La pazza by Giacomo Balla (1871-1958) is in the permanent collection of Rome's Galleria Nazionale on Viale delle Belle Arti.
Balla's powerful portrait of Matilde Garbini, his neighbour, depicts an obviously disturbed woman standing on the threshold of a house. Her body, almost in silhouette against a bright background, is contorted and her stance immediately suggests that something is wrong.
Although Balla is considered Italy's foremost exponent of Futurism, he completed this large-scale oil painting reasonably early in his career, in 1905, while still engaged in Realism. About four years later his style changed drastically, and in 1910 he signed the Futurist Manifesto.
In fact La pazza owes much to Italian Divisionism, a Neo-Impressionist painting style defined by the desire to capture the effects of light, separating colours into individual dots or blocks for maximum optical effect. Balla began painting in this style in 1895 upon his arrival in Rome from his native Turin. During these years Balla was also influenced by Pointillism, popularised by George Seurat in France, and elements of this style are evident in La Pazza, particularly in the distant background.
The work is one of four paintings in Balla’s Viventi series, which he dedicated to those living on the margins of society: the mad, the poor, the elderly. Indeed the artist's particular fascination with this theme is revealed by the large number of studies he made on the topic.
Balla’s interest in the subject can be traced to his adherence to the social idealism of his friend, the poet Giovanni Cena. Balla also subscribed to the view of Italian scientist Cesare Lombroso who believed that criminality was inherited, and that someone "born criminal" could be identified by physical defects that differentiated them from "normal", socially-engaged people.
As for Garbini, her life was spent drifting between begging and prison, and when she was jailed in 1907 Balla arranged for her release.
Balla died in Rome in 1958 and is buried in the city's Verano cemetery, the resting place of many famous Italians.
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Painting of the month: La pazza
Galleria Nazionale di Arte Moderna, Viale delle Belle Arti 131, tel. 06322981.