Historic Painting: “La Lezione di Geografia” (The Geography Lesson), Eleuterio Pagliano, 1880.

geography lesson by eleuterio pagliano

For a blog about history, which also delves into art pretty often, I haven’t done very many pieces centered around the 18th century, at least as compared to 19th, 20th and contemporary material. But the Baroque era, which really lasted from about 1680 to 1810–what historians sometimes call “the long 18th century”–has long been the subject of romantic speculation and revisitation. This painting is called “La Lezione di Geografia” and was painted by Eleuterio Pagliano, an Italian Romanticist of the 19th century. Though painted in 1880 the scene it depicts is about a century earlier. An instructor is teaching geography to two well-dressed ladies who look frankly less than thrilled to be there. Note the scene is set on a porch or pavilion of some kind with a monumental column in the background, and a landscape distantly visible. This painting perfectly communicates the languid boredom of upper-class life in the Baroque era. There’s a sense that the geography lesson is utterly useless, perhaps a comment on the state of education in European society at the time. The lavish details of the clothes are also emphasized, and in this Pagliano excels. You could easily imagine a movie scene depicting the 18th century like this.

Pagliano had an interesting life and career. Though he was a painter, he seems to be known more for his political activities than for his contribution to art. He joined the Risorgimento, a popular revolt movement against the Austrian government which then ruled part of Italy, during the Revolutions of 1848 (a subject I covered not long ago). He returned to painting after the revolt, but by the late 1850s, when Italian nationalists fought a series of wars to establish Italy as an independent and unified country, Pagilano was in uniform again. Several of his paintings reflect nationalist themes. Indeed, Romanticism in general was highly tied up with nationalistic ideas in the mid-19th century; in Norway, for instance, painters Tidemand and Gude were using their gifts for romantic painting to inspire nationalist feelings in their countrymen. This unique tradition is lost to us today but has left behind a wonderful legacy of art, such as this painting.

The original of La Lezione di Geografia is on display at the Gallerie di Piazza Scala, an art museum in Milan, Italy. This reproduction of it is being circulated as part of a WikiArt project.

The digital reproduction of this picture is credited to Fondazione Cariplo and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license.
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