Okay, dilettantes, test yourself on this one: Name just one Italian artist of the 19th century. Not the 18th or the 17th, the 16th or the 15th -- that would be too easy. Name someone who flourished during the lifetime of Verdi or Manzoni, someone who could draw.
"Italian Drawings 1780-1890," which opens to the public Sunday at the National Gallery of Art, offers more than 60 answers to that question. This exhibiition bridges one of the deepest chasms in our knowledge of European art. It is a beautiful surprise.
The retrieval, rediscovery and re-examination of 19th-century artists who worked outside of Paris -- in London or New York, Manchester or Moscow -- are among the great joys of today's art scholarship. Efforts in that area have brought us, for example, the luminist exhibit currently on view.
It seems obvious in retrospect that the sunny peninsula that gave us Giotto, Leonardo, Raphael and Titian did not stop producing artists suddenly, by fiat, in the 18th century. Old pictures were still seen there; the academies still functioned. The patrons and the dealers there did not lose their eyes.
But until very recently, the greatly gifted artists represented here -- Appiani, Gigante, Randanini, Michetti, Segantini, Franchi, Borrani, Fattori, Musini and the others -- were somehow overlooked. Too young to be included among the Old Masters, too old to play important roles in the growth of modern art, they slipped between the cracks.
The current exhibition, organized by Roberta J. M. Olson, a Wheaton College scholar, is the first seen in this city that begins to show us how good they really were.
In Italy's politics, as in its art, the period covered by this show was one of revolution.As the 18th century ended, Italy was not one state but many. The Hapsburgs ruled the North, the Bourbons ruled the South, and the pope controlled the Papal States between. The art histories of Bari, Genoa, and Naples, Florence and Milan were then as different as their cuisines. In 1796, Napoleon's armies crossed the Alps. By the end of 1870, the state of modern Italy had finally emerged.
Italian art of the early 19th century harkened to the past. The oldest drawings here call to mind the Renaissance and the centuries that followed, and deal with antique themes. Look, for instance, at three works here by Andrea Appiani. One shows an embrace between Daphine and Apollo. The second is a portrait in the mood of Leonardo. The third is a small admiring drawing of the young Bonaparte.
By the time of the latest work in this exhibition, photography had altered the look of Western art. There was, this show reminds us, something truly international about the stylistic sequences of 19th-century art. There is one handsome drawing here by Luigi Sabatelli that recalls the English pictures of Fuseli and Flaxman; Mussini's self-portrait of 1858 suggests the art of Ingres; Winslow Homer might have made the Ciardi that is here on display.
Perhaps because its city-states were swept by war and turmoil, Italian artists of the age were more loyal to the past than were their peers in Paris. aIt is true the group of Florentines called the Macchiaioli thought themselves progressive, but few of them were as advanced as the Impressionists of the North.
But even when old-fashioned, the artists here drew beautifully. A landscape by Gigante, a small head in sunlight drawn by Randanini, or the figure drawings of Franchi -- each alone would justify a visit to this show. Organized by the American Federation of the Arts, it will travel to Minneapolis and San Francisco after closing here on May 11.