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The Orient in dreams, paintings, and exploration

Rome’s Chiostro del Bramante hosts an exhibition dedicated to 19th century Orientalist painters, with eighty or so works by masters such as Morelli, Hayez, Caffi, and Netti

The dreamed-about Orient and the Orient explored by many travellers drawn to enchanted landscapes, precious and vivid colours, atmospheres steeped in eroticism, and intense heady perfumes: this is the topic of an exhibition running at Rome’s Chiostro del Bramante from 20 October to 22 January 2012 and titled “The Orientalists. Enchantment and discovery in 19th century Italian painting”.
The exhibition, curated by Emanuela Angiuli and Anna Villari, features a selection of about eighty 19th century Orient-themed Italian paintings, inspired by the Egyptian expedition and the tales of explorers, middlemen, and other fearless travellers whose accounts captured the imagination of the Old Continent. Indeed, during the 19th century the Orient was synonymous with fascination, fantasy, evasion, and most of all it was the source of inspiration for countless artists who fell under the spell of remote, mysterious cultures from distant lands. Attracted by a taste for the unknown and  fascinated by the photographs and other works of art that were circulating in Europe at the time, starting in about 1830 many Italian artists began to focus on historical or imaginary Orient-inspired subjects, depicting countries such as Greece or the Arab Middle East with a romantic sensibility.
The exhibition takes shape through works that describe the Orient as it was known and loved firsthand by some of the artists on display, as well as an imaginary version of the same land dreamed by the likes of the great Neapolitan painter Domenico Morelli (Naples 1826-1901). His works were inspired by photographs or contemporary paintings, such as in Turkish Bath (1876-78), which revisits a painting by Gerome, one of his great admirers. The founder of the Neapolitan school was well-known for his claimed desire to depict «figures and things I have not seen, but which are imaginary and real at the same time».
The exhibition begins with the work of one of the most important figures for the dissemination of orientalist atmospheres and narratives, Francesco Hayez (Venice 1791 - Milan 1882). Much like Morelli, he was captivated by tales of forbidden pleasures, odalisques, harems, and Turkish baths, without ever having actually set foot in the Orient. Hayez was one of the first artists to show an interest in the Greek question, through images, costumes, and characters which accurately portrayed real events, as evidenced by figures such as those in 1835’s  Ruth and 1847’s Tamar of Judah. His approach differed dramatically from that of another artist from Veneto, Ippolito Caffi ( Belluno 1809 - Vis 1866), who in 1843 sailed from Naples to Athens on his way to Constantinople, Smyrna, Ephesus, Alexandria of Egypt, Cairo, Jerusalem, and the many other localities depicted in his works.

Two travelling artists - Alberto Pasini (Busseto, Parma 1826 - Cavoretto, Torino 1899) first, followed by Roberto Guastalla (Parma 1855 - Viarolo 1912), the "pilgrim of the sun" – set forth from Parma through caravans and distant cities, depicting them in paintings and, in Guastalla’ s case, also with a new instrument, the photographic camera.

Stefano Ussi (Florence 1822-1901), one of the leading orientalist painters, also embarked on a fascinating voyage, arriving in Egypt immediately after the opening of the Suez Canal, and working for the Pasha before moving to Morocco with Cesare Biseo, who had also worked at the court of the Egyptian viceroy. Together, they illustrated Edmondo De Amicis’ Marocco.

Federico Faruffini (Sesto San Giovanni, 1833 - Perugia, 1869), Alfredo Luxoro (Genoa1859-1918), Luigi Mussini (Berlin 1813 - Siena 1888), Gaetano Previati (Ferrara 1852 - Lavagna 1920), and Eugenio Zampighi (Modena 1859 - Maranello 1944) followed in these artists’ footsteps and focused on themes that mirrored these exotic voyages, each with his own personal take in accordance with their sensibilities.

Indeed, artists such as Vincenzo Marinelli (San Martino d'Agri 1819 - Naples 1892), Marco De Gregorio (Resina, 1829 – Naples, 1876), the Sicilian Ettore Cercone (Messina 1850 - Piana di Sorrento 1896), and the Calabrian Rubens Santoro (Mongrassano 1859 - Naples 1942) brought back not only “visions” of exotic beauties and odalisques, but also of sun-baked landscapes and details regarding the history and religion of these faraway places.

Among painters, Francesco Paolo Netti (Santeramo in Colle 1832 - Naples 1894) is worth a special mention. He lived in Paris from 1866 to 1871 and travelled to Turkey in 1884, after which sojourn he created works steeped in refined elegance, which he owed in part to his work as a critic and reviewer of international art exhibitions. His canvases managed to capture a mood that reveals his great sensitivity and a profound, sincere, and intimate passion for the charms of the Orient. 
Augusto Valli, Semiramide dying on Nino’s tomb, oil on canvas, 150x200 cm, Modena, Civic Museum of Art
Augusto Valli, Semiramide dying on Nino’s tomb, oil on canvas, 150x200 cm, Modena, Civic Museum of Art

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