Storia dell'Arte

Romanticism from eighteenth-century aesthetics to new trends

Fundamental concepts

By Romanticism traditionally we mean the artistic-cultural trend that originated in the late eighteenth century and matured in the early nineteenth century, up to the middle of the century.

The artists paint drawing on pictorial sources (archaic or gothic or pre-Raphaelite or baroque or …) according to the form that at the moment seems the most appropriate.

The genius

J.H. Füssli, L’Incubo, 1790-91, olio su tela, 75,5 x 64 cm Francoforte, Goethe Museum

The subjectivism romantic reflects not only an escape from reality in mind, burdened by the imminence of a disaster, but also an escape from the future, looking for a utopian place.

Typical of Romanticism, the conception of genius, from which art is born.

Genius is the mediator between infinity and the world; the infinite to which man mostly subjects, which is incomprehensible and inexpressible with conceptual logic or, in general, with rationality.

Rather it can be transmitted by walking freely.

The death

Joseph Mallord William Turner, paesaggio 

With Romanticism, death is part of human life.

During the Enlightenment period it had been “banned”, excluded, marginalized by society, one had to avoid thinking about it and even cemeteries were built outside the cities.

Now with the romantic tendency, feelings are adored and sadness is one of the sides of man, again three-dimensional, erroneous; finally he is again allowed to experience pain, fear, suggestion, hope, trust, bewilderment, loss.

The historical terms of Romanticism are loosely included between the fall of the Napoleonic empire and the mid-nineteenth century.

Elettra Nicodemi
Joseph Mallord William Turner, Pescatori in mare, 1796, olio su tela, dim. 91,4 x 122 cm, Londra, Tate

Intermediate areas, the Italian case

Italy, Romanticism in painting is studied mostly for foreign authors, Renaissance theories and classical tradition prevent Romanticism from taking root, rather we speak of intermediate areas between Neoclassicism and Romanticism, that is, between the two almost contemporary currents, originating from eighteenth-century aesthetic ideals.

The editorial

Joseph M. William Turner (1775-1829) is Britain’s best-known romantic painter, the biography and considerations on his painting , then the romantic art that is not learned through study but is the result of personal qualities and sensitivity, finally “Genius” is one of the most interesting themes of the artistic current. The in-depth analysis on Romanticism reserved for video content deals with this and the pictorial techniques that propose solutions aimed at Impressionism. A particular reference goes to the Barbizon School.

Editorial by Elettra Nicodemi, the video is subtitled

The impact of Romanticism

As far as the impact of Romanticism in the course of history contemporary and immediately following is concerned, its scope is without doubt underestimated.

Usually we tend to consider the vastness of the romantic artistic movement in relation to its geographical expansion .

The fact that Romanticism spread throughout Europe is, in short, something well known even to those who chew a few notions, in fact in the summaries and didactic explanations this so to speak territorial fact is always underlined, I would like to reflect in a broad way on this thing note, therefore trying to jump beyond the fence that this fact outlines, that is, we try to reason beyond the question which we are led to think when we speak of the “European reach of Romanticism”.

It is not just about the fact that it is easy to find romantic works in all corners of Europe (with the exception of the Italian case as mentioned above).

Rather it is a way of seeing that has spread everywhere in the old continent, it is a feeling that has found fertile ground in a transversal way compared to the cultures that still made up the idea of ​​Europe at that time, like pieces of cloth a patchwork blanket.

The romance gives Europe a first unit, a unit that had not previously and will not for much longer, at least until the distances does not shorten significantly thanks to low-cost flights of the third millennium, or rather until the the second half of the 20th century, we did not start to speak brazenly about Europe, freely, constructively, responsibly and completely sensibly.

In the second half of the twentieth century, when Romanticism had already been overcome for a century, all that was done was to remove barriers and create connections , unions on unions to merge a union; monetary, procedural unions related to safety at work, similar parameters on the quality of food, accommodation, teaching have been taken on, efforts have been made to copy welfare policies and new trends in pedagogy with each other, he tried to remove duties and combine technology as well as technique and minds, he tried to make an open and freely circulated space.

This was possible in the second post-war period and at the end of the Cold War when we were all united before by the terrible tragedies of the world conflict or of the world conflicts -the reference goes to the historiographic studies that see the Second World War as an extension of the first- although perhaps it would be better to say united by the desire to overcome those tragedies and also by feeling united as they are certainly different from the way of thinking and acting that had brought European sides to the battlefield in the name of unity or of something incomprehensible.

The thought then goes to the period of great technological push, to the mixing of cultures with the new openings that air links, but also virtual ones have brought with them with the common denominator of speed in putting people so distant from each other in contact.

People who then actually bring other people with them, then places, objects, in general are holders of a culture that was up to the previous moment linked to canons and forms and who were ready to change in substance, little by little, always much faster than in the past century and in all previous centuries, those people were ready to mix and find a new explanation for why we pass under a slice of heaven.

By the time of romanticism men had completely left behind the concept of honor, the idea related to blue blood (or real blood), they had completely freed themselves from the fears that the powerful instilled through manifestations of prestige and pretensions of superiority linked to birth had become more than vain, they were now real nonsense that belonged to the previous century or rather to “centuries ago” to a very remote past not to be taken into consideration, completely overcome, gone, consumed, finished , incinerated as dust of time.

Yet not many years had passed since the Revolution shook the minds and social cadres.

But the Revolution had been -like in a score- the end bar, so going to the head, the music was completely different, the pentagram had another key, another time other indications on halftones, even the rhythm would have been different, but they still could not know.

At the time of Romanticism in the early nineteenth century people began to think of a society that could be made by men and not by old agreements to be respected, that was made by business, which would be based on the economy of free trade, honesty and enhancement of the company and of personal work, we were still far from the large totalitarian theorizations that would sooner or later appear to philosophy.

American War of Independence

At that time, when the artists were romantic, you could not beat your nose with pretensions to command, there would have been the abolition of slavery in the majority of the world and the consequences of the American War of Independence were running their course, great, in America, and Europe but in particular France, as too often forgotten, had a director role, as regards public opinion on the ideas of the overseas revolution.

Between 1775 and 1785 pamphlets flourished and legitimacy was discussed, there was talk of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, talks of Franklin.

The American Constitution was not an easy undertaking; the founders of the United States of America were inspired by the philosophy of enlightenment in Montesquieu and the Spirit of the Laws was the most quoted text in the debates that animated the drafting of the American Constitution.

John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson who drafted much of the American Constitution, then John Adams and James Madison who theorized the structure of the Federative Republic as the best tool for their country and the separation of the three powers (executive, legislative, judicial) that had once again been cradled by French philosophy, again by Montesquieu, made them aware that they were founding a nation and that they would be able to keep it from collapsing into tyranny and anarchy, while maintaining the freedom of American colonies, freedom of people, freedom from European tangles, freedom of worship – this time inspired by John Locke-, in the full legality carried out by the purely puritanical right idea that the real rebels are not those who oppose power, but are the legislators who act contrary to the purpose in view of which they were established and that men are men not servants.

European connections

At the time when Romanticism inflated the sails of Europe, men now saw death in their faces and art was free.

The men of the early nineteenth century in Europe, having capitulated the experience of the French monarchy and brilliantly overcome the period of Terror, they had felt the possibility to use their reason publicly and to share opinions with others.

They finally felt human after freeing themselves from the yoke of slavish thought that the monarchy carried with it.

Art was no longer at the mercy of patronage and so the artist was fully free to keep their feet on the ground and rediscover part of nature, nature from which he was attracted and at the same time afraid, for which he began to feel a new need of description, in order to reproduce it.

Nature is alongside cities, like as in a William Turner’s London sunset.

Just as we saw a new, perhaps more serene conception of death as part of life, like as it is a natural and therefore reproducible, a copiable thing.

It is given at the time of the Romantics in which man was a man even when he was dead, he was a man as drunk as a sleepwalker, he was a man in sleep and wakefulness, a new importance to mental manifestations such as the dream and it is in that period that the unconscious in figurative representation it begins to have its own autonomy and legitimacy.

You can feel fear, sadness, you can be fragile with Romanticism.

It was time to justify your hopes and to fulfill your destiny and to start talking about humanity in terms of protecting for this concept.

The message of Romanticism

Painters as well as romantic writers carried on a message that they had never been precisely outlined before and which was not banal at that time.

Romantic uniqueness

They thought, wrote, preached that there is a uniqueness of which people are bearers.

They spoke overwhelmingly of genius, of the fact that some individuals are more capable than others of coming into contact with the complexity of nature and they are able to explain something to us about the many questions that can be asked, because they relate to the world and relativize compared to the totality, therefore they are salvific.

This romantic uniqueness is not yet a characteristic that affects each of us albeit in different shades, as will be evident in the following century.

We speak rather, at the time of Romanticism, of the subject that is its bearer to the highest degree and which vibrates like the lightning between held and the sky, we speak of genius, because genius as an icon of human nature holds all the others humanity, therefore genius drives away the old thought of superstition, the old thought of diversity, the deaf brooding over the divine.

Follows to Romanticism

The nineteenth-century romantic production is one of the most wonderful manifestations of a “mental form” that accompanies humanity with greater or lesser latency and that will leave the consignments to Symbolism and the Pre-Raphaelites who, although in some respects similar to symbolism, are a group of all settling, and perfectly inserted in the late romantic vision .

In the nineties of the nineteenth century the cultural activity of the so-called Byzantine Rome was fervent by the group of artists who gravity to Rome in the decadent D’Annunzio environment, as well as the neo-Pompeians, belonging to the great Roman crucible.

In this section I also mention a painter whom I admire very much: Giulio Aristide Sartorio , Italian painter, sculptor, writer and film director, born and died in Rome (1860-1932) ; he, a great interpreter of the culture of his time, travels to get to know the Pre-Raphaelites directly, a brotherhood of painters founded in September 1848.

Giulio Aristide Sartorio is actually very famous or at least he should be, let’s see why in the rest of the article .


odison redon bouquet de fleur dans une vase a long col, circa 1912
Odison Redon, Bouquet di fiori dentro un vaso a colo lungo, circa 1912, dim. cm 57 x 35, Parigi, Musée d’Orsay

Symbolism was officially born in Paris with the 1886 poster written by the poet Jean Moréas.

The movement developed, as well as in the figurative arts, in literature and music, in Literature, symbolism develops especially in poetry.

It has as its sole principle that the poet must transmit vague and highly personal impressions.

The symbolist current belongs to the 19th century, but it will be loved during the 20th century.

Period that of the twentieth century in which the artists keep in mind a good principle: my art is what I see, passed through my subjectivity.

Symbolist painting is intimately connected to the dreamlike, the other derivations have different declinations.

Odilon Redon

Odilon Redon, Pegaso e le muse, 1900 circa, Parigi, collezione privata
Odilon Redon, Pegaso e le muse, circa 1900,  Parigi, Collezione privata

Odilon Redon (FR / 1840-1916) was in contact with Gustave Moreau (FR, Paris / 1826-1898) in Paris in 1864 .

At that time, already close to the symbolist themes, together with the Parisian poet he came to the conclusion that the true dimension of painting is the dream .

Odilon Redon, Ritratto di Violette Heymann, 1909-1910, pastello 72 x 92,5
Odilon Redon, Ritratto di Violette Heymann, 1909-1910, pastello 72 x 92,5

Odilon Redon’s painting is symbolist

The Frenchman from Bordeaux chooses subjects from classical mythology, from a romantic derivation.

The other fringe of eighteenth-century aesthetics is therefore recovered, the neoclassical one in so far as the subjects of neoclassicism were the myths, symbolism proposes reinterpretations of the classic myth.

Odilon Redon recalls the knowledge of the Greek myth, his works are an image of what emerges from consciousness after the myth has settled.

The Nabis

Nabis is the name given to a group of painters from the ’90 of XIX century working in France, they were moved by the intention to paint in a new way far from what they learned at the school of paintings infact they were feeling the need to paint in a more archaic manner.

Paul Sérusier

Paul Sérusier was born in Paris in 1864 and so to say he was the leader of the Nabis a group of artists searching for a more archaic communication within the painting, different from the one learned at the schools of drawings.

Una mia foto di un quadro di Paul Sérusier esposto al Museo d'Orsay. Elettra Nicodemi
Paul Sérusier, La Barrière fleurie (Le Pouldu), 1889, oil on canvas, 28.7 x 23.6 inches, France, Paris, the Orsay Museum.


The brotherhood of the Pre-Raphaelites was born in September 1848 in Great Britain ; both for the themes and for the trait of these painters it is fully late romantic.

One of the most significant artistic cultural manifestations of the Victorian age (1837-1901) .

They constitute one of the late romantic artistic currents, they also had a certain fertile ground for the mingling with painters of other nationalities and therefore custodians of different pictorial traditions compared to the original nucleus of the Pre-Raphaelites.

After an initial rejection by the critics, even the writer Charles Dickens misjudged them, the Pre-Raphaelites find their place in the Olympus of painting, especially thanks to the essay by the British John Ruskin entitled Preraphaelitism.

The founders of the current are John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Hunt; this original nucleus was then joined by numerous other artists and painters received interest and visits from various parts of Europe, as has always happened in intellectual communities.


The term neo-Pompeian indicates a small artistic current always within the late romanticism, aimed at celebrating classical antiquity and especially ancient Rome both as regards the side of luxury and that of the decadence of customs.

Lawrence Alma Tadema

Lawrence Alma Tadema (1836-1912) Dutch naturalized British painter is known for his historical paintings, so several cycles are grouped, such as one dedicated to the daily life of Rome, then one dedicated to the History of Rome, one to Egypt, trait d’union between the two, the famous painting Anthony and Cleopatra, then a series attentive to ancient Greece, such as Phidias showing the friezes of the Parthenon to friends or the late romantic Sappho and Alceo.

The environment of Byzantine Rome and its surroundings

By Byzantine Rome we sometimes mean the D’Annunzio environment , that is to say the one headed, so to speak, to Gabriele D’Annunzio, among these for example the artists Cesare Saccaggi and Giulio Aristide Sartorio.

Cesare Saccaggi

In the nineties of the nineteenth century Cesare Saccaggi is in full artistic ferment, recently graduated from the Accademia Albertina in Turin, the artist originally from Tortona, he goes to Rome where life and art is bustling, where he can have something to do with other intellectuals.

In that period his production ranges from mythological themes to themes of the history of Italian literature, his themes show paintings of various kinds, which recall the mythical Arcadia and yet the great container of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, we see for example the biblical Semiramide, mentioned in Dante’s Inferno, as well as slightly later (1903), the walk by Dante and Beatrice in the Incipit of Vita Nova, another very valuable Dante’s text.

Giulio Aristide Sartorio

Giulio Aristide Sartorio has never been a Pre-Raphaelite , simply as a true gentleman he went to London to get to know them personally , inevitably the knowledge as well as the very will to get close to them determines, at least for a certain period of his artistic career a mixture with the Primarily Romanticism , for which it is through another late fringe of Romanticism itself, namely Roman Decadentism.


Giulio Aristide Sartorio is initially a Verista, then in Rome , his hometown, he comes into contact with the environment of Decadentism , gathered around the influential poet and critic Gabriele D ‘Annunzio (1836-1938) contemporary of Sartorio.

And it is precisely for Gabriele D ‘Annunzio that Sartorio performs some works that mark the transition to Symbolism.

With the Biennale of 1895 becomes an artist said , and since then his career is fast growing, it receives fact public commissions .


the decoration of Chamber D and the Deputies in Rome at Palazzo Montecitorio is in my opinion the most significant to understand the three-dimensionality of this artist who personally met Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, during his teaching period in Weimar .

Three-dimensionality that derives from a deep knowledge of mythology and a very profound conception of life.

The dramatic intensity of the scenes in Palazzo Montecitorio, painted with a particular technique more resistant than the fresco, is heralded by the 1907 cycle at the Central Hall for the International Exposition for which he painted 240 square meters in nine months, a decorative cycle on the basis of mythology to illustrate the poem of human life .

The epic vision of the history of Italy is the theme of the decorations in Palazzo Montecitorio made between 1908 and 1912, consisting of about 260 encaustic figures .

The frieze is continuous and is located in the upper part of the Chamber of Deputies with fifty canvases placed side by side .

The frieze represents the epic vision of the history of Italy, the lyrical content of its secular civilization, the serene Young Italy on the triumphal quadriga, to the dense spectacle of its history

Giulio Aristide Sartorio, statement issued to La Tribuna published in the article The frieze of the new hall in Parliament , 22 September 1913.

To get an idea of painting by this artist I think is essential to see his picture La Sirena , bought from a private collection from the Modern Art Gallery of Turin in 2007, of which Luigi Pirandello said .

“… .From the top of the painting a short boat bends to follow the wave ; on the boat , stretched out and supine, an adolescent encircles the emerged enchantress with one arm .

In this wave the whole picture is cut with great boldness .

And you seem to dream, looking at it “ .

Luigi Pirandello

The Siren (or Green Abyss) by Giulio Aristide Sartorio is of a pure romantic beauty and completely unmistakably Pre-Raphaelite ; I had the good opportunity to see her live right at the GAM in Turin and I didn’t miss her; I have an unforgettable memory of it .

This painting called the Siren was made in Rome after a first stay in London, i.e. by 1893 , so before the artist became famous (with the 1895 biennial), and even before his stay in Weimar in the two-year period 1893-1894. , where he taught at the Weimar Academy and where he met Nietzsche.

Italian readers are kindly invited to visit page 2

I lettori in Italiano sono gentilmente invitatati a visitare pagina 2

Pagine: 1 2

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