In 1920, at the age of thirty-five, Amedeo Modigliani died in poverty and neglect in Paris, much like a figure out of La Boh`eme. His life had been as dramatic as his death. An Italian Jew from a bourgeois family, "Modi" had a weakness for drink, hashish, and the many women-including the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova-who were drawn to his good looks. His friends included Picasso, Utrillo, Soutine, and other important artists of his day, yet his own work stood apart, generating little interest while he lived. Today's art world, however, acknowledges him as a master whose limited oeuvre-sculptures, portraits, and some of the most appealing nudes in the whole of modern art-cannot satisfy collectors' demand.
With a lively but judicious hand, biographer Jeffrey Meyers sketches Modigliani and the art he produced, illuminating not only this little-known figure but also the painters, writers, lovers, and others who inhabited early twentieth-century Paris with him.
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Jeffrey Meyers is the author of numerous books on literature, film, and art, including biographies of Katherine Mansfield, Joseph Conrad, and Somerset Maugham. He lives in Berkeley, California..
Amedeo Modigliani, full of talent and ambition, arrived in France from his native Italy in his early twenties. Stimulated by the artistic ferment of Paris, he spent the rest of his short life there. But his mind and character were rooted in his Jewish and Italian heritage, and whenever he was at a low point he dreamed of going home. As he lay dying in a charity hospital, his last thoughts were of Italy.
Modigliani came from the city of Livorno, the Tuscan port between Genoa and Rome, which had a unique place in the history of Italy. The Duchy of Florence bought the original fortress from Genoa in 1421 after the silting up of the Arno and consequent decay of the port of Pisa, and during the next century Livorno prospered under the rule of the Medicis. In the twenty-two-year reign of Ferdinando I, who became Duke of Tuscany in 1587, Livorno was rapidly transformed from an insignificant fishing village into a great international port. Ferdinando was the son of Eleanora di Toledo (the subject of a Bronzino portrait). Though he never took holy orders, he became a nominal cardinal at the age of fourteen. A powerful leader, he strengthened the Tuscan navy, defeated the Barbary pirates off the coast of North Africa, crushed the Turks and took lavish spoils. In Livorno, the colossal statue Monumento dei Quattro Mori celebrates Ferdinando’s victories over the infidels and portrays him with four huge Moorish slaves supine at his feet.
Ferdinando also built the famous Villa Medici in Rome (later the home of the French Academy and of the Prix de Rome) and bought many priceless paintings and statues. He was a munificent patron of the arts, and created one of the most decorative and artistically vibrant courts in Europe. An English historian praised Ferdinando’s achievements and wrote that “though extravagant and ostentatious, he immediately displayed a sincere concern for the well-being of Florence.” His benign, efficient rule reduced corruption, stabilized the economy, encouraged farming, revived trade and strengthened the fleet. He developed Livorno, “the masterpiece of the Medicean dynasty,” and filled it with new citizens from all over Europe.
Ferdinando was a commercially shrewd as well as an exceptionally enlightened and progressive ruler. By the charter of July 10, 1593, he declared Livorno a free port, exempt from all financial restrictions and beyond the customs frontier of the dukedom. He also created a refuge for all the oppressed people
of Europe: Armenians and Orthodox Greeks from Turkey, “Catholics from England, Huguenots from France, Mahometan Moors from Christian Spain, Christian Moors from Mahometan Barbary, Corsicans loathing the Genoese yoke, Flemings fleeing before [the Spanish Duke of] Alva, and—above all—Jews.”
Only twenty years after Ferdinando’s charter, Livorno, with its thriving communities of English and Dutch merchants, had become one of the great centers of Mediterranean trade and, rivaled only by Amsterdam, of Jewish culture. Cecil Roth, the historian of the Jews, using the English name for Livorno, emphasized its extraordinary freedom and wrote: “The only place in Italy where Jewish intellectual life was completely untrammelled was Leghorn. Here, in accordance with the Charter of 1593, there was no interference with Hebrew literature; and in consequence the city became a great center of learning, ultimately outstripping the older seats of culture in the Mediterranean.” The great synagogue, begun in 1602 and enlarged in 1789, was one of the major sights of the town, and was often visited by royalty and even by Napoleon himself during his triumphant campaign in northern Italy.1
Livorno attracted distinguished visitors as well as persecuted minorities. The English novelist Tobias Smollett lived a few miles outside Livorno for the last two years of his life, finished Humphrey Clinker there and in 1771, the year of its publication, was buried in the English cemetery. Writing from Monte Nero in May 1770, he told a friend that “I am at present rusticated on the slope of a Mountain that overlooks the sea, in the neighbourhood of Leghorne, a most romantic and salutary situation.” Percy Shelley, comparing Livorno to the bustling port on the Thames, called it the “Wapping of Italy” and “the most unattractive of cities.” His wife, Mary, condemned it as a “stupid town.” But when they settled next to a farm in August 1819, she softened her judgment and rhapsodized about the pleasures of rural life: “We live in a little country house at the end of a green lane surrounded by a podere. . . . It is filled with olive, fig and peachtrees and the hedges are of myrtle. . . . The people are always busy. . . . They sing not very melodiously but very loud—Rossini’s music.”2 Shelley wrote The Cenci and The Mask of Anarchy near Livorno, and in its port took delivery of his schooner, the Ariel, in which he later drowned. Modigliani identified with the flamboyant and rebellious Shelley and agreed with his exalted assertion in A Defence of Poetry that artists and “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Livorno’s humane tolerance of Jews was strikingly different from the harsh conditions they endured in the rest of Italy. Napoleon’s rule and influence were enlightened, but when his armies left the local rulers became unmistakably reactionary. “In the States of the Church it was unbending: under the reinstated Pope Pius VII [1800–23] the gates of the Roman ghetto were firmly shut upon its Jewish community once more. In Ferrara the ghetto chains were put back.” Cecil Roth observed that Livorno “was thus, with Pisa, virtually the only place in Italy where the repressive policy of Catholic reaction [against the Jews] made no headway. The Ghetto, with all the degradation which it implied, was never introduced; there was barely any restriction on economic life.”
Jewish culture prospered throughout the nineteenth century and the city remained an important center of Hebrew printing. Livorno suffered a decline when it ceased to be a free port in 1868. Though the Jewish population (in a city which then had 100,000 people) decreased in the late nineteenth century from 5,000 to only 1,700, there is still today a higher proportion of Jews in Livorno than in any other Italian city. A cultural historian explained how families like the Modiglianis practiced a less orthodox form of Judaism during Amedeo’s lifetime, and how well educated and politically active Jews like his brother Emanuele began to influence society. Until the start of the Great War, Italian Jews usually observed the important ceremonies and holidays, rarely entered mixed marriages and confined their social life to the family. “Italian Jews were brought into society primarily through their entry into civil administration and university positions, professional activities that had a political impact.” Arnoldo Momigliano, an eminent Italian historian, concluded that Livorno “remained the easiest Italian town to live in during at least two centuries and developed that Jewish style of its own which is preserved in the books of [Rabbi Elia] Benamozegh and of which perhaps the paintings of Amedeo Modigliani show traces.”3
Modigliani’s Livorno was the ugliest place in the most beautiful province of Italy. Karl Baedeker’s guidebook reported that it “contains little to detain the traveler” and the English writer Augustus Hare asserted: “There is nothing whatever worth seeing in Leghorn.” In Italian Hours, Henry James magisterially declared: “It has neither a church worth one’s attention, nor a municipal palace, nor a museum, and it may claim the distinction, unique in Italy, of being a city of no pictures.” After that harsh judgment, James (like Mary Shelley) relented a little and confessed: “[But] as I sat in the garden and, looking up from my book, saw through a gap in the shrubbery the red house-tiles against the deep blue sky and the grey underside of the ilex-leaves turned up by the Mediterranean breeze, it was all still quite Tuscany, if Tuscany in the minor key.” Though Livorno itself was culturally limited, it was close to the Tuscan masterpieces in Florence and Siena. Pisa, only twelve miles up the Arno, had the famous Leaning Tower, a cemetery and a cathedral with mosaics by Cimabue, paintings by Andrea del Sarto and a pulpit carved by Giovanni Pisano.
Livorno was the birthplace, a generation before Modigliani, of Pietro Mascagni, composer of the popular opera Cavalleria Rusticana (1890). His biographer explained that the city was gradually transformed, while Modigliani was still living there, from a thriving port and site of a naval academy to a town of shipbuilding and heavy industry. Livorno became the trading center of the Mediterranean. It imported goods from northern Europe and sold them in Italy and the Levant; imported cotton from Egypt and sold it in northern Europe. It processed cowhides, turned coral into jewelry and bartered it for diamonds. “During the nineteenth cent...
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