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Monuments of war: Modern Italian

The AR examines the monuments of Italy, from eloquent symbols of rejuvination to gigantic symbols of freedom and promise

Originally published in AR October 1915, this piece was republished online in June 2016

Italy has suffered many trials and spoilings since the greatness of Rome reached its zenith eighteen hundred years ago; when the conquering empire was more than two thousand miles in breadth, reaching from the wall of Antoninus in Britain and the northern limits of Dacia to Mount Atlas and the tropic of Cancer, from the Western Ocean to the Euphrafes; and contained more than sixteen hundred thousand miles of cultivated and fertile land.

The rise of Italy to unity can only be briefly sketched here: to do justice to the history of the peninsula would need as many volumes as - there are pages at our disposal, and merely to compile data at a would be as dry in method as preparing a catalogue of pictures.

Centuries after the power of old Rome had been transferred to Constantinople, at a time when Italy was a divided country, ruled by foreigners at a distance, the germ of Italian unity was fostered by the ascendancy of the Lombard cities - Pisa, Milan, Genoa, Florence, and Venice. Walls were built around these cities to guard them from the ruthless invader, the despotism of petty counts was thrown off, and trade with the East was successfully cultivated. The northern cities waxed strong, became separate republics, and waged war upon one another. Many were the changes, and often was progress delayed.

Victor emmanuel and general garibaldi

Victor emmanuel and general garibaldi

Left: Monument to Victor Emmanuel, Peruga, right: Monument to General Garibaldi, Siena

Meanwhile. the citizens enjoyed substantial prosperity, paying companies of mercenaries (condottieri) to fight their battles; the single towns growing in population and drawing fresh citizens from the rural districts. In the fourteenth century the peninsula was divided into five main powers, namely, the Papacy, the Kingdom of Naples, the Milanese Duchy, the Republic of Venice, and the Republic of Florence. In the fifteenth century fresh changes took place. The re-established Milanese Republic enjoyed a further period of prosperity.

Under the presidency of Cosimo de Medici, Florence secured the leadership of Northern Italy, and extended her domains, the presidency of Cosimo being in time replaced by a dictatorship under his grandson, Lorenzo the Magnificent. The history of Venice, on the other hand, shows her aloofness from the generality of Italian affairs; she took part in the extension of Eastern commerce, and made territorial conquests by reason of her victorious maritime supremacy, adding in the meantime Verona, Vicenza, and Padua to her possessions on the mainland, and while consolidating her position at the north of the peninsula warded off the incursions of the Turks. Pope Nicholas V proposed at this time that the five powers of Italy should unite against the common foe, but his far-seeing counsel was disregarded until, in 1494, when France and Spain chose Italy as a cockpit (or their conquests and settling of quarrels, a new era dawned.

In the year 1488 the League of Cambrai was formed by France, Spain, and Germany, and later, in 1512, partly owing to the intrigues of Pope Julian II, the French were expelled from Italy at Ravenna, only, however, to return under Francis I and to be expelled again after the battle of Pavia, when Francis was taken prisoner. Finally, the Peace of Cambrai left Charles V in possession of Italy, and from that date to the end of the eighteenth century the independence of the single towns as well as of the whole peninsula was at an end. But, notwithstanding such vicissitudes, Venice arrived again to some degree of her old power by the conquest of the Peloponnesus from the Turks in 1684, though this triumph was short-lived, for in 1715 the Turks wrested the spoils from the indolent Venetians.

Five days and combatants of war

Five days and combatants of war

Left: Monument to the Five Days, Milan, right: Monument to the Combatants of the War of Independence

The wars of the Spanish and Austrian successions found Italy an easy prey to further redistribution. From 1755 until 1796 the country everywhere enjoyed peace and prosperity. Then came the advent of Napoleon, and the invasion of the helpless land by the soldiers of the French Republic, ending in the Treaty of Campo Formio, and a further redistribution, by which agency Venice was ceded to Austria, and northern and central Italy was divided up into small republics. In 1805 Napoleon was crowned King of Italy at Milan, and in the following year his brother Joseph Bonaparte was proclaimed King of Naples; but when the overthrow of Napoleon occurred in 1814 his kingdom of Italy was shattered, and another redistribution of Italian territory took place among the Allies. As a direct outcome of the Napoleonic invasion the national pride which had lain dormant under the foreign yoke for so many years was roused to fever heat.

Secret societies, of which the Carbonari was the most prominent, became popular with the educated classes, and in 1820 risings were general - a proof of the feelings that were simmering beneath the surface. Mazzini, then a youthful patriot, conceived his idea of “Giovane Italia”; but after a futile raid in Savoy, when his followers were defeated, he escaped to London, and endeavoured to widen his influence over his countrymen from a distance. In 1849 the Austrians under Radetzky inflicted a crushing defeat on Charles Albert, who abdicated in favour of his son Victor Emmanuel, and still further cessions of Italian territory were made. About this time France decided to restore Rome to the papal authority, and sent her troops under General Oudinot to besiege the city. This General was defeated at Civita Vecchia by Garibaldi, then but recently returned to Italy from exile in South America. The Neapolitans, strengthened by the addition of Spanish soldiers, marched to oppose Garibaldi, and were also defeated by the patriot, at Palestrina and Velletri. But despite the confidence reposed in Garibaldi by the mass of Italian opinion, the French succeeded in restoring the papal authority by 1850.

National monument to victor emmanuel

National monument to victor emmanuel

National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II, Rome

Venice in the meantime surrendered to her Austrian enemy after a lengthy siege by sea and land. From the year 1850 the spark of Italian unity grows clearer, and in due time the flame ascends and bursts into a radiant blaze. Victor Emmanuel becomes the popular idol of the Italian cause, with Cavour for henchman; “Unity. Independence, and Victor Emmanuel” - the motto of the Societa Nazionale. The statesmanship of Cavour led to an arrangement with Napoleon III having for its sequel the Franco Austrian War and the French victories of Montebello, Magenta, and Solferino. From 1859 to 1861 the length and breadth of Italy trembled with dissension and revolution. Finally the conquering Garibaldi hailed Victor Emmanuel as “King of Italy,” and resigned his dictatorship. During the ensuing years until the outbreak of the Franco-German War the “eternal city” held gloomily aloof from the new kingdom, but in 1871 Rome was inaugurated as the capital of the kingdom.

For the past half-century the consolidation of the kingdom has slowly progressed. Italy has put her affairs in order. Ambitious to become one of the Great Powers of Europe, she entered with zest upon fields of commerce and manufacture. Electoral reform, foreign colonisation, the reorganization of industries, and the creation of an Army and Navy occupied her strength and talent. Thirteen years after the Franco Prussian War Italy contracted a partnership with Germany and Austria; it was an affair of convenience, for her real friendship was given to France and England, and her dramatic severance from the Triple Alliance points the biggest moral of the present War.

Italy in future promises to be the leading power in the Mediterranean. She will use her great resources wisely. Her ancient treasures will be jealously guarded; no longer will she permit foreigners to speak of her as a vast antique shop; no longer will the guttural Bavarian tongue dominate the public places of the northern cities. Italy is the most recent, and therefore the most modern, of the nations. The shock of the warlike enterprise she is engaged upon will augment confidence in her destiny.

Garibaldi monumnent rome

Garibaldi monumnent rome

Garibaldi Mobument, Rome: sculpture groups

The war monuments erected in Italy during the second half of the nineteenth century are eloquent of the period of rejuvenation. The earlier ones are simple and modest, as becomes the first stages of the rise of Italy to power; but the last, to Victor Emmanuel, which Sacconi’s genius modelled, is a monument to something more than the great king’s memory: it is a gigantic symbol of freedom and promise.

English artists, collectively, have not paid serious attention to recent Italian art. They have refused to study anything later than the triumphs of Michelangelo, Peruzzi, and Vignola. The works of the decline during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries have been voted meretricious, and, as a result, much of the art product of Italian artists during the early nineteenth century is unknown. Yet the later work hints vaguely of the coming emancipation. From Naples to Florence, from Genoa to Trieste, Italian architects have laboured to spread the refinement and charm which they felt instinctively to be their heritage. For years these achievements have been overshadowed, but it is safe to predict that after the present War has run its course these works will influence our insular artistic outlook in a marked degree.

At Rome there is an equestrian monument to Charles Albert designed by Romanelli (see illustration on preceding page), a spirited conception which appeals to one’s sense of fitness by reason of its simple lines. The treatment of the pedestal is based on Roman precedent; the usual cornice over a triglyph frieze gives place to a rectangular table top upon which the bronze is placed. Bas-reliefs of the campaigns form subinterests, and in this regard the smaller scale of the figures in the bronze panels is logical and legitimate.

The second monument to Charles Albert, at Turin, fails in impressiveness for two reasons, the first being the multiplicity of parts and the second the difference of scale adopted for the seated figures. This monument, although beautifully detailed, conveys to the mind much of the effect that a costume tableau would. The tower erected at San Martino to the memory of the combatants who fell in the wars for Italian independence between the years 1848 and 1870 is an instance of happy inspiration on the part of the architect who conceived the scheme. The motif was evidently taken from the fourteenth century towers of Florence. It is martial in character, rich in decorative simplicity, and immensely strong in the disposition and proportion of its parts; such a structure is a symbolic monument in itself, and does not need the factitious aid of sculptural ornament. A similar instance of graceful proportion is to be found in the Nelson monument on the Calton Hill at Edinburgh.

In the obelisk monument at Milan a different interest is found. The theme is Baroque with a reticent Piranesian accent. The design of the obelisk, especially the top, and the graceful base, shows what variety can be given to a simple primary form by a capable designer. The sculptural interest in this example is highly decorative, and essential to the artistic equilibrium of the structure. The figures are plaintive in expression; they cling to the pedestal without disturbing the rhythm of the whole, and introduce a light-and-shade interest just at the point where the eye expects to find relief. Some monuments require a delicate guard-rail, and this obelisk at Milan is a good example of the application of such a feature.

Tomb of victor emmanuel

Tomb of victor emmanuel

Tomb of Victor Emmanuel II in the Pantheon, Rome

The monument to General Alessandro Lamarmora at Turin, by Cassano, is to be commended for the admirable relation between the active figure and the reposeful base. The studied pose of the soldier demands sympathetic lines in the front of the pedestal, and the design is shaped to the occasion. All the Italian war memorials under discussion gain from their appropriate settings. When we subject them to critical study we take into account the placidity of the background, the repose of the buildings, the beauty of the landscape, and the qatural surroundings. The Italians, however, have a tendency to introduce in some instances too many interests, as for example in the monument to Prince Amedeo, Duke of Aosta, at Turin, by David. The sculptural interest is here seen dominating all architectural considerations; the variety bewilders the senses, and the subordinate groups of cavalry in relief detract from the spirited equestrian figure which is intended to dominate the conception.

The monument at Ravenna to the martyrs who fell in the wars for Independence demonstrates the value of the sub-motif when the latter is employed with discretion. The designer adopted a formal treatment, but was determined to avoid monotony; this he achieved by asymmetrically grouping the dominant figure of Italy, and introducing a recumbent fallen soldier at the feet of the upright female figure. In this design the architecture forms the balancing interest; it is stronger and simpler than the sculpture, and compels admiration by sheer value of the plain surfaces.

The Cairoli monument at Rome, by Ercole Rosa, is among the finer of the lesser monuments of the nineteenth century. Although in this case the bronze figures are intended to impress the first thoughts of the beholder, the real strength of the design is in the architectural treatment of the base. The intellectual handling of the blocks of marble, the restraint shown in the simplicity and character of the mouldings, the prominence given to the inscription, as well as the excellent adjustment of the whole pyramid of architecture and sculpture, needs no explanation.

Many are the monuments erected to Garibaldi. By far the best of them all is the one at Milan. This is an extremely fine conception, notable especially for the treatment of its pedestal and the maintenance of the same scale between the sub-motif and the crowning equestrian figure of Italy’s great fighting patriot. The monument at Rome is unconvincing; Professor Gallori allowed his passion for theatrical display to outweigh considerations of sublime attainment. Had the small-scale sub-motifs at the base of the pedestal been eliminated, and the plain blocks been retained, the gain in dignity would have been very great. There is, however, immense dramatic interest in the sculptured groups at either end (see Plate V). Professor Romanelli’s monument to Garibaldi at Siena is far better in many ways, although the equestrian figure, fine as it is, does not convey to the mind the idea of accomplishment and sad resignation which was the chief characteristic of the Italian Liberator.

Garibaldigate

Garibaldigate

The Garibaldi Gate, Milan

Monuments to King Victor Emmanuel the Second are also numerous in Italy. They vary in size and artistic value from the equestrian figures at Perugia and Milan to the simple wall memorial in the Pantheon and the grand monument at Rome by Sacconi. Of the equestrian monuments, the one at Perugia by Giulio Tadolini is the most successful; the bronze group of horse and rider is a natural portrait study of the king just as he appeared on his charger in the field; the base is slightly larger than the bronze; the detail is simple, and cannot be confused with the sculpture, for the designer boldly treated his subject as a portrait study in full relief, placed on a pedestal in the centre of the city. The military trappings are rich, the bearing of the horse and rider is dignified, and if the design appears to be too reticent and lacking in imagination, the beauty of the parts more than atones for the seeming tameness. The monumental equestrian group at Milan goes to the other extreme; too great an interest appears at the middle portion of the pedestal, the pose of the rider partakes of a pantomimic attitude, while the difference in scale between the dominant group, the pigmy figures on the bronze relief panel, and the smugly contented lion, lack impressiveness and fail to convince, although the rich character of the conception may satisfy the popular taste. Of a very different stamp is the tomb of Victor Emmanuel in the Pantheon. Here the architect, Manfredi, caught his inspiration from the spirit of the rotunda itself. The monument needs no description; its honesty and restraint speak forcibly of the work accomplished by the king; for no better epitaph could have been written than “Father of his Country.”

Finally, there is the National Monument at Rome, which ranks as the finest modern war memorial in the world. Its mass symbolizes something more than combat, for it links the past to the present, it tells of the triumphs of Roman civilisation, it reflects the glories of the Renaissance at its zenith, and in the vigour and correct multiplicity of its interests it announces the rejuvenation of Italy. It was obvious to all thinkers, long before the present War became a reality, that Italy was steadily seeking her destined place as a Great Power. A nation capable of producing an expression of the forces working among her people, such as this magnificent structure conveys, could not be classed with those decadent countries whose ideals are overshadowed by indolence.