By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

2. Modigliani: A Life, by Meryle Secrest, pp. 31-71

Chapter 3: "Dedo"; Chapter 4: The Blood-Red Banner

To support the family after Flaminio's bankruptcy, Eugénie started teaching French, along with her sisters, Laure and Gabrielle, who came to live with them, as did their father, Isaaco. They were so successful as teachers that they started a language school, employing other teachers.

By the age of five, Amedeo, called "Dedo," "could read and write and was probably bilingual." His grandfather, Isaaco, who lived with them from 1886 until his death ten years later, was an erudite man who "was an important influence on Dedo's intellectual development until he was twelve. Another influential figure was his uncle, Amédée Garsin, who "was rich, except for all the times when he was not." Amédée saw to it that Dedo's brother Emanuele got his law degree at the University of Pisa and his brother Umberto studied engineering at the University of Liège. But he was also careless with money, which he considered an "aristocratic" trait. "A talent for acting; the cultivation of seigneurial indifference to money -- such lessons were not lost on Dedo."

Eugénie was also a major influence on her youngest son. Among her friends was Rodolfo Mondolfi, "a well known teacher at a Livornese high school," who helped the boys with homework and whose son Uberto was Dedo's best friend. Eugénie was unusually independent for a woman in Italy of that time, and her intellectual achievements included translations of the poems of Gabriele d'Annunzio into French and writing novels and stories under a pen name. An American professor bought her essays on Italian literature and then published them as his own.
Modigliani's birthplace in Livorno, now a museum (Source)

"The young Amedeo was being brought up in an atmosphere of genteel poverty." As a child he loved books, and although some biographers claim that he showed no interest in art until he was fourteen, his brother Umberto recalled that he loved to draw when he was a small child, and was he was eleven Eugénie wrote "Perhaps an artist?" when speculating what he might turn out to be. In that same year, 1895, he suffered his first major illness, a respiratory attack that was diagnosed as pleurisy. By the next year, his mother wrote, "He already sees himself as an artist." He had stopped studying and was doing poorly in school.

Amedeo's brother Emanuele, meantime, was developing a political conscience. He joined the Socialist Party, "and his life would be devoted to liberal causes, his belief in the dignity of manual labor and votes for women, while his political stance was anticolonialist, pacifist, and dedicated to change from within." In 1898, when he was twenty-six, he became the editor of a progressive newspaper in Piacenza, which because Tuscany was under martial law, led to his arrest and a sentence of six months in prison. 

A month after his brother was sentenced, Amedeo suffered an attack of typhoid, and was in serious condition, "hovering between life and death and delirious for more than a month." In a memoir of her son that she dictated to her daughter, Margherita, in 1924, Eugénie claimed that the delirious Amedeo "said he wanted to study painting. He had never before spoken of this and probably believed it was an impossible dream that could never be realized." She claims that she promised to get him a drawing master when he recovered. This belies not only the notes made earlier in her diaries about seeing himself as an artist, but also the fact that she had recorded in her diary on August 1, 1898, shortly before he fell ill, that Amedeo had started drawing lessons and was interested in painting. As Secrest observes, the later anecdote "sounds like a fallible recollection made thirty years after the event."

Guglielmo Micheli, self-portrait, date unknown (Source)
In December 1898, Emanuele was released from prison, and Amedeo, fully recovered, began his studies with the artist Guglielmo Micheli, who had been a pupil of the artist Giovanni Fattori. "Micheli and Fattori encouraged students to seek their inspiration in the contemporary scene," and were associated with a group of artists known as the Macchiaoli: "They applied their colors in short brushstrokes and dots of paint; 'macchia' means stain or blot, and these were the 'makers of patches.'" Like the French Impressionists, they preferred to work out of doors. "But unlike the Impressionists the Macchiaoli took their cue from the muted, earth-toned palettes of Millet, Corot, and others of the Barbizon school." Fattori often visited Micheli's classroom, and on one occasion praised a charcoal sketch that Amedeo was working on.
Giovanni Fattori, self-portrait, 1894 (Source)

Modigliani's classmates recalled him as "introverted and shy," and as sickly-looking, but also recalled his temper when something made him angry. He was also given to quoting d'Annunzio and Baudelaire, Nietzsche and Henri Bergson. He disliked painting nature, but loved going through museums to study the Italian Renaissance masters, although he admired the work of Fattori and of the Pre-Raphaelites as well.

Samples of Modigliani's student work are rare, and the authentications of them are controversial at best. Secrest believes, however, that "A pencil self-portrait is evidence of a rapidly maturing talent at a moment when Modigliani was aged about twelve or thirteen." She was working in the G.E. Modigliani archives in Rome in 2008 when she came across a box of photographs. One of them was of a boy, "perhaps aged eight or ten, with cropped hair and in a fashionable sailor jacket, perhaps a slightly younger version of the boy in the self-portrait. Written in a laborious hand on the reverse was, 'Al mio caro, A...'" Giuseppe Emanuele had kept it all his life.

As Amedeo became more involved with his art, he also began to adopt the bohemian lifestyle that the rest of the family disapproved of as "shiftless and idle. But his classmates saw him as "distinguished, disciplined and studious." And Eugénie remarked in her diary in 1899, "Dedo has completely given up his studies and does nothing but paint, but he does it all day and every day with an unflagging ardor that amazes and enchants me." At fifteen, he moved into a studio in Livorno that had been given to Micheli for the use of his students. Its previous owner had died of tuberculosis, and in September 1900, Modigliani came down with it, too. The fact of the studio owner's death from the disease is probably coincidental; he was probably already infected with it. He first developed pleurisy, and was not diagnosed with tuberculosis till he was sixteen.

There are no accounts of how Modigliani was treated for the disease. "He would certainly have been given antispasmodics such as morphine and heroin which were, in any case, freely available. Other remedies guaranteed to soothe the cough and stop the diarrhea included whiskey, brandy, and laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol)." The two other students who shared the studio with Modigliani also came down with the disease. Both of them died. It is possible that Modigliani underwent a surgical collapse of one lung, which was a painful process because of the lack of full anesthesia, but there is no record of that fact in any of the family memoirs. "All we know is that, as an adult, he was terrified of doctors," and that he was the only one from the studio who survived.

When he was well enough, Eugénie took him to spend the fall and winter in Naples, a trip financed by his uncle Amédée.
Modigliani's infection -- with luck, tuberculosis went into a lengthy remission -- declined relatively rapidly. One of the great factors ws his mother's selfless care. The other was the right diet. The third may have been psychological; Uncle Amédée had thoughtfully provided a studio as well. He began sketching again remarkably soon.... He started visiting museums, always accompanied by his mother, who slept in the same room. He was gaining weight and, as he entered his seventeenth year, began to grow a light, curly beard.
After wintering in Capri, they traveled to Rome, which thrilled him with its museums. In letters to his friend Oscar Ghiglia, a classmate who was eight years his senior and was beginning to make a name for himself, he expressed a kind of "giddy optimism" about his future, "tempered by the very real possibility that he did not have long to live." He had imbibed Nietzsche's ideas about the Übermensch, and wrote to Ghiglia, "People like us ... have different rights, different values than do normal, ordinary people because we have different needs which put us -- it has to be said and you must believe it - above their moral standards." Secrest comments, "In his mind, fatalism and idealism, creativity and death, seemed intertwined."

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