When romanticism and revolution met

An exhibition in Milan focuses on the “forgotten” 19th century

Alastair Smart


The 19th century is sometimes called the “forgotten century” of Italian art. The 1300s had the likes of Duccio and Giotto; the 1400s Mantegna and Botticelli; and the 1500s a seemingly never-ending supply of Renaissance masters. More recently, the 20th century saw the advent of Futurism, Arte Povera and much else besides.

The 1800s, by contrast, is a little-known period in Italy’s art history. Now a major exhibition, Romanticismo, aims to shine a light on painting and sculpture from the first half of that century. It features 200 works and is being held jointly at the Gallerie d’Italia and the Museo Poldi Pezzoli – institutions 100m apart in the centre of Milan.

Its focus is the Romantic movement, which at one point dominated art across Europe. Among the standout pieces are The Meditation by Francesco Hayez; Solar Eclipse at the Fondamenta Nuove by Ippolito Caffi; and Count Ugolino in the Tower by Giuseppe Diotti.

The Gallerie d’Italia, on Piazza Scala, is owned by Intesa Sanpaolo (Italy’s largest bank) and the majority of exhibits in Romanticismo come from its 30,000-work art collection. “We’re renowned, above all, for the strength of our Italian pieces, from ancient times through to the present day,” says Michele Coppola, Intesa Sanpaolo’s head of art, culture and historical heritage. “In a collection so large, there are a great number of narratives, and Romanticism offers one of those. It’s our pleasure to share this current exhibition of works with the public.”

What united Romantic artists, broadly speaking, was the awe in which they held nature and their belief in the insignificance of man’s place in the universe. A fine example is Giuseppe Pietro Bagetti’s watercolour The Climb to Moncenisio, in which a group of tiny men (and mules) can be seen trying to negotiate a vast, snowy mountain pass in the Alps.

Romanticism was also a movement that emphasised passion and emotion over reason, and it’s notable how many works in the exhibition reflect the emotional struggle of Italian nationalists at that time. Which is to say, the Romantics often got political.

“We look to contribute to the cultural stimulation of the communities we serve, too – and to reconnect them with the art of their forefathers. Romanticismo is the latest in a long line of exhibitions of Italian art to do that”
Michele Coppola, Intesa Sanpaolo’s head of art, culture and historical heritage

Italy didn’t exist as a nation at the start of the 19th century: unification wasn’t achieved until 1861. Before that, it was a series of discrete states, mostly under foreign rule, and several Romantic artists tapped into a growing sense of national consciousness.

In Hayez’s Meditation (1851), for example, a bare-breasted female sits in a chair, a cross in her hand and a volume of history in her lap. The artist was an ardent patriot and his subject is widely interpreted as a personification of Italy: her intense look that of regret at the failure of a large Milanese uprising against Austrian rule in 1848.

“At Intesa Sanpaolo, our objectives have never been purely financial,” says Coppola. “We look to contribute to the cultural stimulation of the communities we serve, too – and to reconnect them with the art of their forefathers. Romanticismo is the latest in a long line of exhibitions of Italian art to do that.” For the record, Intesa Sanpaolo hosts exhibitions, all year around, at its three museums: in Milan, Naples and Vicenza.

The current show does, in fact, include a handful of works by non-native artists, too – the idea being to put the Italian pieces into a wider European context. These include Caspar David Friedrich’s Moonrise over the Sea, from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg; JMW Turner’s Lake Avernus: Aeneas and the Cumaean Sibyl, from the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut; and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s The Roman Campagna with the Claudian Aqueduct, from the National Gallery in London.

“Promoting and sharing masterpieces from museums around the world is consistent with our broader aims and ethos at Intesa Sanpaolo,” says Coppola. “The exchange of works of art – and the first-rate exhibitions like Romanticismo that result – are products of collaboration. It is done in the same spirit of sharing with which we welcome the public through our gallery doors.”

The decision to host the show across two venues (not just the Gallerie d’Italia, but the Museo Poldi Pezzoli, too) is a further example of the collaboration of which Coppola speaks.

Milan certainly seems an apt setting. For it was in this city, above others in Italy, that most buyers of new art in the 19th century lived. A significant number of the artists who feature in Romanticismo were based there, for at least part of their career, too: from Hayez and Diotti to Giuseppe Molteni and Giovanni Migliara.

“The idea for this show,” says exhibition curator Fernando Mazzocca, “came from a desire to answer the much-asked question as to whether Romanticism [in art] existed in Italy to the same extent that it existed in England, France and Germany – the countries most readily associated with that movement. The answer is a resounding yes.

“In fact, through these art works, one can even piece together a biography of Italy itself and find its roots as a country.”


Romanticismo is at the Gallerie d’Italia and Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan, until March 17


Giuseppe Pietro Bagetti
“Night-time view with moon effect”
Musei Reali, Palazzo Reale – Turin

Francesco Hayez
“Portrait of Countess Teresa Zumali Marsili With Her Son Giuseppe”
Museo Civico, inv 392 – Lodi

Eliseo Sala
“Lucia Mondella at the window”
Private Collection


Salvatore Fergola
Typhon in the Procida Gulf
Polo Museale della Campania, Palazzo Reale – Naples

Giuseppe Pietro Bagetti
Night with moon effect
Musei Reali, Palazzo Reale – Turin

Giuseppe Molteni
A little boy selling milk with a goat
Private Collection

Lancelot Théodore Turpin de Crisse
Rocks on the sea with centaurs
Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice

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