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From Light to Darkness: ‘Goya – The Rebellion of Reason’ at the Palazzo Reale of Milan.

In art history, the Spanish painter and printmaker Francisco Goya (1746-1828) is one of those artists who went beyond the conventional art style of their times and opened the doors to modernity in art. However, what made Goya unique was his ability to blend his art with life experiences, political ideas, and even his mental state. The exposition ‘Goya – The Rebellion of Reason’, hosted by the Palazzo Reale in Milan from October 31st 2023 to March 3rd 2024, focuses on Goya’s life, Enlighted soul, times and art. Made possible by the collaboration between the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Enlighted Fernando, the patronage of the Spanish Embassy in Italy and the Instituto Cervantes of Milan, the exposition is divided into seven thematic sections exploring Goya’s artistic

In art history, the Spanish painter and printmaker Francisco Goya (1746-1828)

Francisco Goya, Self-Portrait at the Easel 1785 Oil on canvas, Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid (Photo:palazzorealemilano.it)

is one of those artists who went beyond the conventional art style of their times and opened the doors to modernity in art. However, what made Goya unique was his ability to blend his art with life experiences, political ideas, and even his mental state. The exposition ‘Goya – The Rebellion of Reason’, hosted by the Palazzo Reale in Milan from October 31st 2023 to March 3rd 2024, focuses on Goya’s life, Enlighted soul, times and art. Made possible by the collaboration between the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Enlighted Fernando, the patronage of the Spanish Embassy in Italy and the Instituto Cervantes of Milan, the exposition is divided into seven thematic sections exploring Goya’s artistic evolution. ‘Goya – The Rebellion of Reason’ also allows visitors to admire Goya’s copper printing plates, restored to their original state for the first time.







Born in Zaragoza, Goya started studying in painting at age 14 and was recognised for his talent as soon as 1771 with his canvas Hannibal victorious observes Italy from the Alps for the first time (hosted at the exposition). In 1786, Goya began working for the Spanish crown, and by 1789 became First Court Painter under King Charles IV, successor of the Enlighted Sovereign King Charles III. In those first years, Goya painted playful, elegant, and cheerful subjects, and this is evident in the exposition’s first rooms, with works such as The Spring (1786), Children Bird-Nesting (c. 1782-1785), Children Playing Soldiers (1786), and portraits or the royal family and intellectuals. However, in those first paintings, we can already see Goya’s social commentaries and desire to move away from the constraints of his commissions to paint freely. An Enlighted spirit, Goya was introduced to a vast circle of intellectual friends that allowed him to develop his political ideas and artistic style.

Hannibal victor who for the first time looks down on Italy from the Alps. Francisco Goya. 1771. Oil on Canvas. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Those first years at court brought optimism in the artist as Spain seemed to be moving towards modernity. However, all this changed as Charles IV, revealed himself as a weak king by leading Spain towards instability. The country was slowly backsliding, its King absent, and its people superstitious. His personal life also affected his mental health: over the years he lost six out of his seven children, and a severe and unknown illness in 1793 left the artist deaf. From then on, Goya’s style became darker and more pessimist. However, he never gave up on his ideals and social commentaries. The artist openly criticised the Catholic Church’s power and influence over the Spanish people, and we see this in works such as Procession of Flagellants (1808-12) and Inquisition (1812-1819). The exposition also hosts some of the prints and etched plates of the Caprichos series (1797-1799). Those are Goya’s quintessential satirical condemnation of the foolishness, ignorance, and superstitions of the civilised Spanish Society he lived in. In this series, we see humanoid donkeys being used to criticise the educational system in Might, not the pupil know more?, the nobility’s obsession with ancestry in And so was his grandfather, and the financial burden of the nobility and clergy on the impoverished working class in Thou who canst not. In Palazzo Reale is also exposed to the most famous Caprichos entry: The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. In this print, a sleeping man (perhaps Goya himself) is surrounded by creatures of the night associated with folly and ignorance, such as bats and owls. This print is interpreted as Goya’s revealing his Enlightenment ideal that without reason is the only defence from, evil and corruption. The print also includes a caption that evokes the importance of artistic innovation through imagination and reason.

The Inquisition. GOYA Y LUCIENTES, FRANCISCO DE. (Photo: Museo del Prado)
The Colossus. Attributed to Francisco Goya. after 1808. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The exposition also touches on Goya’s depiction of the Peninsular War of 1808-1814 by exposing some prints and cooper plates from The Disasters of War series (1810-1820). As Napoleon occupied Spain in 1808 and appointed his brother Joseph Bonapart on the Spanish Throne, a large and bloody resistance guerrilla warfare ensued in the country. In this period, Goya remained First Court Painter under the Bonapart regime but was deeply affected by the war. He secretly covered the war in this series of prints (published 35 years after his death) and broke many art traditions. In Goya’s prints, war is not a heroic matter but a violent and unjust affair that spills the blood of innocents and brings famine and diseases. And it cannot be helped and A heroic feat! With Dead Men! are some of the most graphic of those prints exposed. Goya also criticizes both the brutality of the Napoleonic soldiers and the injustices committed in the name of the Spanish resistance. For instance, the print With or Without Reason deliberately questions the intentions of both sides and denounces the bestiality of human nature. Finally, always related to the war, we have the canvas used for the exposition’s poster: The Colossus (unknown year – after 1808). This masterpiece depicts in sombre tones a giant in a fighting stance towering over mountains. While the painting is accepted as a symbolic representation of the Peninsular War, its meaning remains unclear. For some, the giant represents the Spanish resistance against the invader, while for others, it is a terrifying promise of the violence of war that sends fleeing the men and animals below. We will never know for sure, and perhaps Goya wanted to represent both, portraying a world that is falling apart after many years of troubled history.

‘Goya – The Rebellion of Reason’ is an exposition that touches on depict Goya’s evolution from light to darkness. Walking from hall to hall, we see the once optimistic artist turning pessimistic as his personal life and hopes for progress were falling apart. Goya’s colours move from bright to sombre, his subjects from elegant to grotesque, and his themes from cheerful to tragic. However, what is also made clear from the exposed paintings and prints is that Goya never gave up his will to improve his art with imagination, reason, and social commentaries. In his art, we see a testimony of Goya’s times, his profound sensibilities, and his timeless values. We see a man facing life in all its tragedy and absurdities with his skills and creativity. As viewers, we can only understand his art by understanding his art, but at the same time, we can only understand his life by understanding his art.


The Asylum From the series. “Cuadros de fiestas y costumbres” Francisco Goya. 1808-12 Oil on panel Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid (Photo:palazzorealemilano.it)


The Spring (sketch). Francisco Goya. 1786. Oil on Canvas. (Photo: finestresullarte.info)


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