Silvestro Lega's Pergola: the Macchiaioli poetry of tranquility

A work-manifesto of Silvestro Lega (Modigliana, 1826 - Florence, 1895), "Il Pergolato" is also perhaps his most famous work. Preserved at the Pinacoteca di Brera, it is a masterpiece of Macchiaioli painting.

It is curious to know that today we refer to Silvestro Lega’s best-known masterpiece with a title that its author never heard of in his entire life. And it is even surprising to realize that we know nothing about the first fifty years of this painting’s life. Lega presented it, together with two other paintings(The Visit and a lost Return from San Salvi), under the title An After Lunch, in 1868, at the exhibition of the Florentine Promotrice, the society for the promotion of fine arts that regularly organized exhibitions with the aim of supporting the work of artists and making their innovations known. The painting did not arouse any particular clamor: Adriano Cecioni, reviewing the exhibition in February 1869 under the pseudonym of Ippolito Castiglioni, said that La visita was the best of the three works presented by Lega, due to the fact that the other two “seem to have been made to highlight qualities, while in this one we see qualities applied to give evidence to a painting.” Then, for at least ten decades, After Lunch was almost never heard of again. It resurfaced many years after the artist’s death, in 1914, inventoried in the Galli collection in Florence. It is then attested in the Rosselli collection in Viareggio and finally reappears in 1931 at the Galleria Pesaro in Milan, where it is purchased by the Associazione degli Amici di Brera, who donate it to the Pinacoteca, guaranteeing the prerequisites for its success and its elevation as the poetic manifesto of the great Romagna painter, the most intimate, and then the most tormented, of the Macchiaioli.

Meanwhile, in 1923, Mario Tinti had coined for the work the title by which it is now known to most: The Bower. He had called it that, suddenly, without providing justification. And he should be credited with having first framed its greatness: “a work of great poetry, as well as of great painting, in which the place, the time, the different types of women are keenly intuited and depicted with a perspicacity and exactness of execution that can be matched by the Dutch masters.” For Tinti, The Bower was the equivalent in painting of Flaubert’s or Manzoni’s finest pieces, in terms of its tightness and polish. It is a scene of intimate stillness in the Tuscan countryside of Piagentina, then a placid expanse of fields on the outskirts of Florence, now a populous and busy neighborhood. The landscape of the Macchiaioli no longer exists, obliterated by urbanization. At that time, however, it was a regular haunt of the painters of the Macchia: inaugurating the Piagentina season, in 1860 or thereabouts, had been Silvestro Lega himself, who had discovered this humble glimpse of the countryside almost by chance, and had met the Batelli family there, falling in love, reciprocated, with Virginia. Lega, moved by his love for the girl and for nature, frequented the Batelli household, stayed at Piagentina on several occasions, and convinced many other artists in the group (Signorini, Abbati, Borrani, Sernesi... ) to study the landscape from life in this modest countryside, so convenient and close to the city. It is one of the happiest seasons of Macchiaioli painting.

Silvestro Lega, Il pergolato (1868; olio su tela, 75 x 93,3 cm; Milano, Pinacoteca di Brera)
Silvestro Lega, The Pergola (1868; oil on canvas, 75 x 93.3 cm; Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera)

Silvestro Lega pours out his serenity in this snapshot of a summer afternoon under a pergola covered with lush vine foliage, while all around the fields are burned by the sun that floods the sky with light: the tone is the milky one typical of the hottest days. The long shadow of the little wall, on which large pots of daisies rest, suggests a late hour, which to some extent mitigates the feeling of the heat. Three young women and a little girl find shelter in the shade of the arbor: one tries to cool herself with a fan, another dressed in black turns her gaze to the little girl, held by the shoulders of the little girl behind her. The little girl is the most insensitive to the heatwave, which instead seems almost to oppress the other three. But not to the point of giving up the afternoon ritual of coffee: so here comes a waitress, slowly, from the house we imagine on the right, carrying the coffee pot on a tray after having already placed the three cups we see on the bench, waiting to be filled. Behind, in the background, some cottages and, in the distance, the cypress trees: the vanishing point shifted to the left invites us not to focus too much on the figures, and to sweep our eye beyond the courtyard.

The great art critic Fernanda Wittgens, commenting on the purchase of the Pergola by the Friends of Brera, had wisely emphasized its double value: the human value on the one hand, and the artistic value on the other. The Pergola is , first and foremost, a masterpiece of what Tinti himself recognized as Silvestro Lega’s “calm manner,” a work in which the degree of formal simplification, with those “grasses that swell in waves of light” and the trees that “stand out like soft masses of color against the pearly sky” (so Wittgens), touches one of its peaks: the theory of the macchia, with its juxtaposed masses, with its strong contrasts of light and shadow (the marvelous excerpt of sunlight filtering through the branches of the arbor and reaching the courtyard floor, and the poetic backlit rendering of the women’s figures alone suffice), with its sense of space sustaining the composition, is here declined in a painting of soft, delicate accents, which dilute the mugginess of summer into a vision of suave domestic calm.

However, it is not only the formal values that make this painting a masterpiece. For Wittgens, The Bower stood as a fundamental enrichment for the Braidense collections, first of all because it witnessed the transition from the traditional drawing manner (which still animates the painting: and Lega, moreover, had returned to it after making a sketch with a far more “impressionistic” slant, so to speak, now in the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Palazzo Pitti, singular also because the courtyard is devoid of figures) to the “pure pictoricism of modern art.” And interestingly, to Antonio Paolucci, the slow pace of the Pergola reminded him of the solemn gravity of a Paolo Uccello or a Filippo Lippi. The Pergola could almost look like the canopy of a Renaissance altarpiece. Besides, it was a fundamental enrichment for the Brera collections because it constituted one of the first counterbalances to the collection’s romantic intonation. Silvestro Lega’s scene of dim bourgeois life is the exact antithesis of Romantic painting: we read in it, to use Wittgens’ words, a “calm conversation of women with exquisite feminine sensibility, sealed, however, in the reserve of chaste costume, of slow, modulated gestures, of pure, idealized ’airs of countenance.’” It is by drawing from the humblest everyday life that the Romagnolo artist fixes the characters of the “civilization of the Risorgimento,” a small and secluded world that the artist records with sincere and participating affection.

Lega, Cecioni had said, is a painter of truth who had given art a clearly delineated concept: Silvestro Lega loves truth without ulterior motives. And he loves it in its simplicity: Lega paints Il pergolato because that is his dimension, that is his world, that is the rhythm he loves, that is the intimacy in which he feels calm. The poet Dante Maffìa has well captured the soul of this painting: Lega’s garden “can fish up the ecstasy, bring it to an everyday dimension / in the sweet serenity of the afternoon / placid, with the cups / on the table and the green of the trees / in the blue of the sky.” It is the poetry of repetitive and serene daily gestures, the symbolic and reposed sublimation of bourgeois modernity, the exaltation of that quiet life that Silvestro Lega would have wanted forever unchanged. We know that, shortly thereafter, it would not be so: tragic events disrupted his life and made him know the abyss of a deep crisis, opening for him a new artistic season. And The Bower is a masterpiece also because, in this campaign, we also read against the light the painter’s own ideal of life. And seeing this painting we like to imagine him there too, in the happiest moment of his existence, with his Virginia, conversing amiably with the women of the Batelli house, in the cool of the pergola on a summer afternoon.

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