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A composer and painter pulled into the shadow of Italian Fascism

Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” is one of three works referenced by Respighi in his “Trittico Botticelliano.”
Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” is one of three works referenced by Respighi in his “Trittico Botticelliano.”

At the Gardner Museum next weekend, A Far Cry will perform Ottorino Respighi’s 1927 “Trittico Botticelliano”: musical impressions of three paintings — “Spring,” “The Adoration of the Magi,” and “The Birth of Venus” — by the 15th-century master Sandro Botticelli. In the “Trittico,” the Bologna-born Respighi, known for orchestral spectacles such as his “Pines of Rome,” indulged his favorite combination of instrumental sumptuousness and timeless subject. But the era had its own, specific gravities: Both Respighi and his Botticellian inspiration would be pulled into the shadow of Italian Fascism.

Benito Mussolini’s interest in the artistic past was promotional. Through loans and exhibitions, the Fascist dictator aimed to leverage Italy’s artistic heritage into international approval. Even as Respighi finished his Botticelli triptych, plans were hatched for perhaps the most famous of such showcases. The catalyst was Lady Ivy Chamberlain, the wife of Sir Austen Chamberlain, the former British foreign secretary. In 1926, upon the occasion of a diplomatic meeting, Mussolini had sent Lady Chamberlain a basket of orchids; she responded by wearing the Fascist badge for the duration of the visit. A year later, she decided that England should host a major display of Italian paintings. Mussolini put his weight behind the idea.

The show, which opened in 1930 at Burlington House, included the most famous of Respighi’s Botticellis, “The Birth of Venus,” the centerpiece of an extraordinary gathering of treasures. Curators had insisted that many artworks were too fragile to travel, only to relent under Mussolini’s pressure. He may well have judged it intimidation well-applied. Reviewing the show, British painter Selwyn Brinton pronounced it “a magnificent success” reflecting “the marvelous driving force of the present government in Italy.” And, while the Burlington House exhibition might have represented the zenith of Fascist sympathy in England, as late as 1939, the regime was still trying to buy favor with Botticelli, sending “The Birth of Venus” on a tour across the United States.

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Respighi maintained an apolitical air (he never joined the Fascist party, and kept close connections with outspoken anti-Fascists, such as conductor Arturo Toscanini). But Fascist culture readily exploited his musical style: splashy, occasionally daring in its effects, but philosophically attuned to 19th-century Romantic nationalism — and full of celebrations of Italian splendor. At times, the composer’s devotion to tradition left him open to Fascist appropriation, as in 1932, when Respighi signed a manifesto denouncing musical avant-gardism, only to be taken aback when his support was interpreted politically. Increasingly, Respighi took refuge in the musical past. The “Trittico Botticelliano” is filled with characteristically archaic touches: modal melodies, bucolic horn calls, ancient plainsong. It was, perhaps, Respighi’s bid to escape the maelstrom of the time.

A Far Cry performs music of Leonard Bernstein, Modest Mussorgsky, Jessica Meyer, Ottorino Respighi, and William Grant Still, Sept. 8 at 3 p.m. and Sept. 9 at 1:30 p.m. at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Tickets $15-$36. 617-566-1401, www.gardnermuseum.org

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Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.