A World of Spectacle

Article excerpt

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 nineteenthcentury 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 1799fostered 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. …