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On May 1°, Francesco Ranzoni – cobbler, son of Giulio e Lucia Tonazzi, residing in Intra – married Elisabetta Franzosini – house wife (in later documents she would be described as seamstress and also midwife). They were to have six children. Daniele was the fourth, preceded by Maria Giuseppina Palmira – (March 23, 1839- February 16,1843), Prospero Giuseppe (December 14, 1840, who died before Daniele’s birth) and Maria Virginia Giuseppa (May 23, 1842-April 1884)


Giovanni Daniele Ranzoni was born in Intra on December 3. [Intra is a town on the Piedmont side of Lago Maggiore, today incorporated in the city of Verbania-Pallanza]. Two younger brothers were to be born much later: Antonio Remigio (January 1, 1853) and Augusto Matteo (August 2, 1854).


A precocious talent 

As early as age nine, Ranzoni ‘s talent had been noticed in his home town. Well-to-do art lovers convinced his father to let him take evening courses under Luigi Litta (1813-1891), a modest Lombard painter of portraits and “vedute”, who, in 1848, had moved to Intra and was teaching drawing at the technical school. Ranzoni studied with him from 1853 to 1856.


Milan and Turin: academic training.



Accepted at the royal Academy of Brera, on November 18, 1856 the thirteen-year-old Ranzoni, financially maintained by the notables of his home town, moved alone to Milan, the city still under Austrian domination. He trained under Giuseppe Sogni (1793-1874), a history painter working in a Neo-Rococo style. His art school colleagues were Mosè Bianchi (1840-1904), Tranquillo Cremona (1837-1878) and the sculptor Giuseppe Grandi (1843-1894). On August 28,1857, he obtained the first price in the “ornato” school (a ground level of instruction in Italian Art schools consisting in the acquisition of drawing proficiency in pencil and charcoal, through reproduction of decorative architectural plaster casts at first, then figural casts of antique sculptures. This course of study called “Ornato” propaedeutic to life drawing should have been mastered before entering painting ateliers.



Following his sponsors’ decision that he should finish the school of “Ornato “in Turin, he entered the Albertina Academy there. Owing to the recommendation of Marquess Di Breme, on September 22,1860, Ranzoni was awarded an Art fellowship from the prestigious Collegio Caccia of Novara which granted him a stipend of forty-five thousand lire per month for eight months, renewable, to study in Turin. However, “le jeune et très distingué élève de l’Académie Albertine”, as Di Breme defined him in a letter now in the Caccia archives, was authorized to transfer to Milan “for family reasons”.

1860 - 1864 Milan

Back at the Brera Academy, Ranzoni trained under the romantic painter Giuseppe Bertini (1825-1898), a remarkable teacher who encouraged sketching from nature and experiments with complementary colors. Because of poor health Ranzoni was often absent and from November 1863 to February 1864 was back with his parents in Intra on medical leave. Upon the insistence of the Caccia Collegio he returned to Turin in 64. Acute migraines having kept him home, he started his training at the Albertina late in February. His master was Andrea Gastaldi (1826-1889), a rather rigid academic painter who had studied with Thomas Couture in Paris. Despite the late start Ranzoni was awarded the second price for paintings in July.
Ill at ease at the Albertina and not feeling at home in Turin, Ranzoni petitioned to be sent back to Brera. In August the Collegio informed him of the rejection of his request and of the scholarship termination.  

  • Ernesto Fontana 1862 Ranzoni with fellow students of the Bertini atelier at the Brera Academy. (R. is the second from the left on the upper part of the composition). Lugano, Museo Civico di Belle Arti.
  •  Self Portrait at age 14 and 7 months, pencil heightened with white chalk on paper glued to cardboard, [1858] 535 x 420 mm. 

1864 - 1868

Debut in Intra

These four years were for him a period of intense activity: he developed a lighter palette and began using pure colors.
He lived with his parents in Piazza del Teatro in the building which today houses the Ceretti Library. A local antiquarian Scavini lent him an attic which he used as an atelier. He began relationships with the cosmopolitan aristocrats who had settled around the lake; the Troubetzkoys, newly arrived, the Francforts, and the marquess Della Valle di Casanova to whose children he refused to give lessons claiming that he himself had too much to learn. The prince Pierre Troubetzkoy (1822-1892), general and diplomat, scion of a prominent Russian family, had married Adelina [Ada] Winans, an American opera singer (1831-1918). After the birth of their first son Pietro, Ada abandoned her musical career and the family moved from Milan to Ghiffa on Lago Maggiore, where they built “Villa Ada” and where Paolo ( 1866-1939) and Luigi [ Gigi] (1867-1958) were born. Both of the Troubetzkoys elder sons had Ranzoni as first art teacher and were to become artists: Pierre (1864-1936) a society painter who married the American novelist and poet Amélie Rives and Paul one of the most celebrated sculptors of the Belle époque. 

1867 - 1868

With the painter-photographer Giacomo Imperatori, Ranzoni set up a cultural society, the “Circolo dell’armonia” whose members were young intellectuals, musicians and artists, united in their intent to satirize upper bourgeoisie rigidity in true “scapigliato” spirit. Among the illustrious members were the future congressman Carlo Franzosini, a medical doctor who had fought in the war of Independence Rastellini, an architect Giulio Aluvisetti, a lawyer Giovanni Battista De Lorenzi and a certain Muller inventor of the industrial loom. All were friends of Ranzoni.
Intra and the lake region were home to a great number of photographers, some of which were also painters: among them the above mentioned Imperatori (1837-1888), Carlo Luigi Gaetini (1825-1899) and Antonio Petroli(1849-1925) Ranzoni’s cousin, were the most prominent. Photography was to have a definite influence on Ranzoni ‘s composition and realism.
On October 1868 the San Bernardino torrent overran its embankments and flooded Intra. The main square the theater and the bridge were nearly destroyed. 

1868 - 1878

Ranzoni and Scapigliatura

1868 - 1873

In shock, Ranzoni left for Milan in November 1868 intending to join Garibaldi’s militia but Cremona wisely convinced him to give up the idea and to continue painting. They began to share an atelier.
For a brief period, he went through a phase of darker colors in a Rembrandt like chiaroscuro style in which intense zones of light are concentrated on faces and hands. It is also a time of intense expression in drawing as demonstrated by the first of the two Pompili albums dedicated to the story of Pia de’ Tolomei, today part of the Castello Sforzesco Gabinetto dei Disegni in Milan datable around 1869 -1871.CR: D150-D197. Photo Archive Quinsac.
In 1869 Ranzoni began a peripatetic life style and for the first time became guest painter to the aristocracy for a three-month residency at the palace of the Greppi Counts. The four portraits of the Greppi family show profound innovations in technique and psychological rendering. The one of the countess is modelled in tonalities of blacks, grays, and lustrous mother of pearl, thrown on the canvas with a passionate intensity that recreates and dominates the form. This painting was a turning point for Cremona, who allegedly said “you opened my eyes”. His Portrait of Rosa Sirtori is related to the one of the Greppi Countess in composition and brushwork but doesn’t echo Ranzoni’s emotional intensity.

With Cremona Ranzoni participated fully in the bohemian life style of Milan Scapigliatura, a form of artistic anarchy born out of disgust for the social, political and cultural values promoted by the authoritarian Piedmont King in that first phase of the Unification of Italy. In the 1860’s Scapigliatura embraced elements of music, poetry, theatre, dance and politics. The Scapigliati reacted against the government’s heavy-handed intrusion in the cultural life of the neo-nation. The artists’ rebellion manifesting itself in all aspects of life. They organized happenings in the streets and in private lived dissolute lives, punctuated by suicides and deaths from alcohol or drug abuse.
Ranzoni, Cremona and the sculptor Giuseppe Grandi, called themselves the trinity of dwarf in reference to their small stature. Thanks to their strong personalities, the 1870’s became the golden age of Scapigliatura in the visual arts. In effect, Scapigliatura is the first avant-garde Italian movement to which Divisionism and Futurism in their own ways, are indebted.
Cremona born in 1837, was six years older than Ranzoni and Grandi, both born in 1843. Through their close relationship, Ranzoni and Cremona developed new ways to handle brushwork and chromatism in order to make light rendition the essence of painting and the key to more intensity in expression. The most conservative of art journalists were quick in voicing sarcastic criticisms “The school of the Future is represented by two brilliant exponents: Mr. Daniele Ranzoni and Mr.Tranquillo Cremona. Mankind viewed through their eyes loses all plastic qualities and proportions are impossible to infer.” [Yorick [Pietro Ferrigni] in “Fra quadri e statue. Strenna ricordo della Seconda Esposizione nazionale di Belle Arti”, Milan 1873].
In 1872 Vespasiano Bignami created the Famiglia Artistica, an association that would become the most belligerent Scapigliato club. Ranzoni was among the founding members.
The same year 1972, on July 26, Ranzoni’s father died.  

1873 - 1877

Even though in those years Ranzoni maintained a base in Milan (on exhibition catalogues he is registered as “residing in Milan”), he spent most of his time on Lago Maggiore at “Villa Ada” in Ghiffa, where he was equally at home. The princess Ada Troubetzkoy had become his idolized love, the Egery who was introducing him to the cosmopolitan world of which, in short time, he would become the “society painter”. As a teacher of her three children he had been given an atelier at Villa Ada, which at times he shared with Cremona. There he was free to receive his artist friends. In the immediate neighborhood stood the Grand Hotel Pallanza, the most luxurious hotel on the lake, built by Georg Seyschab from a project of the engineer Pompeo Azari. Guests came from all over the world including the president of the United States Ulysses Grant, the Pasha of Egypt Ismail Kedivè, and Richard Wagner.
In this period of happiness, maybe the last one for Ranzoni, his painterly texture is slightly denser and color harmonies are richer and more intense: tonalities of greens, blues, reds, and ochers replace the stark economy of means of the previous years. The brushstrokes, freer and slightly larger, convey a mesmerizing sensuality. A fulfilled vitality seems to radiate from the canvas.
In October 1877, the three Troubetzkoy children were sent to boarding school in Milan. Ranzoni’s presence at the Villa could not be justified any longer. 
Starting in the early 70’s Ranzoni used watercolor before working on an oil portrait in order to reduce the subject’s seating time during the realization of the oil. He would keep this method throughout the English years, sometimes doing a presentation drawing of his sitter before executing the watercolor. On the canvas the oil painting would be developed without preliminary drawing building the image trough color and brushwork in an intuitive approach that rarely allows for pentimenti. 


The English years

“Luigi Troubetzkoy described the circumstances in which Ranzoni was convinced to move to England “Around that time, an English family, the Medlycotts, came to live in one of the chalets of our Villa, rented for the season. Mr. Medlycott had a passion for painting; he would make watercolor landscapes of such a quality that Ranzoni himself would praise his works. Between the dilettante and the artist, a true friendship and a reciprocal respect developed. So, Mr. Medlycott tried to convince Ranzoni to accompany him to England where he predicted he would encounter great success. At first, Ranzoni was reluctant to undertake the trip. But finally Mr.Medlycott’s insistence convinced him” [from Memorie ,Luigi Troubetzkoy, in Verbanus, n.3 1982 e Verbanus n.6, 1985].
As a guest of the Medlycotts, Ranzoni began his English society painter venture at Ven House, a sumptuous domain in the Inigo Jones style. It was the home of the Medlycotts’ linage since the eighteenth century situated about one mile form Melbourne Port in the Somerset countryside, a plain dominated by the imposing architecture of Salisbury Cathedral.

The Pagets were friends of the Medlycotts: Ranzoni was their guest at Cranmore Hall in the town of Shepton Mallet also in Somerset. Rebuilt in 1868, the Pagets’mansion had been fitted with the addition of a greenhouse in 1868. Thanks to these two influent families, Ranzoni was quickly promoted to society painter to the gentry but also to the entrepreneurial bourgeoisie. In fact, he went to Ludlow, in the Shropshire, in the North of England having been invited by Edward Wood, a rich merchant who had recently built a huge mansion, Culmington Manor (1870) [halas Wood would later go bankrupt]. From that Manor, it was particularly difficult for Ranzoni to reach London and this geographical distance prevented him from frequenting artists or belong to artists’ groups.
Even though he was handsomely paid, Ranzoni was deeply unhappy, waiting for letters from Intra, feeling isolated and ill at ease in his patrons’ life style. The camaraderie he had experienced at Villa Ada was no longer possible among his English patrons. In this very class-conscious society a hired portrait painter was ranked somehow between a butler and a children’s tutor, a rigid protocol determining all interactions. Nevertheless, convinced that his income was necessary not only to help his own family back home but, also, to finance the Troubetzkoys, he remained almost three years in England. In fact, curiously, the situation had been reversed: the painter was no longer princess Ada’s protégé; on the contrary, her husband Prince Pietro, to replenish his ailing finances and conjure a bankruptcy, had gone in business with Ranzoni’s brother Remigio in a hat factory, financed primarily with Daniele’s income, which produced fashionable felt hats. The ill-fated business venture had the result “to convert huge quantity of pounds into too few fedoras” (Giovanni Borelli).
Ranzoni spent January and February 1878 at Birling Manor near Maidstone in Kent as guest of the Nevills. The sudden death of Tranquillo Cremona (July 10) in his native Pavia where he had been called to chair the Art Academy forced Ranzoni to return briefly to Italy. He took the opportunity to make a brief trip to Intra (letter of his sister Viginia to Remigio, July 17). Back in England at the end of 78, he spent February 1879 in London, for the first and only time, as guest of Baron Fuller Acland Hood. The Hoods of Avalon were the only aristocratic family among Ranzoni’s English patrons who were not gentry.
Urged by his patrons, Ranzoni decided abruptly to present three works at the 1879 Summer Exhibition of The Royal Academy, just a few months after the election of Frederic Leighton (1830-1896) as its President. This submission proved a dismal error: he had no record of participation in any English exhibition and had never taken part in the Fine Art Society shows, which since 1876, year in which the Society had been chartered, functioned as a sort of breaking ground for artists attempting to be accepted by the jury of the Royal Academy. As could have been expected, all his works were rejected. In 1879, the Jury of “The Annual Exhibition of Living artists”, known as the Royal Academy Sumer Exhibition, accepted 2000 pieces out of 6,415 presented and 391,197 visitors came.
Bitterly hurt, he left England for Milan in September 1879.  

1880 - 1889

The Return to Italy; The End of a World

1880 - 1885

After the death of Cremona, in Milan the Scapigliatura of the street happenings and of the endless debates in the “Osterie “was but a memory. Villa Ada had been sold and the separation of the couple was destroying the family of Ranzoni’s ex pupils. Around Lago Maggiore the cosmopolitan society that he had portrayed with so much insight was beginning to return home, unable to resist the global economic crisis defined as “Long Depression” (1873-1896) in the Anglo-Saxon world, to differentiate it from the “Great Depression” of 1930’s. Bankruptcies and suicides were a daily occurrence.
Maybe to react against that impending doom, 1880 was, for Ranzoni, a year of great creative energy, in which he produced a few of his masterpieces.
Until 1885, he lived between Milan (via Pietro Verri 18) and Intra, still contributing financially to the hat factory. He was often guest of the Pisani-Dossis, at the “Dosso”, their family villa above Como. However, he had to face the progressive destruction of the world that had generated his iconography. A mental breakdown resulted in a forced commitment to the Psychiatric Hospital in Novara where he stayed for a month and a half from March, 22 to May,6 1885.

The Second Pompili Album- also acquired by the Gabinetto dei Disegni of the Castello Sforzesco in Milan, should be dated between 1881 and 1885, the tormented period between the return from England and the mental breakdown. The subject matters are not always easy to identify and a graphical tension antithetic to the fluidity of line of the first Pompili Album, permeates all the pages.

Mental illness however seems to have intensified Ranzoni’s acuteness of vision. This tormented period just before and in the two years that followed the hospitalization, realized the acme of Ranzoni’s evolution. Some of his portraits then were left incomplete, which at the time provoked the incomprehension and resentment of those who had commissioned them. On the contrary, the non-finished, in these cases, adds to their emotional impact. For Ranzoni, the canvas does not have to be necessarily covered with paint and all details of the image rendered. Letting the canvas to surface in some parts of the painting was an aesthetic choice and had nothing to do with an incapacity to achieve: unfinished, a portrait of his becomes more open to the subjectivity of the beholder, somehow it assumes a quasi-metaphysical essentiality. Under his passionate brushstrokes, even fragments left without color, channel the attention of the beholder toward the elements of the painting that are more essential and contribute to the color vibrancy and the unity of the whole. The image doesn’t diminish in meaning or wholeness; it acquires another presence that transcend what is represented.  


From December 1885 to February 1886, Ranzoni was guest of the Saint Legers, a young aristocratic couple, whom he had met in the 1870’s through the Troubetzkoys. They had recently bought the Brissago Islands, two clumps of land on the Swiss side of Lago Maggiore, renamed San Leger Islands , that the baroness Antonietta Tsykos de San Leger (1856-1948), illegitimate daughter of the Tsar Alexander II, had just transformed into an Italianate residence with a botanical garden in which, taking advantage of the lake microclimate, she would grow plants from all over the world. The Swiss painter from Ticino, Filippo Franzoni (1857-1911) was also guest of the baroness at the same time. The stay revived Ranzoni’s creative energy.
The baroness (1856-1948), a woman of great literary and artistic culture, patron of painters, musicians and literary figures (James Joyce in 1919 was one of her last illustrious guests), was able to continue until 1920 the old lavish lifestyle of the cosmopolitan expats who by then had deserted the lake. Antonietta’s life was to end tragically; the Russian Revolution curtailed part of her immense wealth and, later, unwise investments obliged her to sell the property and witness the destruction of the home and park she had created with so much care. She was to die destitute in the old people’s home in Intragna at the venerable age of ninety-two. Ranzoni ‘s mesmerizing image of her at thirty, caught between the fragility of youth and yet a fierce zest for life, disenchanted and feisty at the same time, is one of the most compelling portrait of the end of the century. 
After a brief parenthesis at Miazzina, above Lago Maggiore, where the painter Camillo Rapetti (1859-1929) owned a country place and gave him hospitality for a few weeks, Ranzoni returned to Intra and began to show signs of physical and mental exhaustion. Neglecting his appearances, sustaining himself on coffee and egg custard but refusing real food, he become progressively more incapable of sustaining a conversation; he lived in almost total isolation. The early biographers wrote that even his mother, who may have never recovered from the humiliation of his forced institutionalization in 1885 was not present in these dark moments. She died less than two months after his own death, on December 13, 1889.
He was housed at the Caffe Verbano a bar owned by his cousin, Manrico Tonazzi. Ranzoni died in Intra on October 29th, 1889: death had not come as a result of a sudden final breakdown but as the end of a progressive self -inflicted destruction. Tonazzi testified as a witness for the death certificate.
The rare works produced in these final years, owing to their expressionist intensity are among the most moving of the late nineteenth century. They have become abstract creations in which the paint becomes extremely spare and color reduced is to two tones, or at time, simply to a chromatic scale of one tone, a palette of grays, whose nuances suggest not only the fleeting quality of light but also the estrangement of the artist in front of his sitter. An almost decadent aestheticism permeates these paintings that seem to express the artist ‘s rejection of life. The economy of means, a particular manipulation of space which appears to close upon those portrayed, the fixity of their dazed look, the tension conveyed by pictorial means, all translate an anxiety which is not that of the sitters but rather that of the artist.  

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