The polyhedral art of Pietro Annigoni

These words, expressed by the artist in an interview with a Rai journalist to describe one of his works, in response to a question on whether he feels more part of one movement than another, immediately transmit his essence, his way of living and thinking.

ritratto pietro annigoni

Above all I feel like me, I feel like myself, I feel like I haven’t betrayed myself.

These words, expressed by the artist in an interview with a Rai journalist to describe one of his works, in response to a question on whether he feels more part of one movement than another, immediately transmit his essence, his way of living and thinking. Defined as someone with an “ancient” painting style, Pietro Annigoni has never afforded too much importance to the opinions of those around him, continuing his artistic journey based on his own suggestions, memories, inspirations and personality. His sense of interior coherence has made his style on one hand recognisable, and on the other imitable, and the public has understood, followed, admired and loved. Conversely, his dream has always been to live for art, to create art, so much so that unlike the majority of people for whom it is difficult to understand and discover their talent, he declared:

I was born on my road, and I followed it.

Pietro Annigoni, born in Milan in June 1910 to an Emilian father and Italo-American mother, was in fact very young when he first entered this world, pursuing his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts, only to be told that a life dedicated to art would be a road to crucifixion. It is from here that his famous three-cross signature was born, while the letter “C” derives from “Canonicus”, the nickname assigned to him by his school companions. They certainly couldn’t have imagined that a few years later, Annigoni would – in a certain sense – be tied to this term thanks to his production of religious frescoes, such as those for the Basilica of Saint Anthony in Padua, the Sanctuary of the Madonna del Buon Consiglio in Ponte Buggianese and for the facade of Palazzo Misericordia in Florence.

It is in this very city, mistakenly considered his birth city given he spent much of his life here, that his journey began, spurring on Annigoni’s artistic growth when he moved here with his family in 1925. He was a courageous man, strongly motivated with a firm belief in himself and in that which he wanted to become. In fact, he never gave heed to those who said that becoming an artist wouldn’t be easy. He also travelled throughout Italy – declaring in an interview to have travelled a good half of the country on foot – and abroad to take notes, find inspiration, observe landscapes, all while satisfying his incessant need to draw. And so he developed a remarkable ability to accept and listen to his surrounds, faithfully transposing reality into his works.

medaglia pietro annigoni

Pietro Annigoni can in fact be defined as a “Realism” artist – even if he never wanted to be associated with any specific movement – and it is on this notion that his first personal exhibition was based, in 1932 at the Bellini Galleria, where he won the “Trentacoste” award and received the approval of De Chirico, among others. In addition, he is also closely tied to landscape representations, often animated by personalities that speak or relate to each other in a rather brusque manner. Another pillar theme of his creations is in fact the human persona, leading to his renowned fame as a portrait artist, which culminated in 1955 with a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, displayed in the “National Portrait Gallery”. In those years, Annigoni spent his time between England, where he was a member of the “Royal Society of Portrait Painters” and America, painting official portraits of elite figures such as princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister, John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Pope John XXIII. He is therefore defined as the “painter of queens”, despite having also painted portraits for the less affluent. In regards to this artistic technique, he affirms that:

(…) is like an object. At the beginning everything is still, then I leave the subject to speak, to understand the person

Grasping the essence of the person in front of him, their emotions, their experience: this is his skill, and it doesn’t matter how much time, how many poses are needed to get there. This is the reason he refused the requests of Elisabeth Taylor and Rockefeller, who had asked him to rush and complete their portraits in just two days.

An eclectic and versatile artist, who in addition to the paintings, frescoes and drawings involving a predominantly pastel technique, using his fingers to model and blend, is also a sculptor and engraver, even becoming the President of Incisori d’Italia (Engravers of Italy). And it is within this context that Pietro Annigoni began his collaboration with “Picchiani & Barlacchi”. In light of his renowned public standing, he was in fact called upon to develop various medals for the “Biennale della Medaglia d’Arte” (Art Medal Biennial) in Florence, a contest promoted by the company with a view towards creating awareness among younger generations about this form of art, unfortunately too often considered of minor importance. The exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi therefore included a display of the FAO and National Mint collections, with somewhat irregular medals including the faces of personalities by Annigoni, predominantly represented by their profile. Lorenzo the Magnificent on one side with the Medici coat of arms on the other, an ode to Masaccio, a dancing Salome and San Giovanni Battista, patron saint of Florence, were just some of the figures that could be seen by visitors during the three editions of the event.

The undisputed star of the show, he also created a painting that would later become a poster, donating the original sketch to the Montauti family as a way of saying thank you for their trust, esteem and involvement through their company, “Picchiani & Balacchi”. A decidedly emotional, memorable moment for this artist, who passed away in 1998 and whose adopted city rightly dedicated a Museum in Villa Bardini to him in 2008, displaying his many works, medals, personal objects and work tools found in his studio after his death.

Article by: Romina Mattoni