Henry VIII had his Holbein, King Charles I his Van Dyke, Queen Victoria her Winterhalter and Queen Elizabeth II …. her Annigoni. I refer, of course, to the artists who painted the most successful portraits of those British monarchs and who, somehow, related closest to the royals’ personalities: Henry’s chivalric arrogance, Charles’ god-like vanity, Victoria’s romantic domesticity and Elizabeth’s approachable regality.
Annigoni, born in 1910 in Milan, lived most of his life in the Florence so beloved by him, where he died in 1988 and where he is buried in that part of the Porte Sante cemetery just below the façade of San Miniato sul Monte. His creatively most fecund period was from the 1950s onwards when he established himself as the portraitist par excellence of such celebrities as President Kennedy, Pope John XXIII and Dame Margot Fonteyn.
This side of his work has tended to overshadow other aspects of Annigoni’s oeuvre, which is truly vast and represents every genre of painting from intimate landscapes to large frescoes.
Another Annigoni trait inclined to critical disparagement of the great artist’s creativity: his insistence on discipline in drawing and draughtsmanship, his emphasis on the study of the great renaissance masters and his scant regard for many of the post-war modernists. Yet today there is little excuse to reproach Annigoni for his conservatism. In this age of post-modernism where the most diverse styles and techniques can co-exist in the same milieu and where in all forms of art, from literature to music, there is a revaluation (and sometimes a conscious/unconscious pastiche) of older styles such cliquiness in the art world is quite passé.
This revaluation was evident to us a few years ago when we attended the inauguration of a restored Annigoni masterpiece at Montecatini Terme. For a long time it lay neglected in the vaults of the town hall until, as it were, it came back into fashion and its worth recognized.
That canvas reflects Annigoni’s concern with social injustice and also points to his redemptionist creed. Indeed, Annigoni could be considered as Italy’s greatest religious painter of modern times. His is the great fresco inside the rebuilt San Cassino monastery but one doesn’t have to go that far to view the religious Annigoni. In my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/04/21/the-magnificent-seven/ I refer to the wonderful painting of the founders of Monte Senario’s monastery in its chapter room.
The outstanding Annigoni masterpiece, showing his art most completely and most superlatively, however, is quite near us at Ponte di Buggiano just beyond Pescia on the road between Lucca and Pistoia where there is a superb cycle of frescoes in the parish church.
As lovers of his art we were thrilled to be able to visit for the first time on our recent trip to Florence the Museo Pietro Annigoni, located in the Villa Bardini in Florence. The museum was opened in 2008 and consists of those works already belonging to Annigoni’s heirs and acquired in 2007 by the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze. With about six thousand pieces this is the best existing Annigoni collection in the world.
On display are around a hundred paintings from different stages of the artist’s career: youth self-portraits, portraits of family members, various allegorical works with titles like “Solitude”, domestic scenes like “the Old Garden”, “Inside the Studio”, and those powerful statements on social injustice like “Death of a beggar”. There are also medals, lithographs, drawings and personal items, including Annigoni’s rocking chair, a painter’s dummy used in his “experiments” with metaphysical painting a la Giorgio de Chirico (of whom I am sometimes reminded).
Different paintings are on show at different dates – not surprising when most of them are in the museum’s archives. The above are a small selection of what we saw during our tour of this, yet another exquisite and uncrowded Florentine museum.
Incidentally, my wife was once the proud possessors of two small Annigoni drawings in red pencil specially drawn for her by the master. Sadly, they were stolen in a burglary from our London property in the early nineties. I wonder if the thieves knew what they were stealing or not. The little masterpieces have never yet turned up.