Gabriele Gabrielli, an "effective creator of sensations of horror" in early 20th century Livorno

Today all but forgotten, Gabriele Gabrielli was one of the most unique Italian painters of the early 20th century: having died by suicide at only 25, he was the creator of a bizarre imagery that drew from the macabre and the mournful.

“Gabriele Gabrielli had been painting for only four years. And it was his sudden revelation. He did not come from any school and entered art without any technical preparation. He confessed this himself. He was indeed proud of it.” Thus wrote, on December 18, 1919, an anonymous journalist of the Telegraph announcing the death, at only twenty-five years of age, of Gabriele Gabrielli (Livorno, 1895 - 1919) one of the most singular, eccentric, bizarre and tormented Italian painters of the early twentieth century: his career lasted only a few years (the first reports of his works date back to 1913: not therefore four years as the Telegraph wrote, but nonetheless in only six years Gabrielli had already managed to achieve interesting results, although he had always certainly stayed out of the limelight), but in that short time he formed one of the most singular artistic personalities of the early 20th century. Singular, as much as forgotten: the oddities of his art, the scarcity of his production, the rapid oblivion, even a few years after his disappearance (despite an exhibition that was dedicated to him in 1924) and a painting light years removed from the tastes of the Italian public and more approachable to Central European or French experiences than to what was happening in Italy in those years, contributed to the disappearance from the artistic chronicles of the name of this painter obsessed with death, and who died by suicide.

In 2008, an exhibition curated by Francesca Cagianelli, and entitled Gabriele Gabrielli. A Spiritual Pupil of Vittore Grubicy at the Caffè Bardi (held at the Museum of Natural History of the Mediterranean in Livorno from May 10 to June 8 of that year), contributed, with an itinerary of twenty-seven works, to reconstruct his very short career, giving new dignity to his production. 0 Gabrielli was a macabre painter, fascinated by esoteric themes, and what little he painted does not deviate from the subjects that interested him: gloomy allegories of death, animals drawn from the imagery of the occult and the night, paintings inspired by Charles Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal, of which he was an avid reader (as well as Edgar Allan Poe: the names of the Frenchman and the American are the two that best identify the Leghorn artist’s literary references).

Gabrielli’s name, as anticipated, first appears in 1913 when, together with other artists, he underwrote an initiative to lead to the purchase by the Pinacoteca di Livorno of a work by Vittore Grubicy de Dragon (Milan, 1851 - 1920), The Sail, an initiative that later succeeded to the extent that today the painting can be observed in the rooms of the Museo Civico “Giovanni Fattori” in Livorno. “Gabrielli,” wrote Chiara Stefani in the catalog of the exhibition Art and Magic curated by Francesco Parisi and held in Rovigo, at Palazzo Roverella, between Sept. 29, 2018 and Jan. 27, 2019, “thus fits into the group of young Leghorn painters fascinated by Grubicy’s work, which was more tied to the emotional sphere than traditional 19th-century landscape painting.” Grubicy had renewed Italian landscape painting, establishing himself as one of the greatest Italian interpreters of the “landscape state of mind”: his extraordinary Winter Poem, a cycle preserved at the GAM in Milan, is one of the peaks of the genre. Moreover, it should be recalled that in those years the Belgian Charles Doudelet (Lille, 1861 - Ghent, 1938) was present in Livorno, who entered the Caffè Bardi circle, where the leading Leghorn painters of the time (Renato Natali, Gino Romiti, Benvenuto Benvenuti, Gabrielli himself) gathered, and spread the esoteric ideas of Joséphin “Sâr” Péladan’s Rose+Croix. The figure of Doudelet was relevant to Gabrielli’s education: again to Francesca Cagianelli we owe the monograph on the Belgian artist entitled Charles Doudelet painter, engraver and art critic. From “Leonardo” to “L’Eroica” (published by Olschki in 2009), which contains extensive insights into the relationship between the Belgian and Gabrielli, as well as the exhibition Dans le Noir. Charles Doudelet and Symbolism in Livorno (Collesalvetti, Pinacoteca Comunale Carlo Servolini, Sept. 30, 2021 to Jan. 20, 2022), where for the first time Symbolism in Livorno was investigated with unpublished insights with respect to Gabrielli’s role in Livorno Symbolism and his friendship with the Belgian artist (and two unpublished works by the Labronian artist were also presented for the occasion).

Gabrielli was fascinated by the possibility of translating emotions into painting, and he was not slow to pour onto canvas (but also onto panel and cardboard) his obsessions with mystery, the night, and death, setting himself from the outset as a neo-Symbolist painter capable of horrific paintings filled with monsters, ghosts, and disturbing animals. To understand the mournful visionary nature of Gabrielli’s art, one need only see a painting from 1915-1917 (the period to which most of the known works belong: and certainly on his weak psyche torn by doubts and anxieties played a role the news coming from the fronts of World War I), Death Plowing the Furrow with the Plow, where the harvester, with scythe clutched in her fist, holds two oxen blazing bright red (just like her) while, in the darkest, gloomiest night, a field full of severed heads is plowed, but with eyes alive and blazing. Gabrielli, as mentioned, had a fixation with death, which he describes in poetic and lofty terms in a 1916 letter to Benvenuto Benvenuti, reported as early as 1980 by Lara Vinca Masini in Humanism, Inhumanism in European Art 1890-1980: “The flagellating death dances in a black sky where the stars appear half-displaced, wrapped in a shroud of madness darker than the sky, crowned by the malignant star faithful companion, which is the body of her soul. On its humeri, the mowed wings have reflections of burnished steel under the whitish rays of the lunar disk. It dances, dances, and on the impudent face smiles Death, art’s only sister in eternity. Around the bats fly, brushing against their rejna, telling each other mysterious and beautiful things.”

Gabriele Gabrielli, La Mort traccia il solco (1915-1917; olio su tavola, 54 x73 cm; Collezione privata)
Gabriele Gabrielli, La Mort traces the furrow (1915-1917; oil on panel, 54 x73 cm; Private collection)
Gabriele Gabrielli, Congrega satanica (1915-1917; olio su cartone, 21 x 28,5 cm; Collezione privata)
Gabriele Gabrielli, Satanic Coven (1915-1917; oil on cardboard, 21 x 28.5 cm; Private collection)

Another terrifying painting is Congrega satanica, where a procession of black figures seems to dance in front of the fires that are lit behind them and represent the only bright spots in the scene. It is the scene of a sabbath, led by a kind of yellow-eyed devil who stands at the beginning of the sequence of figures, a work that thrilled Doudelet himself, who described it when speaking of the exhibition dedicated to him in 1924. For Doudelet, Gabrielli was an “effective creator of sensations of horror, of fear, of mystery, of those intense and painful feelings aroused and stirred in the Vortex of the Soul”: the Satanic Cabal thus became a symbol of his art, where “the tormenting agonies and the horridness of death, the dark pangs of the deepest sorrows, overwhelm, oppress, excite the neurotic imagination of this artist until they find their expression in color.”

Among the works that “translate” into images the verses of Baudelaire’s poetic masterpiece, Les Fleurs du Mal, one can count those where the owl is the protagonist animal (read, for example, the poem Les hiboux, “The Owls”: “Sous les ifs noirs qui les abritent, / Les hiboux se tiennent rangés, / Ainsi que des dieux étrangers, / Dardant leur oeil rouge. Ils méditent. / Sans remuer ils se tiendront / Jusqu’à l’heure mélancolique / Où, poussant le soleil oblique, / Les ténèbres s’établiront”: “Under the black yews that welcome them / the owls stand arrayed / Like ten foreigners / Darting their red eye. They meditate. / Without moving so they will stay / until the melancholy hour / when, pushing away the slanting sun / darkness will descend.”). Gabrielli’s owl is the quintessential animal of the night, it is the ruler of darkness that stands out over the other creatures that inhabit the forest when the sun goes down, it has darting eyes like those Baudelaire speaks of, it is surrounded by ghostly presences, skeletal monsters that arrange themselves around him emerging from the darkness in which the entire scene is plunged (Gabrielli’s palette knows only very dark hues, other than those of the bright glows that make his nights blush), and a red bat that lies beneath his claws. “Works like this,” Chiara Stefani wrote again, “will bring the most up-to-date Leghorn environment out of the constraints of the representation of the real.” The scholar mentions an article by Mario Citti dedicated to the Labronian painter and written in 1948: “Gabrielli used painting to express an idea all his own, he estranged himself from earthly things to live in a world populated by creatures that he caressed with infinite love because they are a living part of his torment.” Another painting is also dedicated to the owl, which has it as the sole protagonist while staring at the observer, and where, Stefani speculates, the animal “is here perhaps an alter ego of the painter, a cantor of shadow, dream and horror, a tormented and enigmatic character in the lively Leghorn avant-garde of the early part of the twentieth century.”

In 1979, an exhibition was also dedicated to Gabriele Gabrielli by Livorno’s Peccolo Gallery, which could be considered the first stage in the slow rediscovery of the Leghorn painter, who was still little known, however, especially outside Livorno. “Gabriele Gabrielli,” gallerist Roberto Peccolo recently wrote recalling that exhibition, “participates in a Symbolist atmosphere, reads Poe and Baudelaire, and proposes an anomalous and different practice that could have debunked the verist stylistic features in circulation. The author approaches the symbol and stages it.” Peccolo cited another work, The Flowers of Death, as an obvious symbol of the “osmosis between text and pictorial sign” in reference to the poem on death that the artist had sent to Benvenuti in 1916.

Gabriele Gabrielli, Gufo (1915-1917; olio su tela 70 x 54 cm; Collezione privata, courtesy Galleria Athena, Livorno)
Gabriele Gabrielli, Owl, detail (1915-1917; oil on canvas 70 x 54 cm; Private collection, courtesy Galleria Athena, Livorno)
Gabriele Gabrielli, Gufo (1917 circa; olio su tavola, 35 x 25,5 cm; Collezione privata, courtesy Galleria Athena, Livorno)
Gabriele Gabrielli, Owl (c. 1917; oil on panel, 35 x 25.5 cm; Private collection, courtesy Galleria Athena, Livorno)
Gabriele Gabrielli, I fiori della morte (1915-1917; olio su cartone, 31 x 40 cm)
Gabriele Gabrielli, The Flowers of Death (1915-1917; oil on cardboard, 31 x 40 cm; Private collection)

How could such an unconventional personality develop in a Livorno that has always been a city where the inhabitants have a frank and disenchanted outlook on life (even if much more inclined to vent sarcasm and defiance than gloomy soliloquy and macabre introspection), but where the Mediterranean sun nonetheless shines and where Gabriele Gabrielli’s colleagues arrived to paint, if anything, the radiant coastal landscapes that opened up just outside the city? In part, it has been said: readings, historical contingencies, a closed and solitary character contributed to the development of a completely anomalous figure for Livorno at the beginning of the 20th century.

It will then be necessary to take into account what the journalist of the Telegraph wrote (with “hypocritical rhetoric,” commented Peccolo: his art, after all, was struggling to be recognized) on December 18, 1919: “For some time he no longer attended art circles with assiduity. He appeared there, instead, seldom locked in a somber sadness that no longer allowed him to ignite, as he once did, bitter and lively discussions; to sustain, as he once did, an impetuous boldness, all jerky, the goodness of his theories. His wild temperament, intolerant of all academic restraint, had, as it were, died down into a resignation without sweetness; his furious assaults against the ’schools in vogue,’ his acerbic tirades against the empire of ’professors’ no longer animated artistic circles. He was assailed by the horrible doubt that he had worked for nothing, that he had created nothing but meaningless phantoms. An artist or a deluded one? One and the other perhaps.” Misunderstood, then. Even long after the fact: yet, he was an unusual figure in Tuscan (but also Italian) circles, worthy of further reevaluation.