If there is one person in Francavilla al Mare that holds all the best-kept secrets of Abruzzo’s famous artist Francesco Paolo Michetti and the intellectual hub, the Cenacolo Michettiano, it is the biographer Ernesto Bertucci Bellafante.
Ernesto was born and grew up in Francavilla, as a child he experienced the destructive impact of the Second World War on the town, its rebuild and transformation into the ‘seaside’ resort of ‘Francavilla al Mare’. Ever since he retired in 1998, he has dedicated his life to spreading the culture and memories of Francavilla. It is through his curiosity, passion and detective skills, the facts about the town aren’t forgotten instead they are shared with the community in the local newspaper ‘The Primo Foglio’ who publish his articles.
Meeting him to have a chat and being gifted his book was such a pleasure, so let’s explore Michetti and his cultural art base ‘Michettiano’ through Ernesto’s articles!
Francesco Paolo Michetti that Ernesto describes as the illustrious adopted son of Francavilla was born in 1851 in Tocco da Casauria, which was previously in the province of Chieti but which today sits in Pescara. As a child, Francesco had shown a talent for painting, but it was at the age of ten that his gift was taken more seriously. He had watched a display by tightrope walkers that had visited his town and his attention was caught by a young girl, who moved like a butterfly, weightlessly on that rope high in the air. He borrowed his brother Quintilio’s brushes and colours and reproduced the scene wonderfully, a life of drawing and painting beckoned.
Following the suggestion of the painter Marchiani, in 1864, Michetti wrote to the comune of the province of Chieti to ask for a grant that to enable him to improve his painting. That first petition went unanswered, but never one to give up he tried again after 3 months, explaining that a monthly cheque would help him continue his studies in Naples and he included this sentence
“Even though my strength lays in the art of instinct and nature with a strong feeling for the beautiful, I feel pained that my genius will not be realised and remain secondary if not rescued by supportive action and compassion.”
He’s finally awarded a grant of 30£ per month (less than 2 Eurocents nowadays) and with a heart full of ‘whispers’ he heads to Naples. These are years of ferment in painting, there is a rebellion against the ruling en vogue style of Decadentism and from this comes movement comes out ‘Verismo’ (Realism) that Michetti is a supporter of. Since he was young he’d been touched by the Abruzzese countryside and he learnt to understand and love its people and its places. His life is dominated by those memories and in Naples, he is impatient and dissatisfied by the Art Academy and the standards and styles it proposed. He feels nostalgic for his beloved places and an urgent need to stay among his people. Animals, poor people, the countryside and seaside… these are his favourite subjects that are full of light and colour and which live in his paintings to convey messages that anyone could understand because it is Abruzzo itself that you find, represented with love.
Back in his beloved region, he established the ‘Cenacolo of Francavilla al Mare’ (an intellectual club) with his friends Tosti, Barbella, de Cecco and D’Annunzio. The old and abandoned Franciscan convent of Santa Maria Maggiore had previously caught Michetti’s attention for its serenity and perhaps a feeling of intimacy and mysticism that those walls still possessed. From there he could enjoy a beautiful view of both the countryside and the sea. He buys the convent and after a major refurbishment transforms it into his home in 1883.
From that moment on, the Convent became the intellectual club called Cenacolo, where many intellectuals spent their time: Sartorio, Boggiani, Cascella, Dantino, Scarfoglio, Errico e Serao. Meanwhile, Michetti’s style evolves around them as he is inspired by his environment and everyday dramas of which he becomes a matchless interpreter.
Although Il Voto is not one of Michetti’s most famous paintings, a funny story lays behind the painting of where art influences its subject!
It was 27th July 1880 and the entire town of Miglianico was ready to celebrate San Pantaleone, its beloved patron and nobody could imagine that merry morning would end in tragedy!
In Francavilla, Michetti and his friend the poet Gabriele D’ Annunzio were about to make their way to Miglianico with the intention of shooting some photos of the folklore entwined devoted San Pantaleone’s Feast and to immerse themselves in this most traditional of moments that he later described later in his tales “Novelle della Pescara’.
The Church of San Michele Arcangelo in Miglianico is where the San Panataleone statute is housed today, but which previously was nestled in the Valignani family’s castle. It was smaller and darker due to the smoke of candles and the little piazza that’s now there didn’t exist, the church itself was overlooked by a group of elegant buildings.
From the balcony of one of these noble buildings, Michetti set up his considerable camera equipped with a magnesium flash, ready to shoot the exit of the procession from the Church. As the sacred statue was crossed the threshold of the
Church, Michetti started shooting and the enormous camera flash (just like a flash of lightning) lit up the small crowd of devotees that were stunned and dazed and considered it an act of profanity against their Saint.
Their thoughts were confirmed when shortly afterwards a hail storm hit Miglianico and which in no time had destroyed the harvest in the fields around the town. It is the anger of the Saint the people screamed looking at the balcony from where the flash had appeared. They immediately sought to put things right. The most frantic took sickles, hayforks, hatchets and headed towards the two artists, who struggled to run away from the angry crowd. They were and helped by their host who showed them some secret tunnels that led them out onto the hills and they headed quickly to their safety… Francavilla!
It is from this experience, Michetti realised the giant painting (7 x 2,5 m) ‘Il Voto’ that would go on triumph at the International Belle Arti Exhibition of Rome in January 1883. The painting is still housed in the National Gallery of Rome.
La Figlia di Jorio
Probably Michetti’s most famous painting is ‘La figlia di Jorio’ , a tempera on a large 5,5 x 2,8 canvas that was realised in 1894 in the Convent of Francavilla al Mare. The painting was shown at the 1895 Biennale International Exhibition of Venice where it created a certain stir that divided the critics. The painting depicted with dramatic and passionate tones a scene that Michetti himself had witnessed in 1883 back in his hometown of Tocco da Casauria, a beautiful woman walking in front of a group of shepherds who lustfully stare after her.
It wasn’t just the subject that raised the jury’s attention but the beheaded character on the right of the painting’ that was actually a self-portrait of the painter himself. La figlia di Jorio won the first prize obtaining a huge success. But its adventures still have to be told.
A few years later, in 1893, the German Emperor William II, on the suggestion of the Italian King Umberto I, bought the
painting for 40.000 £ (20€ in today’s money) and gifted it to the Museum of Berlin. In March 1931, there was a rash of agreements between Italy’s fascist government and Hitler’s Germany and the painting was returned to Italy. The giant painting was unveiled in a hall for the 1937 inauguration of the new provincial Palazzo Pescara, where it can be still admired today, however, but more adventures were still to come to this famous painting.
In September 1943, the dictator Mussolini had been captured and imprisoned in a hotel on Campo Imperatore at 2112 metres above sea level, just below the spur of Gran Sasso; the Italian Royal Family with their commanding officers had escaped from Rome via Abruzzo to reach Ortona where they raised anchor and made their way to Brindisi in Puglia. During these chaotic scenes, German troops occupied Italy. Someone in Pescara decided to rescue Michetti’s ‘La figlia di Iorio’ painting and protect and hide it from the bombs that rained daily on Pescara. With the cooperation of the Prefect (Mayor), the painting was carried on a wagon pulled by two horses. Covered with straw, it was taken to Penne by some brave people and escorted by few plain-clothes police officers. The delicate operation allowed La Figlia di Iorio to reach the cathedral of Penne where it was holed up between the Seminary and the Priest’s house until the end of the war.
Gli storpi, le serpi, Gli Storpi (The cripples) and Le serpi (The snakes)
These are two giant paintings inspired by Abruzzese life.
The first one depicts the pilgrimage of infirms that is part of the Feast of Madonna dei Miracoli in Casalbordino (CH) while the second one represents the feast of San Domenico held in Cocullo every 1st of May. Both paintings are housed in the Michetti Museum (MuMi) in Francavilla al mare. Michetti had painted them for the 1900 Paris based Exposition Universelle, but unfortunately, they didn’t find success and after the event, they were returned to the artist until the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome bought them years later.
When Michetti passed in March 1929 a deep feeling of sadness was felt amongst his friends of Cenacolo. His friend the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio was now living in the north of Italy did not attend the funeral but sent daily messages to the family. In this correspondence, Michetti’s wife, Donna Annunziata, asked D’Annunzio to collect memories of her husband to make into a small book. Her words were: ‘
To you that have been his brother, I ask from you a word that could make him live in all his greatness and all his goodness. Can I count on you?”
On the same day, D’Annunzio received another mail from the friend Ugo Ojetti from Florence asking “what shall we
do for Michetti and his memory? Do consider that no book exists about Michetti and D’ Annunzio believed it would be a fitting tribute to create an art book with all of Michetti’s masterpieces. A writer, Tommaso Sillani, that already knew and had spent some time with Michetti was the person charged with its writing.
However, there was something else his friends would do for his memory. In 1934 the Napoli newspaper ‘Il Mattino’ proposed to found a museum dedicated to Michetti. Many other Italian newspapers and people in the worlds of politics, art and literature embraced the initiative and declared how nice it would be to house the two paintings Gli Storpi e Le Serpi in the new museum. In a letter to the poet D’Annunzio, the Francavilla Podestà (the title of the mayor during Italy’s period of Fascism) wrote that the town wanted to establish, for the glory and the memory of the painter Michetti, a museum that holds and collects his paintings. But to do so it would be necessary to bring back to Francavilla the paintings, Gli Storpi e Le Serp that were currently owned by the government but kept in the storage at Valle Giulia. He explained that he had already appealed to the Ministery in charge with an official request for the transfer of the two art pieces but he was afraid his ‘weak’ voice and the huge love that accompanies his mission were not enough. He requested that D’Annuzio as ‘Comandante’, in the name of myself, the people of Francavilla and the Michetti Family, intercede for this good cause directly to Minister Ercole for the transfer. D’Annunzio used his influence and wrote the Minister and the two paintings were finally returned to Francavilla in the brand new Museum dedicated to his great friend Francesco Paolo Michetti.
Written by Elisa Fulvi
I was born and grew up on the hills of Francavilla. I moved away for a few years, but I returned to my hometown and now manage the family ceramic lab. If you are around Francavilla stop by to say hello and have a coffee!