Serafino De Tivoli's pasture: more than a painting, a piece of the real seen from the window

"A piece of truth seen from the window": this is how Adriano Cecioni, in 1884, described Serafino De Tivoli's "Pasture": an 1859 work preserved at the Galleria d'Arte Moderna in Florence, it is one of the paintings at the basis of the birth of the modern landscape in Italy.

It is the dawn of a clear morning in the countryside around Florence, and in the calm that envelops the hills around the city, a painter stops in front of a small lonely stream to stare quickly at the scene he sees before him: a pair of cows, one white and one dark, approaching the water warily to drink. The artist is a thirty-four-year-old from Livorno, Serafino De Tivoli, and from that walk in the Florentine countryside will be born one of the works that critics have always situated at the origins of Macchiaioli painting: known as Un pascolo or Una pastura, it was painted by the artist in his studio in 1859, and today it can be admired at the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Florence.

At the time De Tivoli painted his Grazing Cows, he was a regular at Florence’s Caffè Michelangelo, the bar where a group of young artists had been meeting for a few years with the intention of subverting the fortunes of painting: Among them were Cristiano Banti, Odoardo Borrani, Adriano Cecioni, Raffaello Sernesi, Telemaco Signorini, and later to be joined by others such as Giovanni Fattori, or painters who came from outside Tuscany, such as Vincenzo Cabianca from Veneto or Giuseppe Abbati from Campania. Some were passionate about the theme of history painting, and wanted to radically change the celebratory or anecdotal art of the academy. Others, however, like De Tivoli, had proved sensitive to the novelty of en plein air painting and, following the example of the French of Barbizon, had begun to frequent the woods and hills around Florence in search of inspiration.

This was something unprecedented for Italian art. De Tivoli had studied in Florence with his brother Felice, following the lessons of one of the greatest landscape painters of the time, the Hungarian Károly Markó, who had moved to Italy since 1832 (and would not leave it again), and then, in 1853, precisely on the model of the Barbizon School, had helped to form a sparse group of ’artists who scoured the length and breadth of the Sienese countryside with the intention of allowing themselves to be carried away by the real thing, to paint views devoid of those courtly, elegiac, bucolic tones that still in the mid-nineteenth century transformed every glimpse of landscape into a kind of pastoral idyll. De Tivoli, his brother Felice, and other thirty-somethings like them, mostly friends and fellow students (they were Carlo Ademollo, Lorenzo Gelati, Francesco Saverio Altamura, Alessandro La Volpe, and Károly Markó’s two sons, namely Károly the Younger and Andreas), had founded what would go down in history as the “School of Staggia,” named after the village where they were based for their sorties.

Serafino De Tivoli, Un pascolo noto anche come Una pastura (1859; olio su tela, 102 x 73 cm; Firenze, Galleria d'Arte Moderna di Palazzo Pitti - Gallerie degli Uffizi)
Serafino De Tivoli, A Pasture, also known as A Pasture (1859; oil on canvas, 102 x 73 cm; Florence, Galleria d’Arte Moderna di Palazzo Pitti - Uffizi Galleries)

Perhaps it cannot be emphasized enough how fundamental the School of Staggia was to the start of the Macchiaioli experience. Yet, in all likelihood, macchia painting would never have been born without the invigorating impulse of Serafino De Tivoli and colleagues. They too, in the early 1950s, would have achieved the same results that Nino Costa, independently, was achieving in that same period on the Latium coast (he himself would later move to Tuscany to dialogue with them and the future Macchiaioli), they too were reforming landscape painting, they too must be seen as Italian pioneers of modern veduta. So many elements have weighed on their poor fortune: the fact that they are poorly represented in museums, the dispersion of their works in the myriad rivulets of collecting, the very short duration of their experience, and the fact that it was somewhat overwhelmed by the even more radical innovations of the Macchiaioli. Yet the innovative character of their painting remains there to testify to the far from secondary significance of their activity, and Serafino De Tivoli’s Pascolo is one of the products that can best demonstrate this.

A painting which is “a little larger than a window crystal,” and which “consists of a small group of trees to the left of the viewer: a hill forms the horizon, a meadow at the front, with two cows grazing.” describing it thus, in 1884, is Adriano Cecioni, who calls Serafino De Tivoli’s Pascolo a painting with a subject that “could not have been simpler nor more modestly treated” and that “represents one of the first essays ofa nascent art,” the work of an artist “endowed with good but not eminent qualities,” yet able to make that view seem “a piece of truth seen from the window rather than painted on canvas.” Cecioni did not recognize De Tivoli’s character as a profound innovator, but he nonetheless considered him a very valid artist, and above all, confidently stating that that pasture of cows could easily be a “piece of truth seen from the window,” he could not pay his Leghorn colleague a better compliment. For that was precisely what De Tivoli was going for: to paint a believable landscape, a real landscape.

And that is what we observe in the silence of this countryside, under a sky that is beginning to be lightened by the first lights of the sun, with the pinkish tones on the horizon still coloring the clouds but beginning to give way under a wave of blue. Of course, De Tivoli does not fail to reveal himself for a painter who, more or less consciously, even in the search for a true landscape cannot fail to submit to certain rules of construction: so here are the trees on the left that act as a backdrop and help frame the scene, here are the cows that take the exact center of the composition, the celestial and terrestrial elements occupying the two exact halves of the canvas, the diagonals of the shadows dialoguing with the vertical lines of the plants and shrubs and with the horizontal lines of the hills and the stream (and note the perfect framing that the cows take within this very balanced scheme). All leads us to reflect on how much the artist has reasoned to balance his composition correctly and elegantly. There is still, Francesca Dini has written, an “ancient solemnity” to cloak this painting, and yet novelty can be grasped everywhere, not only in the soul of this landscape, but even in some of the details, starting with the very movement of the animals, since the artist, Dini writes again, manages to catch “naturally the turning of one of them to the right, disturbed perhaps by an unexpected noise or by the perception of the painter’s presence not far away.”

Get out of the studio and paint what you see: this was the lesson that Serafino De Tivoli and the School of Staggia wanted to impart to the painters of the time. This Pascolo did not fail to raise discussions: it was exhibited at the 1859 Promotrice Fiorentina, was highly praised, and fueled debates about the new landscape painting. There is probably no talk of a masterpiece, not least because De Tivoli had done no more than bring French suggestions to Italy, painting a view not unlike that of Constant Troyon or Rosa Bonheur, at best bathed in the warm light of the Tuscan countryside. It was a novelty, however, and would pave the way for research by the Macchiaioli, who appreciated Serafino De Tivoli’s sober coloring, simple inventions, and felicity of execution. Costa himself credited De Tivoli with spreading French ideas in Tuscany. Signorini, who was experimenting with the new painting for the first time in that same 1859, considered him the father of the macchia. And he was then credited with boundless passion, as Cecioni would also write: and then De Tivoli may not have stood out “for special accentuated tendencies,” but he certainly stood out “for having loved art sincerely.”

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