Art, Architecture and Visual Culture

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Catherine Viviano, Irene Brin, and Italian art’s conquest of Hollywood
Raffaele Bedarida

This chapter addresses the emerging interest in and market for contemporary Italian art in the United States, a trend that helped change the perception of Italy in the 1950s. During the first decade after World War II, known as the Reconstruction period, Italy appeared to the world as an impoverished and devastated country. But starting in the mid-1950s, as the national economy expanded with the help of Marshall Plan money, and a large portion of the country transformed into a consumer society, a new image emerged – the so-called ‘new Italy’, aided by the miracolo economico (the Italian economic miracle) – which signalled a modern glamour and international sophistication. This chapter argues that contemporary art played a crucial role in shaping and changing Italy’s international image. By the mid-1950s, the prestige and visibility of Italian modernist art was on the increase due to a constellation of exhibitions held in the United States. Some had been organised by important Roman gallerists like Irene Brin and Catherine Viviano, who took shows like Eterna primavera: Young Italian Painters (1954) to New York and other American cities. Other exhibitions, like Twentieth-Century Italian Art, the first of its kind to survey modern Italian art, was curated by Alfred H. Barr, Jr and James Thrall Soby for the Museum of Modern Art in 1949. Simultaneously, Hollywood’s growing interest in everything Italian engendered collaborations with Cinecittà, often featuring modern Italian art in its contemporary films, and fabricating a glamourous and international ‘made in Italy’ cultural product.

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Caitlin Meehye Beach

This chapter critically considers the place of Francesco Pezzicar’s L’Abolizione della schiavitù negli Stati Uniti, 1873–75 (The Abolition of Slavery in the United States), a sculptural homage to the abolition of American slavery, at a time of shifting national and imperial allegiances in Italy and Austria. The monumental work commemorated the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation during the American Civil War, which proclaimed freedom for people enslaved in areas of the country under rebellion. It depicts an African American man with arms outstretched, one wrist bearing a broken shackle and holding overhead a fragment of bronze inscribed with excerpts from President Lincoln’s decree. The sculpture was exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial and in the artist’s home city of Trieste, an Austrian free port that lay just outside the borders of the Italian nation until the early twentieth century. Its reception tells us much about the ways in which the sculpture entered into entangled dialogues on American slavery, Italian liberation, and Austrian imperial aims. Pezzicar depicted the former bondsperson as a powerful instigator – rather than a recipient – of his own liberation. When exhibited in Trieste, rather than situating the work in an American context, viewers assimilated and appropriated the sculpture into a constructed mythos of Italian sovereignty that stretched from Roman antiquity to the Risorgimento and irredentism. Ultimately, this chapter seeks to interrogate how a sculpture about Emancipation might reveal and obscure the construction of the liberal categories of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberation’ at the crossroads of abolition and empire.

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Melissa Dabakis and Paul H. D. Kaplan

Italy and the United States have enjoyed a fruitful cultural relationship, from Benjamin West’s first trip to Italy in 1760 to the more recent collaborations between Italian and American artists, critics, and gallerists in the post-World War II era. This anthology makes apparent the influential web of cultural connections that has existed between these two countries over the last three centuries. Showcasing transnational methodologies, the chapters in this book examine the significance of Italy to American art and visual culture, and outline the impact of the United States on Italian art and popular culture from the antebellum period in the United States through the Cold War years. Divided into two parts, the anthology’s thematic focus considers the ways in which several overlapping versions of republican ideology were manifested in the visual and literary cultures of the United States and Italy throughout the long nineteenth century (Part I), followed by an examination of the fascination with ‘empire’ that occurred in late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century Italian and American art (Part II). The first section concentrates on the shared notions of republicanism and tyranny that animated American and Italian politics, and the ways in which both nations attempted to bind a community of diverse peoples together on the common values of liberty, equality, and the pursuit of happiness. The second addresses the various ways in which liberal tendencies gave way to imperial ambition, and how this transition was given visual and cultural form in both the United States and Italy.

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Issues of race and power in nineteenth-century American responses to early modern Italian public sculpture
Paul H. D. Kaplan

A particular subset of complex, monumental sculpture from the early modern era – especially the ‘Quattro Mori’ bronzes in Livorno (1626) and the black African telamones of the Pesaro tomb in Venice (1669) -- were read by American writers and artists in the light of contemporary political anxieties around race, slavery, and abolition. The most fraught and thus most revealing era for these interactions runs from the 1840s through the Civil War and into Reconstruction, but a few telling responses from well after 1876 are also considered. The American reception of these monuments of the past, appearing in travel guides and published memoirs as well as diaries and letters, composed by the famous (like Mark Twain) and the obscure, is alternately suffused with empathy and hostility, depending on the writers’ views on American slavery and abolition. The final section of the chapter traces the artistic impact of the Livorno sculptures and the Pesaro tomb on the monumental imagery of Harriet Hosmer (1866–68, designed in Rome for display in the United States) and Fred Wilson (2003, installed at the Venice Biennale).

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Sergio Cortesini

The art projects of the New Deal have been investigated from a variety of perspectives, but comparatively little attention has been reserved for the myth of the Italian Renaissance within this discourse. This chapter focuses upon the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture, which was committed to commissioning decorations of the highest quality for new federal buildings, and investigates the critical appropriation of the Italian cultural past as a ‘usable past’ – to exploit Van Wyck Brooks’s noted expression – in the service of a burgeoning American modern art. Although seeming paradoxical for a programme so targeted at reinforcing American values, the imagery of the Italian Renaissance can be read as a watermark between the lines of the Section’s discursive rhetoric and painterly practice. In short, these public projects were made to resonate with the social role of art in Italian medieval communes, and with the reintegration of artists into a national social network. This admiration for Italian art, however, only rarely gave way to blatant imitation, and the range of sources of inspiration encompassed the Renaissance in its wider chronological scope, from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries. This chapter focuses upon the influence of three key players in the federal programme: Edward Bruce, chief of the Section; Forbes Watson, adviser to the federal programme; and George Biddle, a painter who helped inspire the programme and was one of its first participants, all of whom spent time in Italy.

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Nationality, politics, and art in Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Letters from Abroad to Kindred at Home
Leonardo Buonomo

Catherine Maria Sedgwick’s Letters from Abroad to Kindred at Home (1841) offers her readers, among other things, passages that they would have expected to find in a travelogue – namely descriptions of famous paintings, statues, and buildings – though she frequently prefaces her comments with confessions of lack of expertise. This rhetorical strategy allows Sedgwick to present a non-technical and non-canonical reading of Italian art, one in which Italy’s artistic heritage could be perceived as providing insight into the country’s predicament. But if Sedgwick, by her own admission, was not particularly conversant with art history and architecture, she could bring to the Grand Tour genre her knowledge of the Italian language and Italian literature, which sets her apart from the majority of American and British authors, and gave her unfiltered access into Italian society. That knowledge, combined with what she had absorbed through her interaction with Italian political exiles in the United States, informs the Italian section of Letters from Abroad to Kindred at Home and renders it an important chapter in the history of American literary transatlanticism. Sedgwick sets the tone for the entire Italian section of her travelogue by making a consistent effort to challenge what she believed to be her Anglo-Saxon Protestant audience’s deeply engrained superiority complex. Reading Italy and its treasures from the enlightened perspective espoused in her book, Sedgwick hoped Americans would understand with unprecedented clarity, and wholeheartedly support, Italy’s right to self-determination.

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Death, decay, and the Technological reliquaries, 1637–67
Erika Doss

American artist Paul Thek lived in Italy intermittently during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1963, he visited Palermo’s Capuchin Catacombs, where, photographed by Peter Hujar, he first began to reckon with the raw themes of death and decay that would inform his major body of art, the Technological reliquaries. Drawn to the catacomb’s macabre materiality and preservation of the dead, inspired by the metaphors of corporeality also apparent in Italian Renaissance sculpture, and informed by his Catholic upbringing, Thek began to make hyper-realistic sculptures of raw meat and faux body parts. Displayed inside pristine glass or plexiglass boxes carefully edged in metal trim, his ‘meat sculptures’ consisted of glistening gobbets of bloody flesh or amputated human limbs encased in classical Roman armour. Each was meticulously rendered from beeswax and resin and painted in acrylics, with some pieces pierced by metal pins or wires and perforated by plastic tubes, and others studded with beads, hair, mirrors, and plastic insects (flies and butterflies). Less interested in romantic stereotypes of Italy as cultural muse, he was drawn to the affective, materialist, disruptive, and process-driven practices of Italy’s postwar avant-garde, many of whom shared his interests in corporeality and decay. By extension, Italy’s course of empire, its repeated cycle of rise and fall from the age of the Caesars to the regime of Il Duce, functioned as a metaphor for Thek’s own repeated attention in the Technological reliquaries to the decline and destruction of the body over the course of human life.

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Charles Caryl Coleman and Elihu Vedder in the circle of the Macchiaioli
Adrienne Baxter Bell

Two American artist-émigrés in Italy, Charles Caryl Coleman (1840–1928) and his close friend Elihu Vedder (1836–1923), warrant pairing for their symbiotic artistic visions and close interactions with the influential group of Italian artists known as the Macchiaioli, several of whom participated in the heady political events that constituted the Risorgimento. The cultural and political conversations in which American and Italian artists engaged have been somewhat overlooked in the vast corpus on nineteenth-century art. Illuminating these conversations advances the ongoing process of challenging the prevailing view of the American artist in Italy as interloper. It also clarifies the political implications of Coleman’s and Vedder’s subjects and settings, as they spurned the exalted ruins of the Roman empire and shifted their attention to the enduring domestic customs and ancient landscapes of the working classes. The Roman Campagna, for example, inspired entirely new compositional formats, and spurred their exploration of artistic techniques that had been censored at home, such as the macchia. Moreover, Coleman’s and Vedder’s interaction with the politically and artistically radical artists of the Macchiaioli sparked empathy for the ongoing revolutionary struggle in Italy for independence and unification.

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Victoria Woodhull, Salvatore Morelli, and feminist social reform in Italy and America
Maria Saveria Ruga

The Calabrian painter Andrea Cefaly’s The Progress of America was completed during the artist’s stay in Naples, in a year (1880) that coincided with his intense activity as a painter and as a member of Parliament in the Left Party (1875–80). It presents iconographic elements unusual in Italian art, referencing a moment of radical social reform in both Italy and America in the late nineteenth century, with a particular focus on women's issues. Cefaly had actively participated in the Risorgimento struggle, and was drawn to American radicalism in the 1870s. The painting references American values through the presence of the flag, which is associated with the phrase ‘Civil Progress’. Instantly recognisable is the portrait of George Washington, held up by two women, celebrating the values of progress. Both Victoria Woodhull, the American feminist and presidential candidate, and Salvatore Morelli, one of the most prominent Italian activists for the political rights of women, occupy prominent positions in the canvas. Drawing on Italian political discourse in journalistic texts and political cartoons, as well as on other Italian pictures of the period with progressive political messages, the remarkably transatlantic and feminist focus of Cefaly’s composition is explored. The painting demonstrates a close symbiosis between the progress of society and the condition of women, while documenting the active participation of southern Italy’s visual and political culture in the new nation, and in the discourses of transnational radicalism.

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Italian and American art in transnational perspective, 1840–1970

"Republics and empires showcases transnational perspectives that address the significance of Italy for American art and visual culture while outlining the impact of the United States on Italian art and popular culture. Covering the period from the Risorgimento to the Cold War, this collection of chapters illuminates the complexity of the visual discourses that bound two relatively new nations together. It also pays substantial attention to literary and critical texts that addressed the evolving cultural relationship between Italy and the United States.

Taking into account the significant historical events that linked Italy and the United States, Part I: ‘Hybrid Republicanisms’ and Part II: ‘The Courses of Empire’ highlight important cross-cultural issues. The first section concentrates on the shared notions of republicanism and tyranny that animated American and Italian politics in the long nineteenth century. Rather imperfectly, both nations attempted to bind a community of diverse peoples together on the common values of liberty, equality, and the pursuit of happiness. The second exposes how the liberal tendencies of nationalism gave way to imperial ambition, and how this transition was given visual and cultural form in Italian and American high art and popular culture.

The anthology serves as a valuable introduction to American-Italian cultural relations. Its fourteen historicised case studies by Italian and American scholars trace how gender, race, ethnicity, and class interests intersect with the powerful political and cultural dynamics of both nations.