Originating in France, the Rococo art movement was incorporated into Italy around the eighteenth century (Columbia Encyclopedia, Italian Art The Rococo Period). During this time, Italy experienced corrupt politics by aristocrats taking hegemonic control of politics and economics in order to maintain their position in society (Britannica, Italy – Reform and Enlightenment). Towards the latter portion of the seventeenth century and throughout the nineteenth century, the Enlightenment era was present in Europe (History: Enlightenment). However, Italy’s lack of incorporation of technological and philosophical advancements was apparent in Italy until the nineteenth century because of their setback from manipulated politics and economics (Italian Philosophy).
While corrupt politics and limited opportunities for economic growth were the primary causes for Italy’s late implementation of enlightened ideas, many pieces of Italian Rococo art send the message that Italians long for improvement in political, social, and cultural conditions by adopting the ideas of the Enlightenment.
Around 1707, the Italian Rococo artist, Alessandro Magnasco, painted The Tame Magpie, which depicts a magpie being taught to sing by an Italian on a part (see Fig.1). Magnasco’s painting is not sublime because the tone of the painting is not serious nor depicts an image of greatness beyond calculation (Tate.org, Sublime). However, the underlying message that Magnasco conveys in this painting is one that containsawe and vastness (Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists). In The Tame Magpie, the suffering Italians, a worn out column, and a broken arch with an abundance of greenery represents the ruin of Italy, which has the potential and desire to grow out of ruination through the implementation of enlightened ideas that are symbolized by the arrival of the intelligent magpie and the distant sailor.
While Magnasco’s painting incorporates faint shades of blue, tan, brown, and green, the brightest component of the painting is the light behind the small dark colored magpie, which highlights the intelligent magpie as a symbol of enlightenment that will help Italy in times of despair. The light directly behind the singing magpie sitting above the brown barrels is of a white coloration that combines featherlike specs of gold. The darkly feathered magpie boldly stands out because it is contrasted by the light behind it. This light derives from the opposite end of the body of water behind the port, alluding that the magpie flew from a distant land. In fact, a magpie is considered by some researchers to be among the most intelligent of all animals, and do not originate from Italy, meaning that the magpie present in the painting flew into Italy from an enlightened land (Earthfire Institute, The Intelligence of Crows and Magpies).
Thus, the land the magpie came from directly links to its intelligence, which is validated by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s description of the painting, people from the fringes of society have gathered to watch the spectacle of a man trying to teach a magpie to sing??”an impossible task. However, unlike many other birds in nature, magpies can be taught how to sing, proving that they are extremely intelligent animals that represent a figure mighty enough to conquer the impossible (Youtube, Magpie Singing). Magnasco’s purpose of accentuating the magpie through the usage of light contributes to the broader significance of this intelligence; the magpie is a symbol of hope for an enlightened European empire that will enter and transform Italy to become an innovative country.
While Magnasco promotes the Enlightenment through the magpie, he paints the sun rising over the horizon to display Italy’s desire to escape a society that lacks progress for its citizens. To the left of the barrels that maintain the magpie, an arch is made of stone. Visible through the arch is a body of water that reveals the painting is set in a port in Italy. The contrast in color between the brownstone arch with the blue sky and darker blue water allows Magnasco to draw the attention of viewers to see what is between the arch and the port. Evident in the space between the arch is a blue silhouette of a sailor and the sun attempting to shine over the horizon.
Even though the sun is not fully above the horizon, the light that is visible from the horizon line is as far behind the port as is the light behind the magpie. Thus, the magpie’s symbol of bringing progress to Italy from an enlightened country connects to the light that peeks over the horizon. The sun’s yearning to emit all of its light above the horizon corresponds to Italy’s yearning for adopting enlightened ideas into its society but surely, the sun will be able to fully rise over the horizon, meaning that one day Italy will adopt the innovations of the Enlightenment era.
The way in which these advanced ideas will be implemented into Italy in this painting is through the blue sailor that is highlighted by the light over the horizon. On the other side of the barrels, worn-out Italians are juxtaposed by a blue sailor, signifying Italy is facing a time of ruin and will be helped by enlightenment. Four Italians lift their hands towards the singing magpie sitting above the barrels, whereas more Italians are scattered along the port. Each individual’s face is discolored, containing dark shadows as well as various shades of brown that contrast their usual tan skin. The shadows and discoloration portray the Italians as dirty individuals, alluding to the notion that they are suffering and live in poverty due to the disconnect with enlightenment that delays progression for the country. Also, the clothing worn by the individuals is torn and worn out; looking at the woman feeding her children, her yellow dress is torn at the shoulders while the man in front of her is wearing oversized clothing.
Combining the discolored shadowed faces of these individuals with their ruined clothing, Magnasco portrays the Italians living in a state of agony. Proving that Italians lived in poor living conditions, wealthy gentlemen on the Grand Tour visited the remains of the Roman Empire and reported that Italian lived in a state of poverty and provincialism (Dickie, Delizia!: The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food). While the sailor is highlighted by the sun’s beam of light over the horizon, the afflicted individuals are juxtaposed with the calm sailor. The difference between the untroubled sailor and the aching Italians proves that similar to the magpie, the sailor represents the ability to lift these hurting individuals out of its ruins from the Roman Empire and into a state of prosperity that will be influenced by the innovations of the Enlightenment.
One of the many Italians on the floor of the port is a man who is the center of the painting and extends his long half clothed body to introduce the relationship between the light brightening the agonized Italians and the intelligent magpie’s symbol. Looking towards the magpie with faces of despair, the large group of Italians appear to be tired, yet they are not hiding from the light that is shining on them. While the centered man seems to have a light source shining on him, the other citizens on the port are also illuminated with light. However, the light that is shining onto these humans is not the same source of light that is behind the magpie.
This source of light appears to be coming into the painting from the direction the magpie sings in, which presents the Italians as individuals who desire to receive the intelligence and advancements the magpie will provide to them through enlightened ideas. Portraying the Italians as exhausted individuals declares a relationship that exists between the Italians and the magpie’s symbol of bringing a state of well-being into Italy. Rather than hiding from the light that is cast onto them, the Italians long to receive the enlightened ideas the magpie will implement into Italy to undergo a transformation from a ruined country to an advanced nation in Europe.
Towering over the Italians on the port’s floor is a column containing a broken arch with an abundance of greenery that supports the message that the Italians are suffering amongst their ruins. While the column is tall, the paint on the column appears to have chipped away over the last few years. This implies that the column is a remain of the Roman Empire, which signifies that the Italians are living amongst the ruins of their glorious past. Connected to the column are two arches that branch out in different directions.
However, the arch on the left side of the column is broken. While the broken arch contributes to the ruins of the Roman Empire, it connects to Italy’s brokenness that resulted from corrupt aristocrats manipulating politics and economics in their favor; this led to Italy’s inability to progress by adopting the ideas of the Enlightenment. On both arches, mossy greenery is growing out of the rock that makes up the arch. The plants that are growing out of the arch are lithophytes, which grow in or on bare rocks but contain dead tissue (World of Flowering.com). Therefore, the greenery does not represent growth, but it is associated with decay.
Magnasco incorporates lithophytes on the arches to emphasize that while the Italians are living amongst its ruins, Italy has decayed instead of having grown out of ruination. Combining the Roman Empire’s broken arch and the decaying lithophytes, Magnasco conveys the idea that Italians are suffering by living in a state of desolation alongside their ruins.
If Italy incorporated the technological advancements, social ideas, and lifestyles associated with the Enlightenment movement occurring in other European countries, the empire of Enlightenment would be able to improve Italy. The tiresome Italians, old column, and broken arch enforce the notion that Italy is facing a period of suffering.
However, illuminating the singing magpie and sailor to illustrate a symbol of prosperity that will be brought to Italy creates a connection between light and intelligence for the future of Italy to rise above its ruins of the Roman Empire. The idea of the Italians being able to grow out of a state of agony and develop into an eminent European country through the help of a magpie to become as prosperous as other European nations is one that exceeds comprehension; in other words, this idea Magnasco conveys in the painting is sublime, but the painting itself is not.
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