Art Term Tuesday: Macchia

Jack Cantey

A trio of vibrant, eye-catching glass sculptures from the FWMoA permanent collection have recently been put on display in the museum’s Karl S. and Ella L. Bolander Gallery. These large, multihued vessels–featuring undulating rims and exteriors spotted with bright pops of color–are from renowned studio glass artist Dale Chihuly’s Macchia series. Once you’ve taken in the visual brilliance of these works, though, you may find yourself wondering: What exactly is a “macchia?” It is an Italian word–derived from the Latin macula–that means “stain,” “spot,” or “speck;” it can also be used in reference to Mediterranean shrubland. (For the coffee lovers out there: Yep, it is also related to the drink called caffè macchiato, which could be translated as “coffee stained or spotted (with milk).”) Looking at how these sculptures are “specked” or “stained” with color, it’s possible to understand why Chihuly named this series Macchia. But is there anything more to the word beyond this, especially in relation to art history and technique?

It turns out that macchia does have a history, one that dates back to the Renaissance, when, according to art historian Robert Hobbs, the term was “associated with a sketchy way of applying the initial color to a drawing or painting.” The term also appears in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (published and then expanded in the mid-sixteenth century), in which he describes the later paintings of Titian as “pittura a macchia,” i.e. spotty or patchy paintings.

Macchia retained these various meanings of sketchiness, spottiness, and improvisation into the nineteenth century, when a group of painters based in Florence were derogatorily branded by critics as i Macchiaioli (the Macchiaioli). The group–which included painters such as Guiseppe Abbati, Giovanni Fattori, and Silvestro Lega–rebelled against the conventional academic style that was prevalent in Italy in the late 1850s. They headed outdoors into the Tuscan countryside to create bucolic pictures that, in some ways, presaged the paintings of the French Impressionists a decade later. What earned the Macchiaioli their name was, primarily, their focus on capturing the natural interplay of light and shadow and spots (or macchie) of color they witnessed while painting outside.

Within the contemporary art world, macchia as a term (or title) can be found in contexts other than just Chihuly’s series. For instance, in 2017, artist Donald Martiny (whose work is also in the FWMoA permanent collection) chose the title Pittura A Macchia for his solo exhibition at the Madison Gallery in La Jolla, CA, a title that harkens back to Vasari’s phrase.

It’s important to note that there are reasons for Chihuly’s adoption of the term as the name of his series, which was begun in 1981, that go beyond the colorfully spotted appearance of the vessels. Hobbs relates that it was the artist Italo Scanga, a friend of Chihuly’s, who first proposed the name. Macchia may have appealed to Chihuly because of its relation to Italian art history; after all, he spent time on the famed island of Murano as a student of glassmaking in the late 1960s, and a good deal of his oeuvre has been designed and executed in vigorous dialogue–if not outright debate–with traditional Venetian glass work. Another reason could be the crucial role that spontaneity (remember the connotation of macchia as art that is “sketch-like” or improvised) plays in the creation of Chihuly’s work, particularly when the glass is being worked in its molten state–it is then that the artist and his team welcome the influence of gravity and centrifugal force into their creative process.

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