Let’s try a game—something like those “which does not belong” quizzes in elementary school—think of a great period for art in Rome. Ancient Rome. Yes, obviously. Medieval Rome. Yes, although there isn’t much of it left. Renaissance Rome. Of course. Baroque Rome. Self-evident. Rome in the eighteenth century. Rome in the eighteenth century? Not what first leaps to mind when we think about the city of the Caesars and the Medici popes, of Raphael and Bernini. Yet if we reflect, even briefly, we remember that throughout the eighteenth century Rome was the symbolic center of the world of art and culture, the great destination for painters, sculptors, architects, and poets from all over Europe, for English aristocrats on the Grand Tour, French novelists, German art theorists, Scottish lovers of antiquity, and more.

Well into the nineteenth century—and possibly longer—a sojourn in Rome was an ardently desired, essential part of the education of anyone who hoped to be considered a civilized, cultivated individual. Artists and laymen alike were drawn to the city by both the omnipresent traces of its glorious past and the marvels of its vital present. They were equally fascinated by the celebrated ruins and lovingly salvaged antique statues, and by the palazzi and piazze, the broad avenues, magnificent churches, and fountains of modern Rome—the great public and private works, often newly completed or still in progress, that irrevocably changed the face of the city during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and, to a large extent, set a standard for the rest of the Western world for the next hundred years or so. (Yes, I know the appearance of modern Rome owes an enormous amount to the heroic urban transformations initiated by Sixtus V at the end of the sixteenth century. But keep in mind that the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the present form of the Piazza del Popolo, and the enchanting little Mozartian stageset of miniature palazzetti opposite S. Ignazio—among many other monuments—were all products of the eighteenth century.)

By the 1700s, the glories of ancient Rome had long vanished.

By the 1700s, the glories of ancient Rome had long vanished. The Forum, half buried by the passing centuries, was known as the Campo Vaccino—the field for grazing cattle—while acres of the once dense urbs within the Aurelian Wall were given over to orchards and fields. But if eighteenth-century Rome was no longer notable for republican virtue or imperial majesty, it could boast instead of an international pool of talent and consumers of talent—a polyglot, constantly fluctuating community of affluent visitors, powerful aristocrats, high-ranking ecclesiastics, papal diplomats, and artists from all disciplines, some passing through, some staying for extended periods, some established permanently. Eighteenth-century Rome was famous, too, for its public pomp and private elegance, and for the artisans who made both possible. “Made in Rome” was synonymous with fine craftsmanship, invention, and luxury. (Think of what “made in Italy” connotes today, as applied to clothing, furniture, jewelry, leather goods, light fixtures, or cars, and you get the idea). Grand Tourists brought Italian prints and paintings back home with them; priests imposing Catholicism on Latin America ordered elaborate vestments from Rome; and local aristocrats, both in and out of the church, patronized the best of the local talent.

In the eighteenth century, anyone wanting to experience the excitement and artistic energy of the Eternal City would have had to undertake a long and often uncomfortable journey. All we have to do, at least until May 28th, is visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art for an introduction to “The Splendor of 18th-Century Rome.”1 The show is a delight. It’s huge, opulent, and learned. Nearly 450 works by more than 160 artists—including paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, architectural renderings and models, decorative objects, furniture, and textiles— have been assembled from a great many often obscure, hard-to-get-to locations, to form a spectacular ensemble that powerfully evokes the special flavor of Rome. The exhibition seems to distill the city’s theatricality, its peculiar blend of continuity and transience, hard-headedness and hedonism; it captures the way Rome appears to be made up of impenetrable, inexhaustible layers and, at the same time, to be seductively available, even to the forestiero—the outsider. A show this vast could be overwhelming, but everything is presented with a delectable wit, charm, and lightness of touch utterly in keeping with the period under scrutiny. It’s all organized so intelligently and handsomely, and the wide-ranging material is frequently offered with the tongue placed so firmly in the cheek, that the result is both illuminating and intensely pleasurable. But if “The Splendor of 18th-Century Rome” is enormous fun, it is never frivolous. The exhibition brings a complex, contradictory subject vividly to life and makes it seem perfectly intelligible without shortchanging the complexity; the accompanying catalogue, a massive compendium of serious, valuable information, is as scholarly and sober as anyone could desire. (Of course, the show is also a delicious exercise in nostalgia for those of us lucky enough to have spent some of our formative years in Rome, as I and one of the Philadelphia Museum’s curators did: Fulbright fellows sharing an apartment across the street from the Pantheon.)

First: a dazzling prologue stating some of the exhibition’s main themes and subtexts. The tradition of view painting is announced by the Grand Interior of the Pantheon (1734, National Gallery of Art, Washington) by Giovanni Paolo Panini, the vast domed space enlivened by a cross section of contemporary Roman society: fashionably dressed ladies and gentlemen, devout peasants, sleek churchmen, and humble monks. At first glance, the picture seems merely an adroit rendering of a recognizable Roman landmark, executed by one of the most accomplished Italian artists in the city, the sort of thing a wealthy visitor would take home. But even if Panini’s veduta did end up in the collection of the Duke of Norfolk, the picture is not simply a glorified souvenir. The Pantheon had (and still has) special resonance as a potent, living connection between ancient and modern Rome. Revered as an amazingly intact survivor from antiquity—the best preserved of all ancient buildings—it was, and is, admired both for its stunning interior volume and its marvelous engineering. (The Pantheon remained the world’s largest space covered by a dome well into the twentieth century, until the Germans built a sports palace somewhere.) The very fabric of the building bears witness to the course of the Roman Empire. Initially constructed by Augustus’s son-in-law Agrippa, restored after a fire by Domitian, rebuilt by Hadrian, and restored again by Septimus Severus and Caracalla, the Pantheon after being sacked by barbarians was claimed for Christianity by a seventh-century pope, and dedicated to Mary and all the martyrs. And if that weren’t enough, Raphael is buried there. Not just a recognizable Roman landmark, then, but a paradigm of Rome’s long, intricate cultural history. And in the context of the Philadelphia show, there’s yet another layer; since Panini, a native of Piacenza who came to Rome at the age of twenty, was an instructor at the French Academy, the painting can also stand for the links between Italian artists and the foreign community during the settecento.

Panini’s restrained, elegant picture is contrasted with a lush, informal gouache of a formal Italian garden by the French painter Hubert Robert. It’s a charming bit of rococo froth that serves as a further reminder of Rome’s attraction for artists from everywhere, since the picture is an echo of the summer that Robert and his friend Jean-Honoré Fragonard spent at the Villa d’Este in 1760, a stay that was to have lasting effects on the later work of both of these talented young painters.

The real star of the prologue, though, is a mind-boggling, oversized inkstand in the form of the Quirinal Monument—obelisk, colossal statues of Castor and Pollux, and all—replicated in gilded silver, lapis lazuli, and rosso antico marble by Vincenzo Coaci, Rome’s most celebrated silversmith of the period. Described by the curator Joseph J. Rishel as “a maniacal tour de force,” the inkstand actually can be adjusted to show the monument both before and after Pope Pius VI added the obelisk. All this and an amazing gilded leather case!

After this rousing overture, “The Splendor of 18th-Century Rome” unfolds logically and informatively. We are gradually led from the panoramic and the general to the intimate and the specific, passing from sections devoted to the appearance of eighteenth-century Rome to groupings designed to reveal some of the ideas that animated the buildings rendered by the veduta painters and printmakers: from “The City” and “Palaces” to “Private Worlds” and “The School of Art.” Finally, the exhibition comes full circle with a “show within a show” of drawings and etchings by Giovanni Piranesi. These celebrated, dramatic vedute di Roma take us back to our starting point. In between, stimulated by the selection and orchestration of the works in the show, we can ponder subtle questions about the aims of the academy and conceptions of ideal beauty; we can ruminate on the characteristics of national styles and the effect of contact with paradigmatic antique sculptures and Renaissance paintings on the artists who flocked to Rome; or we can simply savor the rich and various objects and images in the show.

An assortment of paintings by Panini and some less celebrated colleagues enrich the mix.

“Rome: The City” offers a comprehensive range of iconic topographical images, from meticulously painted views of the Castel S. Angelo and Saint Peter’s by Vanvitelli (the transplanted Dutchman, Gaspar van Wittel, who founded the Italian school of veduta painting) to Giuseppe Vasi’s engraved panorama of Rome—the inclusion of Vasi’s preparatory drawing is a nice surprise—and Giambattista Nolli’s astonishingly accurate 1748 plan. An assortment of paintings by Panini and some less celebrated colleagues enrich the mix. It’s like a superior travel album in which subject matter is often more engaging than the way it is presented, although Panini stands out for his ability to suggest both vast interior and exterior spaces and the dusty light of Roman afternoons. There’s the occasional unexpected treat, as well, such as a muscular chalk drawing of a ruined Roman circus by Richard Wilson, the Welsh-born pioneer of landscape painting.

“The Making of Modern Rome” shifts the emphasis from image-making as record to image-making as invention through a selection of drawings and models for projects, both built and unbuilt, by some of the most important architects working in the city at the time. There were plenty of them—not only aspiring practitioners eager to study first-hand the surviving monuments of antiquity, but also accomplished locals and foreigners hoping to benefit from what amounted to a building boom. The 1700s in Rome were marked by vast amounts of new building, both ecclesiastical and secular; an ambitious program of decorative schemes, both public and private; and a new interest in restoring ancient monuments, everything from family chapels to monumental fountains glorifying a pope who made an ancient Roman aqueduct operative once again. Rome attracted architects from all over to compete for these prestigious projects and the show’s selection of their proposals, whether realized or fantastic, offers a glimpse of both the ideals and the energy of the period.

“The City of God” serves as a framework for a small group of relentlessly embellished votive objects and vestments that, in turn, set the stage for several galleries of important devotional paintings. It’s like a case study in the meaning of “The Grand Manner”—(category: History Painting; subcategory: religious)—a demonstration of what training at the academy was supposed to achieve: “to bring us nearer to that ideal excellence which it is the lot of genius always to contemplate, and never to attain,” as Sir Joshua Reynolds told the graduating students of the Royal Academy. Academic training was intended to direct aspiring painters to “the great examples of the Art” so that they could receive “at one glance, the principles which many Artists have spent their whole lives in ascertaining.” But, Reynolds continued, this would be beneficial only if they offered “implicit obedience to the Rules of Art.” Going to Rome was a reward for this obedience, a chance to apply the “Rules of Art” in the presence of the real thing.

However unnerving modern viewers may find the assumption that rules of art existed (to say nothing of the notion of implicit obedience to those rules), we can’t help being impressed by the general level of ability, assurance, and ambition of the painters of the devotional pictures in the Philadelphia show, most of them associated, one way or another, with the academies. Many names are obscure and many works are the kind that you briefly look up in your Touring Club Italiano guide before continuing to search for the Guercino said to be in one of the chapels on the North aisle of some infrequently visited provincial church. But the skills of all of these artists were honed to an extraordinarily high degree of facility; organizing groups of large-scale figures into harmonious, geometric structures held no terrors for them, no matter how obscure the subject or difficult the pose. Some were obviously more inventive than others, but there wasn’t one who couldn’t draw fluently or paint just about anything, filtering his own ideas through the best efforts of his most celebrated predecessors. (That male pronoun is deliberate since Angelika Kauffmann was the only female painter of the period to play in the all-male History Painting league; that she did so successfully in Rome, where she spent almost half her life, is admirable, but that’s a fact, not an endorsement.)

We are treated to full-size altarpieces, studies for ceilings and funerary monuments, small-scale images meant for private devotions, and more. The cumulative effect is to reinforce the implicit—or maybe explicit—message of Coaci’s inkstand, leaving no doubt that the eighteenth century in Rome was as much an age of sumptuousness and excess, of brilliant technical skill and flashy accomplishment as it was an era of homage to the austere high-mindedness of antiquity. Much of the work in “The Splendor of 18th-Century Rome,” in fact, seems like a last outburst of Baroque voluptuousness, frequently tempered by playfulness. As sheer painting, it’s all immensely competent, even, at times, brilliant, but it’s also true that many of these pictures can verge on silliness and sometimes do more than verge. Luckily, a witty installation subverts much of the incipient pomposity of the most, shall we say, problematic images; a “dead child” section that includes a judgment of Solomon and some miraculous restorations, plus a slightly naïve rendering of the salvation of a cleric buried up to his neck in the rubble of a collapsed building, allows comparisons and offsets a slightly hysterical emotional pitch and lurking campiness.

This is not to undervalue the exhibition’s abundance of first-rate works—pictures by such marvelously adept painters as the Tuscan Pompeo Batoni, now best known as a dazzling draftsman, then regarded as one of the two preeminent painters in Rome; the second, Anton Raphael Mengs, the transplanted son of a Dresden court painter, also figures prominently in the show. Jacques-Louis David’s Saint Roch Interceding for the Victims of the Plague (1780, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Marseille), one of the last works he painted in Rome before returning to Paris after a stay of about five years, is a show-stopper. The health department of Marseille apparently wanted a picture to commemorate the city’s horrifying plague of 1720 and commissioned it from a pensionnaire at the French Academy in Rome for reasons of economy. For once, parsimony paid off. David’s Saint Roch is an eloquent cascade of generously scaled, emotionally linked figures descending in slow stages from a thoughtful madonna—rather like a Roman matron—through the robust, imploring saint to a pile of terrifying, terrified victims: everything bathed in cool, form-defining light. The madonna and Saint Roch turn away, involved in private negotiations; only the stricken mortals below confront the viewer. At once a summing up of the heritage of Guido Reni and Guercino, and perhaps even Caravaggio, the picture—improbably—also seems to point forward to Delacroix. Admittedly David’s agonized victims, like their counterparts in Delacroix’s work, have their origins in Poussin, but it’s harder to find a common basis for the uncanny expanding distances of Saint Roch, which seem to prefigure the space in many of Delacroix’s paintings. (I am not trying to make David into a romantic avant la lettre. Saint Roch is, in any event, fairly atypical; David’s later, archaeologically meticulous scenes of classical virtue unfold in shallow, stage-like spaces.)

What is fascinating is how irreducibly French both David and Subleyras appear.

Almost equally striking is the solemn, restrained Miracle of Saint Benedict (1744, S. Francesca Romana, Rome) by the expatriate French painter Pierre Subleyras. (His wife, Maria Felice Tibaldi, was a distinguished miniature painter and the second woman admitted to the Accademia di San Luca.) Actually part of the “dead baby” series (the saint revives a dead child abandoned on the monastery steps), the picture is most notable for its subtle, elegantly deployed range of whites—the monks’ robes—and for the complex “carving” of pictorial space described by the positioning of figures, the fall of drapery, and the angles of the setting. What is fascinating is how irreducibly French both David and Subleyras appear. Their thorough understanding of the great tradition of Italian art, from antiquity on, is palpable, yet no one would attribute their firm, architectonic, economical compositions to anyone but a French painter.

After this immersion in the devotional, the secular subjects showcased in “Private Worlds” come as something of a relief. There are scenes with literary antecedents and portraits of foreign visitors by Italian painters, such as Batoni’s charming likeness of the future Countess Stanhope, aged three, or his splendid depiction of Sir Wyndham Knatchbull-Wyndham, not, it seems, a character out of P. G. Wodehouse, but a prototypical young Grand Tourist, as attested to by a setting of columns, drapes, classical statuary, and distant temples. There are also mythological subjects and unclassifiable pictures like the Ideal Landscape with Bacchus and Ariadne on the Isle of Naxos (1741, Sandra H. Payson Collection), by the Dutch-born Henrik Frans van Lint, known as “Monsù Studio.” It seems pretty tame, at first glance—a setting derived from Claude Lorrain and a figure group borrowed from an engraving of a Guido Reni, with a little help from Poussin—and then you notice that the shallow bay in the middle distance is filled with elephants. Well, they are obviously meant to be elephants, although they look more like pigs with long straight tails at both ends. Of course, Bacchus is supposed to have come to Naxos from India, but still. Context for these remarkable efforts is provided by furniture with sumptuous marquetry and inlays, and other fine examples of domestic decorative art.

With “The Art School,” we come face to face with the serious issue of the influence of antique prototypes, and with unintentional hilarity. The most absorbing works are by young artists, such as David and his counterparts, who reveal both their ambition to declare themselves as individuals and their reverence for the officially sanctioned heroes of the academy. Once again, David stands out, here because of the economy and power of his reclining nude Academy Male, called “Hector” (1778, Musée Fabre, Montpellier), one of his first important Roman works. The picture signals in its clear, geometric volumes and potent masses everything that the young painter was learning from the antique and everything that he would be in the future. Once, again, however, there’s a hint of how David’s legacy would be transformed by a future generation. The inert weight of the body, the pallor of the dead flesh, and the outward-spilling diagonal pose seem to anticipate the foreground figure of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa.

“The Art School” also includes several contenders for “most inadvertently ridiculous picture”: a Gaspare Landi of Hector, Andromache, and their son Astyanax that involves lots of brow-smiting, with everyone turned to display their classically correct profiles, or an obscure Danish academician’s Philoctetes—the Achaian whose outcries from an incurable wound, a punishment for hubris, caused his shipmates on the way to the Trojan War to abandon him on an uninhabited island—a demonstration of how to tie a living model into a knot. Problematic in a different way is another Philoctetes (1787–88, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Chartres), by David’s star pupil Jean-Germain Drouais, an enormously talented young painter who died in Rome of smallpox, aged twenty-five. Drouais’s suffering hero sits in a cross-legged pose, part classical river god, part improvisation, with a convenient swath of drapery hiding the difficult transition between the two. There are ravishing passages of painting, but it’s hard not to giggle at Philoctetes’s uprolled eyes, like something out of a silent film, or at the way he fans his wounded foot with a severed bird’s wing. The oversized feet and straining toes remind us of the academy’s official position on depicting emotion. Using facial expression was discouraged; those uprolled eyes are about as far as one might go. Reynolds, of course, had something to say on the subject. The much-admired figure group, Laocöon, he pointed out, may have had “more expression in the countenance” than any other antique statue—understandably, given the unpleasantness of being strangled by giant snakes—but the “passion” that Laocöon alludes to “is still more strongly expressed by the writhing and contortion of the body than by the features.” Keep that in mind in the presence of the show’s “how to depict suffering” selections.

The oversized feet and straining toes remind us of the academy’s official position on depicting emotion.

My vote for “most unintentionally hilarious sculpture” goes to the over-inventive restoration of a Roman torso by the Scottish painter and excavator Gavin Hamilton, in collaboration with the Italian sculptor Bartolomeo Cavaceppi. (It may be significant that the name translates as “extractor of tree stumps.”) To anyone with a smattering of art history, the twisting torso is instantly recognizable as a copy of Myron’s Discobolus, yet Hamilton and Cavaceppo, in keeping with the eighteenth-century taste for completeness, added missing limbs and props that turn the piece into a Diomedes—another Greek hero of the Trojan War—and make a hash of the athlete’s pose. The result is rather like one of those university pranks that adds inappropriate accessories to a traditional campus sculpture. The addition of a head, at the wrong angle, doesn’t help. It’s said to be another antique fragment, but it must have been aggressively recarved, because Hamilton’s Diomedes looks like nothing so much as a Regency buck in a tableau vivant.

The show concludes with a section devoted to Piranesi, an intelligent and provocative notion, since what we have seen already emphasizes the real originality and inventiveness of his well-known Vedute di Roma. Unlike his colleagues, Piranesi didn’t simply depict the visible vestiges of antiquity, but celebrated the Romans’ achievements as architects and engineers, something that his architectural training in his native Venice had perhaps specially equipped him to appreciate. Piranesi’s images are potent evocations of skill and achievement, made dramatic by their energetic mark-making and their clashing, moody zones of black and white. Far from being passive records, these passionate expressions of “the grandeur that was Rome” helped to create a way of looking at and thinking about antiquity.

We emerge from “The Splendor of 18th-Century Rome” with the exhilarating sense of having been immersed in a lively, intellectually stimulating, international community of privileged individuals. Of course, the settecento was an era of considerably less comfort and stimulation for the non-privileged. In fact, many of the spectacles documented in the section of the show dedicated to “Pomp, Public Ceremony, and Carnival” were intended not only to please hedonists, but also to alleviate social pressure. It’s good to remember, too, that some fragments of antique sculpture unearthed in Rome, installed in various parts of the city, were known as the “statue parlanti”—talking statues—the supposed (unprosecutable) authors of satiric messages and ribald poems criticizing the political situation left at their feet. There were riots for bread during the years that Coaci worked on that fabulous inkstand. Contrary to the impression this wonderful exhibition gives us, eighteenth-century Rome was not all magnificence and opulence. But that’s subject matter for another—and probably less visually exciting—show.

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  1.   “The Splendor of 18th-Century Rome” opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on March 16, 2000 and will remain on view until May 28. The show will reopen on June 25, 2000 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and be on view until September 17. A catalog of the show, edited by Edgar Peters Bowron and Joseph J. Rishel, has been published by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in association with Merrell (568 pages, $95, $70 paper). Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 18 Number 9, on page 24
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