Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 8, 1999
Shearer West, ed. Italian Culture in Northern Europe in the Eighteenth Century New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 237 pp.; 31 b/w ills. Cloth $59.95 (0521552230)

Anthologies are an excellent means of stimulating interest and additional research into underexplored areas of art history, and in this regard Shearer West’s volume is right on target. It consists of nine essays on various aspects of the Italian cultural presence in transalpine Europe during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and is introduced by West’s informative and comprehensive essay “Visual Culture, Performance Culture and the Italian Diaspora in the Long Eighteenth Century.” West rightly claims that this book is the first sustained attempt to study the impact of Italian culture in northern Europe in the eighteenth century, and rightly insists on the centrality of a multi-disciplinary approach. In analyzing the culture of both the court and the market, and by examining the histories of art, architecture, theater, literature and music, a clearer picture of the Italian contribution to the cosmopolitanism of the era emerges.

Of the nine essays, five directly concern the visual arts, two are devoted to the history of music, one to theater history and another to patronage. Of the five art-historical contributions, three focus primarily on Venetian artists working in England and elsewhere. In Leslie Griffin Hennessey’s “Friends Serving Itinerant Muses: Jacopo Amigoni and Farinelli in Europe,” the author explores the vital link of the Venetian Amigoni to the circle of Watteau and Pierre Crozat in Regency Paris, a group that also had close connections to Rosalba Carriera and Sebastiano Ricci, compatriots of Amigoni. A major point of the essay is that Italian artists abroad were less and less reliant on the traditional structures of aristocratic patronage, and gained increasing personal control over their professional lives. In discussing the parallel careers of Amigoni and the cult icon Farinelli, Griffin asserts that there is a similarity of style between the painter and the singer, although this notion is not well developed. There is also an unconvincing attribution of a dry, unappealing portrait of an unknown singer now in a private collection in Venice to Amigoni, a painting Griffin claims has affinities to Carriera (28-29), although in my opinion this is quite a stretch.

More interesting is John Eglin’s “Venice on the Thames: Venetian Vedutisti and the London View in the Eighteenth Century.” In contextualizing Canaletto’s London sojourn, Eglin discusses the widespread venetophilia of political, cultural and social discourse and points especially to the perceived ties between Venetian republican traditions and Whig political ideology (102). And although Canaletto received very few major commissions in England, Eglin intelligently indicates a pattern in the painter’s chosen motifs—public works projects such as the newly constructed Westminster and Blackfriars bridges. A professional failure, Canaletto’s English sojourn nonetheless forged stronger cultural links between the Serene Republic and the British nation and nuanced the Whig/Tory debate in relation to the oligarchic model of the Venetian state.

In a broader context, Nigel Llewellyn’s " ‘Those loose and immodest pieces’: Italian Art and the British Point of View," explores the philosophical and aesthetic motivations for British reactions to Italian painting. Tapping the long tradition of suspicion of continental art because of its sensuality and visual illusionism, Llewellyn recognizes the growing philosophical reliance on Lockean empiricism that helped to generate this response. This seems to me to be an absolutely crucial point. Its impact on the Grand Tour, on the increasing selectivity of the British in their art collecting practices, and on the evolution of artistic practice in Italy has been historically underestimated, and this essay should open up significant new avenues for investigation. In addition, the author attributes much of the enthusiasm for Canaletto’s view paintings to their empiricist perspective and the widespread belief that such images were visually truthful and unmediated. By extension, the popularity of Panini and Piranesi among the British in Rome might also be fruitfully examined in a similar way.

West, the volume’s editor, also wrote two of the nine essays. The first, “Gender and Internationalism: The Case of Rosalba Carriera,” is unquestionably a major contribution to our understanding of the artist. She rightly employs a model inspired by feminist art history and gender studies to belie some of the traditional myths long associated with Carriera. Crucially, the author exposes Carriera’s domesticity, an idea promoted avidly in the artist’s letters, by stressing the number of times she left home for professional reasons (47-48) and by revealing her as the workaholic professional she really was. Carriera’s devotion to her mother and sisters was real enough, but she used it to create a certain public image. Overplaying her femininity was a means of making her less threatening to male artists, and in this strategy she was largely successful. In addition, West convincingly argues that the dichotomy between the coy eroticism and sensual appeal of Carriera’s female figures and her own plain appearance helped to position her outside a discourse of desire that her paintings almost always occasioned. Finally, a frank acknowledgment of Carriera’s impact on the development of pastel painting in France and elsewhere, on the decorative aesthetics of the Rococo, and a recognition of the great prestige and professional distinction she attained are welcome additions to the literature.

West’s second essay, “Xenophobia and Xenomania: Italians and the English Royal Academy,” is also stimulating. The unparalleled economic prosperity of eighteenth-century England offered enviable opportunities to Italian artists (and other foreigners such as Fuseli and Kauffmann), and the significant Italian presence in the foundation of the Royal Academy in 1768 reveals a remarkable paradox. The institution was based on the greatness of Italian models of emulation, and also on a decisive contribution by Italian members, but all this in an academy established to symbolize the greatness of the emerging national school of art. West interestingly discusses Giuseppe Baretti, the naturalized Briton and friend of Reynolds, in this important context. Gradually, however, the commercial success and inattention to academic strictures on the part of the Italian members of the Academy led to resentment and marginalization. In a wider sphere, such parochial attitudes prompted social violence, above all the Gordon Riots. Xenomania for things Italian was gradually replaced by a nationalist xenophobia at precisely the time when Italian cultural influence was waning all over Europe.

The three essays in the anthology devoted to the history of theater and music will be of interest to art historians primarily as convenient sources for the contextualization of the visual culture of the geographical areas they consider. Don Neville’s “Metastasio and the Image of Majesty in the Austro-Italian Baroque,” John Rosselli’s “Italian Opera Singers on a European Market,” and Robert Kenny’s “The Théâtre Italien in France” are all well researched and informative essays that scholars in any discipline will find useful. In particular, Kenny’s study of the commedia dell’arte and its development in Paris will keenly interest historians of the French Rococo.

The weak link in the anthology is the article by Neil Kent, “Gustaf III and Italian Culture.” This confusing (and confused) listing of historical events adds little to our understanding of the Italian-Swedish connection in the eighteenth century and makes the rather naive assumption that any form of generic classicism is necessarily directly connected to Italy. In fact, Gustaf (usually spelled Gustav) almost always favored French artists. The French painter Louis-Jean Desprez, whom the monarch met in Rome and enticed back to Stockholm, is the author’s chief “Italian” conduit, and there is no evidence that any Italian artist ever worked for Gustav at the Swedish court. Curiously, the major work of art inspired by the king’s visit to Rome, Bénigne Gagneraux’s Pius VI and Gustav III Meeting in the Museo Pio-Clementino, is not even mentioned. Alas, the author seems to be entirely uninformed about the art-historical literature on the Roman setting or the Franco-Swedish connection (which seems to me still to be the crucial one), if one may judge by the skimpy and unhelpful footnotes.

Despite the weakness of the final essay, West’s anthology is a major contribution to eighteenth-century studies. Many of the articles are models of interdisciplinarity and will hopefully inspire additional research. Both of West’s entries, especially the article on Carriera, along with the contributions of Llewellyn and Eglin, are scholarship of real distinction. This important book, published in the Cambridge Studies in Italian History and Culture series, will hopefully increase interest in the Italian, and not just the Anglo-French, contribution to the cosmopolitanism so characteristic of the eighteenth century.

Christopher Johns
S, University of Virginia