Artists Past and Present:
Luigi Fontana (1827 - 1908)
Self Portrait by Luigi Fontana
The 18th and 19th centuries were a low period for the Marche, but in spite of the area suffering socio-economic decline and neglect, it still produced some flourishes of cultural innovation. The theatre, in particular, was experiencing a period of enormous development, and an extraordinary number of beautiful theatres were built, offering a wide range of theatrical experiences.
The painter, sculptor and architect Luigi Fontana was one of the brilliant figures to come out of this period in the Marche. Some of his most impressive work can be found in Montefiore in the Collegiate Church of Santa Lucia. Towards the end of the 1870s he was commissioned by the Archbishop and prince Amilcare Malagola to paint two large scale works representing Saint Lucia dragged by bulls, and Saint Lucia on the stake.
Ten years later two more canvases were added, representing Saint Lucia leading her blind mother to the tomb of Saint Agatha and Saint Lucia distributing money to the poor. Also not to be missed is his stucco work in the same church.
He was born in 1827, the son of a family of architects and builders, who built, among many other fine buildings, the Fontana Palace in his home town of Monte San Pietrangeli. At the age of 17 he went to Ascoli to study painting under Gaetano Palmaroli, and his first commission was to do some decorations for the Palace of Count Gigliucci in 1844.
He went to Rome with a letter signed by the Archbishop of Fermo, and there studied with the grand master Tomaso Minardi, with whom he worked for almost twenty years until the master’s death. It was after this time that Fontana became passionate about Neo-Classical concepts.
Between 1879 and 1903 there was a fruitful partnership between Fontana and Nicola Achilli from Montegiorgio, also in the Marche. Together they worked on many important churches and basilicas in the region, applying faux marble finishes (so popular with the neo-classicists!) and making stucco reliefs, including those in the Church of Santa Maria in Montefiore.
He was a stellar figure in the Neo-classical movement, and you can see evidence of his adherence to the Platonic philosophy in all his later work. His Roman Frescoes in the Basilica of San Damaso in Rome alone assured him a central role in the art world of the day. He was instrumental in the developing popularity of the Romanesque Basilica, using recurring elements typical of late neo-classicism: Stucco, trabeation, timpani e columns.
His paintings can be seen in many of the major churches and palaces in Rome as well as his home town. Their style is domestic realism, with a real attention to truth, and they convey a simple religious fervour in which undertones of real emotional interactions are clear.
One of his most adventurous projects was the construction of a 2 m high solid silver statue of St Philip of Agira, which now stands in the Parish church in Zebbug, Malta. Luigi Fontana can be enjoyed as a beacon to the value of art, in terms of moral and social improvement. These values are expressed in the form of history painting, religious themes, mythology and allegory, with an historical awareness of the need to keep this tradition alive.