IL BEL PAESE – Italy from the Risorgimento to the First World War

(Museo d’Arte, Ravenna – 22nd February – 14th June 2015)

‘Fanciulla sulla roccia a Sorrento’ by Filippo Palizzi c.1871 – the painting chosen as the image for the Ravenna exhibition.

It is ironic that Italians still need reminding how beautiful their country is.

Constant political turmoil and endemic corruption can blind citizens to the fact that these ignoble events take place against a backdrop of natural splendour and architectural magnificence.

This excellent exhibition shows us why Italy still more than justifies being referred to as Il Bel Paese (“the beautiful country”), a term first coined in the Middle Ages by Dante and Petrarch.

It displays more than a hundred paintings and sculptures from the Macchiaioli in the second half of the 19th century to the Futurists whose manifesto was written by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in 1908.

These works are organised thematically rather than chronologically with rooms devoted to themes such as landscapes, rites & customs, family portraits and country life.

4 futurists

Giacomo Balla I Quattro Futuristi (1915) – The four Futurists shown are Boccioni, Balla, Despero, Carrà.

The Macchiaioli were a group of Tuscan painters who were precursors to the French Impressionists and specialised in romantic landscapes where cows mostly outnumber people.

Their pastoral subjects contrast starkly with the provocative, and at times Fascist, works of the Futurists. This group of radicals were responding to the age of automation and the violence of the Great War. They were prototype Punks who made statements like: “No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece”.

In between these two major artistic movements, there were plenty of artists on hand to document the beauty of the landscape and the individuality of the inhabitants. They illustrate why Italy was so central to the Grand Tour of Europe undertaken by painters, poets and the well-heeled.

Fortunately, the works chosen extend beyond well-known destinations like Rome, Florence and Venice to include studies of towns off the typical tourist trail. Among the best of these are four simple, understated studies by English artist Walter Crane (1845 – 1915), best known as an illustrator of children’s books.

That this exhibition doesn’t bring us right up to date is a pity since it would be good to show ways in which the beauty of Italian life and culture is still present in the modern age. ‘I Bel Paese – the sequel’ would be a project well worth undertaking.