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The Scapigliatura - The giant dwarfs. the kindred arts, madness outside of the madhouse

Prof. Francesco Carelli - University Milan, Rome

scapigliatiIn his novel “La Scapigliatura”,  Cletto Arrighi  describes  a new social class, “ the century’s  true  pandemonium , personification  of madness outside of the madhouse; reservoir of  disorder, recklessness, the spirit  of  rebellion and opposition to all established  order”, i.e. the  Scapigliatura movement.   Touching on all forms of expression from painting and literature to music and theatre – Scapigliatura is the product of a society in crisis.   With all the contradictions and outrageous behaviour, the young Scapigliati fully represent a generation disillusioned with the outcome of Italian Risorgimento, profoundly at odds with bourgeois conformism, rebellious and boisterous but reset by existential doubts.  The Scapigliatura movement marked the onset of a crisis in the relationship between intellectuals and society that would characterize the 20th-century cultural scene throughout Europe.

Giuseppe Rovani is one of the major representatives of the Scapigliatura movement. Author of “Cento Anni” and numerous other texts it was mainly he who emphasized the thesis of the “kindred arts” which was broadly influential also among the  painters in the movement.  Rovani died at the age 56, consumed by alcohol.

In painting and sculpture, the Scapigliati offered up interesting new themes and iconography as well as stylistic innovations. Although the artists in the movement had all cut their teeth in the halls on the Brera Academy, they preferred to paint light and vibrant brushworks that evoked for them the concept of form dissolving into colour and an unfinished quality, both foundational elements in the Scapigliatura style.  The three outstanding Scapigliatura artists are Tranquillo Cremona, Daniele Ranzoni and Giuseppe Grandi, who poked fun at their physical stature by calling themselves the three “giant dwarfs”.

Non-conformity in their art and their biographies is the thread uniting the Scapigliatura writers in Milan (Lombardy) and Piedmont: Cleto Arrighi – who gave the movement its name -, Emilio Praga, Arrigo Boito, Carlo Dossi, Antonio Gislanzoni, Giovanni Camerana. They recognised Giuseppe Rovani, the rebellious, anarchistis author of the novel Cento Anni, as their master, but opting for innovation and open to the future they sought their themes and modes abroad, looking to Europe and particularly to France, starting with Baudelaire: Les Fleurs du mal were defined by Praga as “an imprecation chiselled into diamond “.

Starting with the writings of Giuseppe Rovani, the kindred arts –poetry, painting, music – were a constant theme for the artists identifying with the movement.  Carlo Dossi, in particular, developed Rovani’s thinking to the point where he theorized a continual osmotic interchange among the arts.   This aspiration to unity was reflected in the biographies of many Scapigliati. Giovanni Camerana and Emilio Praga were both painters and poets, Arrigo Boito was a composer-poet, and Carlo Dossi was a friend and protector of painters.

Along with portraiture, genre scenes are the mainstay of the Scapigliati’s art.  Their paintings – with their quick, vibrant brushstrokes blurring outlines and their apparent unfinished quality – capture moments in daily life with extraordinary immediacy and freshness. The artists focused all of their   attention on the figures and personalities of their subjects.  Their light is not the natural light of the impressionists or related movements: the Scapigliati did not nurture a great interest in atmospheric values taken from the real, they preferred instead to focus on the state of mind of the people they portrayed and on the narrative dimension of the scene.

In High Life (a Piquant Conversation), a watercolour on paper with gouache touches, Tranquillo Cremona alternates areas where the paint is more fluid with others where it is more thick, achieving results not dissimilar from oil paint. He thus is able to go from the softness of the faces to the evanescent iridescence of the clothing and to create artful interplays of light.  But he is equally talented in describing the characters of these four somewhat impertinent young ladies, capturing their attitudes and personalities to perfection.

Theatres, salons, taverns: The Scapigliati writers alternated among these three cardinal venues of social life, sitting with equal ease in the gilded loges of opera houses, on elegant sofas in literary salons, or on the rough benches of the most ill-famed taverns.  Dossi writes in a blue note: “Rovani always had a penchant for taverns – the home of the homeless. For him the tavern had all the nobility of a university hall”.

Light and colour contribute to the definition of the state of mind of their subjects, whose personalities are examined in intimate detail, especially if they are female.  Women are the unchallenged protagonists of Scapigliatura artistic literature: the feminine universe is explored across the breadth of possible identities, real or imaginary, current or deep in the reaches of some bygone novel, with irony or compelling sensuality.

Embroidering, reading, or paying the piano: these are the three activities characterizing women not only in painting but also in novels. In Fosca, Tarchetti introduces the cheerful Clara to the reader as follows: “a beautiful young woman came to open the door (...) she was so serene, so young, so in blossom; (...) when she wasn’t embroidering by a small window giving onto the courtyard, she was reading novels on her balcony, sitting amongst her potted fuchsia and geraniums; she also played the piano and sang “.

With Motherly Love, oil on canvas and Cremona’s masterpiece, is represented a very strong theme in Scapigliatura artistic iconography: the mother-child relationship, where love, this time, is not the tormented, sensual love of a couple, but the absolute, tender love of a mother for her child, a subject that the painter interprets with extraordinary grace.  Indeed, the late 19th century critics labelled him “the heir” in sentimental painting of Raphael, Murillo and Correggio.



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