Positive Symbolism in Pellizza Da Volpedo’s Paintings / Anat Moberman, Ph.D. ענת מוברמן by Anat Moberman, Ph.D. - Ourboox.com
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Positive Symbolism in Pellizza Da Volpedo’s Paintings / Anat Moberman, Ph.D. ענת מוברמן

Anat Moberman, Ph.D. in Art History and Education, Nicaragua University (2015). M.A. degree in Art Histoy, Tel Aviv University (2000). Read More
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Positive Symbolism in Pellizza Da Volpedo’s Paintings

Anat Moberman, Ph.D


Italy of the late 1880’s was marked by the industrial development, which was expressed mainly in the north of the country, in the triangle of Milan-Turin-Genove, while the center and the south remained lag behind.[1] Thus, while north Italy enjoyed from economic prosperity, the south was characterized by severe agricultural crisis which severely affected farmers, led to the cost of living, Evil living conditions, malnutrition, disease, illiteracy and hunger.[2] As a result, the indignation and despair that spread all over south Italy found expressions in popular rage and organized workers struggle. From 1884 begun major strikes of the non-professional workers. Those struggles resulted in the formation of socialist political parties and protest movements of workers and peasants.[3]


In this climate of economic and social instability worked Pellizza da Volpedo. In addition to his Symbolist paintings, found Pellizza solidarity with the workers’ struggle.[4] As a socialist artist he saw his role to create a social art, “Art for the Humanity” according to his words.[5] The fruits of his social commitment can be seen in two unique paintings that combine Symbolist trends with socialist thinking. The first piece is “The Mirror of life, and what the first does, the others also do” (1898), and the other is The Four State” (1891-1901).

    “The Mirror of life” (fig. 1)[6] continues the trend of the Poetic Nature mentioned displays, in Divisionism technique, a sheep’s line walking slowly in mountain scenery of Volpedo’s village[7] at twilight time.

The inspiration for the subject and the name of the painting was taken from Dante’s Divine Comedy, Purgatorio, canto III [8].




It is most evident in a small study from 1894 in which under the sheep’s line Pellizza added an inscription from Dante’s work, “and what the first does, the others also do”. Although in the final version Pellizza changed the painting’s name to the “Mirror of Life” and eliminated Dante’s verse from it, the painting still carrying the verse in its title alongside the new one. In Dante’s Divine Comedy the Purgatory is defined as an intermediate stage between Heaven and Hell, in which resides the souls of the people born before the coming of Christ, from the pagan world. It is a place of “in between” destined for “in between souls”, unsinful souls who are not destined to reside in Hell, but since they are from the pagan world and weren’t baptized they are also not eligible to enter to Heaven.



The Purgatory is characterized by an activity of rise and not of fall like in Hell. Hell has a gravity pulling down (in a direction of decline and deterioration), whereas the Purgatory has Levitacion, a kind of levitation (rise up). The Purgatory world is dynamic and souls can move on and up to the next terrace, while the suffering souls in Hell trapped and unable to move. This difference between Purgatory and Hell represents the process done in the Purgatory, of liberation, purification and rebirth.[9]

Changing the title indicates that this is not just a Symbolist painting of Poetic Nature but it also indicates the social perception of the artist. Pellizza’s choice to use the Divisionism is also due to social position: as a modern technique contemporary technique, the Divisionism was an expression of Pellizza’s belief in a better future for humanity.[10]


Positive Symbolism in Pellizza Da Volpedo’s Paintings / Anat Moberman, Ph.D. ענת מוברמן by Anat Moberman, Ph.D. - Ourboox.com

In a letter from 1895 Pellizza wrote: “modern art should, besides being an harmony of color and balance, rise to the concept of human … I feel that now it is no longer a period of creating ‘art for art’s sake’ but ‘Art for the Humanity’.[11] Thus, the formal reduction generated by using the Divisionist technique that creates an interpretation of the reality instead of describing it, the quiet rhythmic sheep’s walk and the light illuminate their profile like an halo, transform the scene from a mere naturalistic description of sheep walking around the meadow, to a suggestive Symbolist description aiming to transfer in the wave line march “an internal emotional state. A kind of spiritual calmness, joining the soul to the great calm before skipping between good and evil among the joys and pains of life.”[12]   According Damigella, Pellizza was influenced from many socialist writings, and adopted the socialist Antonio Labriola’s[13] (1843-1904) ideology about progress stating that social development is a given product of struggles, triumphs and incorporated concepts of contrasts.



In other words, regression and progression are, according Labriola, some of the conditions and rhythm of social in general.[14]  That was the reason for changing the name of the painting’s final version, but still remaining the connection to Dante’s work: The slow wavy line movement of the sheeps symbolized the slow progress of the working class, which is not straight, and is in the process of jumping between good and evil. Just as the souls resides in the Purgatory are being described in a constant move upward, towards salvation, liberation and rebirth, so are the workers’ struggle lies between defeat and victory, in a constant move that will end in achieving their goals.  In this painting, in which Pellizza presents the human existence symbolically being harmonious with nature, he creates a new and unique trend in the Symbolist painting that can be called “Positive Symbolism”.

The Positive Symbolism combines the two contrasting worlds of Symbolism and Positivism into one homogeneous piece. Instead of escaping from reality, the Positive Symbolism related and responds to it, as evidenced in this painting which refers, allegorically, to the workers struggle for improving their work conditions.



The Symbolist’s drive to create alternative utopian worlds was replaced in the Positive Symbolism by a promise for a better future, the result of ongoing struggles. Thus, the utopian world becomes affordable in Pellizza’  work.

This unique Positive Symbolism is expressed in his famous work The Fourth State (fig. 2)[15] which became the symbol of the Italian worker’s struggle.[16] The painting presents a march, located in Piazza Malsapina in the village of Volpedo,[17] of workers in strike: two men and a woman with a baby in her arms, marching before a crowd of workers.[18] Although this is a march of farmers as part of their struggle to improve their living conditions, there is no violent or disorderly movement. The villagers are marching with determination and full confidence in the righteousness of their struggle.



285 x 543 cm, Oil on poplar, Museo del Novecento, Milan

In a letter to his friend, V. Pica, Pellizza declared his intention to introduce “a true description of the progress of the workers’ mass, description that symbolize the big move they are doing…”[19] Although the initial realistic appearance of the painting, with the application of the Divisionism and the stagnation of mass marching scene,  Pellizza creates a Symbolic presentation of workers marching, from dark and miserable conditions, described in the Symbolic dark background,  toward a better and brighter future. Thus, as in the previous painting, a realistic place of nature, transformed, with the aid of the Divisionism and the colors that were chosen, to a Symbolic place charged with social ideas.

































[1]. Lyttetton, Adrian, “Society and Culture in the Italy of Giolitti.” In: Braun Emily (ed.), Italian Art in

The 20th Century, Painting and Sculpture 1900-1988, London: Preste, 1989.  P. 23.

[2]. Pelissero, Gabriella, Pellizza per il “Quarto Stato”, Torino: 1977. P. 8

[3]. “Pellizza da Volpedo – Il Quarto Stato”, in:

      http://www.userpage.fuberlin.de/~stern89/pellizza.html#note 2.34, p. 8.

[4]. Pellizza participated in the Agricolo-Operaia Association of Mutual Aid and pledged to guide the

workers in their demand to their rights, but in peaceful way. Carlo Bertelli, Giuiliano Briganti,

Antonio Giuliano, Storia dell’arte italiana, (Milano: Electra, 1986). P. 214.

[5].“Pellizza da Volpedo – Il Quarto Stato, in:

    http://www.userpage.fu-berlin.de/~stern89/pellizza.html#note, 2.34, p.5.

[6]. Pellizza da Volpedo, The Mirror of life, and what the first does, the others also do, 1895-8.

Oil on canvas, 132 x 291 cm. Galleria civica d’arte moderna, Torino. In: Benedetti, Maria Teresa, “Simbolismo”, Art Dossier, p.47.

[7]. This landscape is recognized in all the researches as Volpedo’s , the village Pellizza lived  in.



[8]. As sheep come out of their pen,

    in ones, twos, and threes,

    and others stand timidly,

    with eyes and nose towards the ground,

    and what the first does, the others also do…

Dante: The Divine Comedy,Purgatorio, canto III (versi 79-84), from:


[9]. http.aguda.org.il   (Sep. 2013).

[10]. Damigella, Anna Maria, “Divisionism and Symbolism at the Turn of the Century “, in: Braun, Emily

(ed.), Italian Art in the 20th Century, Painting and Sculpture 1900-1988, Preste, London, 1989. p.33


[11]. “[…] l’arte moderna  deve essere, oltreché armonia di colore ed equilibrio di  forma, elevato nel

     concetto ed umana […]. Sento che ora non é più l’epoca di fare l’arte per l’arte, ma dell’ arte per

     l’umanità.”  Pellizza citato in: Anzani, Giovanni e Pirovano, Carlo, La pittura  del primo Novecento

     in Lombardia (1900-1945), in: Pirovano, Carlo, La pittura  italiana. Il  Novecento, Milano, 1991. p. 74.

[12]. “onde può essere materiata  l’interna condizione sentimentale.”, riescono a trasmettere “una certa

     quiete dello spirito”, “comorre l’anima a grande serenità davanti all’alternarsi del  bene e male,

     delle gioie e dei dolori della vita.”  Damigella, Anna Maria, “Pellizza da Volpedo”, in: Art e

Dossier, n. 151.  Giunti, Firenze, 1999. P. 30.

[13]. Labriola was an Italian Marxist theoretician. His thought and writings had influence on many

Political theorists and intellectuals in Italy during the early of the 20th century. In:

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/327040/Antonio-Labriola (Sep. 2013)


[14]. Antonio Labriola, “Historical Materialism” in : http://www.marxists.org/archive/labriola/ (Sep. 2013).

[15]. Pellizza da Volpedo, Il quarto stato , 285 x 543 cm, Oil on poplar, Museo del Novecento, Milan. In;


[16]. The term “Forth Estate” was taken from Henri Fielding’s citation in the Convent Garden Journal

(1752): “None of our political writers…take notic of any more than three estates, namely, Kings,

Lords, and Commons … passing by in silence that very large and powerful body which form the

forth estate in this community … the Mob.” Fielding, Henry, (13 June, 1752), Convent Garden

Journal (London) 47. Quoted in OED “estate, n, 7b”.  This early use of “mob” meant to the

“common masses”. This sense, which came to represent a social left sided tendency, representing

the workers, has prevailed in other countries in Europe. In:

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/fourth+estate (Sep. 2014).


[17]. The village of Volpedo is the place Pelliza was born and lived in.

[18]. Pellizza’s  preliminary drawings prepared for the painting allow to identify the three main characters

leading the lot of workers: from left to right are described as two of Pellizza’s farmers, Clemente

Bidone and Giovanni Zarri. The woman with the baby in her arms is Pellizza’s wife, Teresa, with

their baby son. In: “Pellizza da Volpedo – Il Quarto Stato”, in:

http://www.userpage.fu-erlin.de/~stern89/pellizza.html#note 2.34. p.13 (oct. 2004).

[19]. “Col fatto reale dell’avanzarsi di una massa di uomini del lavoro io tento simboleggiare il  grande

      cammino che essi vanno compiendo…” Pellizza in a letter to V. Pica del 12th  July 1900. In:

Pirovano, 1991. p. 76.


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