The wood gatherers who did not know they gave birth to the modern Italian landscape

One of the seminal texts of modern Italian landscape painting is a work by Nino Costa (Giovanni Costa; Rome, 1826 - Marina di Pisa, 1903) that depicts some women gathering wood on the coast of Anzio.

In 1919, a 31-year-old Giorgio De Chirico published in Valori Plastici a ferocious account of his visit to what is now the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rome. For the young painter, it was probably a distressing and masochistic experience, a sort of journey through a gallery of horrors (or rather: a “bedlam of pictorial imbecility,” to use his own expression) the mere memory of which still caused him gastroenteric spasms, at least judging by the physical stimuli he declared he had to repress in putting his hand to the article. Of course, De Chirico’s judgment, and especially that of the polemical, touchy-feely and volatile De Chirico writing in Valori Plastici at the time, is to be taken with all due caution, but it is nonetheless interesting to skim quickly through that article to understand his orientations at the time and, if one is a lover of the genre, to enjoy reading the sound, brutal lashings, often even gratuitous, that the artist reserved for his colleagues.

Here, then, Klimt’s The Three Ages of Woman is a “satanic birth” seen in the hall of “foreign waifs,” a “pelagus of obscenities” filled with works by “French, English, German, Russian or American cretins.” Franz von Stuck’sOrestes "brings to mind some advertisement for Pirelli tires.“ Ignacio Zuloaga is a ”fake and bad“ Spaniard. Among the Italians, sound thrashings to painters such as Vittorio Corcos, Giulio Bargellini, Stefano Ussi. But there were also those who were saved from the violent lashings: Fattori for example, or Camuccini, but also artists now mostly forgotten, for example Pietro Gagliardi, an academic painter of sacred subjects, or Armando Spadini, a kind of very lingering Italian Renoir whom even De Chirico, just a year earlier, had called ”a dumb impressionist, of those really shoddy and useless." In any case, among the few paintings that are saved from the dechirican bombardment is one of the founding texts of the modern Italian landscape: it is a painting by Nino Costa, Women Embarking Wood in the Port of Anzio.

Nino Costa, Donne che imbarcano legna nel porto di Anzio (1852; olio su tela, 73 x 147 cm; Roma, Galleria Nazionale dArte Moderna e Contemporanea, inv. 1232)
Nino Costa, Women Boarding Wood in the Port of Anzio (1852; oil on canvas, 73 x 147 cm; Rome, Galleria Nazionale dArte Moderna e Contemporanea, inv. 1232)

“Beautiful,” for De Chirico: “composition imbued with suavest poetry , maintained above a gray tone of indefinable softness; the ground painted with geologist’s wisdom; the women posed in beautiful classical poses.” And with a further masterful note in the “boat moored and surrounded by the clearest waters by the shore.” This is one of the Roman artist’s best-known works, the most important of the early phase of his career: he painted it when he was just twenty-six years old, after having made several studies from life on the Roman coast.

Since 1849, Nino Costa had resided in Tivoli, where, wanting to follow what he himself recounts, he had taken up with a conspicuous company of painters, all roughly his age. Names today that tell most people very little: Enrico Gamba, Raffaele Casnedi, Alessandro Castellani and others. There is a good chance that in the same period Costa also met Arnold Böcklin, who had moved to Rome in 1850 and would later become his friend. Then again the English, such as Frederic Leighton, George Howard, Charles Coleman, and the American Elihu Vedder. From these encounters Costa developed the sensibility that would later lead him to become the Italian father of the paysage-état de l’âme: a sensibility that can be appreciated in nuce already in this painting, halfway between the study of the natural (and Costa always cultivated a strong passion for the natural, as well as for nature) and the classical and mythological suggestion, with obvious references to the ancient repertoire and with the mediation of the feeling of theartist, autonomous and finally free to travel to fields and woods, to quote John Ruskin, to whose knowledge Costa was surely introduced in that environment so pregnant with new ideas.

The sea of Anzio, silvery, calm in the becalmed, stretches beyond a dune dotted here and there with a few shrubs typical of the scrubland and from which, in the center, sprouts a buffalo skull, half-hidden in the sand, a note of white among the earthy tones of the sandy shore, and a reference to the bucranî of ancient decorations. On the right, some sleepy little goats rest. In the center, the moored boat that De Chirico so liked. On the left, the protagonists: three women collecting wood brought in from the sea and a man helping them in their thankless task. One of them has sat on the dune for a moment to take something off her shoes, a quotation from the Capitoline Spinario , while the others proceed with their heads down, weighed down by the bundles they hold raised above their heads. They are leading them toward the boat not far from the shore. The boy, behind them, takes charge of a heavier log, and watches them almost dreamily, under a gray sky of intense atmospheric effect.

“I went to Porto d’Anzio,” Nino Costa would later recall, “where I made the sketch for the painting I still keep of the ’manaid,’ which stands in the center of this picture. After a rainy night, in the morning, as the sky opened, I saw women with strange burdens on their heads, which I later learned were tree roots, of which they were loading a boat. I had a great impression; and I began the painting, which was completed in 1852.” The artist, in his writings, pointed to Women Embarking Wood in the Port of Anzio as an illustrative painting of his practice, which consisted of first making an “impression sketch” from life, which was as quick as possible, and always from life making at the same time studies of details. And finally define the composition in the studio, never taking his eyes “off the eternal sketch, I call it ’eternal’ because it is inspired by the eternal true.” The “eternal true,” then, to be contrasted with the narratives, though realistic but not “true,” of history painting: Costa’s intentions, for Italy, were a new, highly original fact, inferred from the transalpine experiences of Corot, but updated according to sentimentalist suggestions coming from England. The women of Anzio are among the first humble subjects taken from life to populate nineteenth-century Italian painting, and to the study from life was added the reading that sentiment suggested to the painter: for the Italian art of the time it was a novel purpose, which Costa would later take up with conviction and with an even more modern approach in the 1970s, the decade to which some of his most important “landscapes states of mind” date back.

It is no coincidence that Costa was always very attached to this painting. He kept it in his studio for a long time, exhibited it in several shows, took it to the Paris Salon in 1863, and it was only in 1903, after his death, that it was sold, following an exhibition of it at the Venice Biennale that year. Nino Costa himself recounted that Giovanni Fattori, visiting the studio of his Roman colleague and having admired Women Embarking Wood in the Port of Anzio, was impressed. Costa’s experience, understood more in Tuscany than in his native Rome, was, moreover, fundamental for the Macchiaioli: scholar Silvestra Bietoletti writes that this painting is an example of an “absolutely original way of pictorially rendering the varying luministic and chromatic tones of a landscape in sunlight, infusing it with the calm and solemn tone of classicism.” And it was among the works that raised the Tuscans’ experimental interest in a painting that “neglected content in favor of formal rendering.” And to think that those women, so burdened by their lumbering load, had not even realized that they were writing one of the fundamental chapters in the history of Italian art.