Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 1, 2000
The Splendor of 18th-Century Rome
Exhibition Schedule: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, March 16-May 28, 2000; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX, June 25-September 17, 2000

Cities as art centers have not always had the attention they deserve, especially in art exhibitions, because of the daunting problems of scale as well as the problems of representation of both the architectural environment and the unmovable monuments. There have been some truly notable exceptions, with particular relevance to this ambitious effort on Rome: Philadelphia’s own Second Empire Paris exhibition as well as Detroit’s 18th-Century Naples (1981). Once more Philadelphia has taken on a formidable “millennium show” challenge, and has done it justice. This exhibition is a revelation as well as a revision.

The Splendor of 18th-Century Rome is a revision, because art history’s attention has been focused until now principally on the Ancien Regime and the Rococo and Neoclassical phases of Paris in that century. The classic studies of baroque art in Italy by Haskell and Wittkower stop short of this period, where they attend chiefly to other cities. So this exhibition also offers a revelation, because it also makes patent how much central artistic invention either happened in Rome (which was, after all, one of the principal destinations of the Grand Tour for visitors of all kinds, certainly for artists) or else drew upon Rome’s traditions (antique, Renaissance, and baroque, the latter still very much alive and ongoing at the outset of the eighteenth century) as a touchstone or inspiration. Yet one of the truly astonishing aspects of this exhibition is to point out how seminal Rome was in the creation of definitive works of eighteenth-century visual culture.

Perhaps the most important of these, Jacques Louis David’s The Oath of the Horatii was actually painted in Rome, not in Paris, where it caused such a stir (the work is represented in this exhibition by the less familiar, reduced-scale replica—perhaps studio replica—canvas of 1786 from Toledo). As the catalogue (no. 213) reminds us, David, who had spent his formative years in Rome between 1775 and 1779, felt compelled to return to the city for a second stay, accompanied by his protégé Drouais, in order to execute this painting in the period 1784–85. In this respect, David’s formative years echo the entire career of his great model, Poussin, who had lived and worked in Rome, although claimed as a cornerstone of French academic art. Moreover, much of the trajectory of David’s later career in Paris, including even later extensions by Gericault of his agonized male models, was already set by his Roman period; evidence comes in David’s massive altarpiece canvas, St. Roch Interceding for the Victims of the Plague (1780; Marseilles, no. 212), a work also still rooted in Roman baroque altarpiece traditions. This imposing painting forms a striking climax and a surprise attribution among a host of gigantic altarpiece paintings in the religious segment of the exhibition.

One of the joys of visiting this enormous installation in Philadelphia is seeing works, both familiar and surprising, by the few canonical artists, such as David (or Canova, well represented by six pieces, nos. 111–16, including the Hermitage Cupid and Psyche ). These “stars” appear at intervals in the exhibition, which is organized by thematic groupings in mixed media whereas the catalogue is separated into each medium and gathers the works of artists. Another pleasure for the slightly more sophisticated student of the period is to trace the Roman presence of those artists who are quite familiar but still at the margins of the standard canon (or not always associated with Rome): the sculptors Clodion (nos. 124–27), Houdon, Legros, and Nollekens (including a portrait—in Rome!—of the author, Laurence Sterne, no. 143); the painters Batoni (nos. 162–75, displaying not only his brilliant finish but also his comprehensive range of subjects), Giaquinto (nos. 223–27), Girodet (whose Sleep of Endymion , no. 228, represented by another replica [Harvard], was painted in Rome in 1790–91), Hackert, Gavin Hamilton, Angelika Kaufmann (nos. 232–34), Vernet (nos. 300–05), and, especially, Anton Raphael Mengs (nos. 252–61, again the very hallmark of universal versatility, including a portrait of Winckelmann). Another delight is the discovery of significant new artists, previously unknown except to specialists. Among painters centered on Rome are Giuseppe Cades (nos. 193–95, 324–28), Domenico Corvi (nos. 202–04, 340), Benedetto Luti (nos. 241–44, 368), Anton von Maron (nos. 246–48), Pierre Subleyras (nos. 283–87, 401), and Francesco Trevisani (nos. 290–95). Here the catalogue essay by Bowron, picking up the lead of his mentor (and the true spiritual father of this exhibition, Anthony Clark) is indispensable.

In some ways, however, the real revelation of the significance of Rome is carried by the graphics portion of the exhibition, led by the titanic plates of Piranesi, who merits his own segment (nos. 408–44) of the massive catalogue, together with a deft Malcolm Campbell essay. And amidst the drawings and watercolors, almost every aspect of Rome’s pervasive influence can be felt: Robert Adam’s reconstruction of Roman baths (no. 309), academic nudes, compositional studies, and drawings after the antique by Batoni (nos. 310–18), Flaxman line drawings and monument designs (nos. 345–46), Fragonard’s copies after Michelangelo and landscape of the cypress lane at the Villa d’Este (nos. 347–48), Fuseli after Shakespeare and Dante (nos. 349–50), Ghezzi’s inimitable caricatures (nos. 351–56), Mengs’s varied efforts in all media (pastel, ink, chalk, nos. 376–79), Hubert Robert’s views (394–98, including a vertiginous red chalk view from the vault of St. Peter’s). Indeed, city views on paper (e.g. Hackert, Ducros, or Vanvitelli/van Wittel) as well as the giant canvases of Panini (nos. 264–77) and etchings of Piranesi (views, nos. 20–28) form both the curtain-raiser of the exhibition as well as its valediction and help to reconstitute for the modern viewer the physical surroundings of Rome, particularly the historic ruins and other sites of the city.

Yet the actual urbanism of Rome also receives its own attention, near the entry to the exhibition. One alcove features drawing projects for the Trevi Fountain (1732–62), and there are drawing studies for both temporary and permanent additions to Rome, such as the Spanish Steps (1723–28; by Panini, no. 19), and the façades of St. John Lateran and Sta. Maria Maggiore. A dazzling architectural model by Nicola Michetti of the Pallavicini Rospigliosi Chapel in San Francesco a Ripa (ca. 1715, no. 16), complemented by Legros’s terracotta modello for a marble relief of a Jesuit saint for San Ignazio (no. 132), not only testify to the ongoing energy of baroque forms at the outset of this period but also reconstitute the miraculous post-Bernini spaces of Roman churches in which the exhibition’s altarpieces would have been installed. Both unexecuted and realized projects by Juvarra and less familiar architects show the ongoing work of refining the built urban fabric. More to the point, the full-scale map of the city by Giambattista Nolli (1748, no. 18) and the skyline by Giuseppe Vasi concretize the whole city with remarkable detail. John Pinto’s fine essay succinctly places these varied excerpts into the otherwise missing city context.

The other most evocative suggestion of Roman spaces in the exhibition emerges from its numerous and omnipresent decorative arts pieces, particularly furnishings, which conjure up palace and church spaces as well as a culture of luxury consumption. The entire exhibition in Philadelphia began with a massive silver inkstand in the form of Rome’s own obelisk Quirinal Monument (1792; no. 82), and ended with a marvelously intricate table with mosaic (no.64). Fine essays of these neglected fields by Alvar Gonzalez-Palacios (and Dean Walker on sculpture) solidify the contributions of this catalogue.

The installation of the exhibition proceeds in terms of the varied spatial environments for the objects, beginning with views of the city and architectural plans with maps, followed by the religious sphere, dominated by altarpieces. A remarkable section of images of key individuals centers the exhibition, including portraits of popes and other notables as well as artists’ self representations. The next segment presents the world of palace decoration, featuring decorative arts and mythological subjects. Another striking transitional section focuses next on the academic study of the human figure as well as representations of the passions; here the powerful presence of David and his followers asserts itself amidst the traditional studio practices and pictorial experiments with the body in agony by Roman natives as well as foreign guests. Then follows an area, labelled as the Accademia di San Luca, dedicated to the concerted attention to antique models and their adaptation or reconstruction; here the marbles of Cavaceppi (1716–99, nos. 117–22) provide a focus, including a copy of the bust of Caracalla and a fanciful reconstruction of the Discobolos. In some ways, the most intimate and intricate segment of the exhibition is its finale, where the drawings of so many varied guest artists and the prints of Piranesi exemplify the fecundity of Rome as a fountainhead to all Europe (and here the list of start participants could have been swelled, e.g. with the American Benjamin West, a surprising omission in Philadelphia). Indeed, the works here of Fuseli and Flaxman suggest a wonderful future, British-based exhibition of “England out of Rome,” with the profound debt of British Neoclassical art to Rome; the Adam drawing, Hamilton and Kaufmann canvases, Nollekens marbles, and Wilson drawings set the mind working actively on the numerous other possible connections between these centers.

Such is the power of this exhibition, for what it shows and what it can only suggest. That the organization of the Philadelphia installation differs so markedly from the medium-based sequence of essays and entries in the catalogue only makes the cross-fertilization that much more compelling. Those who want to find all of the Batoni or Mengs images can easily do so through the catalogue, whereas in the exhibition they form a subtle, ongoing warp sequence across which the weft of other artists and media play out, according to the thematic or project-oriented segments in the spaces. This massive catalogue, impressively researched and lavishly produced, is highlighted by an introduction by Christopher Johns, and punctuated by shorter essays organized by medium. It will long remain the standard reference on this subject.

In the final analysis, does this show make Rome into the center of artistic life for the eighteenth century? For many scholars, the answer will probably be negative, since there are still too many unfamiliar Roman artists, still too many other artists who made their art-historical names back home, in Paris, London, or even the Berlin of Schadow and Rauch or Copenhagen of Thorvaldsen (not represented in this exhibition, unfortunately). Canova is only now coming fully into his own, but most of his esteemed Roman works were exported to those other centers or could not be brought to an American exhibition. Many of the finest works of the decorative arts belong to Naples as much as Rome, while the current consensus regarding architecture and sculpture as well as much of the painting by artists who were centered in Rome is that they were derivative and “eclectic” in ways that usually are used by art historians to disparage works for lack of originality or influence. Of course, those were the very terms that were used to denigrate the “baroque” works of seventeenth-century Rome only a generation ago, and today the art of Caravaggio and Carracci is just about the most celebrated and studied of all “old master” art, overshadowing even the Renaissance works of Rome in current academic fashion. Fashion is fickle and fleeting, but in the wake of this massive and representative exhibition, well served by both organizers and lenders, eighteenth-century Rome might well come to assume greater centrality and historical significance in the future.

Larry Silver
Farquhar Professor of History of Art, Department of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania