The scene takes place in the entrance hall of a medieval castle. Behind the couple, there is a big square stone wall.
On the left, there is a doorway framed by a semi-column, while on the right there are three stair steps. The scene protagonists, the two lovers at the center, are caught in a moment of a passionate and sensual kiss.
The young man holds the girl’s face between his hands, with a gesture that is beyond its time, and the girl leans backward surrendering herself in her lover’s arms.
The man’s position suggests an unstable atmosphere; he has placed his foot on the first step of the staircase, and he is showing a glimpse of his dagger. This detail fundamentally changes the interpretation of the scene. The melodramatic tones resulting from the possible and immediate separation are accentuated by the play of shadows. The man’s shadow falls on the staircase, and it seems to anticipate his departure. Behind the doorway is another shadow belonging to someone whose identity is unknown.
The perspective layout of the Kiss inevitably causes the viewer’s eye to focus on the couple, and it is accentuated by well-defined outlines. The chromaticism of the painting dates back to Hayez’s early studies under the leadership of the great masters of the Venetian Renaissance, Titian and Giorgione.
The work is considered to be an emblem of the Italian unification (Risorgimento) not only because of many hidden meanings such as the fervor of youth, and thus the celebration of a young state, but also because it was presented to the public for the first time on 9 September 1859, three months after the victorious arrival to Milan of the future king, Vittorio Emanuele II and his ally Napoleon III.
As if this was not enough to symbolize the union of the two countries, a second copy of the Kiss was exhibited in 1867 at the Paris International Exposition. Even the colors of the couple’s clothes match the colors of the flags of both nations, which favors this interpretation of the painting. According to this interpretation, the troubled atmosphere of the painting may reflect the bitterness of the compromise reached in Villafranca, in which Venice and the Veneto region were still under Austrian rule (which was apparently an important theme to the Venetian painter). The Kiss was therefore a symbol of optimism for the young nation.
The painting was brought to Pinacoteca in 1886 thanks to the legacy of Alfonso Maria Visconti, after it was on display in the Brera Exposition in 1859.
It is one of the most symbolic paintings of Pinacoteca di Brera (according to Visconti’s Will the painting must always be on display), and it is perhaps the most copied painting of all 19th-century Italian artworks. The kiss immediately became a symbol of the reconstruction of the young nation after the battles of the Risorgimento.
It is perfectly in line with the romantic taste of the time and this “manifesto of youth” became a great success, as evidenced by the many signed copies preserved in various European collections, and by the presence of the Kiss in completely different contexts, as in the most memorable scene of Luchino Vistonti’s film, Senso.
Francesco Hayez was born in Venice in 1791 in the parish of Santa Maria Mater Domini. His family was very poor, and his fisherman father gave him to his uncle Giovanni Binasco, rich merchant of Genoese art.
This information was mentioned by the artist himself in his autobiography, Memories, written between 1869 and 1875 to his friend Giuseppina Negroni Prati Morosini, a primary source of his life and artistic activity.
He studied in Venice under Maggiotto and Matteini and in 1809 he moved to Rome. There he met Canova who became his protector and he started to attend the classicist circles, as revealed by his first important works (Rinaldo and Armida, 1813, Ulysses at the Court of Alcinous, 1816).
After having worked for a few years in Naples, from 1820 he stayed in Milan where he met Alessandro Manzoni with whom he became good friends.
In 1823 he moved permanently to the Lombard city. He continued the legacy of Andrea Appiani and Giuseppe Bossi and created works with great craftsmanship and pathos, on the trails of late neoclassicism.
In 1822 he obtained a chair of substitution at the Accademia di Brera of Milan, and a professorship in painting in 1850. Artists such as Induno, Mosè Bianchi and Bertini were among his students.
Among his work of that period are Pietro Rossi as a Prisoner of the Scaligers (1820), which immediately became an emblem of historical romanticism, Sicilian Vespers (1821-1822) the Last Kiss of Romeo and Juliet (1823), Penitent Magdalene (1825), Peter the Hermit Preaching the Crusade (1829), the Refugees of Parga (1831).
All these aforementioned paintings are characterized by historical, lyric or religious subjects, marked by strong sentimentality hiding the facts and aspirations of the Italian unification.
By the time he was dominating the Milanese circles of art and culture (as all the portraits of important persons of the time such as Manzoni, Rossini, Rosmini, Verdi and great Lombard families such as Belgiojoso suggest) he also benefitted from a great favor from the Austrian government, for which he decorated the royal palace with a fresco with the Allegory of the Political Order of Ferdinand I in 1837 (destroyed).
In 1860 he became a member of the Accademia di Belle Arti of Bologna and in the same year he was elected president of the Accademia di Brera.
Following a trip to Naples in 1875, after passing via Rome, Pisa and Genoa, he returned to Milan where he died on 21 December 1882.
Pinacoteca di Brera is a complex that consists of the departments of Accademia delle Belle Arti, Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense, Sopraintendeza per il Patrimonio Storico ed Artistico, Istituto Lombardo di Scienze e Lettere, Botanical garden and Astronomical Observatory.
The origins of this collection, where the chronological period of the artworks ranges from 13th to 20th century, with great examples of national and international figurative artistic culture, allow us to understand the motives of this heterogeneity and variety.
Pinacoteca di Brera is situated in the namesake building on the area which, in the past, was occupied by the Order of the Humiliati who came to Milan in 1209, designed by Milanese architect Carlo Maria Richini and later renovated by Giuseppe Piermarini.
In 1773 after the suppression of the Jesuit order, Pinacoteca di Brera became a state property. The first collection was introduced by Maria Theresa Of Austria, who wanted to create a collection of exemplary works intended for the students’ training.
When Milan became the capital of Italian kingdom by Napoleon’s will, the gallery became a real museum with exhibitions of great paintings from all the conquered territories, in addition to the already existing collection. In total there were 269 artworks, and the museum was opened to the public in 1809 with a unique collection of artworks from all the Italian museums, among them the Marriage of the Virgin by Raphael, the Crucifixion by Bramantino and the Disputation of St. Stephen by Carpaccio.
In the 19th century the collection was enriched with many significant works taken from Lombard churches and conventions, due to the abolition of many religious orders. Other works of identical origin, which were removed from the departments of the Italian kingdom, were added to the collection, thanks to the initiative of Giuseppe Bossi and Andrea Appiani. This explains the presence of so many important sacred paintings, which gave the museum its particular appearance, as well as the paintings by Bellotto and the portraits by Lorenzo Lotto.
Corrado Ricci, writer and art historian of undisputed fame, reorganized the exhibition to a strict chronological order by the schools and the polyptych of Valle Romita by Gentile da Fabriano and Men at Arms by Bramante were added to the collection. After the historic reorganization of Ettore Modgliani and architect Piero Portaluppi, following the bombings of 1943, director Feranda Wittgens gives the Pinacoteca a modern and almost aristocratic structure, taking advantage of Franco Albini’s work as well.
The collection was enriched with paintings and sculptures from the 20th century, thanks to the donation of Emilio and Maria Jesi (1976) and Vitali (1984) and with the acquisitions managed by the historic Associazione Amici di Brera which has always kept the museum in dynamic and continuous evolution. Among these were the Self-portrait by Umberto Boccioni, Mother and Son by Carlo Carrà, the Still Life by Giorgio Morandi, the Red Wagon by Fattori and the Afternoon by Silvestro Lega. The director at the time, Franco Russoli, started the expansion process in the halls of the Citterio palace and denounced the problems of that era with the exhibition “Processo per il Museo” in 1974, held in those unused halls. The Pinacoteca was reopened and expanded with Carlo Bertelli.
More recent renewal process began in 1989 with the renovation of technological installations and reorganization of the spaces. The work was organized by Vittorio Gregotti, who created the Napoleonic rooms and the small rooms next to the original gallery.
Among the most important and internationally famous works are Piero della Francesca’s Monterfeltro altarpiece, Andrea Mantegna’s Dead Christ, Gentile and Giovanni Bellini’s Preaching, Barocci’s Martyrdom of St. Vital, the scenes by Antonio Campi, the Christ at the Column by Bramante, the Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio and the Kiss by Hayez.
On 17 December 2011 a new staircase was introduced, designed by Adolfo Natalini. It connected the historical floor of the gallery with the new halls on the first floor. The most recent (2017) renovation was organized in the heart of the Brera, the Napoleonic rooms.