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Antonio Mancini

Italian, 1852 - 1930

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One of Italy's greatest early modern painters, Antonio Mancini (1852-1930) is best known for his daring and innovative painting methods. Born in Rome, Mancini spent his formative years in Naples, and it was there that the young artist was first recognized as a precociously gifted figure painter, noted for his poignant depictions of poor street urchins, or scugnizzi, subjects with whom he identified through his own impoverished childhood. Through his studies at the Istituto di Belle Arti (Academy of Fine Arts) and the influence of Neapolitan Baroque artists and his own most important teacher, Domenico Morelli, Mancini developed a realistic style that he held to stubbornly, even after meeting Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, Jean Léon Gérôme, and other French artists during two extended trips to Paris in the 1870s.

After returning to Naples, Mancini's promising career was seriously derailed by an episode of mental illness-possibly brought on by mercury poisoning-that included delirium and even hallucinations and culminated in his hospitalization for four months in 1881-82. Although pronounced "cured," his bizarre behavior persisted to the extent that many referred to him as il pittore pazzo--the crazy painter. It was during this first period of mental instability that Mancini began to express his lifelong fixation with reflective self portraits. His paintings were at once realistic and visionary.

Mancini moved permanently to Rome in 1883. In the following decades his inability to manage his affairs limited him to a precarious existence even as he developed new techniques: the use of the gratìcola (or perspective grid), radically thick impastos, and the inclusion of glass, metal foil, and other materials on the surfaces of his paintings. Nevertheless, he garnered the support of a cadre of European and American patrons and artists, and the turn of the century brought growing critical acclaim and acceptance of his work. John Singer Sargent is said to have called Mancini the "greatest living painter." Mancini contributed paintings to the Venice Biennale and other respected exhibitions in Europe, and by the time of his death in Italy in 1930, he had assumed the status of a national hero.


Mancini invented a number of highly personal working methods. One was a device he called the gratìcola--or perspective grid--made of a wooden frame with strings stretched across in all directions. One such frame was placed in front of the subject, while another was placed against the canvas in use. Mancini described this mysterious apparatus variously as a means to obtain the exact perspective of his painted objects or to capture the important element of tone. Very often the artist allowed the marks of the gratìcola strings to show in the finished painting, sometimes subtly, but at other times quite aggressively. In extreme cases these grid marks impart a textured, almost quilted decorative quality to the painted surface.

Those who actually witnessed Mancini in the act of painting never forgot the experience, particularly the unusual procedures first observed in connection with the artist's first mental crisis. Eyewitness accounts of his working methods convey a sense of intense--even harrowing--involvement, as described by a visitor to his studio:
There at the back, before a little table on which I see scattered an infinity of bric a brac, cloth flowers, embalmed stuffed birds, an inexpensive doll, there is the model Aurelia, an insignificant type of woman with olive complexion and an aquiline nose. She was posing as a vendor. Mancini, in shirt sleeves, extremely nervous, bustled about delivering brush strokes, that resembled blows of a whip, onto a canvas supported on the back of a chair. He snorted, he muttered to himself, he cursed at the model who wasn't able to remain still, then he quickly distanced himself from the subject and bent down on his knees. Plump and not too flexible as he was, he stooped down and withdrew from his pocket binoculars which he used to view her in reverse. All of this while panting out of breath, and raving like someone obsessed.

To complete the scene, Mancini's doddering father, stood off to the side interrupting him the whole time with constant chatter. "Anto," he said over and over again, "Anto, let's go to dinner."

Quote from Augusto Jandolo, Le memorie di un antiquario (Milan: Casa Editrice Ceschina, 1938), p. 176

Antonio Mancini: Nineteenth-Century Italian Master, 2007

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