The Impossible Schools: Rural Classrooms in the Paintings of Italian Artists During the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century

J. Meda*, Simonetta Polenghi*

*Corresponding author

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


The essay examines the ways in which rural schools in Central and Southern Italy were represented in the works of local painters in the second half of the nineteenth century. The paintings stand out for their portrayal of classrooms as sparsely furnished, antiquated, poorly lit, and not particularly clean, alongside small groups of students taught by elderly schoolmasters still using the outmoded, individual method of instruction even after the introduction of the normal method.Eight of the twenty-two rural school paintings analyzed portray unhealthy, rundown environments with dismal lighting, and a dearth of educational material. Indeed, none of the settings depicted were designed to be used as classrooms but were ordinary rooms in private homes or parish presbyteries. The dreadful material state of schools in Southern Italy in the immediate aftermath of Unification, especially in rural or mountainous areas, are well-known. The paintings studied essentially provide us with the opportunity to see the material conditions, reconstructed by historians using more traditional sources, with our own eyes. However, they also offer novel insights into other, less overt, dynamics. The gloomy picture of these schools shown by the artists deserves further analysis: more specifically, we need to ask what public image of education for the lower classes the artists wished to convey and to what ends? If mass education represented the preeminent tool to shape citizens of the new nation and provided a solid collective identity, what would be the point in discrediting it so ruthlessly by emphasizing its initial failures? This dilemma can only be resolved by going beyond formal analysis of these works to develop additional/alternative interpretive categories.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMedia Matter: Images as Presenters, Mediators, and Means of Observation
EditorsF. Comas Rubí, K. Priem, S. González Gómez
Number of pages22
Publication statusPublished - 2021

Publication series



  • Central and Southern Italy
  • Rural schools
  • School paintings
  • Second half of the nineteenth century


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