This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986
Girolamo Pieri Ballati Nerli (1860-1926), properly Girolamo Ballati Nerli Pieri Pecci, artist, was born on 21 February 1860 in the Palazzo Pieri Pecci at Siena, son of Italian nobleman Ferdinando Ballati Nerli Pieri Pecci and his wife Henrietta, daughter of Thomas Medwin, biographer of the poet Shelley and author of Journal of the Conversations of Lord Byron, and Ann, Baroness Hamilton of Sweden. Nerli was sometimes called 'Marchese' although his correct title (honorific) was 'Patrizio di Siena'. He was often known in Australia as Signor Nerli.
He studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence under Antonio Ciseri, whose academic style had been tempered by the influence of the Macchiaioli, a loosely associated group of painters who rebelled against the illusionism of the official art of the academies and advocated painting in the open air. Like the French Impressionists they were concerned to portray light, but were less concerned with momentary effects than with conveying a metaphysical intensity of light aimed at permanence. They often painted on small wooden panels, as Whistler and the Australian Impressionists were later to do. It was the influence of the Macchiaioli rather than the literary and romantic aspects of nineteenth-century Italian painting (which Nerli also absorbed and brought with him) that enabled him to contribute fresh ideas to Australasian painting.
With Italian fellow-artist Ugo Catani, Nerli travelled from Italy, visiting Madagascar, Mauritius and Bourbon before arriving in Melbourne in November 1885. He shared a studio in Collins Street with Catani and Artur Loureiro for almost a year before moving to Sydney. He joined the sketch club attached to the Art Society of New South Wales where, in 1887-88, he probably met Charles Conder. Conder's friend and colleague Arthur Streeton considered that Conder was much influenced by 'the brilliant Nerli' whose example thus assumes a special significance for Australian art at this time, though the gifted Conder soon surpassed Nerli.
James Green writing in the Australasian Art Review (June 1899) under the pseudonym 'De Libra' states that Nerli 'with a thorough European training, was the first to introduce to New South Wales the daring independence of Southern neo-Continentalism … in its disregard of generally accepted trammels and its frequent substitution of the mere sketch for finished work, which has since influenced a number of Australian painters'.
Late in 1889 Nerli went to Dunedin, New Zealand, to assist in setting up the New South Wales loan collection for an international exhibition, in which he exhibited nine works. He returned to Sydney in 1890. Some time was spent in Melbourne painting bayside beaches, and Nerli may also have visited Hobart. In 1892 he was painting at Mosman Bay, Sydney, with Tom Roberts. In August he visited Apia in Samoa where he met and painted Robert Louis Stevenson, making portraits in oil, pastel and charcoal. Stevenson wrote some verse about Nerli in the painter's autograph album.
By June 1893 Nerli was conducting art classes at Dunedin. In February 1894 with L. W. Wilson and J. D. Perrett he started a school, the Otago Art Academy, which held life classes and was very successful. Threatened by its popularity, the Dunedin School of Art appointed Nerli 'teacher of painting' from early 1895. Frances Hodgkins was one of his pupils. A contemporary described Nerli as 'a memorable figure … rather tall, with black, pointed beard'. He was considered flamboyant, light-hearted and Bohemian.
Moving north to Auckland in October 1896, Nerli exhibited with the Auckland Society of Arts. On 5 March 1898 he married Marie Cecilia Josephine Barron at Christchurch. By December Nerli and his bride were in Western Australia where they attended the opening of the third exhibition of the West Australian Society of Arts and Crafts in which he exhibited seven works. In 1899 he exhibited with the Society of Artists, Sydney, and in 1902-03 with the Victorian Artists' Society, Melbourne.
Little is known of Nerli's life after he left Australia. William Moore, believed that he was attached to the Italian Embassy in London during World War I. In 1915 his work 'Kensington Palace' was exhibited at Auckland. His last years were spent at Nervi, near Genoa, Italy, where he died on 24 June 1926. His wife died at Siena in 1947. No children are known to have been born of the marriage. A portrait by Grace Joel is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. He is represented in the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, and other major Australian galleries including those in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Brisbane.
Barbara Chapman, 'Nerli, Girolamo Pieri Ballati (1860–1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nerli-girolamo-pieri-ballati-7740/text13565, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 11 March 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986