In his 1873 portrait, The Dying Mazzini (30 1/8” X 39 ?”, Providence, RISD Museum), Italian realist painter Silvestro Lega captures the final hours of Mazzini Morente’s life. In this painting, rather than depict the terror of death, a topic which people dislike and always associate with separation, fear, agony and sadness, Lega shows an incredibly peaceful and serene scene of dying Mazzini. With his eyes closed, Mazzini lies on a bed and is propped up against a pair of white pillows. His whole body is wrapped up in a piece of gray plaid shawl with only his hands exposed—left hand softly resting on his right.
In this essay, I will show you how Lega successfully built this tranquil scene of death through his careful manipulation of colors, texture and composition in the painting, so that viewers do not feel depressed when standing in front of it. The color tone of this painting is generally cool and muted. Lega paints the background with large pieces of pale blue and green, which occupy almost half of his work, and the beddings are uniformly white; even the plaid shawl covering on Mazzini’s body is cool gray. Generally speaking, cool colors tend to have a calming and comforting effect upon people.
Since this painting is addressing to death, it is reasonable that it might evoke some negative feelings, which against Lega’s purpose of creating a peaceful death scene, so he ingeniously utilizes the visual comfort that cool hue generates to neutralize and balance the sad feelings that are associated with the topic of the painting. This is one reason that this work looks so tranquil and the viewers do not feel depressed in front of it; even it is a work with such heavy theme. Yet it is also very interesting that Lega does use some warm colors on this painting—Mazzini’s crimson sleeve.
Is Lega breaking the balance here? Well, we can interpret it metaphorically. As the name of the painting The Dying Mazzini suggests, Mazzini, in this painting, is not yet dead. In order to show a dying Mazzini instead of a dead Mazzini, Lega, uses the gray shawl and the black sweater to subtly imply the shadow of death enveloping Mazzini, and Mazzini’s uncovered deep red sleeve, on the other hand, suggests the very little time he remains in the world. In this way, the contrast between warm and cool colors not only gives the painting some lively variation, but also perfectly illustrates the process of Mazzini’s death.
Besides the effective use of colors, Lega is also good at utilizing texture to achieve the exact feelings he wants to instill in viewers. In this painting, fabrics occupy nearly half entire composition. Mazzini is propped up on two noticeable white pillows, his upper body is wrapped up in his plaid shawl and his legs are covered by the sheet. Lega attaches great importance to the texture of the fabrics in order to stress their soft and thick characteristics. Viewers typically would respond to this with warm and comfortable feelings, which are opposite to the general feelings of death, a subject people always associate with chill and pain.
Moreover, since the textures of the pillows and sheet in this painting are so real and tangible that viewers could easily muddle Mazzini’s death with sleeping if they do not read the title first. Although death is a detestable topic, sleeping is always an enjoyable thing to everyone, so by emphasizing the texture of fabrics to create an “ambiguous” scene, which may imply death can be as natural and serene as sleeping, Lega, successfully reduces the negative feelings that the painting may impact on viewers.
Furthermore, the composition of this painting is quite simple yet well-considered. Rather than use exaggerated depictions like dramatic lights or theatrical gestures to strengthen the visual impact of Mazzini’s death, Lega just sets up a simple bedroom setting, a blank background and a naturally positioned Mazzini figure. It’s worth mentioning that Mazzini’s hands are carefully arranged in a very relaxed way. Hand gestures are often a reliable indicator of one’s mood.
For example, angry and painful people would like to clench their fists; nervous and frightened people would like to tremble their hands. In this painting, Mazzini’s hands are very relaxed—one hand gently overlaps on the other, a tiny gesture showing that Mazzini is not suffering from his death at all. He is more like a man who has composedly accepted his destiny, quietly waiting for the arrival of his final moment. To him, death is not painful. Overall, The Dying Mazzini is such an outstanding work that really captures the peace and tranquillity of Mazzini’s death.
I see Lega, in this painting, not just as a painter who simply depicts a death scene, but also as a philosopher who is trying to convey his brand new interpretation of death to people, that death is not always as horrible as people think; it can be a very tranquil and natural thing, like sleeping, and Lega effectively makes his viewers feel this point because of the great contrast he builds between the peaceful feeling and the “disturbing” theme of the painting by his masterful control of colors, texture and composition. So back to the question, “Is death always painful? ” Well, I now doubt it.