Puglia in the 'Belle Époque'

sulle ali del liberty a lecce. passeggia



Paul Arthur’s talk to the Berkeley Circle began with clarification. What did the words Art Nouveau mean? How did they relate to la Belle Epoque? To expressions like Stile Liberty used in Italy and Spain? To Jugendstil in Germany, the Sezessionstil in Austria, or to the Arts and Craft movement in the United Kingdom? Art Nouveau, it seems, was a global term for related tendencies in the plastic arts, design, and architecture that ran through the 19th Century. Each part of the globe added its own touches, emphases, and nomenclature. What began as something esoteric, hushed talk in artists’ studios, became with the decades a way of life. Art Nouveau invaded the theatre, advertising, and print. It became the theme of a great department store, Liberty and Company of London’s Regent Street. “Artistic shopping” became the fashion.

A series of expositions in France had popularised Art Nouveau. The Exposition Universelle of Paris in 1900 is considered the peak of its influence and success.  However, as an approach to the arts  Art Nouveau’s impact was worldwide. Vienna’s importance matched that of Paris. Art Nouveau touched the Americas and beyond. The mid-century awakening to Japanese design had made that country a prime contributor.

Paul Arthur used the figure of schizophrenia to explain the predicament of aesthetic theorists in the second half of the 19th Century. Industrialisation had arrived and been embraced. Mass production followed and allowed more people than ever to acquire items that had been beyond the means of their forebears. But change as ever brought fear and reaction. The individual, his talent, his inspiration, the work of his hands appeared to have no place in the new juggernaut of iron, glass and poured stone.

Art Nouveau was the remedy, a new art shaped to reinstate the artist by connecting him to nature. Its lines would be fluid and sinuous, not those of an engineer’s drawing board. They would be inspired by the forms of birds, insects, flowers, and, above all, women. The hand of the craftsman would regain its primal role. 

That, in a nutshell,  was the contradiction. The great monuments of Art Nouveau being created, the cathedral-like iron and glass-roofed rail stations, marvels like London’s Crystal Palace or Vienna’s Palace of the Secession were unthinkable without heavy industry. The fluid sweep of line that characterised Art Nouveau and that came to mark our cities couldn’t emerge alone from a craftsman’s workbench or an artist’s dream in his studio. A symbol of the Belle Epoque like the Eiffel Tower owed its existence to a gigantic forge and an army of workmen.

From the universal, Paul Arthur narrowed his glance. Italy had come late to Art Nouveau because industry lagged there and the classical tradition was so deeply rooted. Examples were relatively few away from big cities like Milan and Naples. In Lecce, always a latecomer, there were dual influences of the whiplash of the Paris-Brussels school and the geometry and order that came from Vienna, the latter dominating. Yet other strands managed to touch us in our peripheral remoteness.  Traces of Japan’s part in the movement can still be seen in the decorated ceiling of a period nursery where an absorbed  Japanese child paints a parasol.

Intriguing was the account of how several individuals managed to link Lecce with the worldwide movement. Among these was Tito Schipa whose Casa Dongiovanni at Galugnano as well as his taste in automobiles established a local beachhead. Indeed what fascinated in Paul Arthur’s account was how after tracing an international movement he fixed on Lecce and the rewards to be found for strollers in the city discovering Art Nouveau details that have survived the changes in taste and fashion of builders and decorators as well as officialdom’s blindness. We were left with the hope that an exposition in one of our museums would centre attention on Lecce and Art Nouveau. No one would be more qualified to coordinate such a project than Professor Arthur whose passion for the subject we were lucky enough to share.

Peter Byrne