Francesco Hayez began to explore the theme of the kiss early in his artistic career, with his Ultimo Bacio di Giulietta e Romeo (below), which was first exhibited in 1823. The work caused quite a stir because of the passion of the kiss — note Romeo’s hand on Juliet’s lower back pulling her closer to him as they embrace. This was a significant departure from earlier, more chaste depictions of kisses in art.
Il Bacio is of course even more passionate still, with the male figure caressing the woman’s face and holding the back of her head. Another difference from the painting of Romeo and Juliet is that Hayez imbues the work with political as well as social allegory. It can be read as a hymn to freedom and patriotic love, and as such this depiction went on to become a true icon of Italian painting.
The unification of Italy, also known as Risorgimento, was a political and social movement in the middle of the 19th century that ultimately consolidated the independent states of the Italian peninsula into the single state of Italy we know today.
Following the defeat of Napoleonic France, the Congress of Vienna met in 1815 to redraw the map of Europe. It decided to restore the pre-Napoleonic patchwork of independent governments in Italy, ignoring the Republicanism that had become widely popular under Napoleon. The rulers of these independent states were either directly ruled or strongly influenced by other major European powers, particularly the Austrian Empire and the Habsburgs, who aggressively repressed growing nationalist sentiment for unification in Italy.
One of the political meanings that can be read in Il Bacio is that of a young Italian solder going off to fight for Italy against the Austro-Hungarian Empire and kissing his love goodbye.
In 1859, Italy found an ally in Napoleon III in its fight against Austrian influence on Italian soil. The contribution of France, both militarily and politically, was instrumental to reach the first phase of the Italian Unification in 1859, with the defeat of the Austrian armies in the Lombardo-Venetian Kingdom.
Only two years later, in 1861, the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed, and Napoleon III’s assistance was considered crucial. Thus, the painting can also be read as an allegory of appreciation for the alliance between France and Italy.
The male figure, wearing green and red, together with the white drape on the steps, represents the colours of the Italian flag, and the female figure’s blue and white garments, held up against the red of the man’s tights, symbolizes the colours of the French flag. It is thus the union of Italy and France, here represented by the kiss, which has brought about the unification of Italy.
This, therefore, is the background against which the first version of Il Bacio, commissioned by Alfonso Maria Visconti di Saliceto and now located in the Pinacoteca di Brera, was created in 1859. The present version, considered to be of equal importance to the Brera version, was actually created by the painter for himself. Despite being so politically charged, Hayez managed to escape any form of censorship thanks to this allegoric depiction.
The artist sent the present painting to Paris to be exhibited in the Exposition Universelle in 1867, where Grand Duke Vladimir of Russia, younger brother of the future Tsar Alexander III of Russia and uncle of Nicolas II, purchased it. It is now being sold by a member of a European royal family to whom the work has passed by direct descent, and so has outstanding provenance.
There are five versions of Il Bacio painted by Hayez — four oils and one watercolour. In addition to the previously mentioned Brera version and the present composition, Hayez also painted three other known versions. The second one, painted in 1861 for the Mylius family, presents the woman wearing a white dress. Another version was painted in 1867 and it is now in a private collection.
These paintings can be distinguished from one another through their different sizes, different architectural motifs and by the addition or exclusion of the white cloth laying on the steps beside the couple. The watercolour version, an oval executed in 1859, is today in the collections of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan.
The colour and sumptuous nature of the fabrics depicted in Il Bacio shows the continued influence throughout his career of Hayez’s early training in Venice, the city of his birth. The Venetian idea of colorito, which is generally thought of in relation to the famous 16th century Venetian painters, is also demonstrated in Hayez’s work.
For the Venetians, colore was considered the dominant compositional element in painting (rather than disegno, or drawing, which was generally associated with Central Italy). The emphasis on colore also implies a focus on the handling of paint, creating not just rich colours but also lush, naturalistic effects of light.
Risorgimento was an important influence not just in the visual arts but also in literature and music. In 1872, the patriot and poet Francesco Dall’Ongaro described the present painting as ‘a touching scene, imbued with mystery and affection… from this fond kiss we hope to see the start of a new generation which will be robust, sincere, and which will take life as it comes, and that will fill it with the love for beauty and truth.’
Dall’Ongaro wanted to emphasise the political and social impact of Il Bacio on the young generation of Italians at the time, as well as its impact on the development of Italian art. As such, Il Bacio can be indeed considered a symbol of the birth of newly unified Italy.