The Maremma landscape is a colorful palette of green, blue, and white, of shadow and light. It's no wonder an art movement was born here.
Castiglioncello is a small town on the Tuscan coast located just a few kilometers from the Medicean harbour of Livorno. It’s right on top of a windy hill, immersed in a large, shaded pinewood above dark cliffs that end down by the sea. This is the land of Maremma, where vineyards are cultivated for Bolgheri DOC wines in territory that once was swampland, now drained and fertile.
Once an ancient Eturscan settlement, Castiglioncello has been the favorite retreat of important artists since the 20th century, welcoming such luminaries as Luchino Visconti, Vittorio Gassmann, and Marcello Mastroianni. But the importance of Castiglioncello as a renowned sea resort and creative haven starts a century before, with the Macchiaioli and the School of Castiglioncello.
The Macchiaioli: Italian Impressionists
The Macchiaioli were a small group of artists that lived and painted in Tuscany during the second half of 19th century. The word Macchiaioli comes from macchia, literally “spot” or “blotch,” indicating the technique used by the artists in their paintings.
The Macchiaioli wanted to reinvent Italian art, which they viewed as enclosed in academies and relegated to old techniques. They wanted to capture the natural light, the shade, and the colors of nature. They painted to depict reality, a life lived outdoors and not shut inside dusty classrooms.
The Macchiaioli movement originated in Florence at the historic Cafè Michelangiolo around 1855. It lasted for about twenty years. The key figure was Diego Martelli, Florentine art critic and patron of the arts. Some of the other most important artists were Telemaco Signorini, Giuseppe Abbati, Giovanni Fattori, and Silvestro Lega, among others.
The Macchiaioli have been compared to French Impressionists, but actually, the two movements have just a few things in common. True, both schools of thought wanted to break with the academies’ traditions, painting outside of their studios and capturing real life with vibrant colors and realistic shading. But the Macchiaioli started painting more than fifteen years before the Impressionists, who exhibited their works for the first time in 1874 in Paris. Also, the Italian artists captured domestic, rural and military scenes, while the French painted more frivolous moments of aristocrats’ lives. The Macchiaioli movement ended a few years after the Impressionists were just beginning to gain renown.
A creative haven at Villa Martelli
The town of Castiglioncello played an important role for the Macchiaioli movement, for it was here that the most famous masterpieces were painted. The relationship between the Macchiaioli and Castiglioncello started in 1861, when Diego Martelli inherited a large estate in Castiglioncello, a small fishermen’s village at the time. Diego moved into the large Villa Martelli to recover from his father’s death, inviting many of his talented friends to spend the summer there with him.
Abbati, Fattori, Lega, and Sernesi found the ideal backdrop for their art in this untouched place: the deep shades of the pinewood, the intense blue of the sea, the dark greys of the cliffs, and the bright white clouds—ingredients for great art that soon went beyond Castiglioncello, moving south to capture the vibrant colors of the Maremma.
Visit Castiglioncello: a Macchiaioli itinerary
Castiglioncello hasn’t lost its artistic appeal. Many of the places beloved by the Macchiaioli are still untouched. Experience them by following in the artists’ footsteps for an artistic itinerary.
It all started at Villa Martelli, now called Castello Pasquini, located just above the town amidst the greenery of a large park. Today the castle is used for exhibits, events, and weddings. Walk down towards town, cross through the small city center full of quaint shops, and you’ll reach the shady pinewood Marradi. The pines were planted by Martelli and seem to topple right into the sea.
The long promenade along the sea passes by some of the most beautiful viewpoints in the area. You can easily spot seagulls and cormorants on the dark rocks, and starfish and sea urchins in the crystalline water. The wildest area of Castiglioncello rests at the bottom of the promenade: Punta Righini, with huge, dark rocks that form natural saltwater pools.
Take the stairs back into town and climb up the old Medicean watchtower. It offers a breathtaking view over the Etruscan coast and the Tuscan Archipelago. On clear days you can see Elba Island.
Your Macchiaioli tour wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Art Center Diego Martelli in Piazza della Vittoria, where copies of the most important artworks by the Macchiaioli are on display. Here, you will also find in-depth explanations of the movement, a closer look at Diego Martelli, and the central importance of Castiglioncello as the birthplace of the movement.
Where to eat in Castiglioncello
Castigioncello is one of my favorite places to spend the summer. In fact, I’ve been here every year since I was a kid (and my mum did the same!). Here are my two favorite spots to eat:
- Ristorante il Cardellino – Located inside the Pinewood Marradi, this fancy restaurant has a great view over the sea. Perfect for a special seafood dinner or lunch, paired with great local wine and overlooking a beautiful panorama.
- La Baracchina – Located on a large rock at Punta Righini, this is my favorite place for a light lunch by the seaside. Ask for a piadina (like a flat sandwich) or the fried fish (frittura di pesce) to take away and enjoy outside surrounded by nature—just like the Macchiaioli.