10.02.14: 223rd anniversary of the birth of Francesco Hayez (1791-1882).
The kiss. A magical word used to name many works of art, the most renowned probably being Klimt’s golden embrace. Of equal splendor is Il Bacio (Italian for The Kiss), a Romantic painting by Milanese artist Francesco Hayez. However, Il Bacio doesn’t show just a kiss. Il Bacio is the iconic kiss that represents the birth of Italy.
Two lovers and their passionate embrace keep bedazzling visitors to the Brera Gallery in Milan who, like the portrayed couple, would like to linger over their kiss indefinitely.
Art historians believe that the portrayal of the couple is allegorical for the Risorgimento (Resurgence), the unification movement that led to the independence of Italy in 1870. The four colors of the couple’s clothing – red, green, white, and sky blue – correspond to those in the national flags of Italy and France and stand for the two countries’ alliance during the Second War of Independence, which ended in 1859 (the year Il Bacio was released) with a victory over the Austro-Hungarian empire.
This historical reading acquires particular meaning if we consider that the only source of color and light against the rudimentary medieval background is the couple, as if the artist’s only aim had been to highlight the historical triumph and celebrate ideals of national unity against the arid color of political division. The celebratory purpose is even clearer in the last version of The Kiss (the last of four), which Hayez painted in 1861, the year Rome was declared Capital of Italy.
Here the damsel is draped in white, and the couple’s clothes honor Italy’s national banner. Sold at Sotheby’s London in 2008, this version remains one of the symbols of the Resurgence, although the original painting of 1859 is the one that signs the birth of the nation.
In The Kiss, Hayez gives life to a tale. Despite their hidden faces, the two lovers unfold their secrets to those who care to listen. His foot is placed on the first step of the stairs as if he were about to rush off. Her hand holds him delicately, as if she knew she would have to let go of him any second. We can almost hear the guards’ footsteps approaching, the two lovers promising in a whisper that this wouldn’t be their last time together, and our hero taking his swift step up the stairs.
Choosing simple elegance and an unadorned medieval setting (although the historical events to which the painting alludes took place in the 19th century), Hayez incites us to consider every detail of his work. The lover’s dagger pressing against his beloved’s waist tells us danger is imminent. The ominous shadow in the background plays with our imagination. That dark fissure in the upper right corner of the painting reminds us of dungeon windows, and we might imagine a cat’s yellow eyes spying from within the darkness. And that sky-blue fairytale dress that looks real from up close? Its splendor denotes hope even in a time of uncertainty, but let’s not get into the magnificence of the dress.
Wondering what will happen to the lovers in a united Italy, Il Bacio makes us dream on. It urges us to embrace and hold on to someone meaningful when they enter our lives, and it reminds us of the kind of driving force love and independence really are.