Guglielmo Janni, who came from an upper middle-class family in Rome, was the grandson of the poet Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli, to whom he later dedicated a biography rich in details and unpublished works. After classical studies and a degree in law, at the end of the First World War he enrolled in Giulio Bargellini’s decoration course at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome.
In the 1920s, it was in Bargellini’s studio that Janni met the artist Alberto Ziveri (1908-1990), who was to become a faithful friend of his and with whom he shared the ranks of the more intimate and outlying fringe of the Roman School’s tonalism. Following Master Bargellini, Janni filled his earliest artistic phase with a number of decorations, including one for the ceiling of the Bank of Italy with The History of Italian Money.
The first Janni: from the influence of Bargellini to the echoes of Piero della Francesca
He made his official debut at the first Roman Biennale with a Portrait of a Lady, today of unknown location. But it was at the 1923 Biennale that he achieved his first real success with critics and the public with the painting (also lost) of Saint Tarcisio. This was followed by St. Francis, with which he took part in the Concorso Artistico Francescano in Milan in 1925, and St. Sebastian in 1927, which was then exhibited at the 1929 Sindacale of Rome. The primary path for the execution of these iconic figures of saints is the one suggested to him by Piero della Francesca, in the famous reading given by Roberto Longhi for the “Valori Plastici” edition of 1927.
This was a formative and fundamental essay for Janni, who decided to give it to his friend Ziveri as a gift, accompanying it with a letter in which Piero was taken as an indispensable pictorial and human model, for his qualities as an “austere and measured artist, shy of all affection, yet so alive and adherent as to still give us, the last ones to come, sensations or tremors that no one else can”. The 15th-century ponderation and literary motivations were welcomed by Longhi himself, who in his review of the 1929 Mostra Sindacale del Lazio definitively approved the work of the first Janni.
The Intimate Tonalism of the Thirties: the Roman School
The detachment from Bargellini’s Art Nouveau decorativism became increasingly evident as the 1930s approached, a time when Janni also gradually moved away from the 15th-century tradition of the sign and towards a tonal research that was to be the true characteristic of the years to come.
This tendency was already apparent in the Opere di Misericordia corporale cycle, presented in the form of a triptych at the Esposizione d’Arte Sacra Cristiana moderna in Padua in 1930, and then in the Study for David at the Quadriennale in Rome in 1931, in which the male body became the focal point of Janni’s chromatic and poetic investigation, which likened him to other young protagonists of the Roman School, including Giuseppe Capogrossi (1900-1972) and Emanuele Cavalli (1904-1981). With them he shared a tonal intimism that no longer had anything to do with the celebratory monumentalism of the 20th-century male figure, and which therefore appeared as a sort of measured and lyrical opposition to the propaganda line of the regime. Janni’s virile bodies – saints, athletes, actors, priests – reflect an inner restlessness that can be read in their faces and their quivering, perfect physiques, indicators of a spiritual tension that corresponds to Janni’s personal story. From the letters he exchanged with Ziveri, one perceives an anguished and melancholic dimension, influenced by his reading of Schopehauer and Montaigne, which would lead the artist to abandon painting for good.
Among his last ventures, there is the solo exhibition at the Galleria La Cometa in 1936, where several works appear, including Young Athlets, Mirror, and April figure, followed by a second solo exhibition in 1937, perhaps the most significant year for Janni’s production, to which the series of Liturgical Ceremonies also belongs. A volatile tonalism that is highly sensitive to light denotes Liturgical Ceremony No. 2, where contrasts between red and various shades of yellow frame the figures, a bishop and two priests, suspended in a timeless atmosphere that has nothing celebratory or rhetorical about it, but rather reveals an intimate and graceful silence. The panel acquires importance because it represents one of Janni’s last pictorial efforts: 1937 was the year in which, after visiting Paris with Ziveri, he suddenly decided to abandon painting, albeit at its most successful, to devote himself exclusively to the study of philosophy and the demanding volume on Belli. He died in Rome in 1958.