In 1842, Edward Lear began a journey into the Italian peninsula and made the strenuous effort of travelling to the Abruzzo region where he fell in love with the harsh landscape and its hardy inhabitants. In notes and drawings, he gathered his impressions of local life and traditions, and described the splendour of ancient monuments. Lear drew a sketch of the medieval village of Albe; gave an account of Castello Piccolomini dominating the plain of Lago Fucino (which was drained a few years later); and recalled the stillness of snowy mountains that would impress D.H. Lawrence some seventy-five years later during his visit to Valle di Comino.
Lear published his Illustrated Excursions in Italy in 1846. He firmly put the region and its people on the map of creative discovery. Sudden interest in this ‘forgotten’ locality did not spark a rush of artists to conquer the cut-off terrain. Instead, it led to migrant movement from Abruzzo and neighbouring Ciociaria towards the art capitals of Europe. It would have a notable effect on English aesthetics.
During the nineteenth century, parts of Italy suffered serious economic hardship. From the 1820s onwards people started to leave en masse. Chain migration played a dominant part in the exodus from a fragmented society. The chain was formed by instrument makers from the valleys around Como; hat makers from Leghorn (Livorno); plaster cast makers from Lucca; waiters from Ticino; glass makers from Altare; and street musicians from Naples. Political integration did not solve the country’s economic problems. Emigration remained high in the following decades, owing to various crises in agriculture, and the inability of manufacture to generate enough jobs.
Abruzzo and Ciociaria, now hailed as the greenest parts of Europe, were once lands of deprivation. Surrounded by rugged mountains, the districts were long isolated from other parts of Italy. A self-sufficient agricultural economy was crucial for survival. Although remoteness was opened up by an emerging railway network (in 1839, a first segment of railroad was laid stretching the short distance from Naples to Portici; seven years it had reached Venice), the regions remained among the poorest in the country. Their economies were based on traditional methods. Outdated sheep-raising systems and uncompetitive wool manufacture forced labourers to leave the land and move away. Unification in 1860 and the subsequent introduction of conscription, made young men feel that their only escape route was either brigandage or emigration (‘o emigranti o briganti’). The exodus of farmers and workers began there and then, became intense in the mid-1880s, and reached a peak between 1900 and 1915. With the port of Naples connected by the Ferrovia Sangritana rail service, the Americas were their main destination although many of them remained within Europe. Migration was stimulated by the government as it removed the (deeply feared) threat of social unrest. It also helped the balance of payment as most migrants sent money home to support their families. By 1915 half a million Abruzzese were living abroad.
During the late nineteenth century and early 1900s many ‘romantic’ paintings were produced depicting the colourful costumes of Italian country-folk. Migrants found work acting as sitters for artists, sculptors, and photographers in Paris, Madrid, or elsewhere. They were admired for their grace and beauty. A typical example is Enrique Simonet Lombardo’s painting Woman from Ciociara (1889). The most successful of migrant models was Almerinda Caira. Born in Atina, she moved to France, and married the painter François-Maurice Roganeau, later Director of the Academy of Fine Arts of Bordeaux. She moved in prominent artistic and diplomatic circles and was a close friend of Giuseppe Garibaldi and his family.
In 1870, two significant events took place. The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, and the subsequent Siege of Paris, disturbed social and artistic life in the capital. Many Italian models living in Paris crossed the Channel and settled in London where they were seen as ‘reliable’ workers, willing to supplement their earnings by selling ice creams or chestnuts, or act as organ grinders. They became the elite of the modelling profession and were prominent in leading studios and art classes. The conflict in France coincided with the foundation of the Slade School of Art at University College London. Its first Professor of Fine Art was Edward John Poynter, the future author of Classic and Italian Painting (1880). He urged his students to use Italian rather than English male models, arguing that their physique was superior. To this he added that their feet were not deformed, because they wore traditional sandals rather than tight-fitting modern shoes. An intriguing side line: the name Ciociaria is derived from ‘ciocie’, the primitive local footwear. According to Poynter’s aesthetic theory, the Italian model came close to the ideal of Greek masculinity.
Victorian artists such as John William Waterhouse, Frederick Leighton, John Everett Millais, or John Singer Sergeant, employed migrant models. Angelo Colarossi had set a precedent. Born in 1838 in the village of Picinisco, he arrived in London in the mid-1860s. Having settled in Hammersmith, his fine physique had not gone unnoticed and he was soon in demand as a model. Posing for Julia Margaret Cameron at Little Holland House, Kensington, she produced the stunning 1867 image ‘Iago, Study from an Italian’ (Iago is a villain Shakespeare’s Othello). Unshaven and brooding, this is one of the finest portraits in early photography. His career soon took off.
John Everett Millais depicted him as a seaman in The Boyhood of Raleigh (1870), while John Singer Sargent cast him in the role of Moses. Frederic Leighton portrayed him as An Athlete Wrestling with a Python (1877)and as Elijah in the Wilderness (1879). Colarossi can also be seen as a figure in relief on the Albert Memorial, Kensington Gardens, and leading a lion as part of Queen Victoria’s Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace. In 1883, John William Waterhouse made him a slave in The Favourite of the Emperor Honorius. Angelo died in London in 1916. His son, also named Angelo, was the teenage model for Albert Gilbert’s Anteros in Piccadilly Circus (commonly known as Eros).
Gaetano Valvona fits the more rustic image of the migrant model. Born in 1857into a family of shepherds, he arrived in London during the early 1870s still wearing the costume of his native countryside. It provoked stone-throwing boys to chase him through Leather Lane, Holborn, where he had settled. His presence caught the eye of Frederick Leighton who made him his chosen model. Valvona posed for the Sluggard (1885), a life size bronze sculpture that Leighton exhibited at the Royal Academy.
Orazio Cerviwas born at some time in the 1860s in Picinisco. As a sixteen-your old he walked to London where he joined the Italian community at Saffron Hill, Clerkenwell, and started work as a street performer. His Abruzzi outfit drew the attention of artists and he soon entered the elite group of models. He was Hamo Thornycroft’s preferred model. Cervi stood for The Stone Putter (1880) and Teucer (1881), the champion Greek archer. After producing classical nudes in the manner of Leighton, the sculptor turned in The Mower to a contemporary subject. Using an Italian model, this is the first sculpture of a British labourer at work (without political connotations). Shortly before World War I, his looks fading and commissions drying up, Cervi returned to his place of birth. In December 1919, D.H. Lawrence and Frieda paid him a visit on their way to Capri. The couple stayed for eight days in the primitive surroundings. In The Lost Girl the novelist based the character of Pancrazio on his host.
Suggestions about home-erotic relationships were rife when, in 1892, Nicola d’Iverno entered the service of John Singer Sargent, acting as his valet and model for two decades. Alessandro di Marco was another intriguing figure. His androgynous features made him an attractive sitter as it was possible for him to pose for both male and female figures. He stood for Merlin in Burne-Jones’s The Beguiling of Merlin (1872/7). He also posed for Walter Crane whose wife forbid her husband to use female models. Di Marco was favoured by Pre-Raphaelite artists exhibiting at Coutts Lindsay’s Grosvenor Gallery, Bond Street, as he was the ‘living embodiment of a classical sculpture’. This relatively short but evocative phase in the Anglo-Italian history of both art and migration came to an abrupt end with the start of World War I. The celebration of bright colour would be replaced by the dark aesthetics of loss and mutilation.