Rethinking Eighteenth-Century Rome.

Author:Roworth, Wendy Wassying
Position:Exhibition Review - Bibliography

The Splendor of Eighteenth-Century Rome

Philadelphia Museum of Art, March 16-May 28, 2000, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, June 25-September 17, 2000


Art in Eighteenth-Century Rome exh. cat. (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art; London: Merrell Publishers, 2000). 627 pp.; 208 color ills., 371 b/w. $98.00; $70 paper

During the 18th century large numbers of foreign tourists, antiquarians, dealers, and collectors flocked to the city of Rome to see the sites, both old and new, Classical and Catholic, and to admire and acquire works of art in a flourishing market for pictures, statues, drawings, prints, and decorative art. Artists from all over Europe traveled to Rome to advance their professional training through the study of antique sculptures, ruins, and masterpieces of Renaissance and Baroque art, to pursue the opportunity to work from live models in art academies, and to participate in the Accademia di S. Luca's important student competitions (concorsi), which had been initiated by Pope Clement XI in 1702. Many of the most famous and popular tourist sites of today in Rome, including the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, the Piazza del Popolo, and the Villa Borghese, were built, renovated, or decorated during the 18th century, and it was in Rome that princely collections were first opened to public view. Giovanni Paolo Panini's 1757 Interior of an Imaginary Picture Gallery with Views of Modern Rome (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Fig. 1), painted for the French ambassador as a companion to a similar gallery filled with paintings of "Ancient Rome," depicts many of the important recent, Baroque, and Renaissance monuments, including the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Villa Albani, the new facade of S. Maria Maggiore, St. Peter's Square, Gian Lorenzo Bernini's Apollo and Daphne, Fountain of the Four Rivers, and David and the magnificent Moses by Michelangelo. In the midst of this fabulous display the patron and other gentlemen examine a portfolio while a young art student draws from the assembled works.

Despite this historical and imagined evidence of a thriving art industry, art tourism, and a fashionable social scene that involved noble patrons, connoisseurs, and the papal court, the art and history of Rome in the 18th century is much less known to 21st-century audiences than the work of Michelangelo, Raphael, Caravaggio, Bernini, and the monuments of Rome's ancient past. Most Visitors to Rome are unfamiliar with the works of even the most celebrated settecento artists, such as Pompeo Batoni, Antonio Canova, Paolo Panini, and Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Other prominent and influential architects, sculptors, painters, and decorators in settecento Rome, including Pietro Bracci, Filippo delle Valle, Nicola Salvi, Ferdinando Fuga, Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, Filippo Juvarra, Francesco Trevisani, Placido Costanzi, Marco Benefial, Benedetto Luti, Agostino Masucci, Luigi Valadier, and Giuseppe Cades, are hardly known even to students of art history.

This lack of familiarity with 18th-century Roman art is not entirely surprising in light of the development of art history as a scholarly discipline and the language of art historical discourse. While some periods of European art, especially the Renaissance and the 19th century, have traditions of scholarship and pedagogy based on the idea of an advancing evolution of stylistic developments, the art of 18th-century Rome does not easily conform to such a structure. The variety of coexisting styles, the striking continuity of 17th-century Roman Baroque qualities in painting and sculpture, and the fact that so much of the art in Rome was commissioned by foreigners for export has made easy categorization almost impossible.

An additional factor that makes the reception of 18th-century Italian art problematic is the gendered language in which it has been discussed, especially the term barocchetto, or "little Baroque," which implies a diminutive, weaker, "effeminate" version of Baroque. Barocchetto, like the French term Rococo, characterizes art that is considered "feminine," delicate, charming, or even frivolous in style, and content, in contrast to the "masculine," dynamic, rational, grand manner of the preceding century. These supposedly feminine qualities have contributed to the reputation of 18th-century Italy as a marginalized retardataire sideshow outside an otherwise orderly progression of the history of art from the rise of intellectual academies in the 16th century to their demise at the end of the 19th with the triumph of "manly" revolution and the inspired romanticism that excluded womanly traits.

Though art historical methodology and pedagogy have changed considerably in recent years, the majority of textbooks used in conventional undergraduate art history survey courses still treats the 18th century as a transition between the waning world of aristocratic culture in the Renaissance and the dawn of the modern era: Rococo style in France, Austria, and Central Europe during the first half of the century as the last phase of a lighter version of Baroque; the triumph of Neoclassicism after 1760, mostly in France and England, as the precursor to progressive developments in the 19th century. Within this framework 18th-century Italian art receives scant attention except for the Venetian painters Tiepolo and Canaletto, because, as Marilyn Stokstad's Art History asserts, for example, "Venice in the early eighteenth century had surpassed Rome as an artistic center...." (1) Rome itself is characterized in the following chapter on Neoclassicism primarily as an important destination for foreign travelers on the Gr and Tour. (2) Another textbook, Gardner's Art through the Ages, barely acknowledges Roman art in the 18th century except for Neoclassical paintings made by the foreign artists Jacques-Louis David and Angelica Kauffman. (3) The description of "The Rococo" in H. W. Janson's History of Art implies that artistic style in Italy functioned as an organic entity that arose, transformed, climaxed, and moved from city to city entirely independent of artists, patrons, social and religious institutions, politics, or economic factors:

Just as the style of architecture invented in Italy achieved its climax north of the Alps, much of the Italian Rococo took place in other countries. The timid style of the Late Baroque in Italy was suddenly transformed during the first decade of the eighteenth century by the rise of the Rococo in Venice, which had been relegated to a minor outpost for a hundred years. (4)

These texts suggest that 18th-century Rome was little more than a place for artists and styles to pass through on their way to somewhere else.

The chapter on 18th-century Italian art in Julius Held and Donald Posner's more specialized, though now outdated Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century Art also focused on Venetian painting in the 18th century. The Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, and renovations of the church of St. John Lateran are discussed, but the text states unequivocally that "... in sculpture Italy was overshadowed by France in the eighteenth century. Not until Antonio Canova did a sculptor of truly international importance appear again in Italy." (5) Rudolf Wittkower's more detailed survey, Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750, first published in 1958 and recently republished in a revised edition, (6) ends in midcentury with the "Late Baroque," and even the most recent textbook to enter the field, Vernon Hyde Minor's Baroque and Rococo Art and Culture (1999) covers little after 1760 and perpetuates outmoded stylistic categories that hinder a fresh or more complex analysis of Roman art and culture. (7) Thus, it is not surprising that mos t students of art history lack knowledge of the architecture, painting, and sculpture of 18th-century Italy, especially in Rome, except for a few monuments, and the typical American museum visitor is even less familiar with the period.

In 1992 the interdisciplinary journal Eighteenth-Century Studies devoted a special issue to the subject of "Art History: New Voices/New Visions," edited, for the first time, by a group of art historians under the leadership of guest editor Mary Sheriff in collaboration with Patricia Crown, Christopher Johns, and Paula Rea Radisich. (8) These essays explored new approaches to 18th-century visual culture through the study of institutions, language, gender, class, and critical, theoretical, and political strategies for interpretation. The final essay by Patricia Crown, called "This Is Not a Conclusion," acknowledged that even though the essays broke new ground in 18th-century studies, almost all were devoted to French art. (9)

It has taken longer for 18th-century Italian art to catch up as a subject for similar reassessment, and even then the glories of Venice and the spectacle of Naples in the 18th century have dominated. (10) Italian Culture in Northern Europe in the Eighteenth Century, a collection of essays edited by Shearer West, (11) examined the export of art and artists from Italy and their influence in Britain, France, Scandinavia, and elsewhere. But Rome as a special case examined from within its own culture and society, especially in light of the role of the popes as patrons of the arts--in spite of new research, publications, and international exhibitions devoted to this subject--is still relatively unknown to nonspecialists outside Italy.

The goal of the exhibition The Splendor of Eighteenth-Century Rome at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts was to highlight 18th-century Rome as a coherent yet diverse art historical period and to present its artists, art, patrons, and projects against the background of the religious, secular, social, and intellectual life of the city. The intention was also to provoke reexamination of the subject, and the curators' stated purpose was both "confirmational and...

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