Giovanni Costa was born in Trastevere in Rome in 1826, of a middle class family long associated with that district. He was educated by priests, and was introduced at a young age to the study of classical history and legend. At the age of twelve he went to boarding school in the countryside at Montefiascone.
In 1847 Costa Joined the political movement known as "Young Italy", and thus attached himself to the cause of Italian liberty and nationalism. Shortly afterwards he fought against the occupying Austrian army; and later participated in the defence of Rome against the French. However, in 1849 Rome was taken by the French forces and for a while Costa was forced to go into hiding in the open countryside of the Roman Campagna.
During the following decade Costa developed his distinctive style of painting, as well as his carefully considered philosophy of art and nature. Few other Italian painters of his generation understood as he did the awe-inspiring beauty of the unadorned landscape or the feelings of sentiment which attach an individual to his native countryside. When in due course it was safe for Costa to return to the city, he joined the polyglot and semi-bohemian circle of painters and writers which gathered at the Caffe Greco. Among his early painter friends were the Englishmen George Heming Mason and Frederic Leighton. At this time Costa maintained a studio in the Via Margutta.The three most important paintings which he began in this period arc 'Women on the Sea - shore at Anzio' (Museum of Modern Art, Rome), 'Women Stealing Firewood on the Coast at Ardea' (Castle Howard Collection) and 'Scirocco Day' (Private Collection, Switzerland).
In 1859 Garibaldi's forces gathered once again to attempt to drive the Austrians out of Italy. Costa joined up arid fought throughout the campaign in Piedmont. Following the Treaty of Villafranca he set out southwards to return to Rome; however his journey, was broken in Florence, and so delighted was he by that city that he remained there on and off for ten years. He was vastly impressed by the works of art which he saw there, and was also met with friendliness and respect by the circle of young landscape and figure painters who gathered at the Caffe Michelangiolo and who came to be known as the Macchiaioli. Furthermore, Costa came to love the Tuscan landscape, and particularly the coastal region between the River Arno where it flows into the sea close to Pisa and the Carrara Mountains. Costa's first visit to the village of Bocca d'Arno was in 1859.
In the early 1860s Costa came to know Corot well, arid received from him advice on how to handle the tones and elements of his paintings. Costa travelled to Paris in 1862 and visited Corot and other artists at Barbizon. Later in the year he went on to London, where he stayed with Leighton and met Burne-Jones and Watts. More and more often English painters visited Costa in Italy, and gradually he built up a circle of English followers and friends: George Howard, later to become the Earl of Carlisle, first met Costa in 1865-6; William Blake Richmond was introduced to Costa by Leighton the following winter.
There was one final phase to Costa's career as a patriot and soldier: in 1867 an insurrection was led against the continuing French occupation of Rome and the papal states. After a prolonged battle, the nationalists were overcome, and the French regained control; and once again Costa was forced to make himself scarce in Rome. Costa returned to Florence, where lie spent the years 1868-70.
In the 1870s Costa settled into a routine whereby he spent the,winters in his studio in Rome and the summers travelling in the countryside around Rome and in Umbria and Tuscany. although his art was never fully appreciated by his fellow Roman artists or by Italian collectors of paintings, he worked hard to gain a wider reputation and exhibited paintings whenever he had the opportunity.
In addition he joined various groups of contemporary artists, most notably the Circolo degli Artisti Italiani, and campaigned to try to raise the standards of Italian art exhibited at home and abroad.
Costa's circle of English friends encouraged him to exhibit paintings in London, intermittently from 1869 at the Royal Academy, then from 1877 at the Grosvenor Gallery, and subsequently at the New Gallery. In 1882 George Howard and Stopford Brooke were the moving spirits behind an ambitious exhibition of Costa's paintings at the Fine Art Society in New Bond Street; this event was a critical and commercial success, and for a while the Italian painter's reputation was secure. The following year in Rome various of Costa's friends arid admirers formed themselves into a group which was to be known as the Etruscan school. although the term gained only a limited currency, a common style of painting, which depended upon the simplification of the masses of the landscape and the reduction of colour into the tones expressive of the fall of light, was recognised in the 1880s as having derived from Costa's example.
From the middle of the 1880s through to the end of his life Costa spent much of his time at Bocca d'Arno, where in 1885 he had bought a house for himself Here he was visited by painter friends and patrons of the arts, and to the end he continued to make beautiful and profoundly personal paintings of the coastal landscape. — Hilary Morgan
Morgan, Hilary and Peter Nahum. Burne-Jones, The Pre-Raphaelites and Their Century. London: Peter Nahum, 1989.
Last modified 18 January 2002