From a French Modernist painter I am moving to an Italian Romantic painter. Today I am featuring Tommaso Minardi and looking at his painting entitled Self Portrait, which he painted in 1807.
Tommaso Minardi was born in Faenza in 1787, an Italian city some fifty kilometres south-east of Bologna. As a teenager he studied art and design at a private school, as a pupil of Giuseppi Zauli. Minardi was granted an annual stipend by Count Virgilio Cavina of Faenza and in addition, he received financial assistance in the form of a stipend, from the Congregazione di S Gregorio of Faenza. Thanks to this five year stipend from his patron, Minardi, who was not yet sixteen years of age, moved to Rome to continue his artistic studies. The terms of this five year grant were such that the young man had to send one completed work of art back to Faenza each year. His paintings Socrates and Alcibiades and Supper at Emmaus were two of his works he sent back to his patron in Faenza. At the age of twenty-three he entered a painting into an annual competition run by the Bologna Academy of Fine Arts and he won and his reward was financial stability for the next three years.
Whilst in Rome he studied art but was also employed by the painter and engraver Giuseppe Longhi, who was an exponent of Neoclassicism and for his employer he did reproduction drawings of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel.
In his thirties Minardi began to teach art and in 1819 he was appointed director of the Academy of Fine Arts in Perugia. Three years later he became professor of drawing at the Accademia di San Luca in Rome, a position he held for over thirty-five years. Besides his own painting and teaching, Minardi began to take an interest in local politics and he spent much of his time working tirelessly for the protection and restoration of the capital city’s great heritage. Tommaso Minari died in Rome in 1871, aged eighty-three.
My Daily Art Display’s featured painting today entitled Self Portrait depicts the artist himself, sitting on a matress which is on the floor. He is wrapped in a coat in what looks like a very unassuming room. The room we see him in is termed a mansard room but is known more commonly as an attic room with its sloping ceiling. It is a typical student-type apartment at the top of a very large house. On the back wall of the room we can just make out a painting and besides the bed is a bookcase crammed with books and papers. More books and documents can be seen strewn on a desk to the right of the painting. The room is lit up from two sources, light streaming in through windows on either side. On a cabinet to the artist’s left is a human skull and on the floor in the left foreground there is skull of an animal. What are we to make of this? What was Minardi’s symbolic reasoning for including these two items? Was the human skull to have the meaning related to Vanitas paintings, that human life passes quickly and we are but mere mortals, or is it just a theatrical prop used by the artist to induce a feeling of melancholia into the work. Are we meant to sympathise with this depiction of him, a poor, sad young art student in his small cramped abode, clutching a heavy coat around his body for warmth. Is this a depiction of a poor young artist struggling for recognition, and desperate to attain financial security? Remember Minardi was only twenty years old when he painted this work and had yet to become a successful artist. So maybe this is how the artist viewed his current “lot in life” – life as a bohemian student in his dingy top floor attic room in the Eternal city.
I wonder whether this paining in any way inspired the French novelist and poet, Henri Murger, when he wrote a work published in 1851 entitled Scènes de la vie de bohème and which was later used by the librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa for Puccini’s 1896 opera La Bohème. Was our struggling artist, Tommaso Minardi, in today’s painting the forerunner of the struggling painter Marcello, in La Bohème ?
I like the painting for its emotive qualities and I am heartened by the fact that Minardi did eventually make good and went on to live a prosperous life.