La luce non è la luce universale di Piero della Francesca: è la luce di una tarda, afosa mattina d’estate.
Light is not the universal light of Piero della Francesca: it’s the light of a late, muggy summer morning.
Giulio Carlo Argan, 1970
The quote, displayed half-way through the exhibition, sums up the essence of Giovanni Fattori‘s art. The retrospective at Palazzo Zabarella (Padua) simply entitled ‘Fattori‘ expounds his production with more than 100 works. Lived between 1825 and 1908, Fattori was an artist of his time, the 19th century. Among his most recurrent subjects are landscapes, portraits, scenes from everyday life and historical events. And all of them are indeed dominated not by the universal and atemporal light of Piero della Francesca, but by the light of a ‘late, muggy summer morning’.
The only exception to the rule is ‘Lo staffato’ (1879), a painting among those portraying the Italian Risorgimento, the political and social movement that consolidated different states of the Italian peninsula into the Kingdom of Italy. Other works represent scenes of soldiers on horseback, military parades, and battle frays are omnipresent, with a sense of denouncement and reflection on the futility of violence.’Lo staffato’ is indeed emblematic in this sense, as it depicts an unsaddled soldier, dragged by his worn-out horse.
Here, the almost unpleasantly monochrome palette contrasts with the black spot that is the horse in the centre. Here, the light is nothing but warm, and rather evokes an oppressive coldness.
Domestic portraits are numerous too. In them, Fattori reaches an exquisite balance between public and private, between a domestic setting and the actually ostentatious motivation lying behind the commission of portraits. I especially liked ‘I fidanzati’ (1860-1861), in which the intimacy of the two lovers is not made explicit, but left to the viewer to imagine. This is in fact typical of the 19th century, when portraits where characterised by an appearance of decorum and respectability, devoid of warmth and affection.
However, the genre in which Fattori paints at his best are landscapes. His paintings are snapshots of the Tuscan countryside, of a ‘silent and ancestral nature’ portrayed with a lyric eye. As Carlo Carrà, Italian Futurist, had it, ‘il suo canto plastico fu dolce come un frutto maturato al sole – his plastic song was sweet like a fruit ripen in the sun’ (1919). Indeed, his landscapes ooze a sweet, tepid, and peaceful atmosphere. Particularly important are oxen, which are interpreted as a symbol of the perfect harmony of man and nature, as in ‘Pio bove’ (1904).
I found these words, written just above the painting, incredibly apt: ‘la lenta pazienza dei bovi assomma l’umanità desolata sotto il giogo di una natura splendente – the slow resilience of oxen joins our desolate humanity under the joke of a bright nature’ (Lionello Venturi, 1928). In this work, landscape and subject have the same importance, as they are vital parts of a natural equilibrium. The radiance of nature emerges not only from the bright white ox, but also from the light green grass and the gentle shimmering of the sea in the background. This is a painting conveying balance and tranquillity.
All in all, the exhibition explores the sheer variety of Fattori’s production, portraying a versatile artist who lived the troubles of his time, but also able to contemplate the timeless beauty of natural life.