A November before which to die of melancholy. Antonio Fontanesi's masterpiece

It is entitled "November" and is one of the highest achievements of the poetic painting of Antonio Fontanesi (Reggio Emilia, 1818 - Turin, 1882). A reading of the painting from Guido Ceronetti's description of it.

Few times of the year are as melancholy as the last week of October, when daylight saving time ends and darkness suddenly falls, voracious, like a quick and heavy curtain, almost suddenly extinguishing the red lights of the sunsets (the most beautiful of the year this season), brings an air of desolation and sadness, and spreads a long, mournful, cold shadow that anticipates the approach of winter. Tout l’hiver va rentrer dans mon être, said Baudelaire in the Chante d’automne of October 1859. Guido Ceronetti was aware of this: “The end of daylight saving time saddens me,” he lamented in Ballata autunnale, a third page written for La Stampa and later collected in the anthology La vita apparente with his other articles signed for the Turin newspaper in the 1970s. Ceronetti quoted the Chant d’automne, a reflection of a terror of winter, “which Baudelaire hated, a mournful reflection of the soul that suffers it.” C’était hier l’été, voici l’automne!

The Turin poet had dedicated the Autumnal Ballad to a masterpiece by Antonio Fontanesi, now housed in the Gallery of Modern Art in Turin: a little-known work, but it is difficult to find any better suited to convey the poetry of the season of mists and abundance, the “intimate friend of the ripe sun,” as John Keats had called it. It is a painting titled Novembre: Fontanesi executed it in early 1864, exhibited it at the Turin Promotrice that year along with two other paintings, Aprile and Altacomba, and was rewarded with a purchase by Victor Emmanuel II for the collections of the Royal Palace in Turin. The work was not spared criticism-a constant that accompanied Fontanesi’s entire career, right up to his extremes, spent in loneliness and bitterness. Paintings like Novembre led his detractors to reproach him for being nothing more than a dull imitator of Corot. Superficial criticisms, which stopped at the mere outward appearance of the paintings (and perhaps not even that), without delving into the depths of his sensibility, less contemplative than Corot’s, but probably more poignant. And indeed there were even those who appreciated this November “before which one could die of melancholy,” Ceronetti wrote.

Antonio Fontanesi, Novembre (1864; olio su tela, 103 x 153 cm; Torino, GAM - Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea)
Antonio Fontanesi, Novembre (1864; oil on canvas, 103 x 153 cm; Turin, GAM - Galleria Civica dArte Moderna e Contemporanea)

The idea of paysage-état de l’âme that Amiel had fixed in his Journal intime was already well in the minds of certain painters before it was popularized, toward the end of the century: Fontanesi was among them. His November is a view of a rural landscape that transfigures the natural datum by cloaking the countryside in a veil of pensive sadness. It is a countryside that could be anywhere: when the artist was working on the painting, he was in Geneva, as we learn from a letter sent to his friend François-Auguste Ravier from the banks of Lake Geneva. But there are no definite references in the painting, and Fontanesi, a traveling artist par excellence, by that time had already explored the plains of his native Emilia, the crags of the Swiss Alps, the countryside of the Dauphin, the mists of England, and the gentleness of the Tuscan hills. It is true that Fontanesi, in the aforementioned letter to Ravier, speaks of a “Tortu motif,” thus specifying the name of the locality, a village near Crémieu, near Lyon, where the artist spent one of the most fruitful stays of his career: and it is likely that that “Tortu motif” is the November of the GAM in Turin. But it is nice to think of this November as a kind of summa of the landscapes that Fontanesi, then an established artist of forty-six, had known up to that time, while waiting for new journeys that would take him even as far as Japan.

More than a landscape, a “spell,” according to Ceronetti. In the abandonment of an unspecified countryside, at the edge of a forest where the trees have already lost almost all their leaves and which is lost in the distance along the coast of a hill, a peasant woman, bundled up in her thick coarse woollen clothes, her face bent and covered by a shawl and a straw hat, sits absorbed without paying attention to her surroundings. Nearby, a lamb stands up on its paws to graze a shrub. A breath of wind moves the foliage, the countryside is clothed in the earthy colors typical of the season, the dull blue sky is veiled with harmless clouds that drive back to the background some heaps that migrate far away, abandoning the profile of the hills that close the background of the scene. “Fontanesi’s painting,” Ceronetti writes, “excavates like a little paradise [...], an Eden without rivers, of mute and sad earth redeemed by a pure feeling of good, where sits, still, meditative, a peasant woman in a straw hat, ear of crucial life on that field of vegetable bones, in a steaming cosmic humidity, in absolute silence.” And that peasant woman does not cast suffering burdens on the shoulders of the relative: she is not the pitiful countrywoman of a Millet, wearied by hard and thankless work in the fields, she is not the witness of a realist-inspired denunciation. Not that there has been a lack of realism in Fontanesi’s painting as well, but here it too is a landscape note, a detail that heightens the feeling of dreariness and melancholy that pervades this heath. And a detail that introduces the fundamental dialogue that human beings weave with nature, which is a fundamental motif of Fontanesi’s lyrical painting.

A lyrical painting: the novelty of Fontanesi’s Novembre lay entirely in its sentimental dimension, in the wisdom with which the painter, perhaps the most European of Italians at the time, ahead of his time, had been able to translate the month into a state of mind. It is no coincidence that the work would be better appreciated toward the end of the century, at the time of the full establishment of Symbolist poetics. Enrico Thovez, among the most influential critics of his time, had been enraptured by Fontanesi’s November , and praised its “caressing Argentine vaporousness.” he had admired the painting at the fourth Venice Biennale, which at the time was called the “International Art Exhibition of the City of Venice,” and where Fontanesi was remembered with a posthumous retrospective, which also counted Novembre among the masterpieces on display. According to Thovez, Fontanesi could “aspire to the title of poet of air and light” more than Lorrain, more than Turner, more than Constable, and more than Corot, a poet “enthusiastic about the saying of Leonardo,” who in his famous Treatise had sentenced that “painting is a poem that is seen.” And Giovanni Cena, also returning from that seminal exhibition, had recognized in common with Corot his ability to transform reality into “musical temperament.” Fontanesi himself had said that, had he been reborn, he would have been a musician. Better for us that he did instead become a painter, for us who today can enchant ourselves before his “poetic breath” and his “melancholic phrasing”, to use two expressions with which Roberto Longhi, who was usually extremely ungenerous and contemptuous of the Italian nineteenth century, fixed the terms of Fontanesi’s art, who among our fellow countrymen of the nineteenth century was among those he most appreciated.

It is fortuitous that Novembre is still Turin today, because at an undefined moment he left the Palazzo Reale to return to the antiquarian market and end up in a private collection. He returned to Piedmont in 1978, when he entered the collections of GAM with the legate of collector Ettore De Fornaris. And since then everyone is given to be caressed by Fontanesi’s melancholy poetry of autumn.

If you enjoyed this article, read previous ones in the same series: Gabriele Bella’sConcert; Plinio Nomellini’sRed Nymph;Guercino’sApparition of Christ to His Mother; Titian’s Magdalene; Vittorio Zecchin’sOne Thousand and One Nights; Lorenzo Lotto’s Transfiguration; Jacopo Vignali’sTobias and the Angel; Luigi Russolo’sPerfume.