Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 9, 2001
E. Bowron and Joseph Rychel, eds. Art in Rome in the Eighteenth Century Philadelphia: Merrell Holberton Publishers in association with Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2000. 624 pp.; 200 color ills.; 300 b/w ills. Paper $70.00 (0876331363)
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, March 16-May 28, 2000; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX, June 25-September 17, 2000

“Rome is the most glorious place in the Universal World”—this was how the twenty-six-year-old Scottish architect Robert Adam described his reaction to the city on his arrival in 1755. Both Art in Rome in the Eighteenth Century and the exhibition it was created to accompany are lavish, vivid demonstrations of that assertion. The catalogue, however, is much more; it combines illustration of the exhibition—called The Splendor of 18th-Century Rome and held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston during the spring and summer of 2000—with a tremendous amount of research that, until fairly recently, has not been accorded the scholarly or public attention that its organizers believe it deserves. The editors have made a persuasive case, for, as Adam noted, Rome in the eighteenth century was, to both visitors and residents alike, the center of the artistic universe.

Although the catalogue entries by a total of sixty-nine contributors do an excellent job of illustrating, identifying, and explaining the nature and significance of approximately 450 objects from 190 collections that were displayed in Philadelphia (the Houston presentation was smaller), the book offers a series of essays that illuminate various aspects of eighteenth-century art in Rome. Organized by two distinguished scholar-curators with the assistance of a number of other specialists in the field, the exhibition was arranged in both museums along certain thematic lines. The catalogue, on the other hand, begins with two major essays on facets of the subject and then organizes the material by medium. As with any good catalogue, it amplifies the exhibition, documents the works displayed, and puts them in a series of broader contexts.

The beginning essay, “The Entrepôt of Europe: Rome in the Eighteenth Century” by Christopher Johns, first explains why the settecento in Rome has not been given its due in scholarly or popular literature, in contrast with the preceding century. Johns then examines the role of the eighteenth-century popes in cultural and artistic terms, discussing not only the religious but the secular activities and controversies of their various reigns. Especially valuable in this context is his examination of the relationship between antiquity and Christianity, as seen, for example, in the papacy of Benedict XIV. All of this is summed up in his statement that “The papacy’s keen advocacy of all forms of culture was the single most significant factor in making eighteenth-century Rome the entrepôt of Europe” (33). Among the other topics that Johns explores effectively are daily life in eighteenth-century Rome (including a discussion of its frequent festivals) and the significance of the Grand Tour both for Rome and its visitors.

In the second essay, “Arcadian Rome, Universal Capital of the Arts,” Liliana Barroero and Stefano Susinno examine the Accademia dell’ Arcadia and its role in spreading classicism in literature and art. Founded in 1690, this institution included poets, painters, cardinals, and princes who engaged in intellectual discussion and fostered classical ideas. The authors explore Arcadian iconography, the relation between the Arcadians and the Church, landscape and decoration, the artistic community in Rome, the movement of eighteenth-century Roman artists to other parts of Italy and beyond, and the exportation of copies of famous works in Rome to the rest of the Europe.

Following this essay is a guide to “Key Figures in Eighteenth-Century Rome” by Ornella Francisci Osti that consists of a series of biographies of significant figures in the city during the century. Included are popes, cardinals, scholars, patrons, members of the Accademia dell’ Arcadia, ciceroni, and art dealers (such as Thomas Jenkins and James Byers), but not artists, whose biographies appear in the catalogue section. Many are quite long, but others are inexplicably short, such as the one about Cardinal Giambattista Rezzonico, nephew of Clement XIII, Grand Master of the Order of Malta, and a major patron of Piranesi. Even Winckelmann receives only a short entry. In addition, no specific bibliography can be found in the book. Next comes a “Chronology” by Jon Seydl, a straightforward listing of politics, religion, scholarship, and culture not only in Rome but elsewhere in Europe and North America as well.

Except for a detailed listing of cited books, articles, and exhibitions, the rest of this hefty volume is taken up by the catalogue of works in the exhibition, all of which are illustrated. These are broken down into six categories, by medium and with a footnoted essay preceding each section. The first essay is John Pinto’s “Architecture and Urbanism,” which surveys its subject effectively. Pinto deals with Rome’s attractiveness to eighteenth-century architects and patrons, the role of engravings, urbanistic projects, church restorations, religious establishments and charitable institutions, palaces, villas and gardens, museums, the architectural profession (especially Carlo Fontana, his studio, and the Accademia de San Luca), patronage and style, Rome as an international center of architectural discourse and exchange, and the role of paper architecture, such as books and engravings. Following this is a catalogue of the drawings and models, arranged alphabetically by architect. Most entries are by Pinto, though we see that a few are by other scholars.

The next section is introduced by “Open Queries: Short Notes about the Decorative Arts in Rome” by Alvar González-Palacios, which looks briefly at furniture, lacquer, carriages, mosaics, metalwork, tapestries, and miscellaneous materials, such as porcelain and pietre dure. Throughout, the author cites examples of names or objects found in documents or the Diario Ordinario and discusses a few pieces in the exhibition. Objects and their catalogue entries, mostly written by González-Palacios (though some are by Roberto Valeriano and others) are arranged according to the same categories. A third section features Dean Walker’s “An Introduction to Sculpture in Rome in the Eighteenth Century.” This is an even-handed survey that is broken into two subheadings: 1700-1760 and 1760-1800. Although Walker did a number of the catalogue entries–which, like those for the next two sections, are arranged alphabetically—many other scholars contribute to this section, including Christopher Johns on Canova.

The largest section, as one might expect, is devoted to painting, preceded by Bowron’s “Painters and Painting in Settecento Rome.” In this case, Bowron examines types of painting (religious, landscape, portraiture), patronage, Roman artistic life, and stylistic characteristics. Included are a significant number of paintings by such major figures as Batoni, Mengs, and Panini, but a wide range of other artists also appear. Bowron did the extensive entries on a number of these, but other scholars complemented his work.

Perhaps surprisingly, the next largest group of artworks is drawing, introduced by Ann Percy’s “Drawings and Artistic Production in Eighteenth-Century Rome.” She discusses the crucial role of drawing for all kinds of art, the part played by drawings in instruction, the concorsi, collections of drawings owned by artists and patrons, sketching expeditions (Piranesi, Adam, and Charles-Louis Clárisseau), neoclassical and Romantic draftsmen tied to Fuseli (Sergel, Abildgaard, Runciman), outline illustration (Flaxman), and the Accademia de’ Pensieri. Given the range of purpose and subjects, these entries were written by a wide group of scholars.

Focusing on prints, the last section is unlike the others because it primarily centers on one figure—Piranesi—though the introductory essay by Malcolm Campbell, “Piranesi and Innovation in Eighteenth-Century Printmaking,” discusses not only Piranesi as an engraver but also the influence of Alessandro Specchi, Piranesi’s rivalry with Giuseppe Vasi, the role of mapmaking and Giambattista Nolli, Piranesi’s son Francesco, Panini’s son Francesco, Jean Barbault, and Piranesi as a polemicist and architect. Although prints were included in the other sections, especially architecture, all of those here are by Piranesi; the catalogue features a long series of entries on his various prints, all by Campbell.

In short, the catalogue is an impressive examination of settecento art in Rome, making the case effectively for the centrality of the city in the art of the eighteenth century. Coupled with the vast array of photographs, this makes Art in Rome in the Eighteenth Century an indispensable source for the study of the period. No longer is it possible to say that this subject has been unfairly or unfortunately neglected.

Damie Stillman
University of Delaware Emeritus