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A World of Spectacle

Rome in the Eighteenth Century

By Tom Stabile | HUMANITIES, January/February 2000 | Volume 21, Number 1

Painters, sculptors, connoisseurs, and intellectuals of many nations made Rome their mecca in the 1700s. Papal patronage encouraged building, art commissions, and excavations of ancient landmarks. Art schools flourished, and the world's first public museums opened.

"Anyone who was serious about the arts and ambitious to understand them properly considered Rome to be the fountainhead of culture," says Joseph Rishel, senior curator for pre-1900 European art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "This was the center of the artistic world."

The cosmopolitan city became an indispensable stop on the European Grand Tour. When English poet Thomas Gray and his Eton schoolmate, Horace Walpole, set off in 1739, they planned to see the sights of France, Switzerland, and Italy. From Rome, Gray wrote to his mother on April 2, 1740: "As high as my expectation was raised, I confess, the magnificence of this city infinitely surpasses it. You cannot pass along a street but you have views of some place or church, or square, or fountain, the most picturesque and noble one can imagine."

Recapturing this magnificence and the city's intellectual vibrancy during the eighteenth century is the aim of a new exhibition, which opens at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in March. "Rome in the Eighteenth Century" includes hundreds of artifacts: oil paintings; bronzes, terra-cotta, and marble sculptures; drawings and prints; textiles, porcelain, silver, and furniture; architectural models and designs; and decorative objects for festivals and performances.

Rishel and Edgar Peters Bowron, his counterpart at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the show's next venue, worked closely with University of Virginia art professor Christopher Johns, Princeton University art professor John Pinto, and Liliana Barroero, an art professor in Rome, to find works that characterized the time. Gathered from public and private collections around the world, the objects in this exhibition are the largest showing of art from this period ever in the United States.

Much about the era remains unknown to the majority of American museum visitors, says Rishel, the exhibition's principal organizer. For many art historians the importance of eighteenth-century Rome was overshadowed by nineteenth-century Paris.

The intellectual shift toward Paris began in the early 1800s following Napoleon's attack on the Papal States and the subsequent removal of Rome's finest works to Paris.

Napoleon and the rise of French painting eventually led to a marginalization of eighteenth-century Rome among art historians, adds Jon Seydl, the exhibition's research coordinator.

But during the 1700s, virtually every European artist of note traveled to Rome, finding inspiration and work in the city. There was Angelika Kauffmann, a Swiss who painted scenes from ancient history and literature, and Christopher Hewetson, a leading portrait sculptor born in Ireland. On the scene, too, were Welsh landscape painter Thomas Jones, Saxon painter Anton Raphael Mengs, and Claude-Joseph Vernet and Jacques-Louis David, who played a major role in the development of French painting.

Italian artists born beyond the Papal States likewise flocked to the city. Pompeo Batoni, who was born in Tuscany, made his living painting wealthy tourists eager for a portrait showing them among the ruins of antiquity. Papal commissions attracted Venetian sculptor Antonio Canova.

The eight popes of that era--from Clement XI, who was installed in 1700, through Pius VI, who died in 1799--fostered Rome's artistic community. Indeed, the Church gave Rome many of its enduring monuments. Before his death in 1721, Clement XI advanced the creation of the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps, which were completed several decades later by his successors.

Benedict XIV promoted public museums, buying hundreds of paintings for the Capitoline, and Pius VI expanded the collection of the Pio-Clementino, another public institution. Papal support for archaeological excavations ensured that the best of the ancient finds remained in Rome.

The Church also sponsored art that captured scenes prominent in the popular imagination, from the pomp of papal ceremonies to the urban show of horse races down the Via del Corso. Vernet's Jousting on the River Tiber at Rome, which appears in the exhibition, was painted during 1750, a papal jubilee year. It depicts a scene of Rome festooned for carnival, with citizens, pilgrims, and tourists enjoying the pageantry.

"The thing that makes Roman art unique in the eighteenth century is its relative lack of nationalist prejudice," says Johns. "It becomes a melting pot of ideas."

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Rome was modest in population, smaller than Paris and even Naples. "When people arrive, it's a very big deal," Seydl says. "When Angelika Kauffmann returns from London in 1781, everyone knows. There is this intersection of the world, but also an intimacy.

"All of the major artist studios are near the Spanish Steps," he says. "The French were near the top. The Germans were near the top. The English were down below."

Despite the national differences, the artists produced work with a unifying theme, primarily because Rome had become the center for artistic education. The style that evolved came to be called Neoclassical.

"Nearly all the art there was made with some discreet reference to the past in a very subtle, very restrained, very upright, very dignified way," Rishel says.

Artists of the era put their emphasis on correct drawing, on a respect for tradition, on references to historical religious art, and on what Johns called "an almost manic obsession with historical accuracy," which found many artists visiting museums. "The accoutrements, the hairdos, the chairs, the clothing all had to be perfect," he says.

An emphasis on the past pervades the work of Giovanni Battista Piranesi: architect, archaeologist, designer of furniture and decorative arts, and printmaker. One room of the exhibition is dedicated to him.

The most compelling aspect of Piranesi's work, says Seydl, is his fierce advocacy of ancient Rome's historic and artistic primacy over Greece. In Piranesi's time, there was a growing perception that the ancient Romans had not been creative, but only copied the earlier Greeks. It would take the next two centuries to sort out the artistic differences between the two cultures.

"He creates these whole, vast, magnificent scenes," says Seydl. Some were Piranesi's imaginings of the past; others were of contemporary Rome. The printmaker's renderings were enormously popular and countless works left Rome in the hands of visitors. "What you knew of Rome at the time, you probably saw in Piranesi's work."

In addition to the exhibition, the museum has created an introductory video, a CD-ROM display, and an interactive website. The website will introduce visitors to eighteenth-century Rome through four entry points, says Danielle Rice, the Philadelphia museum's senior curator of education. The Roman Colosseum, she says, will open visitors to the art celebrating ancient Rome. St. Peter's will be the link into the papacy's artistic wealth. The Spanish Steps, the site of many artist studios, will lead to art that demonstrates Rome's international character. And the Trevi Fountain will serve as the entry point for the monuments of the city, in its buildings, architecture, and sculpture.

Seydl hopes all of the visitors, both virtual and real, will come away with one firm idea: "That eighteenth-century Rome is this great intellectual and cultural center, a place where all kinds of intellectual and exciting things were all coming together."

Tom Stabile is a writer in New York City.

"Rome in the Eighteenth Century" is on exhibition from March 16 through May 28 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It opens at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, on June 25 and continues until September 17. NEH has provided $140,653 in funding for the development of the exhibition and accompanying catalog, website, and educational materials.