Massimo Campigli: Modern art and the Etruscans

Today marks the 127th birthday of the artist Massimo Campigli. 

Massimo was deeply influenced by Etruscan art, creating mesmeric and allusive masterpieces that capture something of the solidly otherworldly aspects of this ancient Italian art. 


Massimo was born in Berlin on 4 July 1895 to an unmarried young German mother, who left her baby’s father and fled to Italy. In 1898 she married a British Citizen based in Florence and they bought up Massimo as their nephew. It was only when he was 15, that he found out the truth which he realized explained why he has been enrolled in so many schools under so many different names. He remained close to his family, but was prickly on the subject of his origins. 

In the First World War Massimo served in the Italian army on the Austrian front. He was taken prisoner in 1916 and held in a POW camp in Northwest Austria until he escaped first to Bucharest and then to Moscow, finally arriving in London in October 1918. 

After a brief stay in Milan after the war, he was sent to Paris as the news correspondent for the Corriere della Sera in 1919. In Montmartre, he made the fateful decision to become an artist and quickly established a name for himself, joining other Italian artists in that paint drenched city on the Seine. Throughout the Roaring 20s his talent and style developed and he established a name for himself. 

In 1928 however, while in Rome, he visited the Villa Giulia, then as now, the premier museum of Etruscan art. He was astounded, enchanted:

Only in 1928, during a  visit at the Villa Giulia Museum in Rome, I found myself ready to be struck by love at first sight. Much like in the case of a woman we are destined to love, whom we meet often, but we only fall in love with her when it is ‘written’ that we do […] And then we cry “I have always loved her”.

He developed a distinctive style throughout the 30s and 40s. Between 1933 and 1940 he worked on four frescos. During the war, when fascist Italy was allied to Nazi Germany, Massimo worked on luxurious art books amongst other works.

His more pared-back style was out of keeping with the fascist histrionics.  After the war, he continued to work. His reputation continued to rise. Most notably his art stole the show in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment.

Etruscan art

Massimo’s discovery of Etruscan art took place against the backdrop of two long term trends in art. 

First, Etruscan art was being studied in more detail with the academy. 

At the turn of the century the paradigm developed by Johann Joachim “JJ” Winckelmann, which privileged Greek art, was being challenged by the so-called ‘Vienna School’ of Art Historians. Of course, the Etruscans had many champions over the years including Piranesi who himself had criticized Winckelmann. 

Important discoveries were also made during this time, including the Apollo of Veii excavated in 1916 and first exhibited in 1918. This statue is sometimes credited to the artist Vulca (based on spurious grounds). Daniele Federico Maras argues that this sculpture provided to Italian intellectuals and artists a new ‘creative matric from the past, in order to relaunch the contemporary anti-classical spirit’.

Second, many modern artists were inspired by what was called ‘Primitive Art’. This term reveals something of the view of non-Western cultures which was both respectful and affirmative, but also ran parallel to perceived ideas of Western superiority. Many cultures were celebrated under this broad name from Eastern European, African and Oceanic artistic traditions on the one hand to non-Greco-Roman ancient arts. 

Just as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon drew from African art, so in a similar way did Massimo draw from Etruscan. There was something in the air. Around this time, the English writer Sir DH Lawrence, dying from Tuberculosis, was recuperating in Italy. He wrote a book about Etruscan Places contrasting the worldly Etruscans with the contemporary Italians maddened to a fascist frenzy by their vengeful war god Benito Mussolini.

Visiting the Tomb of Orcus, Lawrence was led to write:

The old religion of the profound attempt of man to harmonize himself with nature, and hold his own and come to flower in the great seething of life, changed with the Greeks and Romans into a desire to resist nature, to produce a mental cunning and a mechanical force that would outwit Nature and chain her down completely, completely, till at last there should be nothing free in nature at all, all should be controlled, domesticated, put to man’s meaner uses.

Lawrence, Etruscan Places

Massimo was deeply drawn to Etruscan art, yet he was not particularly interested in their history or archaeology. He never visited a necropolis. Avoided the debates about relative artistic value. Martina Corgnati says: The Etruscans “were not sources to be acknowledge, but shapes to be dreamt”.

Two Women by Massimo Campigli, Estorick Collection, London

Modern art

What was it in the Etruscan style that so enchanted the passionate Italian?

It is perhaps the allusive combination of timelessness and full bodied sensuality that pervades Etruscan art. Many of the items survive from tombs and yet there is nothing of the funeral about the languidly reclining diners, almost about to stretch out to reach for a morsel.

Massimo’s palette is muted and earthy: browns, reds, pale off whites. The figures of women are painted with a frontal monumentality or a languid ease recalling the Etruscan terracottas. 

We see this most clearly in Two Women, a painting from 1943. A woman in the foreground sits in the front. Her arm is resting above the frame. Her pose is comfortable. She wears a modern hair style, but her dress resembles an ancient costume. She stares directly at the viewer with deep soulful eyes. Behind her is a female figurine in a long dress. Her back is turned to the viewer so that only her hair net is visible. In this, the image resembles early figurines of so-called Neolithic Venuses. The painting creates an uncanny sense of both portrait and universal womanhood. The tension of the painting is only completed by the presence of a viewer. 

These women are not just older than the rocks which were ground down to paint them. The rocks themselves grew cold and hardened, were worn by the winds and smoothed by the rains, in order to give shape to these paintings, to bring form to these women and for no other reason. If you look too long, the paintings scorch the skin with the trace of the still burning heat of that molten stone. 

Noli me tangere!

Photo reference: Apollo of Veii (Public Domain), Two Women (posted with permission from the Estorick Collection London).

Read more: Campigli e gli Etruschi: una pagana felictià (Silvana Editoriale)

By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics