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Works from left to right

1) Giovani Fattori, Silvestro Lega painting on the rocks (detail), 1866, oil on wood 12,5 x 28 cm, private collection, Milan.

2) Vito d'Ancona, Portico, 1861, oil on drawing board, 14,3 x 21, 5 centimetres, Gallery of Modern Art, Pitti Palace, Florence.

3) Rafael Sernesi, Roofs in the sunlight (details), 1861, oil on cardboard, 12,3  x 19 centimetres,Galleria Nazionale d'Art Moderno, Rome.

4) Odoardo Borrani, Hay stacks at Castiglionecello, 1864, oil on wood, 5,5 x 28 cent. Piero Dini collection, Montecatini.

The Macchiaioli painters

painting the landscape in Tuscany

The Macchiaioli were a group of Italian painters who met at first in the Caffè de Michelangiolo on via Larga (today via Cavour) in Florence. They were painting the landscape in Tuscany during the second half of the nineteenth century. Their aim was to break from the academic tradition and experience painting light as it unveiled to their eyes by applying the “macchia”, meaning patches, or blobs of colours. They worked as a group from 1855 to 1862, “the years of the macchia”. After 1862, each went on his own direction; however they remained friends.

Also called the “painters of the Risorgimento”, The Macchiaioli desired to capture the “effect” of a particular moment in nature, working quickly and spontaneously in order to catch the caprices of the fleeting light with all its hues. The term “effect” was then commonly use to describe the broad distribution of light and shadow giving to the canvas its structural order and meaningful harmony. The “effect” also refers to the abandonment of details, the diminishing of overall representational clarity. The artist had to handle “effect” with care; to handle a delicate give-and-take of details in order to create fuzziness. A right balance was then called for.

Consequently, there were painting outdoors, in plein-air or all’aperto. After the Italian national unification in the 1860s called the Risorgimento, there was a need for representing this new Italian identity, and this is why the Macchiaioli aimed exclusively to the thematic material of everyday life; local landscapes, customs of local people and the life in the country as well as in the city. Some larger paintings done in the studio derived from smaller plein-air paintings.

Hostile Gazetta del Popola critic by the name of “Luigi” named them the “Macchiaioli”, macchia meaning “spot”, “stain”; (notice the words “maculate” or “immaculate); “sketch”. Painters who would only “sketch” their paintings, “substituting shapeless “patches” for descriptive details. But that was their intention as Diego Martelli, the Italian art critic and Macchiaioli’s close personal friend Diego Martelli, argued in 1877 in front of the Circolo filologico of Livorno. He said “the macchia was found in opposition to form….it was said that form does not exist and since, in light, everything appears as the result of colours and chiaroscuro, the effects of nature should therefore be obtained solely by means of patches (macchie), either of colour or of tone" (Broude p. 268).

In simpler words, the macchia technique is the juxtaposition of coloured shapes dictated by the subject, lit in the same way (with its highlights, shades and shadows) as it is presented to the artist’s eyes. Shape equals colour and logically colour equals shape; and light equal colour, colour being the manifestation of light. In brief, do not see external objects, but a juxtaposition of colours; forget the contours, focus on colour only.

The Macchiaioli precede the French Impressionists who were younger and well informed about the recent scientific publications on colours (Chevreul and Rood see Chapter 4).  The Macchiaioli were not because of their language, “provincial” attitude and conservative Tuscan environment.  This traditionalist attitude contributed to the delay of Macchiaioli’s reception to the Italian public.

The critics of the time had all a different views of the Macchiaioli (“romantics”, “realists”, “proto-impressionists”) and did not place them at the level of the French impressionists who were working on the solid ground of the scientific knowledge of colours. With Chevreul’s theories in mind, the Impressionists would start and finish their paintings in situ and when done, their canvases were final; while the Macchiaioli would produce card board sketches and later represent them in large canvas in their studios. This explains why their small oils had more “effect” showing the spirit of the moment and why, today, museums prefer to show them as “final” paintings.

The “provincial” Macchiaioli experienced the choc of photography and the blow of speed which gave birth to the Risorgimento and the transformation of the Italian space, in brief its modernization. Thanks to their everyday life subjects and the fast execution of their sketches, they were able to leave a powerful testimony of life in Tuscany at the time. (icscis)

"A painting on a small board,
a few centimetres in size,
can contain more life than
a large canvas!" (Giovanni Fattori)

Since 1996, icscis walkthearts have been offering quality painting or art workshops and educational tours in France, Italy, Egypt, Spain, United States and Colombia. It is in Tuscany (around Montepulciano, Pienza and Cortona) that we paint in plein-air, learn and discuss, since the landscapes of the Val d'Orcia are just astounding and the quality of life, seducing.  Attended by hundreds of art lovers and artists from all around the world, mostly New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Ottawa and Australia, our painting courses and art history seminars are given to small group by professional artists and art historians. walkthearts.com also provides educational travel for high school, college and/or university students, or on a private basis. Walkthearts offers a living experience through the arts.

updated February 8, 2019