Macchiaioli, Impressionism 10 years before the Impressionists?

The Macchiaioli were a group of Italian painters who predated the Impressionists with whom they had many very striking similarities.

  • Named “Macchiaioli” as an insult by a critical journalist writing in  in November 3, 1862 in Gazzetta del Popolo. The term meant that their work was unfinished.
  • Met regularly in a cafe, as a group, to discuss art theory and politics (Italian nationalism). In the Caffe Michelangelo in Florence.
  • Experimented, especially with colour.
  • Rejected the style, strictures and methods of academic art and of the Academy.
  • Powerful use of colour in patches and of light. Rejection of the classic use of sfumato, or shading.
  • Worked in plein-air. Capturing the reality in front of them as they worked.
  • Very many of their works were landscapes and of the people and activities of the countryside.
  • Keen on photography and Japanese prints.

The main difference between the Impressionists and the Macchiaioli seems to be that with scientific, industrial, social and economic developments the former embraced and rejoiced at the new, the latter mourned the passing of the old.

So who were these artists? Let’s take a look at a few.

Giuseppe Abbati (January 13, 1836 – February 21, 1868). Highly political he fought in two campaigns with Garibaldi to unite Italy. A favourite compositional technique was to paint a sunlit landscape as seen from a darker interior. Bold use of colour.


Cristiano Banti (January 4 1824 – December 4 1904). A successful classical style artist who flipped over completely after moving to Florence and meeting the Macchiaioli. At one stage he traveled to France to study with Camille Corot.


Odoardo Borrani (August 22 1833 – September 14 1905). Another Academy artists who saw the light. Another who fought for the unification of Italy.


Vincenzo Cabianca (June 21, 1827 – March 21, 1902). Particularly keen on the effects of the sun. Sometimes painted Academy subjects, but in Macchiaioli style.


Adriano Cecioni (July 26, 1836 – May 23, 1886). Painter, sculptor, art critics, art professor, soldier.


Vito D’Ancona (August 12, 1825 – January 9, 1884). Mainly a portraitist. Lived in Paris for several years. Suffered from then died from Syphilis.


Serafino De Tivoli (March 1826 – 1892). Painted many bucolic rural scenes. Travelled to Paris in 1855 and was influenced by the Barbizon group (as were the Impressionists), an influence he brought back to the Caffe Michelangelo.


Giovanni Fattori (September 6, 1825 – August 30, 1908). A military and historic painter who then became one of the leaders of the Macchiaioli.



Raffaello Sernesi (December 25, 1838 – August 9, 1866). One of the Macchiaioli soldiers, his military exploits killed him. Painted colourful Tuscan landscapes.


Silvestro Lega (December 8 1826 – September 21 1895). Serious academic painter who moved slowly over to Macchiaioli, plein air and Tuscan landscapes.


Telemaco Signorini (August 18, 1835 – February 1, 1901) Very active painter who travelled to Paris several times where he met Degas. He wrote a book, Caricaturisti e caricaturati al Caffè Michelangiolo (1893), known as “the bible of the Macchiaioli movement” in which he describes their conversations there.


So why aren’t these great artists and all their fabulous work far more famous? Firstly they never reached the American market with its huge demand and great wealth, unlike the Impressionists. Secondly relatively little of their work is on public display, it is mostly privately held and mostly in Italy. Thirdly after WW2 and the excesses of Mussolini, strong political Italian nationalism, which the Macchiaioli were identified with, was rejected by the nation. Fourthly the movement was very Italian and parochial with no foreign members and little presence in the English language. They don’t even make it into the two standard texts, The Story of Art by Gombrich and A world History of Art by Honour and Fleming.

So how do you learn more about them? Many of the online resources seem to be just copy and paste of the same text. Searching for Macchiaioli, the movement itself, seems to be less successful than searching for the individual artists. There is a Wikipedia entry (click here) an Oxford Learning College article (click here) you can find the artists on the Web Gallery (click here) Tutt Art is very good to see the pictures with a page for the movement and pages for individual artists (click here) that last link is probably the best place to see the pictures online.

There are four really great articles on The Electric Light Company which are excellent, doing the artists justice (click here). There are articles in Italian, with pictures, on a Giovanni Fattori website, covering several of the Macchiaioli. (click here).

The Macchiaioli were based in Florence so the best place to see their work properly is the Galeria d’Arte Moderna there in the Palazzo Pitti. So you can pop in next time you go to Florence for the Brancacci Chapel  and the Uffizi. (Click here for the Trip Advisor entry).

There is a book, in English, The Macchiaioli. this is a guidebook for a 1986 exhibition at The Frederick S. Wright Art Gallery at the University of California, Los Angeles. A large format book of about 160 pages this contains a lot of academic reading. Unfortunately only a few of the pictures are in colour. You can buy it secondhand from Amazon (click here) with shipping from USA.

N. Broude. The Macchiaioli: Italian Painters of the Nineteenth Century (New Haven and London, 1987) LB.31.b.840
A. Boime. The Art of the Macchia and the Risorgimento: Representing Culture and Nationalism in Nineteenth-century Italy (Chicago, IL, 1993) YA.1994.b.6559 and YC.1994.b.5757

It is really fascinating that such a major and revolutionary art movement isn’t better served by art history. Surely this must change as the pictures it produced speak for themselves.


1 Comment

  1. The haute cultured French have again stolen Italian contribution to world culture. By the way why is it referred to as the “renaissance”? A French term. France had little or nothing to do with this incredible artistic and scientific era that influenced Europe. It’s right name is il rinascimento. The rebirth.


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