30a-Culture Break: Italian Genre Painting and the Woman’s Role

Images of Italy from the Past

I recently discovered the artwork of Italian genre painter Giovanni Battista Torriglia while researching articles for the Muro family. His paintings were a delight to view and on further consideration I found they contained enough elements to tell a story set in the Italy of long ago.  I decided to learn a little more about him and the style in which he painted.  I hope you will enjoy Torriglia’s artwork and perhaps see a story or two in the paintings that follow the background information on this topic.

What is Genre Painting?

When the Reformation began in the early 16th century, Northern European art took a different direction. The demand for large scale works of art with religious themes began to decrease.  Paintings were commissioned by the rising class of merchants and businessmen who wanted small scale works of art to display in their homes.  Scenes from everyday life as well as landscapes and still life were much in demand.

Some critics in Europe held that genre art had no moral to teach but time has shown this is not true. In many paintings a moral message is made through the details in the background or the arrangement of people in the scene or in the choice of setting.

Genre Painting in Italy

The earlier masters of Genre Painting were Dutch artists such as Vermeer. He worked to infuse a sense of light in all its variations–reflected, hazy, subdued, glittering–into his paintings. One of Vermeer’s best known paintings is “Girl with a Pearl Earring.”  This use of light also influenced the genre painters of Itay.

As the Italian aristocracy became bored with religious artwork during the waning years of the Renaissance, the appearance of genre art began to take hold. Although in real life the upper classes did not want to see the poor and the common people cross their paths, the images of their life became sought after in the form of small paintings depicting scenes of the poor and their lives.

Genre art did not fully develop in Italy until the 18th century. Venetian artist Pietro Longhi popularized the genre through his depictions of the everyday lives of the middle and upper classes.  Some of the artwork by painters such as Giamcomo Ceruti (1698-1767) achieved a deeper level in that the people depicted communicated a complexity and humanity to the viewer.

Giovanni Battista Torriglia (1858-1937)was born in Genoa and trained in Florence. He is the Italian genre artist who captures the feelings of light and intimacy I felt during my visits to the homes of relatives in the Old Town of Agropoli.  Although the Summer of 1976 is almost 40 years ago the distillation of those visits to relative’s homes in Agropoli returns when I see Torriglia’s paintings.   When I view the way he painted the sunlight coming through a window or a doorway I’m reminded of the visits we made to relatives in the Old Town. The contrasts I remember are of brilliant summer sunlight outdoors.  This was followed by the cool interiors of old houses with windows curtained by lace and sheer fabrics through which the light was softened.  In these contrasts Torriglia captures the feeling of rest and comfort to be found indoors away from the bright and hot sun during an Italian summer day.

Even though the world in which I grew up was long after Torriglia depicted scenes of Italian life in the past, there is something about them that resonates with memories of my own childhood. There is a feeling of familiarity when I take in the painting “The Center of Attention”.  It might have to do with the Holy Water font and portrait of Mother Mary in the room depicted in the painting.  This evokes memories from my childhood in the Italian-American community of Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, NY.   I remember playing in the homes of some of my childhood friends where religious paintings such as “The Last Supper” hung in the dining room.  I am also reminded of the times I watched Grandma Josie iron shirts on top of the kitchen table while I sat with Grandpa Sam munching on slices of provolone and chunks of Italian bread.

The Artwork of Giovanni Battista Torriglia


“The Center of Attention”


“Admiring the Baby”

“The Fisherman’s Family”

“Bath Time”

Discussion with Uncle Sammy, Sunday June 28, 2015 11 a.m. – 12:15 p.m.

Uncle Sammy and I made a list of what was communicated by the genre paintings of Torriglia during our session this morning. There are clearly defined moral and social messages in each painting which came across very strongly.  The following list details our thoughts and impressions:

  • All paintings depict family life in a multi-generational setting.
  • Women predominate as the focus in the paintings. They are nursing children, pressing clothes, supervising the play time, or bathing a baby.
  • The home is the sphere of a woman’s activities amidst the presence of her husband and the elder generation.
  • Even when a young man is visting a young woman, as in the painting entitled “Flirtation”, a member of the older generation is nearby ensuring that proper behavior is maintained.
  • The emphasis is on a collective identity. The family grouping is the place in which even enjoyment of music, as depicted in “Admiring the Baby”, happens in the company of other people.
  • There is no scene from daily life with just one person as the subject of these scenes.
  • Religious artwork in the background of the rooms depicted emphasizes the presence and force of the Catholic church in the lives of the family. For example, in “The Center of Attention” there is a Holy Water font and a portrait of the Virgin Mary on the wall of the room in the upper right hand corner of the painting.
  • These paintings tell the viewer that women are happiest in their appointed roles as mothers, wives and helpers. Their place is in the home and they are best suited to living within the company of others.
  • These values support our belief that the Culture of Honor was very intertwined with Catholicism at the time these paintings were made. Even as the early 20th century developed, a woman could not be seen as going out on her own without the company of a male relative or a female companion from the ranks of her family or neighbors.

We will consider the Culture of Honor and the manner in which women were chaperoned when they went out when we review the travel documentation for Letizia Muro’s voyage to America in 1912 in the next posting.


Reading Materials

Genre Painting (c. 1500-1960)


Pietro Longhi (1702-1785)

Venetian Artist


Jan Vermeer (1632-1675)


From Caravaggio to Ceruti, How Genre Painting Grew in Italy : Low Life and Vagabond Days

The New York Times

January 9, 1999

by Roderick Conway Morris

Giovanni Battista Torriglia


Artwork of Giovanni Battista Torriglia

All images public domain from http://cuinine.com/art

“The Center of Attention”


“The Fisherman’s Family”




“Admiring the Baby”


“Bath Time”


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