The last thing I expected to see at the Renaissance exhibition of the Brera Gallery in Milan was modern technology in a 19th-century painting. I was immersed in a past era when, on a small canvas by Milanese painter Girolamo Induno, I saw a girl in a white nightgown, and I could have sworn she was texting me.
The girls’ hands were in such a pose that they could have been clasping a phone and her fingers tapping away on its keypad. Since it is unlikely that Induno’s creation could tweet and google, I soon abandoned this theory, but this 1862 painting still struck me as contemporary. I realized the reason was that it depicts the most recurrent act in our lives: thinking.
This pensive demeanor can be read historically. The girl is the embodiment of the sentiment that pervades the Risorgimento (Italian Resurgence), a time of profound uncertainty and personal sacrifice. The engraving next to the canvas reads Triste Presentimento (Sad Presentiment), as if to confirm the onlooker’s supposition that the girl is dejected because she knows something fateful could happen.
This premonition of imminent tragedy raises many questions. What is the girl holding? Is it the portrait of a loved one, of a patriot fighting for his country’s independence? Why is there a red scarf – the symbol of the Garibaldini (Italian soldiers fighting for a united Italy) – on her chair? Though maybe the only question the painting asks is one that transcends the scene: what will happen after all this pondering?
Like Italy’s future in the 19th century, the girl’s is unforeseeable. Like any nation at war, the girl’s room is in disarray. I would like to warn the girl, and tell her that her creator has already signed her fate by titling the painting Sad Presentiment, yet the scene reminds us that despite the unpredictability of our future, we have the choice to effect change.
For those of you who know Hayez’s painting The Kiss, Induno honored him by hanging a reproduction of it next to the girl’s fireplace.