The Italian Presence in American Art, 1860-1920

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview

12. From the Pio-Clementino to Museums of Fine Arts
The Italian Presence in American Museum Design, 1860-1920

HELEN SEARING, Smith College

While American art museum buildings in the period under review derive from a variety of sources, Italy unquestionably is the fons et origo of their architectural form, and indeed of the very idea of the art museum. Whether one argues, as James Ackerman does, that the statue court of the early sixteenth-century Cortile of the Belvedere in the Vatican is the "first museum building since antiquity" 1 or, as I would, that the late eighteenth-century Museo Pio-Clementino, also in the Vatican, is the initial purpose-built public art museum, the seminal role of the art-loving Italian states in promulgating the museum idea, which will become so powerful a force in American culture at the end of the nineteenth century, is incontestible.

The private art gallery also has its origins in Italy, whether one points to the courtly collections available to viewing by a chosen few in Renaissance and Baroque palaces or to the more accessible Villa Albani. This was commissioned by the learned collector, scholar, and nephew of Pope Clement XI ( 1684-1721), Cardinal Alessandro Albani ( 1692-1779), in 1746, as a residence where he could simultaneously display his collection of ancient and modern, i.e., Neo-Classical, sculpture. It was executed through the 1750s by Carlo Marchionni ( 1702-1786) 2, and was "above all a museum, but one in which one also could live well." 3 With Johann Joachim Winckelmann ( 1717-1768) as its first curator, the Villa Albani was exemplary of those Enlightenment ideals of informed connoisseurship and historical and archaeological investigation that brought the modern art museum into being. These ideals as continued in the United States would lead to such personal institutions as the George Walter Vincent Smith Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts ( 1896), and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston ( 1902).

In formal terms the role of Italy was no less critical. In the newly erected portions of the Musei Vaticani--the Pio-Clementino (Plate 98), commenced by Michelangelo Simonetti ( 1763-1822) in 1771 and completed by Pietro ( 1726-1781) and Giuseppe ( 1763-1822) Camporese in 1784, and the Braccio Nuovo, constructed between 1817 and 1822 by Raffaele Stern ( 1771-1820) and Pasquale Belli ( 1752-1833)--were synthesized that combination of elements based on classical archetypes that would come to identify the art museum: the domed rotunda, the barrel-vaulted gallery, and the grand stair. 4 Systematized in the early nineteenth century by French academicians like J.- N.-L. Durand ( 1760-1834) 5 into designs for a completely freestanding museum, these motifs would, by the turn of the century, come to stand for the essence of the public art museum for generations of Americans.

At the same time, for the exterior design of American instituitions--since the Vatican Museums were additions to an existing complex rather than independent structures--it would be other Italian building types that would offer inspiration to American architects and their patrons, hungry for the stamp of seasoned culture. Three epochs of Italian architecture were the most influential on American museum design: antiquity during the Imperial period, the Renaissance, and the later eighteenth century, which saw the rise of Neo-Classicism on Italian soil and the construction of the first public art museums. Particularly for smaller museums, motifs from Quattrocento Tuscany and the Cinquecento Veneto would vie in popularity with those stemming from ancient and High Renaissance Rome.

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