IN ITALY, AN ODD LEGAL PROVISION relating to the seizure of a debtor's property forbids the officers of the law to impound a bed in which a woman has just given birth to a child. Only this provision made possible a modicum of comfort for Eugenia, wife of the bankrupt businessman Flaminio Modigliani when, on July 12, 1884, she gave birth to their fourth child, Amedeo ("beloved of God"). The Modigliani family had moved into a shabby apartment only a few days earlier, having been forced by poverty to leave the house in a more elegant section of Leghorn (Livorno) in which they had lived for over a decade. Mother and child were covered by a mound of family possessions, piled on the bed so as to be saved from confiscation. Roaming about the dreary empty rooms were three other children: Emmanuele, born in 1872; Margherita, born in 1874; and Umberto, born in 1878-all of them old enough to sense tragedy and comprehend their parents' grief.
Thus did one of the most remarkable artists of our century enter the world. The popular notion still has it that Amedeo Modigliani came of a wealthy family, and, as spurious anecdotes and absurd legends about his life in Paris were put into circulation after his death by persons who claimed to have known him, further misinformation encrusted his image.
His family was Sephardic, one of the old Jewish families of Italy, where, as in most Latin countries, Jews generally mixed with the gentiles around them and took on the appearance and behavior of their neighbors to a much greater degree than did their brethren in the North and the East. In Paris, Modigliani was usually considered a typical Italian, whereas Chagall and Soutine were regarded not as Russian and Lithuanian, but as Jews. All who met Modigliani were struck by his aristocratic bearing even at the depth of misery and self-neglect, and this contributed further to the myth of family wealth.
Although he was brought up in the Jewish faith, later in life he became an agnostic (and a socialist). His deepest faith, however, was art, which he had already embraced in early adolescence.
At the age of fourteen, sick with typhoid fever during a vacation from school, he raved in his delirium about the paintings in the Palazzo Pitti and the Uffizi in Florence, where he had never been, and wept because he could not go to see them. This was the first clear sign of his future vocation. His mother, deeply worried, assured him that as soon as he recovered they would go to Florence together. She kept her promise. Shortly after the trip, with tuition money provided by a relative, she also sent him to the best art teacher in Leghorn, a painter named Guglielmo Micheli. Amedeo worked with him from 1898 to 1900.
Micheli, who was born in 1866 and died in 1926, lived long enough to hear of his pupil's posthumous fame. He seems to have been a competent teacher, giving the boy much more in the way of technical training than the latter was ever to acknowledge. Though himself a mediocre artist, Micheli was probably one of the best masters Italy had to offer at a time when Italian art generally lacked creative personalities. He belonged to the most progressive Italian school of the period, a group known as the "Macchiaioli" (from macchia -- "dash of color"), whose members, like the French Impressionists, had discovered the open air, farm cottages, country roads, and the radiance of the sun on earth and water. But the