Tag Archives: Love and Death

Calcedonio Reina – Love and Death

25 Feb

Calcedonio Reina, Love and Death (Amore e morte), 1881

A couple locked in a kiss and a background of mummified corpses behind them; this strange combination of motifs of love and death is what makes this painting so eerie and so unforgettable. This painting is full of contrasts of mood and colour; love and death, passion and transience, life and decay, white and black; that is, the man is dressed in dark clothes, the woman in a splendid white gown. Calcedonio Reina was both a painter and a poet and he seems to have been a strange, melancholy individual. He was born in Sicily in 1842 and the plaque on the house in which he lived and died states that he was “a poet in painting, and painter in poetry.” In 1864, at the age of twenty-two, his artistic career took him to Naples and later to Florence.

Still, his native Sicily seems to have lingered in his mind because the macabre background of the painting “Love and Death” shows the Catacombs of Cappuccini in Palermo, Sicily. The last friar to be interred in the catacombs was Brother Ricardo in 1871, and the catacombs were closed for the public in 1880 but nonetheless tourists still continued visiting it. The loving couple in Reina’s painting seems to have been such a touristy couple and I imagine them walking around, arm in arm, a mere glance at the creepy corpses fill the lady with horror, the long sleeves of her silk gown hiding the goosebumps of horror, and her smile hiding the fear she feels. Ah, how the warmth of her lover’s arms contrasts with the cold, stale air of the catacomb! And perhaps, whilst strolling down the corridor filled with the odour of death, this loving pair felt the ache of their own mortality and the short-lasting nature of everything in life and – when faced with transience – their clung to life and love even more, their lips meeting in a kiss, her arms wrapped around his neck seeking a safe haven from the claws of death ever so gently clutching at her silk white dress.

The painting was Reina’s response, or rather, a comment on the more famous painting “The Kiss” (1859) by a fellow Italian painter Francesco Hayez. It can be seen as a slight mockery as well because Hayez’s painting is devastatingly romantic, and there is a very thin line between romantical and sentimental. His loving couple looks like a pair of actors on stage, their kiss theatrical, the space behind them perfectly clean of any unnecessary details and clutter. All focus is on them. Their clothes appears archaic; the lady’s dress is blue as the bluest sky and the man is wearing a pair of red tights like some Renaissance hero. It’s a beautiful painting, but maybe too much perfection and sugary sweetness is making it seem a bit over the top. In contrast, Reina’s painting has a completely different mood and his choice of the catacombs for a setting and corpses for the background give the painting more than a tinge of the Symbolist macabre mood. By comparing these two examples of the same motif of a kissing couple we can see the huge role the background plays in conveying the mood of the painting.

Francesco Hayez, The Kiss, 1859