Arnika Schmidt, ‘Nino Costa and the ‘Etruscan School of Art’ – A cosmopolitan take on the Italian landscape’

Throughout his life the Roman landscape painter Nino Costa (1826-1903) was a passionate patriot, actively involved in the Risorgimento movement and fighting to reform art in Italy after the young nation’s unification in 1870. Interestingly, from an early stage in his career he looked to members from the international artist community in Rome for inspiration. After having turned to the landscape genre in following French examples, he further developed his art in exchange with mostly British painters including Frederic Leighton, George Mason, William Blake Richmond and George Howard, a fruitful union that lead to the foundation of the ‘Etruscan School of Art’ in 1883. The Anglo-Italian members of this circle met frequently in Rome, Bocca d’Arno (where Costa owned a house) and Umbria to work from nature, visit places of aesthetic, spiritual or historical interest and discuss matters of approach and technique.
This paper will trace how concept and artistic production of the group developed through transnational exchange and resulted in an intriguing blend of culture-specific elements and more abstract cosmopolitan ideas. In this context I will particularly address the growing fascination with the notion of the Genius loci in fin de siècle Europe, the revived interest in the ancient concept of Ut Pictura Poesis and the lure for Tre- and Quattrocento artists as sources of inspiration that became major constituents of study and discussion within the ‘Etruscan School of Art’. These approaches intellectually enriched the long horizontal views of the Italian landscape Nino Costa had pioneered with the group, resulting in complex works of art that fascinated the elitist audience of London’s Grosvenor Gallery and New Gallery, the ‘Etruscan School’s’ habitual exhibition venues since 1877. While the cosmopolite tone of their paintings was welcomed in Britain’s metropolis as an alternative to ‘dying Pre-Raphaelitism’ (Art Journal 1871), Costa’s work met with mainly disapproval in his own country. Yet, a small group of young ambitious artists active in fin de siècle Rome saw in Costa’s cosmopolite production the potential to renew art in Italy and elected him head of the independent artist society In Arte Libertas in 1886. I will end my paper commenting on how while supporting his younger compatriots Costa continued to work with his cosmopolitan colleagues to further his own artistic development.


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