera. This was sold to the Austrian government in 1857 by Giuseppina Strigelli, the wife of Appiani's eldest son, Raffaellino, after many years in storage at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana library.

Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Lodi (May 10, 1796) (1800-1801 c.) by Andrea AppianiGalleria d'Arte Moderna - Milano

Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Lodi, May 10, 1796

This monochromatic tempera painting forms part of a trilogy that chronicles the fight between the Austrian and Napoleonic armies at the bridge in Lodi. The 3 episodes were, in turn, part of a group of 39 small canvases, which served as a model for the 21 scenes of the "Fasti di Napoleone," meaning "Glories of Napoleon." These adorned the perimeter gallery of the Hall of the Caryatids in Milan's Palazzo Reale and were destroyed by bombing in 1943. This particular painting depicts the Austrian retreat towards Mantua, after General Beaulieu's attempt to block the French at Lodi. With his victory there, Napoleon secured his conquest of Milan and entered the Lombard capital 5 days later. The "Fasti," which Appiani started in 1800 and completed in 1807, were commissioned by Viceroy Eugène de Beauharnais to celebrate Napoleon's achievements and the importance of the Italian Republic. So pleased was Napoleon that he ordered a graphic recreation, which a team of engravers worked on until 1816 under the direction of Appiani.

A Vendetta (1834/1835) by Massimo D’AzeglioGalleria d'Arte Moderna - Milano


Massimo d'Azeglio was an artist and writer, who also served as a minister during the Italian unification, or "Risorgimento." This 1835 work belongs to the historical landscape genre, which refers to landscapes drawn "from life" or in a realistic fashion, but populated with figures from history or literature. This one depicts a heinous murder. The account of the crime is made up of just 3 elements: a desolate landscape with a storm looming on the horizon, a corpse in the foreground, and bandits escaping across the hill after their taking their vengeance. D'Azeglio uses the canvas to demonstrate all the power of nature and its expressive emotional capacity: the sublime vision is made up of quick and hasty brushstrokes, a dark light, and earthy, bruised colors that unquestionably amplify the dramatic intensity.  This painting was presented at the Brera Exhibition of Fine Arts in 1831. Together with The Death of Count Josselin de Montmorency, (now at the GAM in Turin), it announced the Turin-born landscapist's full commitment to romantic poetry, abandoning the pleasant atmospheres that had characterized his artistic output over the previous decade.

Lunch at Posillipo (1879 c.) by Giuseppe De NittisGalleria d'Arte Moderna - Milano

Lunch at Posillipo

This piece chronicles an evening celebration experienced by Giuseppe De Nittis during his stay in Naples, between the end of 1878 and the spring of 1879. Critics agree on this date, ascribing it to the painter's return to Naples after the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1878. Naples can be easily recognized from the backdrop, where Cape Posillipo and Palazzo Donn'Anna can be made out. The painter Edoardo Dalbono also described meetings between De Nittis and other artist friends on a terrace overlooking the gulf, where the evening's discussions about art would alternate with singing to the accompaniment of guitar. Who the figures are is more controversial—only the identity of De Nittis' wife Léontine, who appears at the center, is certain. The man and woman seated on the right have been recognized as Edoardo Dalbono and his wife, Adele, and several names have been put forward for the pair of bearded men. This ambiguity also stems from the fact that, according to some critics, they are not drawn from reality, but are references to French painting. In fact, the painting is considered a symbol of De Nittis' relationship with Manet's work. We know that the painting, which was unfinished and considered a minor work at the time, was brought to Paris by De Nittis. It remained there at his atelier until his death, at which point it was left to his widow, Léontine. After passing between several owners, it was purchased by Carlo Grassi, who donated it to the collections of the GAM in his will.

Rural Idyll of the Meadows in the Volpedo Parish (Ring a Ring o' Roses) (1906 c.) by Giuseppe Pellizza da VolpedoGalleria d'Arte Moderna - Milano

Ring-around-the-Rosy (Rural Idyll in the Meadows of the Volpedo Parish)

This is the second version—left incomplete by Pellizza da Volpedo before being finished by the painter Angelo Barabino—of another canvas that was thought to be lost for a long time. It then reappeared for auction at Sotheby's in London in 1980, having been kept in a private home in England for almost 40 years. Spring Idyll (1896–1901)—the original work, which is still kept in a private collection—was initially conceived as the first in a series of idyll paintings on the theme of love. The image was meant to represent a metaphor for life, which blossoms and flourishes time and again in the spring landscape. The depiction of children playing ring-around-the-rosy was exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1903 where, despite conflicting reviews, it was remarkably popular with the public, before it was sold to an Amsterdam merchant in Rome in 1906. Perhaps it was the success of this image that encouraged Pellizza to replicate Spring Idyll, using the same paper with the original drawing, but presumably deciding to add variations. Nevertheless, Barabino would later complete this replica, scrupulously following the original drawing by the artist from Volpedo. In terms of the compositional structure, the artist found inspiration in a successful 17th-century work by Francesco Albani: The Dance of the Cupids, kept at the Pinocateca di Brera gallery in Milan. However, he changed the scene to the natural setting of Volpedo, and specifically the meadows by his family residence.

Les voleurs et l’âne (IThe Thieves and the Donkey) (1869-1970 c.) by Paul CézanneGalleria d'Arte Moderna - Milano

Les voleurs et l’âne (The Thieves and the Donkey)

The painting is from to Paul Cézanne's youthful phase: he produced it in around 1870, a few months before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, most likely in Aix-en-Provence. If the title of the piece draws inspiration from Jean de La Fontaine's fable, the subject draws instead from the "Metamorphoses of Apuleius" (Chapter XXV, Book IV), also known as "The Golden Ass." The scene depicts the moment when Lucius, having been transformed into a donkey, is freed by his captors thanks to the intervention of Photis' boyfriend. Photis is a young maid who, throughout the events of the story, attempts to return the boy to his human form. In keeping with the Latin writer's original text, the scene takes place on a cliff overlooking the sea. The donkey stands alone at the center, while a young man can be seen in the right foreground. It is not clear whether he is a farmer looking to work the land (as the wicker basket might suggest), or a hunter, because of the rifle propped against his arm. Several men can be seen fighting on the left, also in the foreground. In the background, beyond the figure of the donkey, a pair of characters absent-mindedly watches the events unfolding, one them smoking sedately. In many ways, the iconography is still difficult to understand: some identify the group on the left as thieves, while others consider the foreground figure to be Lucius' savior. The characters wear contemporary clothes—a choice that is not consistent with the theme, which is drawn from classical literature. 

Landscape in Normandy (Cows at the Trough) (1885/1885) by Paul GauguinGalleria d'Arte Moderna - Milano

Cattle Drinking (Normandy Landscape)

This painting, which belongs to a series of 6 works, was created during Paul Gauguin's stay in Dieppe, Normandy, during the summer of 1885. Although reports from the artist's stay in the north of France are unclear, this seems to have been an important period in his artistic journey, during which—perhaps due to his freedom from familial constraints—he developed a creative compulsion that was unusual for him. In the lower left-hand corner, a cowherd watches the cattle grazing, surrounded by the rural landscape. The cow in the foreground grazes on a shrub, while others in the distance drink at a stream surrounded by bushes.  The red-roofed building on the right, perhaps a surviving barn that Gauguin had previously reproduced, is partially hidden by trees, and a field dotted with what are most likely apple trees stretches out in the background.  The painter's interest in depicting cows can be traced back to his stay in Rouen in 1884, when he created a series of rural landscapes with animals, inspired by similar works by Caillebotte and Manet in the 1860s and 1880s. It appears that 1885 was one of the years in which Gauguin stuck most closely to the tenets of Impressionism, as can be seen in the combination of the complementary colors, red and green, laid out in closely spaced brushstrokes.

Les bretonnes et le Pardon à Pont Aven (1888 c.) by Vincent Van GoghGalleria d'Arte Moderna - Milano

Breton Women in the Meadow ("Le Pardon de Pont-Aven")   

In the spring of 1888, Van Gogh retired to Arles in Provence. This was the beginning of a period of creative frenzy, during which he also created this watercolor, which is kept at the GAM.  At his invitation, and that of his brother Theo, Paul Gauguin joined them on October 23, 1888. Gauguin arrived in Arles with a painting by Émile Bernard (1868–1941), Breton Women in the Meadow ("Le pardon de Pont-Aven"), which caught the Dutch artist's attention. Bernard had spent the summer of 1888 with Gauguin in Brittany, forming the group of artists known as the Pont-Aven School, which took its name from the town where they stayed. Firsthand observation of Bernard's painting, which was documented as having been in the artists' shared home for almost 2 months, inspired Van Gogh to create a copy. Breton Women in the Meadow ("Le Pardon de Pont-Aven") is the only surviving work on paper from the 9 weeks Van Gogh and Gauguin lived together.  The watercolor depicts a large group of people, many of them dressed in traditional Breton clothing. Bernard's original aim—later abandoned by Van Gogh—was to depict the native population during one of Pont-Aven's religious celebrations, possibly the Assumption or, more likely, the Feast of Forgiveness on September 16. The characters are scattered across a flat, 2-dimensional space: the presence of a girl in fashionable clothing, and 2 ladies with elegant dresses and umbrellas in the background, serves to emphasize that the scene portrayed was a contemporary one.  Van Gogh's study is a reinterpretation of the original, rather than a faithful replica. The use of watercolors inevitably led to differences in color compared to the one used as a model: the solid color tones of the oil paints in the original are diluted and dampened in the recreation. Depth is suggested only by the figures becoming smaller in size, just as in the prototype, and the artist has also copied its sharp outlines, which are one of the most recognizable features of Bernard's Cloissonist style. 

Credits: Story

The GAM in Milan would like to thank the Google Cultural Institute for the fruitful collaboration between them on this project. We believe that the use of high-definition artworks, which are freely accessible to a global audience, is the next frontier in Web 2.0 communication. Special thanks go to Executive Assistant Dr. Ilaria Gozzi, who supervised each step of the project, and to Ms. Marivanna Torre, responsible for external relations. Particular thanks also go to Dr. Omar Cucciniello and Dr. Alessandro Oldani, curators of the GAM.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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