Silvestro Lega who was born in the Romagna, went to Florence in 1843 and studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti with Giuseppe Bezzuoli. From 1844 he studied at the studio of Luigi Mussini and together with other students from the Academy, took part in the 1948 projects. Lega’s early works are typical of conventional Academy style. In 1951 he exhibited at the Academy with the painting “Velleda” taken from “Martiri Cristiani di Chateaubriand ” (Christian Martyrs of Chateaubriand), in 1852 he won the Academy triennial competition with “David che placa Saul al suono della cetra” (David pacifies Saul with the music of the zither). In 1854 he began to meet up with the artists who frequented Caffè Michelangelo, his work began to resemble plein air painting and the chromatic and Luminist tecnique called “macchia” technique but without abandoning the indirect purist influences from Mussini as in the Portrait of his brother Hector, one of the many painted at the end of the 50’s when he stayed in Modigliana, the town where he was born.
In 1861, at the Florence International Exhibition he showed “Imboscata di bersaglieri italiani in Lombardia” (Ambush of the Italian Bersaglieri corps in the Lombardy), where he applied the luminist technique favoured by the caffè Michelangelo artists, who became known as “the Macchiaioli”, and rather late, he finally adopted their style. The 60’s was a period of settled creativity and expressivity known as the Pergentina period, from the name of the place near Florence where he had retired to live and paint. His muse was the young woman Virginia Batelli, who died young a few years later. During this period he exhibited at numerous exhibitions all over Italy with modest success. He painted some of his masterpieces such as “La curiosità” (The Curiosity), c.1866, “Il canto dello stornello” (The Song of the Starling), 1868, “Un dopopranzo” (After Lunch), 1868, that are among the best works of 19th. century Italian art.
In 1870 he had his first great success when he won the silver medal at the National Exhibition of Parma. The same year Virginia Batelli died and Lega decided to go back to Modigliana. He fell into a period of depression made worse by an eye disease. He gradually used brighter and brighter colours in his pictures culminating in the dramatic use of colour of the Gabbro period. In 1875 he returned to Florence where, with Odoardo Borrani, he opened an art gallery in Piazza Santa Trinita, only to close it again a year later. His paintings, almost ignored by critics and the public, continued to earn the praise of his colleagues Fattori, Signorini, Borrani, Zandomeneghi and Adolfo Tommasi, who became his favourite pupil.
In 1878 “Il cuoco” (The Cook) was sent to the Paris Universal Exhibition and in 1880 he exhibited at the First International Show of the “Società Donatello” with “Una scena di famiglia” (Scene from Family Life). Lega’s most intense portraits belong to the 80’s as do some of his brightly coloured landscapes painted at Gabbro, in the inland area of Leghorn where he spent long periods as a guest of the Bandini family. Works painted between 1880 and 1895 are “La lezione della nonna” (Grandmother’s Lesson), 1881, “La signora Bandini sulla scala” (Signora Bandini on the Stairs), “Paesaggio al Gabbro” (The Countryside at Gabbro), 1886, “Sul sagrato” (In the Parvis), 1888, “Sulle colline di Fiesole” (The Hills at Fiesole). He died in poverty in 1894, at Florence’s Ospedale San Giovanni di Dio.
Written by: Gioela Massagli – Translated by: Catherine Biggerstaff
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