Asked a few years ago which artist he’d always dreamed of devoting a big exhibition to, Nicholas Penny – until recently, director of the National Gallery – chose Francesco Hayez.
His response, initially at least, seemed surprising. The Venice-born painter had, after all, come of age at exactly the time – the 19th century – that Italian art went through a fallow period: following the highs of the Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassicism. But Penny’s thinking was that, because of his unfortunate timing, Hayez (1791-1882) had been unjustly neglected – and that he was a good enough painter to deserve wider recognition.
Certainly, when those of us outside Italy consider art from the 19th century, we think of France reigning supreme (from Ingres to the Impressionists), with a little help from Turner and Constable across the Channel. A new Hayez exhibition in Milan, however, shows just what Penny was getting at. Held at the Gallerie d’Italia (the gallery complex of Intesa Sanpaolo bank), it features 120 works from throughout his career and reveals an artist of broad imagination and scope.
His portraits of the Italian nobility and high bourgeoisie are arguably his greatest achievement (Camillo Cavour, first prime minister of Italy, and Alessandro Manzoni, the novelist, were among his sitters). Hayez also produced history paintings aplenty, with biblical and mythological narratives.
He was also an artist thoroughly engaged with his times: those of Italy's struggle for independence and unification.
Nationalism grew in popularity across Europe in the 19th century, but in Italy the political situation seemed intractable; the peninsula was made up of a series of separate states, ruled in the north by Austria’s Habsburgs.
Artists, writers and musicians played a major part in fomenting nationalism – as part of a movement loosely known as Italian Romanticism. Giuseppe Verdi was the most famous, his patriotic operas and choruses (such as Va, Pensiero from Nabucco) championing freedom from foreign yoke. Manzoni’s The Betrothed, meanwhile, regarded by many as the finest Italian novel of the 19th century, is a thinly-veiled critique of Austrian rule.
Of visual artists, Hayez was the most significant. In many works he depicted semi-nude females in varied moods and states of contemplation. In 1851’s Meditation, for example, one beauty looks out of the picture with a dark, preoccupied glance, holding in her right hand a book called The History of Italy. Does the mini crucifix she bears in her left hand signify those martyred in the long fight for independence; and might this troubled soul, like so many of Hayez’s females, be an allegory of Italy itself in the 19th century?
The artist was hailed by Giuseppe Mazzini – the architect of Italian unification – as “art’s great idealist of national thought of the 19th-century”. His most famous painting is 1859’s The Kiss, which features a young couple in an eerie castle setting engaged in an ardent kiss. She wears a shimmering satin dress, the scene itself as theatrical as a bel canto opera.
By the 20th century, The Kiss had become for Italians an iconic image of intense love, of youthful passion, the obscuring from view of the couple's faces reflecting the maxim that love is blind. Logically enough, it was reproduced on chocolate boxes and Valentine's Day cards.
However, that was to divorce it from its historic context. At first, the canvas represented the spirit of the Risorgimento, owing its initial fame to the way the union of its lovers represented the union of Italy. Their embrace was so firm it was as if it would never end. Importantly, 1859 was the year of the Second Italian War of Independence, a victory over Austria which marked a crucial step towards a unified state.
The raising of the man’s left foot on to the first step of a staircase behind him suggests he might be about to leave imminently, perhaps as an independence fighter. At the time of painting, Italy was still two years from unification. The image is one not just of hope but also trepidation, epitomised by the disquieting shadow on the back wall.
Hayez would go on to paint three versions of The Kiss in a short time, all of which are being reunited by Intesa Sanpaolo for the current exhibition.
Intesa Sanpaolo, Italy’s biggest bank, has, over the decades, acquired an art collection of some 30,000 works. Italian offerings by the likes of Caravaggio, Canaletto, Tiepolo and Hayez rank among the highlights.
It aims, through its collection (and three gallery spaces, in Milan, Naples and Vicenza), to tell the tale of Italy, its history and its culture. Hence the desire to stage an exhibition of a figure such as Hayez, whose importance extended far beyond the artistic into the historic.
In another venture of Intesa Sanpaolo’s Progetto Cultura, its programme of projects devoted to cultural heritage, it has funded the restoration of the Milanese house where Manzoni wrote The Betrothed. The thinking is that, through public-private partnerships, Italy can best approach the vexed issue of how to preserve its peerlessly rich, but grossly underfunded, artistic patrimony.
The Kiss has inspired many pieces of popular culture over the decades, including a key scene in Luchino Visconti’s 1954 movie masterpiece, Senso. The painting’s story took another twist in 2011 when, to mark the 150th anniversary of Italian unification, it went on a nationwide tour from Trieste to Palermo. It was seen as a way of reminding Italians that there was more to this canvas than romance.
It is a rare artwork that takes on new significance more than a century-and-a-half after it was painted. Who knows what The Kiss will come to represent next? For now, in Milan, though, there’s a chance to acquaint yourself thoroughly with the artist who created it.
Hayez is at Gallerie d’Italia, Milan, until February 21, 2016; gallerieditalia.com
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