The Making of Modigliani: The Venice Years
Updated: Sep 12, 2022
This post on Modigliani will feature the years he spent in Venice and take you on a walking tour of the places he frequented, lived in, worked in and contributed to the shaping of Modigliani. Venice is a city I know quite well so let me guide you on a tour of Modigliani’s Venice.
Amedeo Modigliani was a short man. What he lacked in stature, he made up in determination. From a young age, he knew he wanted to be an artist and nothing else. His artistic journey started in Livorno, where he was born to a middle-class Jewish family, proceeded to Florence and finally to Venice where he resided from 1903 - 1905. These Italian stops were mere stepping stones to his final destination: Paris, the center of the avant-garde art movement of the times.
Modigliani was not quite 19 years old when he decided to study in Venice. He enrolled at the Scuola Libera del Nudo del Regio Istituto di Belle Arti, now known as the Accademia di Belle Arti. He also planned to study on his own the works of Bellini and Carpaccio and the painters of the Sienese School. As it turned out, he hardly attended the classes at the Institute where he had enrolled but throughout his stay he diligently visited museums and churches to study the painters of the past as well as making sure he was acquainted with the work of his contemporaries. He would have also had at his disposal in the Venice Civic Museums their collections of African Art with its wooden sculptures. He attended the Biennale of 1903 where some of his friends were exhibiting and attended the following Biennale in 1905.
Modigliani made his entrance into Venice by staying in comfort for a few days in Calle Larga XXII Marzo, an area of Venice which even today is flanked by high end stores. His stay was funded by his uncle Amédée Garsin who financially helped Modigliani throughout the Venice years. Modigliani dress code was a velvet black jacket over a shirt with wide upturned collars.
After this extravagant stay near San Moisé in the San Marco area of Venice, Modigliani found himself a much more modest place measuring 50 square meters in Campiello Centoprietre alla Toletta in the Dorsoduro section of Venice. At some point, he also lived in Campo San Stefano near the Accademia bridge at Ca’ Morosina 2802. In those days Venice was a poor city and it was not hard to find cheap accommodations.
Dedo, as he was called by his mother and family, suffered from tuberculosis which impacted his stay in Venice as well as his artistic direction. After a few months of having taken residence in Venice, he went to Pietrasanta in Tuscany to sculpt on marble. He dreamed of being a sculptor but his health got in the way and ultimately he had to rely mainly on painting. In the summer of 1903, under medical advice, he went to the Dolomites to recover. He stayed for two months. His mother, who was supportive of his son, writes: “Carefree, writes and works, draws and paints”. There were a few more trips to Livorno that spotted his Venetian years.
Another address worth mentioning is 1888 in the San Marco section of Venice near La Fenice. The Livornese, as Modigliani was referred to by his friends, was introduced to the Venetian family Olper through his mother and they became a point of reference in the first days of his stay. Among the subjects for the first portraits he did in Venice were those of the Professor of Latin Leone Olper and of his young daughter Albertina. In that period, Modigliani would require only a couple of sittings, would paint a few hours a day and finish one work on canvas per week. He drew in cafés and in every other place he found himself in including brothels.
Modigliani struck up acquaintances easily and this was the case in Venice too. He became friends with the young and upcoming crowd among which were the Futurist painter Umberto Boccioni, the engraver Fabio Mauroner with whom Modigliani would share a studio with, the painter Guido Marussig and the very young artist Guido Cadorin. They showed him the less known Venice in their innumerable walks. Café Florian was open all day and it was a gathering place for the intellectual and artistic crowd. Modigliani would be found there and according to people who knew him, he did not like to be contradicted. Venice was also the place where he started to smoke hashish and drink absinthe and where he was introduced to spiritualism and the occult.
Modigliani shared a studio with Friulian artist and friend Fabio Mauroner in a palazzo facing the church of San Sebastiano in the Dorsoduro section of Venice. Mauroner remembered him as having a seductive way, of being and talking, which women of all ages fell for. The studio they shared consisted of an anteroom which led into two equal rooms and one of them was Modigliani’s studio in which you could always find nude models.
Mauroner also describes the times when they would spend time in Trattoria Montin located near their studios where they would discourse on subjects dear to them. Here is where Modigliani’s story becomes my own story. Trattoria Montin is now known as Locanda Montin and it is the very same place I lodge in every time I find myself in this mesmerizing city. Imagine I eat breakfast in the same room Modigliani had meals with his friends.
In 2002 a plaque was put on the facade of the palazzo where Modigliani had his studio. It carries this inscription: “From Venice, I have received life’s most precious teachings”. It’s a quote from a letter he wrote to Oscar Ghiglia but frankly, I am not sure exactly what he meant. He was known to say he learned more from brothels than any other academic institution he had ever attended. Ultimately he left Venice dissatisfied. The Modigliani we know had not yet come to the surface.
Modigliani may well have destroyed most of the work he did in Venice. We know not much remains. At some point he instructed his family to destroy many of the works he had done in Italy. To respect his wishes, I will not publish the few known works from the Venice period.
Listening to stories his friends would bring back from Paris, Modigliani was convinced that was where he should go next. Paris was described as the place where artists were expressing themselves in new ways - free from commercial restraints - where they might face critique and find it hard to establish themselves at first but recognition and success would follow. So why shouldn’t he try his luck there too? His uncle who had helped him financially died in 1905 but left him an inheritance which made it possible to move to Paris.
Fabio Mauroner writes: “I bought his easels and the few gadgets from his studio and Modigliani left for Paris, where I saw him years later . . . damaged from illness and deprivation but disdainful of any concession to the tastes of the public .” Mauroner continues: “ His painful ending . . . happened a few years later , when a ray of hope was springing up for him.” Modigliani’s work was starting to get some recognition. He is now known as one of the most important artists of the 20th century.
The information gathered in this post was made possible by the extensive material at my disposal found in the main branch of the NYPL and supplemented by the texts I read at Biblioteca Marciana located in Piazza San Marco. The information itself is based on the diary of his mother Eugénie Garsin and the correspondence of his sister Margherita; main Modigliani biographer Christian Parisot and Franco Tagliapietra who has written extensively about Modigliani’s stay in Venice; the autobiography Acquaforte by Fabio Mauroner, a fellow artist and friend; Jeanne Modigliani, daughter of Modigliani, who dedicated her life to finding the truth about her father; the comments made by friends and Modigliani’s own letters especially those to friend Oscar Ghiglia.