One of the things that never ceases to amaze me is the gaping gaps in my own knowledge of art history. I presume others too may have the same or similar yawning lapses in their understanding of the art that went before and that which came after. If this is the case, then one of the largest is in the area of Italian art. The textbooks do a superb job of elevating the Italian Renaissance, sitting it up on a pedestal, not unlike a classical column, to be admired, often at the expense of a similar resurgence of art, music, drama, and literature in the North. Then they let all things Italian fade into the background in favour of all things French. The result is that everyone, myself included, has the impression that Italian art began and ended with the Renaissance with perhaps a brief flicker of light at the beginning of the twentieth century with the emergence of the Italian Futurist movement, de Chirico, Carra, and Morandi.
Actually, there is some justification for the emphasis on French as opposed to Italian art during the period following the Renaissance in as much as the moving forces in the art world did tend to emanate from Paris. Rome didn't exactly become an artistic backwater, but it did take on more the role of a museum or school rather than a studio. Rome was where the French went to study the past before going back home to do their serious work. As a result, Italy developed a tremendous Academic tradition that was difficult to shake. Yet by the second half of the nineteenth century, there was occurring, simultaneous to that in Paris, all the same "movements" in art--Romanticism, Realism, even Impressionism--except with Italian sounding names.
The Italian sounding name given to much of this was the Macchiaioli (pronounced MACK-key-a-OLy). But before we can understand this movement we must come to realise that since it went back much further in Italy, the Academic style of art had a much firmer grip on the prevailing tastes than it did in France (no small statement given the Academic stranglehold in France). Thus the Macchiaioli had to struggle first against Academic subject matter before it could make painting on location, and the resultant Impressionistic influences flowing from France, a fact of life. Artists such as Nino Costa, Giovanni Fattori, and Silvestro Lega worked to demystify art by introducing contemporary subject matter, gradually working more and more in the field, and as a result, eventually to begin working with the "macchie" or spots of colour from which the movement derived its name. They even had their own meeting place not unlike the Impressionists' Cafe Guerbois in Paris. Ironically, it was named for the godfather of the Italian Renaissance Academic style against which they were rebelling--The Cafe Michelangelo.