This small exhibition of prints and watercolours, drawn from the Museo di Roma’s own collection, lacks the pull of a large blockbuster exhibition. Its title promises neither nudes nor Impressionists. Nonetheless, by showing Rome through the eyes of French artists from the mid-eighteenth to the nineteenth century, the show offers interesting insights into the eternal city, and how these were constructed and perpetuated through art. Rome appears in many guises, as an artistic and religious capital, former Imperial power, and contemporary city. The overall picture that emerges is complex and contradictory. The landscapes shed light onto what Rome meant, not only for foreign artists, but also for foreign visitors who travelled to the city as an unmissable stop on the Grand Tour. Indeed, tourists represented the principle audience for views of Rome and its surroundings, and a fruitful market that landscape artists were keen to exploit. In that the exhibits once served as souvenirs, or crystallised memories of Rome brought back with returning travellers, they contributed to shaping the city’s image abroad. In that respect, the exhibition testifies to the enduring relationship of foreigners with Rome as a city, and to the fecundity of this relationship for art and culture.
The clue to the subject lies in the title. In Italian, ‘Luoghi comuni’ means literally ‘common places’, and figuratively ‘clichés’. This reflects the nature of the places represented, which were both well-known as real locations and ‘commonplace’ elements of collective memory. The places portrayed vary from the canonical (such as the Forum and Castel Sant’Angelo) to the folkloric (for instance the Ariccia valley). The choice of locations is significant, as the exhibits offer a relatively comprehensive view of the sites that constituted Rome in the popular and artistic imaginations. Individually, the images are also interesting, not so much for what they show, but for what they alter or omit.
Ancient buildings feature prominently. Their scale is exaggerated and over-blown, and surrounding areas are tidied and levelled to maximise scenic effects and impose order upon chaos. Although topographically inaccurate, this process of idealisation reflected attempts of behalf of the religious and civic authorities to create open piazzas around the great monuments of antiquity, such as the efforts expended by the Commissione degli abbellimenti, or state body for urban embellishment, to demolish the buildings that encroached on the Pantheon in the early 1800s. The common aim was to present a glorious past, or seek glimpses of a by-gone era that might overshadow the contemporary reality of Rome as a retrograde, shrunken, and economically depressed city.
Although numerous, representations of ancient monuments are not predominant, as they compete with images of the great buildings of the Renaissance. These include the casina of Pius IV, the church of Trinità dei Monti, Villa d’Este at Tivoli, the Villa Farnesina and Villa Giulia – places endowed with power and status by association with popes and the great Roman families. Recent additions to the urban landscape also exercised a certain fascination, as is evidenced in depictions of the lake in the Borghese gardens, where Antonio Asprucci’s Temple of Aesculapius was constructed in 1787 as a swan-song of the Baroque (Huber Robert, ‘The garden of the lake at Villa Borghese’, watercolour and etching, 1799). Equally, the evolution of taste is illustrated in images of the Pincio near Piazza del Popolo, which was developed as a neoclassical garden by the architect Giuseppe Valadier in the early nineteenth century (Antoine Jean-Baptiste Thomas, ‘The Pincian promenade’, lithograph, 1823). As well as documenting changes in style, these places are presented as new platforms for bourgeois leisure.
An archaeological or architectural interest was sometimes outflanked by a more ‘anthropological’ approach that depicted local customs, which might have appealed to the imagination of tourists. Frequently portrayed were the spectacular firework displays that marked the occasion of the city’s patron saints (Louis-Jean Desprez and Francesco Piranesi, ‘Fireworks at Castel Sant’Angelo’, etching and aquatint, 1792), the horses that sped through the city centre during Carnival (Antoine Jean-Baptiste Thomas, ‘The start of the Berber horse race at Piazza del Popolo’, watercolour and tempera, 1816-8) and the flower-strewn streets associated with the Corpus Domini procession (Antoine Jean-Baptiste Thomas, ‘The infiorata at Genzano’, lithograph, 1823). Arguably, by representing these popular traditions rather than an ancient past, artists sought to grasp the essence of the Roman character. However, attempts to portray contemporary life also extended to the interpretation of major historical events, as for instance in subtle propaganda that portrays the Pope overseeing the drainage of marshes near Rome (Abraham-Louis-Rodolphe Ducros and Raffaello Morgen, ‘Pius VI contemplates the draining of the Pontine marshes’, watercolour and etching, 1784-5). Yet another element in popular imagery was the Romantic fascination with death and mortality, reflected in depictions of cemeteries and tombs (?Hubert Robert, ‘The donkey’s tomb at Pineta Sacchetti’, tempera, ante-1765; Jean-Charles Remond and François Seraphin Delpech, ‘Ancient Sarcophagus at Villa Borghese’, lithograph, ante-1825).
Although secondary to the landscape, figures are important within the exhibits in that they provide scale and local colour, the latter being particularly crucial in contemporary scenes. To this end, the Romans might be presented as noble savages, contented shepherds or the picturesque urban poor. Their portrayal is not always flattering, as is evident in the grotesque features and crude gestures given to the devout as they await a papal blessing (Antoine Jean-Baptiste Thomas, ‘The faithful waiting for the Pope’s blessing at St Peter’s’, lithograph, ca. 1823).
Most of the artists were landscape painters, although architects and draughtsmen are also included. Many emerged from the French Academy, an institution dedicated to the education of French artists in Rome since the seventeenth century, and founded on a belief in the benefits of exposure to Roman art and architecture. Whereas they were a profitable source of income, views of Rome also offered artists an arena within which they could practice their artistic skills, while exploring their surroundings and engaging with Rome’s heritage. Although the exhibition emphasises the French origins of many images by sprinkling the French tricolour on labels and display panels, not all the artists represented are French, as they include some Germans and an Italian (Francesco Piranesi, son of the famous Giovanni Battista). In this respect, the show reflects the cosmopolitan nature of the Roman art scene. It also signals a begrudging recognition, on the part of the Italians, of foreign contribution to Roman art, and in particular of the seminal role of the French Academy in Rome.
Stylistically, the works set their roots in the genre of vedutismo, or the tradition of urban and rural landscapes that struck a varying balance between nature and architecture, and which embodied an adherence to physical reality with subtle idealisation. Stemming from the Italian Renaissance, vedutismo had far-reaching effects in terms of its influence on perceptions of the landscape, and man’s relationship to nature. In the exhibition, the genre is generally veiled in neoclassicism and, in a few cases, with a Romantic sense of the sublime. These effects are reached through a variety of media, including ink, aquatint, tempera, watercolours, etchings and lithographs.
Arguably, the manner in which the images are displayed is relatively pedestrian with concise, purely factual captions. The order of arrangement is mysterious in that it places like with like, but might otherwise appear to be somewhat random. The exhibition is squeezed into two modest ground-floor rooms of the Palazzo Braschi, home to the Museo di Roma. Yet the Palazzo provides a fine and fitting framework that compliments and enriches the exhibition. Built between 1791 and 1811, it is roughly contemporary with the exhibits, and contains works by Italian counterparts that are comparable to those on display, such Felice Giani’s portrayals of Rome from the turn of the nineteenth century.
Though quiet in tone, this exhibition deserves attention, especially in that it highlights the symbolic power of Rome and its monuments – a power that is both idealised and galvanised in the images.
‘Luoghi Comuni. Vedutisti francesi a Roma tra il XVIII e il XIX secolo’ was at Museo di Roma, Palazzo Braschi, Rome, 8 February to 27 May 2012.