Odoardo Borrani’s histories and landscapes

Odoardo Borrani (1833-1905), Meeting in the Uffizi (1878), oil on canvas, 63 x 51.2 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Well before the French Impressionists there were other movements with similar objectives, most of which have been long forgotten. The only one which has been retained in the history of painting as revised in the twentieth century is the Barbizon School. Yet in 1848, a group of Italian painters started to meet in the Caffé Michelangiolo in Florence: they were to become the Macchiaioli, named from their gestural style rich in macchia, Italian for the French taches or English patches. They characteristically created small oil sketches en plein air which they later turned into larger finished works in the studio.

Nearly six years ago I wrote a series of articles about those for whom I could find a reasonable number of paintings. At the time, I barely mentioned Odoardo Borrani (1833-1905), and this article fills that gap at long last, and I hope introduces you to a movement of which you weren’t previously aware.

Borrani was born in Pisa, but when he was sixteen his family moved to Florence, where he was apprenticed to one of the great restorers in the city. While he was working in the churches there, he drew the Renaissance masterpieces. Two years later, he enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts, where he proved a brilliant student, winning its gold medal in 1856, the year after he started to frequent the Caffé Michelangiolo and thereby joined the Macchiaioli.

The nineteenth century in Italy was a time of great political upheaval: the Risorgimento which brought the several Italian states together and united them as a single kingdom, through a process of revolutions and three wars of independence. The Macchiaioli were not only politically active, but had the courage of their convictions and many fought for those beliefs. Together with three other members of the group, Borrani joined the Tuscan Artillery in 1859. When he was demobilised two years later, he painted intensively according to the group’s methods.

Odoardo Borrani (1833-1905), Sewing Red Shirts for Volunteers (1863), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

The patriot leader Giuseppe Garibaldi adopted the red shirt as an improvised uniform for his supporters, particularly the Garibaldini, who followed him in the Expedition of the Thousand of 1860, which led to unification. Borrani’s Sewing Red Shirts for Volunteers (1863) shows four middle-class lady supporters eagerly doing their bit for Garibaldi.

Odoardo Borrani (1833-1905), The Body of Jacopo de’ Pazzi (1864), oil on canvas, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

The Body of Jacopo de’ Pazzi from 1864 is one of Borrani’s finest history paintings, which shows a grim episode in the turbulent history of Florence. In 1478, Jacopo de’ Pazzi was the head of the noble banking family of the Pazzi who led a conspiracy against the ruling family of de’ Medici, planning to kill Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici and overthrow the government of the city-state.

De’ Pazzi escaped from the city, but was hunted down, brought back, tortured and hung beside the corpse of another conspirator. His body was initially interred in the family chapel of Santa Croce, but it was then exhumed to be thrown in a ditch, as shown here. Eventually his head was used as a door knocker, and the rest of the family exiled.

This is one of a series Borrani painted of the Pazzi conspiracy, which he started in 1859, and didn’t complete until the late 1880s.

Odoardo Borrani (1833-1905), My Terrace, Florence (1865), oil on canvas, 54 x 81.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

My Terrace, Florence (1865) shows the terrace of Borrani’s home in Florence, with its unmistakeable skyline, including Brunelleschi’s famous dome.

Odoardo Borrani, Peasant Child at Castiglioncello (c 1865), oil on panel, 23.3 x 14.7 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.
Odoardo Borrani (1833-1905), Peasant Child at Castiglioncello (c 1865), oil on panel, 23.3 x 14.7 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

His Peasant Child at Castiglioncello is an example of the plein air oil sketching which he adopted after becoming involved with the Macchiaioli in 1855.

Odoardo Borrani (1833-1905), The Studio (1850-74), oil on panel, 20 x 11 cm, Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

The Studio, painted some time between 1850-74, is a similar sketch made indoors in his studio.

Odoardo Borrani (1833-1905), Call-up of the Reserves (1869), media and dimensions not known, Cassa di Risparmio, Florence, Italy. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

Borrani painted Call-up of the Reserves in 1869, and it may refer to events during the Third War of Independence in 1866 or the difficult years afterwards. A man in military uniform is making his farewells to his family, in the yard of a farmhouse in the country. Athough the family don’t appear particularly poor, the reservist is the only person seen wearing footwear.

In 1876, he co-founded an art gallery in the Palazzo Ferroni to show modern painting from Italy and elsewhere, but it proved a failure.

Odoardo Borrani (1833-1905), Meeting in the Uffizi (1878), oil on canvas, 63 x 51.2 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Meeting in the Uffizi (1878) is a fascinating painting which includes in its backdrop some of the reliefs and busts in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. An affluent and well-dressed couple are meeting there, and in conversation, he holding a walking stick, she a tightly rolled umbrella.

Odoardo Borrani (1833-1905), At the Accademia Gallery (date not known), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

I suspect his undated painting At the Accademia Gallery dates from the same period. Borrani shows two polyptychs and several other early paintings, with two women viewing this gallery in Florence. It’s now best-known for housing Michelangelo’s sculpture of David.

In the Esposizione Nazionale in Rome in 1883, his paintings were well-received, but from that high point on, he gradually drifted downwards into poverty, finally painting ceramics to pay his bills.

Odoardo Borrani (1833-1905), The Pazzi Chapel, Cloister of Santa Croce in Florence (1885-87), media and dimensions not known, Artgate Fondazione Cariplo. Wikimedia Commons.

In about 1885-87, Borrani returned to the Pazzi family’s history with The Pazzi Chapel, Cloister of Santa Croce in Florence, a more peaceful scene.

Odoardo Borrani (1833-1905), The Arno at Rovezzano (1899), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

To the end of his career, Borrani retained his distinctive Macchiaioli style, as seen in this view of The Arno at Rovezzano which he painted in 1899. Rovezzano is one of the quarters of Florence, on the north bank of the River Arno at the eastern edge of the city.

Odoardo Borrani died penniless in Florence on 14 September 1905, by which time his success and art had been largely forgotten.