Erompe from the bark a woodland nymph: Plinio Nomellini's "Red Nymph"

Plinio Nomellini's "Red Nymph" is one of the greatest masterpieces of the Symbolist phase of his career. Painted around 1904, it was first exhibited at the 1905 Venice Biennale.

A nymph strides through the thicket of the forest, and with her hands gently wreathes her tawny head. The sunset light blazes and floods the dense, parched forest with vermilion red: in the center, the thick, haughty trunk of a holm oak. Below, a carpet of shrubs invades the ground, with brushwood reaching almost to the knees of the ethereal sylvan creature. Above, cascades of branches and trembling leaves draw dense arabesques that cover the horizon, the outline of the landscape, the sun’s rays struggling to find a way through the foliage to make the forest tangle reddish. Further back, behind the holm oak, defiladed, stand two male figures, who seem almost uncertain whether to linger and watch the nymph, or continue their work with scythes and farming tools. She appears heedless of the two men, their prying presence not detracting from the soft delicacy of the gesture of her arms, bent to arrange the wreath of flowers on her hair, the mysterious tenderness of the quivering gaze against the light, the elegant lightness of the step that will lead her who knows where.

Flipping through the annals of the Venice Biennale, Plinio Nomellini’s Ninfa rossa is registered at the 1905 edition, the fourth: that was the first occasion on which the great Leghorn artist exhibited his fanciulla del bosco to the public, which within four years would participate in three more exhibitions, only to be sold for a thousand liras, in 1909, to a Genoese collector. The reception critics gave the painting was not always the most enthusiastic, however: when Nomellini brought the nymph to the seventy-seventh International Exhibition of Fine Arts in Rome, in 1907, Giacinto Stiavelli, in reviewing the exhibition in Ars et Labor, called it “too heated,” and its author “an artist who, for a while now, seems to see no other color than that of blood,” a painter of “continuous repetition” that “cannot please” or at most “tires” him, and who must “keep a little in check” his imagination. But as luck would have it, Nomellini did not take up Stiavelli’s suggestion and, on the contrary, continued to work it relentlessly, that imagination that at the turn of the century made him one of the greats of Italian Symbolism, in one of the happiest seasons of his long and versatile career.

The prodromes of his interest in images capable of transcending phenomenal reality are to be found in the five months he spent in the Genoese prison of Sant’Andrea, where Nomellini was imprisoned on charges of being part of a group of subversive anarchists. The painter, through the bars of his cell, sees the sea: the multiform and multicolored dance of the water, the vision of the moon that makes it shimmer with darting flashes, the fire of the sunsets that redden it and the motion of the waves that make it white are enough to change the painter’s feeling. “It drowns in oblivion all my sad thoughts and I feel that my body will live with joyful sensations as the stars shimmer with vivid gleams above me, and here before me I have all a reddish tide of red carnations that incense me to slumber.” it is Nomellini who writes to Diego Martelli and who, as soon as he regains his freedom, returns to see the sea, and this time without the prison grates to obstruct his view.

Plinio Nomellini, The Red Nymph (c. 1904; oil on canvas, 101.5 x 84 cm; Goldoni Gallery, Livorno)

Nomellini thus abandoned the flame of political passion and devoted himself to that of poetry: the result is views in keeping with Henri-Frédéric Amiel’s celebrated formula(un paysage est un état de l’âme , “a landscape is a state of mind”), paintings that transfigure reality to deliver it to sparkling dreamlike visions, evocative nocturnes, scenes that refer to mythological repertories or that intend to reawaken distant memories, dormant sensations, hidden vaguenesses. In these years, Nomellini arrives, wrote art historian Silvio Balloni, at “a painting in which the individuality of subjective perception is felt, powerful and idealizing.” an art “where forms and colors are shaped by the spirit, and thus slowly become, thanks to the expedients of Divisionist technique, a reflection of the breadth and heterogeneity of our states of mind, never linear or univocal, and always infinitely complex.”

The Red Nymph, in this sense, has nothing natural about it: it has abandoned the world of the phenomenal to rise to that of the dream, of the mythological idyll, of regeneration not through social struggles, but through nature, in a burst of panic fullness that seems to give form, body and images to the verses of Gabriele d’Annunzio: and it is well known how, between the painter and the poet, there was mutual esteem. Both, in those years, shared the same places, since they had settled in Versilia. “Ellas lies between Luni and Populonia,” d’Annunzio had written in the immortal verses ofAlcyone: from here, from this land on the border between Liguria and Tuscany, the rebirth of Greek civilization would begin through poetry, here D’Annunzio’s vitalism would reach its heights, here man would identify with plants, animals and minerals and become a divinity. And a deity is Versilia herself, who inAlcyone, in the lyric that immediately follows the third dithyramb, is a woodland nymph who emerges from a tree and makes herself known to the poet. And as we read Gabriele d’Annunzio’s verses, perhaps we imagine her taking the form of the nymph painted by Nomellini: “Fear not, O man of glaucous eyes / glaucous eyes! Erompo from the bark / fragile I woodland nymph / Versilia, for you to touch me. [...] / I spied you from my shaft / flaky; but you did not hear, / O man, beat my living / eyelashes by your adorned neck. / Sometimes the flake of the pine tree / is like a rough eyelid / that at once closes, / in the shadows, to a divine gaze.”

And Versilia becomes “a salvific landing place and a matrix of new idealistic afflatuses,” to use again the words of Silvio Balloni, it becomes a longed-for regenerating Ellad, it turns into a land of dreams that takes the form of a nymph dressed in red, a gentle apparition in the glowing blaze of the forest. An ecstasy where human presence, divine presence and natural presence merge in Nomellini’s flaky, rough, coarse, furious and filamentous brushstrokes, who even with technique decides to go against the retinal datum to deliver to the relative a visionary epiphany, celebrating the enchantment of poetry, the heady splendor of summer, the warm wonder of Versilia.

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