The modern traveler, gazing through his little porthole at the procession of the Alps below, glancing irritably at his wristwatch to see whether his flight is going to be thirty or forty minutes late into Fiumicino, can have no idea of what the trip from London to Rome meant in the late eighteenth century—that heyday of the Grand Tour.
It was trying, dangerous at times, protracted, and above all unpredictable. All travel was for the rich. There was no such thing as “mass tourism,” for the simple reason that the masses had not yet learned to move, to go abroad for holidays or education, or even to imagine visiting Europe. The idea of “going abroad” for relaxation was not yet invented. Abroad was bloody, and foreigners were bastards. In 1780, most English people lived within a social radius of fifteen or twenty miles from their birthplaces, and the English Channel was a barrier to further exploration. The Englishman in the English street did not think of going to France; the French, most of the time, were despicable enemies, and would remain so for decades yet. Spain was simply not to be imagined—a country of misery, with a language none could speak, bravos who would slit your belly as soon as look at you, and oily, filthy food that none could digest. A pretty fair summation of English attitudes to the European foreigner was given by Thomas Nashe in The Unfortunate Traveller (1593), that masterpiece of abusive, inventive xenophobia:
Italy, the paradise of the earth, and the epicure’s heaven, how doth it form our young master? It makes him to kiss his hand like an ape, cringe his neck like a starveling, and play at hey-pass, re-pass, come aloft, when he salutes a man. From thence he brings the art of Atheism, the art of epicurising, the art of whoring, the art of poisoning, the art of Sodomitry.… The better sort of men, when they would set a singular mask or brand on a notorious villain, do say that he hath been in Italy.
Still, Italian tourism by England’s rich and notable was not, strictly speaking, an invention of the period in which it first flourished, the eighteenth century. Sir Thomas Hoby (1530–66), for instance, intrepidly made an Italian tour in his late twenties, when he was rich and vigorous enough to defy the swarm of Italian crooks, footpads, delators, and church spies that beset him.
But in those early years, English travelers in Italy tended not to be welcome, especially outside the great centers of sophistication, because they were assumed (correctly, as a rule) to be heretical Protestants. The Italians they were likely to deal with abhorred the Reformation; they themselves, with every parallel reason, feared the Inquisition and its arbitrary power to throw strangers into dungeons without habeas corpus. To go there at all in Elizabethan or early Jacobean times, one needed a travel pass from the English Privy Council, and these were not lightly given out. Generally, English travel was confined to northern Italy: Venice, Padua (whose university accepted foreign Protestant students, as no other academic institution in Italy would), and Vicenza. Rome, being the capital of the Papal States, was much more difficult; a prolonged stay there was always expensive and fraught with administrative obstacles. And forget about Naples, that enormous den of thieves and religious fanatics. All in all, one needed to be rich or very determined, preferably both, to confront the difficulties of Italian tourism, and the awareness of this took centuries to fade, even though it lost its primal Elizabethan virulence.
Someone who signed himself “Leonardo,” one of a group of English poetasters called the “Della Cruscans,” issued a warning against Italy in the late eighteenth century, when the Grand Tour had become an institution. For the peninsula offered an even worse threat to moral rectitude than it did to physical safety, no matter what its cultural benefits might be:
But most avoid Italia’s coast,
Where ev’ry sentiment is lost,
And Treach’ry reigns, and base Disguise,
And Murder—looking to the skies,
While sordid Selfishness appears
In low redundancy of fears.
O what can Music’s voice bestow,
Or sculptur’d grace, or Titian glow,
To recompense the feeling mind
For BRITISH virtues left behind?
Such people feared that not all the art on the Continent, no matter how good it was, could make up for Italy’s contagious lack of moral fiber and common decency. Fortunately, most of those who could afford the trip ignored these late-Puritan misgivings, and went anyway. You didn’t have to be all that interested in art, either. So it was with the biographer of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, for whom Italy was mainly a field for sexual tourism, like Thailand today. Boswell was quite undeterred by the pox, although, as one travel book remarked, “A great many of our gentlemen travelers have reason enough to be cross on account of some modish distemper the Italian ladies may have bestowed upon them with the rest of their favours.” “My desire to know the world,” he confided to his journal, “made me resolve to intrigue a little while in Italy, where the women are so debauched that they are hardly to be considered as moral agents, but as inferior beings.”
But to know that world—that was the problem. It is hard today even to imagine the difficulty of access that Italy presented in the eighteenth century. There were two ways of getting to it: by sea, and across the Alps. Both took weeks, which (depending on the weather) could lengthen into months, especially with stops to examine works of art. The sea route entailed an overland crossing through France to the Mediterranean, then a coast-hugging progress to the Franco-Italian border, and then a slow descent south through Genoa, Lerici, and thus to the Campagna and to Rome. John Mitford (1748–1830), later Baron Redesdale, described part of the sea passage he made in 1776:
From Genoa the Lerici travelers usually pass in a felucca to avoid the fatigue of a mountain journey along roads where only mules can keep their feet. These Mediterranean vessels are not formed for bad weather and they are manned by no very skilful mariners. Scarcely ever an oar’s length from the shore they creep under the rocks, and trembling at every wind are always afraid to hoist a sail. If the wind is very fair, eight hours will carry the felucca from Genoa to Lerici. But if the wind is the least contrary, or if it is so slight that these timorous seamen do not trust a sail, twenty hours’ rowing will hardly suffice.
If the sea tourist suffered boredom, discomfort, and seasickness, the land traveler might have worse problems, for he had as a rule to negotiate the Alpine pass of Mont Cenis. This was so steep and tortuous, and the road surface so blocked with ice and snow, that no horses could drag the coach over the pass. The vehicle then had to be dismantled at the foot of the incline, and the horses sent on, unencumbered. The wheels, axles, and all components of the coach, along with the tourists’ luggage, would then be loaded onto mules and sent ahead. At the Italian side of the pass, on the flat, where it was safe to do so, the coach was reassembled and the portmanteaux, crates, and everything else reloaded. And what of the passengers, who had been carried up the steep slope in chairs on poles? Thomas Pelham, in 1777, reported (a little surprisingly), “As to our own person there is neither danger nor inconvenience: it was so hard a frost that when we came to the top of the mountains we left our chairs and descended in sledges, which though very trying to the nerves was not unpleasant. It was the clearest day imaginable and the view beyond description.”
The delays must have been irksome, and there were occasional sorrows: Tory, Horace Walpole’s pet spaniel, was eaten alive by a wolf on his Alpine crossing. Surely not all tourists who attempted the Mont Cenis pass can have had the phlegm or adventurousness of a Pelham; but it was too late to retreat, Italy beckoned, and this was the only way to the land where lemon trees bloomed.
“I have not read the Roman classics with so little feeling,” declared the eighth duke of Hamilton, “as not to wish to view the country which they describe and where they were written.” This was at least part of the essential motive with which the Grand Tourist, recipient of a classical education, set out. Would the trip make it all worthwhile—the rigors of life at an English public school, the flogging, the fagging, the bullying, the hours spent construing Cicero and Virgil? Probably it would; but not always in the expected way.
Few visitors failed to be thunderstruck by the density of Rome’s Settecento cultural milieu. “As high as my expectation was raised,” ran one typical reaction, that of the English tourist Thomas Gray writing to his mother in 1740, “I confess that the magnificence of this city infinitely surpasses it. You cannot pass along a street but you have views of some palace, or church, or square, or fountain, the most picturesque and noble one can imagine.”
Of course, it mattered very much whom you knew, or had introductions to. Though some exalted Englishmen complained of the dearth of social life to which they had access—compared with the heady whirl of cities like Venice or Milan—there were certainly hosts aplenty. Many of the continental aristocrats who came to Rome in the eighteenth century were taken in hand by the city’s French ambassador, Cardinal François-Joaquin de Bernis, who entertained them most lavishly. In the papal Jubilee year of 1775, the visitors to Rome included Charles Theodore, the elector palatine; the princes of Brunswick; the earl of Gloucester and brother of George III of England; Archduke Maximilian of Austria; and innumerable lesser nobility. Up to 1775, there was a steady stream of exalted foreign visitors to Rome, but in the last quarter of the century it became a flood. It was Bernis’s firm conviction that the way he entertained his guests ought to be a direct reflection of the gloire of the king he represented, Louis XVI. His embassy, near Piazza di Spagna, was the center of feasts so extravagant they confounded their guests, even those who were quite accustomed to shows of abundance; and when the cardinal’s staff handed out the epicurean leftovers at the back door, even the commoners of Rome were left in no doubt about which was the premier Catholic power of Europe. This variation on the spectacle of Roman charity was repeated by other noble houses, on a lesser scale, throughout the city. Unsurprisingly, Bernis later complained that the cost of being Louis XVI’s ambassador had nearly bankrupted him.
This mania for high-priced private and official entertainment meshed with Rome’s insatiable desire for public extravagance. No Italian city, except possibly Venice, loved a parade or a ceremony as much as the papal capital, or staged as many. Just as in Caesar’s day, Rome and everyone in it, from its cardinals down to the raggedest urchin, was addicted to its Carnival, its feste, its holidays, cavalcades, illuminations, and processions, not forgetting its huge firework displays and distributions of free food and wine to the poor. These were the points at which entertainment crossed with official life, including the still extremely vigorous life of religion and the all-reaching power of the Papacy. When a newly elected pope took office, he would enact the ritual of the possesso, the “taking possession” of Rome, with a long cavalcade from the Church of San Giovanni in Laterano (the cathedral of the city), through the Capitoline Hill—re-enacting, in effect, the route of ancient Roman military triumphs. In the basilica, he would affirm his spiritual leadership of the Church; on the Campidoglio, where the leading magistrate gave him the keys of Rome, his political power over the city.
A more regular event, the “Chinea” ceremony, staged every year but abandoned in 1787,1 was eagerly awaited. This was the day when the feudal dues of the Kingdom of Naples, a fief of the Papacy through most of the eighteenth century, were paid to the pope. They came as a bag of gold carried by a white donkey, the chinea. The money would be accepted by papal representatives and handed over in Piazza Santi Apostoli, in front of a stupendous piece of pasteboard architecture, vulgarly known as the macchina or “contraption,” designed by a leading architect and paid for, traditionally, by the Colonna family.
At first it was difficult for a visiting inglese to grasp how very essential an aspect of Roman (and, more generally, Italian) life was the profusion of servants in the houses of the rich. Private property in England was more private than here. The English lord had his dependents, and some hangers-on, but as a rule nothing like the number of accepted parasites that swarmed around the noble Roman household and were taken with equanimity as part of the cost of blue blood. It was common for a wealthy aristocrat—a Corsini or a Borghese, an Odescalchi, a Chigi, or a Colonna—not even to know how many domestics he employed, or what they did. Rome was Europe’s capital of the bow, the scrape, and the extended palm. The visitor was expected to distribute mancie (small tips) to everyone for everything, and often, it seemed, for nothing. This was profoundly unfamiliar and, for the foreign visitor, annoying. The Romans themselves saw it differently: giving to importunate beggars, after all, fulfilled Christ’s injunction to care for the poor.
The foreignness of Rome was vividly felt in the position and conduct of its clergy. Both politically and socially, the Rome encountered by the well-off visitor was ruled by that clergy: rich, respected, feared, constantly lobbied and supplicated, and active in all its grades, from priest to monsignor to bishop to cardinal. No other society in Europe, not even France’s, could show such an influential religious power group, or one so obsessed with matters of age and rank. Or, for that matter, so given to partying. Today the presence of a cardinal in full rig would put a damper on most parties. Not in eighteenth-century Rome, where the hierarchy of the Catholic Church loved to gossip, drink, and gamble, though not (one presumes) dance; in 1729, Cardinal Alessandro Albani caused a delicious scandal by losing the huge sum of two thousand scudi at cards one evening in the palace of the princess of San Bono. It was assumed, however, that to become a cardinal was to be raised to the summits of wealth. Hence the bizarre custom by which, when news of a new cardinalcy got around, the favored cleric would hurry to empty his house of all his furniture and valuables. Otherwise, there was a good chance that the Roman mob would sack it. Some of the hierarchy were skeptical about themselves and their position, and Goethe related a story about the same Cardinal Albani, who had been present at a seminarists’ meeting where poems had been declaimed in their various national languages. It was, Goethe wrote, “another little story to show how lightly the sacred is taken in holy Rome: One of the seminarists turned towards the Cardinal and began in his foreign tongue with the words ‘gnaja! gnaja!’ which sounded more or less like the Italian ‘canaglia! canaglia!’ The Cardinal turned to his colleagues and said, ‘That fellow certainly knows us!’ ”2
Even if one did not have access to a great household, so much of Rome’s life went on in public places—the piazzas with their cafés, trattorie, markets, and ever-refreshing fountains—that it hardly mattered. Bed, undoubtedly, was the poor man’s opera, but just walking and sitting outside was his theater, and a Roman or a straniero could slake his curiosity about life and art merely by poking his nose out the door. You didn’t soon forget what you saw in Rome. Thirty years on, a friend of Goethe’s named Hofrath Meyer was still talking with delight about a shoemaker he had seen there, beating out strips of leather on an antique marble head of an emperor that stood before his door.
There would have been memories, new knowledge, and perhaps, for the more assiduous traveler, a journal to keep. That feeling about the ancient past—“Heroes have trod this spot—’tis on their dust ye tread,” in Byron’s words, from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage—might still be running strong in the minds of aristocrats who started off as ignorant as colts. Of poets, too, and everyone in between, not to mention some who were both, such as Lord Byron. Probably the most beautiful poetic image of the Colosseum written by any foreigner came from his pen, when he described how, at night, the stars seen through the arches of the Colosseum glittered “through the loops of Time.” His friend Percy Bysshe Shelley, when he arrived there in 1818, found that it was chief among “the miracles of ancient and modern art” that exceeded all comparison, all expectation:
The Coliseum is unlike any work of human hands I ever saw before. It is of enormous height and circuit, and the arches built of massy stones are piled on one another, and jut into the blue air, shattered into the forms of overhanging rocks.… The copse-wood overshadows you as you wander through its labyrinths, and the wild weeds of this climate of flowers bloom under your feet. The arena is covered with grass, and pierces, like the skirts of a natural plain, the chasms of the broken arches around. But a small part of the exterior circumference remains—it is exquisitely light and beautiful; and the effect of the perfection of its architecture, adorned with ranges of Corinthian pilasters, supporting a bold cornice, is such as to diminish the effect of its greatness. The interior is all ruin.
As a good anti-clerical, Shelley was distressed to see the Arch of Constantine nearby, built to commemorate “the Christian reptile, who had crept among the blood of his murdered family to the supreme power,” even though it was “exquisitely beautiful and perfect.” To him, the identification of Roman ruins blotted out everything else. “Behold the wrecks of what a great nation once dedicated to the abstractions of the mind! Rome is a city, as it were, of the dead, or rather of those who cannot die, and who survive the puny generations which inhabit and pass over the spot which they have made sacred to eternity. In Rome, at least in the first enthusiasm of your recognition of ancient time, you see nothing of the Italians.”
Modern Italians did not, would not live up to the image of their ancestors that was part of the traveler’s baggage. “There are two Italies,” wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley,
one composed of the green earth & transparent sea and the mighty ruins of ancient times, and aerial mountains, & the warm and radiant atmosphere which is interfused through all things. The other consists of the Italians of the present day, their works & ways. The one is the most sublime & lovely contemplation that can be conceived by the imagination of man; the other the most degraded, disgusting & odious.
Nothing was entirely predictable. Little about Rome could be discovered without being there: “Only in Rome can one educate oneself for Rome,” declared Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. “What the barbarians left, the builders of modern Rome have destroyed.” This was a prophetic utterance, even truer today, more than two centuries after his arrival in 1786, than it was then. “Nothing here is mediocre, and if here and there something is in poor taste, it too shares in the general grandeur.”
How one remembered it afterward was another question. One’s memories of Rome were necessarily a kind of artifact. Probably no visitor could have seen what he or she expected. For some, the city was a guaranteed disappointment. Some Protestants were automatically skeptical. To Sarah Bentham (Jeremy Bentham’s widowed stepmother, who died in 1809), the city did not arouse hope as one approached it; seen from the Campagna it “appeared to be situated in a desert.” And once you entered the Eternal City,
The streets are narrow, dirty and filthy. Even the palaces are a mixture of dirt and finery and intermixed with wretched mean houses. The largest open places in Rome are used for the sale of vegetables. The fountains are the only singular beauties.… Rome has nothing within, nor without its walls, to make it desirable for an English person to be an inhabitant.
On top of this, one had to count the distaste that some English visitors felt for the prying, denunciation, and bigotry of Roman Catholic rule, and the contrast it made with the relative frankness and freedom of England. The oppression was real enough, though some stranieri laid it on a little thick. The English expatriate Sacheverell Stevens, who lived in Rome for five years (1739–44), wrote in his introduction to Miscellaneous Remarks Made on the Spot on a Late Seven Years Tour (1756) that he hoped to “plainly shew under what a dreadful yoke the wretched people of other nations groan, their more than Egyptian task masters having impiously robbed them of that glorious faculty of their reason, deprived them of their properties, and all this under the sacred name of Religion.” One surpassingly zealous Scots Presbyterian actually tried to convert Pius VI during a ceremony at Saint Peter’s, at which Dr. John Moore, physician and cultural adviser to the duke of Hamilton, was also present. “O thou beast of nature,” cried this fanatic, on being presented to the pope,
with seven heads and ten horns! thou mother of harlots, arrayed in purple and scarlet, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls! throw away the golden cup of abominations, and the filthiness of thy fornication!
The pope’s reply (if indeed he made one) was not recorded. This unruly Protestant fundamentalist was seized by the Swiss Guards and briefly jailed. But then the pope not only had him released, but thanked him for his good intentions and paid for his return passage to Scotland.
From the confusing wealth of images and experience that the gentleman tourist would encounter on his way to Rome and in the Eternal City itself, there were basically three kinds of souvenir that he could bring back to his London house or his country seat, proof that he had made the instructive pilgrimage and passed through history’s great finishing school.
He could purchase examples of the Antique—a cinerary urn or a kylix, cameos, and pieces of ancient sculpture (among which there were almost bound to be fakes, though they could well include a modern piece in the best classical taste, by Antonio Canova or one of his many imitators). The greatest collections of antiquities in Rome were usually in the hands of royalty or the Church, but adroit middlemen could sometimes pry them free. The Giustiniani collection of ancient art was sold to the earl of Pembroke in 1720, the statues and vases amassed by the Odescalchi family went to the king of Spain in 1724, and the antiquities purchased by Cardinal Polignac in Rome were bought as a block by Frederick of Prussia in 1742.
The two leading English purveyors of fakes (or “optimistic restorations,” as they might be called) to the British were Thomas Jenkins and James Byres.
Jenkins (1722–98) was an intriguing, almost protean figure: salesman, tomb raker, cicerone, banker, dealer. With a past as a painter, he had more than enough connoisseurship to realize he had little future as one. He had come to Rome in 1752, and wasted no time making friends in high places. Through his friendships in Vatican circles (which included two popes, Clement XIV and Pius VI, and were cemented by his role as an unofficial British representative to the Holy See) he was able to move into the higher reaches of both Roman and tourist society. By the 1760s and 1770s, he had formed a considerable clientele from the visiting English gentry, who loved Jenkins to show them the sights of Rome (about which, to be fair, he knew a lot more than most Italian “bear-leaders”) and trusted him to find them fine antiquities—which were not always so very fine.
It was impossible to enjoy any standing as a connoisseur in Georgian England without a collection of old marbles. So Jenkins employed several Roman sculptors to carve them, and to give them an antique patina with the help of tobacco juice. In 1774, he even helped form a consortium to dredge the bed of the Tiber for antiquities. But he also dispersed whole ready-made collections of impeccable genuineness, such as (in 1785) the whole Villa Montalto-Negroni collection. Very large shifts in Roman ownership took place in the Settecento. In 1734, Clement XII bought some four hundred Roman sculptures, mostly busts, from that indefatigable collector Cardinal Alessandro Albani; these became part of the nucleus of the Capitoline Museum, the only museum in Rome at the time that was open to the general public, and for that reason a unique educational resource for the scores and then hundreds of young artists who were flocking to Rome to study the Antique. It was difficult, and usually impossible, for a young unknown sculptor to get access to the treasures of nobly owned palazzi—thus the advantage for painters such as Velázquez and Rubens in gaining access to the great royal collections—and this lent even greater importance to the Capitoline Museum. And the number of foreign artists struggling to get to Rome was constantly growing. For them, the Grand Tours of others were an important career filter. If a British sculptor met another Briton in Rome, it was more likely that this traveler would be there to look at art, and thus receptive to the work of the newcomer.
Jenkins’s specialty, other than marble, was ancient gems and cameos, both real and fake. The fake cameos were made in a bottega set up in a nook within the Colosseum, at the time a favored location for rough-and-ready workshops and boutiques. Unfortunately, his flourishing career was cut short by Napoleon’s invasion of Rome in 1796. Because Jenkins had quasi-diplomatic status without diplomatic immunity, and greatly feared what the French might do to him, he had to run from Rome, leaving all his property behind.
What Jenkins was to sculpture, James Byres (1734–1817) was to painting. To him belongs the honor of having spent several weeks in 1764 guiding the historian Edward Gibbon, future author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, around the Eternal City. He offered the best-known course in the appreciation of antiquities; it lasted six weeks and was thought by all who took it to be rewarding if very hard work.
As dealers, Byres and Jenkins were not in competition, since Byres was mainly concerned with paintings. He did, however, manage to acquire and resell one of the most famous objects now in England, the antique Roman cameo-glass vessel from Palazzo Barberini known as the Portland Vase, which passed through Sir William Hamilton’s hands and from him to Margaret Bentinck, duchess of Portland, in 1784. His most outrageous coup was to fraudulently extract one of Poussin’s greatest masterpieces, the group of seven canvases constituting The Seven Sacraments, from the Bonapaduli collection in Rome, export them to England classified as copies, and sell them as the originals they were to the duke of Rutland for two thousand pounds.
There were paintings, drawings, and prints to be bought, and many a great English collection began with things brought back from Milord’s Grand Tour: Raphael, Michelangelo, and Titian if possible—which it seldom was—but plenty of other masters appealed to the taste of the eighteenth century as hardly less estimable: Veronese, Guido Reni, the Carraccis, and Domenichino. Grand Tourists did not buy “primitive” art; the products of the early Renaissance did not appeal to them, and Gothic painting seemed positively barbarous, wooden, inexpressive. They responded to the grand and suave eloquence of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and to the beautiful, fleshy girls masquerading as Madonnas and saints that it so often described. But it would be quite wrong to suppose that English tourists were the only ones buying. Rome attracted connoisseurs and collectors from everywhere, and it was a competitive business. The Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II vied with Catherine II, empress of Russia, and Augustus III, king of Poland, who were in competition with Prince Nicholas Yussupov and the Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna of Russia. Rome had a booming, open market for paintings, more than for antiquities, and it was served by (among others) expatriate artists doubling as dealers. It was the Scottish painter Gavin Hamilton, for instance, who purchased in Rome what became two of the greatest treasures of the National Gallery in London: Raphael’s Ansidei Madonna in 1764, and Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks in 1785.
However, the Roman painters most admired in Italy in the eighteenth century were not necessarily the ones most eagerly snapped up by English and other Grand Tourists. The arch-example was probably Carlo Maratti (1625–1713), whose grand classical style of decoration, intimately linked to the doctrinal and emotional requirements of the Catholic Church, did not travel well in more Protestant latitudes. But Maratti’s success in Italy was huge. His mythological and religious work energized young painters all over Europe, and he served seven popes. The death of Bernini in 1680 left Maratti as the unchallenged leader of the Roman school of art. The major Roman churches for which he painted altarpieces include Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Santa Maria della Pace, Santa Maria del Popolo, and a dozen others, including Saint Peter’s Basilica itself. His fame and influence were so great that he was widely known as the “Roman Apelles,” after the Greek painter of the fourth century B.C.E. with the reputation as the greatest painter of antiquity. And yet, a century after his death, this vastly influential virtuoso had sunk with hardly a trace; there has never been a retrospective of Maratti in a modern museum, an extraordinary omission.
A Grand Tourist’s second choice of memento was somewhat more modest. Rome was already making tourist souvenirs. They were, of course, more palatable than the trash stamped out in Asian sweatshops (the Vatican naturally prefers to call these “workshops” or “studios”) for today’s tourists: phosphorescent plastic rosaries, gummily smiling aluminum pope-medals, three-inch-high replicas of the Capitoline she-wolf. Nevertheless, the eighteenth-century versions had a slightly industrial character, though this would only have been noticed if you lined them up next to one another.
Various studios made small bronze replicas of famous statues, the Apollo Belvedere or the Laocoön; the best-known of these was run by the sculptor Giacomo Zoffoli. Giovanni Volpato, a ceramicist of high reputation (and a friend of Canova’s), did porcelain objects, to a high standard of finish. Cork models of ancient buildings, precise in scale, were made by the firm of Giovanni Altieri—the British architect John Soane bought several of these.
The part of this memory trade that verged on real art was the making of micro-mosaics. The Vatican had employed a small army of mosaicists for the decoration of Saint Peter’s. But when their employment waned, the mosaic workers, expert in their trade, turned to producing tiny, portable mosaic images for the visiting milords. The virtuoso of these mosaicisti in piccolo was Giacomo Raffaelli, who composed his diminutive architectural views, landscapes, and even copies of famous paintings in near-microscopic tesserae made from smalti filati, glass threads colored with various metal oxides and rendered opaque with oxide of tin, then cut into pinheads. There might be more than 1,200 of these tesserae to the square inch. You could have a brooch with the whole Colosseum on it (microscopic gladiators might cost extra), or a snuffbox with a view of the Forum on its lid, all in imperishable glass.
The third choice, open only to, and all but obligatory for, the rich, was to commission paintings, possibly of Italian landscape scenes but certainly of oneself, with or without one’s family. These were true acts of patronage, not just of souvenir purchase, and the chief recipient of these commissions among British landscape artists was a Welshman named Richard Wilson (c. 1713–82).
Wilson’s father, a clergyman, had given him a most thorough education in the classics, particularly in Latin poetry; he knew, and could quote by heart, long tracts of Horace and Virgil. This meant that most of the places he was likely to paint, and that his clients were likely to have visited—Lake Nemi, for instance, haunt of the Sibyl; or the waterfalls near Tivoli, where later he would enjoy a contemplative and jolly picnic with the earls of Thanet, Pembroke, and Essex, travel companions in Rome—were in a literary sense familiar to him before he set eyes on them. The fact that he shared such a background with them made his mellow paintings all the more agreeable to his educated English patrons, who regarded him as the Claude Lorrain of England.
But whether or not he brought back a classical landscape of the “holy ground” which he had trod, by the real French Claude or the “English Claude,” the Grand Tourist was almost bound to have his portrait made there. It would be set in a vista of the Eternal City, with the Colosseum or the Castel Sant’Angelo (always favorites, because easily identified) in the background, pointing with a pink and didactic hand at some exemplary work from the glorious Roman past—the Borghese Gladiator, perhaps, or the Dying Gaul, theBelvedere Torso, or the Laocoön. See! This is what I have seen, and in some sense appropriated! And, just as I have returned with this painting, so I have come back with the knowledge of the cultural setting that it implies!
The maestro of such transactions, the first choice for the foreigner seeking to have his Roman portrait done, was the son of a goldsmith, Pompeo Batoni (1708–87). Born in Lucca, trained in part by his meticulous father, he had moved to Rome in 1727 to study painting, and almost from the beginning of his Roman life he showed a large and ever-growing talent for copying antique statuary. This in itself might have been enough to earn him a steady income from selling his beautiful and highly finished drawings to rich English visitors, who wanted to take home reminders of the classical masterpieces they had seen in the Vatican and elsewhere in Rome. But Batoni also had strong ambitions to be a painter of religious and historical subjects, and such appetites could only be satisfied by working for the Church. At first, his ecclesiastical work brought him unremitting success. His subject paintings were popular with the inglesi, and, more important, Pope Benedict XIV appreciated him and saw to it that he received commissions for some of the greatest churches in Rome, among them Santa Maria Maggiore (1743). What should have been the early apotheosis of his career came in 1746, when he was commissioned to paint a Fall of Simon Magus for the altar of Saint Peter’s itself.
Batoni had labored on this enormous project, the most important that a painter in Rome—or, indeed, anywhere in Italy—could have been offered, for almost ten years. And it defeated him. The Vatican meant to have his oil painting executed in mosaic, because canvas, given the unexpected dampness of the air inside the basilica, succumbed to mold; but a temporary crimp in the papal income prevented that, and, to Batoni’s intense disappointment and chagrin, the giant canvas was moved to the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, where it remains.
For any ordinary artist this would have been a prestigious spot, but Batoni was not an ordinary artist, and he felt the loss of a place of such honor as Saint Peter’s very keenly—so bitterly, in fact, that he gave up his ecclesiastical work altogether and resolved, from then on, to concentrate on the more profitable field of portraits of the visiting nobility and gentry. He worked with such speed and virtuosity that by the time of his death he had painted some two hundred of these affluent tourists, most of whom were already peers or would presently inherit a title. He was to Italy what the great portraitist Sir Joshua Reynolds was to England. Reynolds, it seems, detested his Italian rival. Batoni was doomed in advance, Reynolds declared in his Fourteenth Discourse, written after Batoni’s death: “However great their names may at present sound in our ears, [they] will very soon fall into … what is little short of total oblivion.” Reynolds did not believe that De mortuis nil nisi bonum.
He was right about most of the painters he mentioned—who today remembers Imperiale, Concha, or Massuccio?—but wrong about Batoni, although he was nearly right about him, too, since Batoni’s name was on the verge of disappearance by 1800. Most of the men who had bought his work were dead, and those who remained were old. Their heirs thought the ancestral portraits old-fashioned and banished them from positions of honor in the sitting room to dark landings on the stairs. Few other people saw them, because the portraits had never been exhibited: they had gone straight from the maestro’s studio in Rome to their owners’ walls, and there had been no intervening exhibitions in which a public might have had the chance to see them. Hence, although he had many clients in Britain, his public was never large enough to make him popular. So even today (or perhaps especially today) Batoni’s work has the charm of the unfamiliar. Admittedly, some of it looks routine, although one ought to be alert to its very real charms—the delightful palette which seems to preserve the complete freshness of encounter with a living creature, the fluent and ever-accurate drawing, and the wholly delectable polish. Because the human subjects are so long dead, we can no longer appreciate the lifelike qualities that earned them such praise. Yet there are Batonis that compel not only by their immense skill but by a certain oddity—their theatrical faithfulness, it seems, to the self-confidence of the upper-class Briton abroad among the foreigners.
The outstanding, though by no means the only, one among these is his portrait of a Scots aristocrat, Colonel William Gordon. It is almost a definition of what used to be called the “swagger portrait.” There is the noble laird, leaning on his ostentatiously drawn sword. (And why would a tourist be pulling out his sword in Rome?) He is swathed in yards of his family tartan, which becomes a bizarre sort of Caledonian toga. He looks as though he owns the place and is getting set to defend it against Italians.
The subject of the best of all the foreigner-in-Italy portraits, however, was neither rich nor titled, nor English, nor was he painted by an Italian. The symbolic, over-life-sized portrait of Goethe in the Roman Campagna (1786–87) was by Wilhelm Tischbein (1751–1829). Tischbein and Goethe were long-standing friends, and their meeting in Rome was deeply stimulating for both men. Born in 1749, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a German literary celebrity at twenty-four, the prodigy of Frankfurt am Main. Within a year or two, his reputation had spread throughout Europe. As Nicholas Boyle points out in the first volume of his magisterial biography, Goethe wrote in Faust “the greatest long poem of recent European literature.… Goethe was not just a poet—for the whole Romantic generation in Germany, England and even France, he was the poet.… He affected all subsequent notions of what poets are and poetry does.” But his previous works had already cemented his reputation, and since he had at last fulfilled a lifelong desire by making the journey to Rome, this was seen by Tischbein (and other German cultural expatriates who were already installed there) as a very consequential act even before all its literary results were apparent. This has to be remembered when one looks at Tischbein’s portrait. At the time of his arrival in Rome, Goethe was a little older than most members of the vigorous colony of German artists there: he was thirty-seven, Tischbein thirty-five, and none of the others past forty. Apart from Tischbein, his closest artist friend in Rome was the abundantly gifted and celebrated Swiss painter Angelica Kauffmann (1741–1807), who lived with her husband, Antonio Zucchi, in a studio at the top of the Spanish Steps, on the Via Sistina. With her, Goethe had many illuminating talks about art.
Tischbein painted him at full length. Goethe’s energy was boundless, his thirst for historical understanding through art and architecture unquenchable, and the resulting image conveys both. Shaded by a wide-brimmed artist’s hat and wrapped in a voluminous white cape—which looks appropriately like a toga but subliminally conveys the thought of the inspired prophet, although it was only a practical garment—Goethe reclines amid the overgrown relics of the Campagna. His gaze, at something out to the right which we do not see, is strong and reflective. His right hand, his writing hand, is emphatically in view. He is not pointing at a famous work of art, as Batoni’s clients were apt to do in their pseudo-proprietary way. The circular tomb of Caecilia Metella on the Appian Way rises in the distance. It was a favorite of both Tischbein and Goethe, and of Byron, too, who wrote of it in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage; his hero sees it, approaching Rome:
There is a stern round tower of other days,
Firm as a fortress, with its fence of stone,
Such as an army’s baffled strength delays,
Standing with half its battlements alone,
And with two thousand years of ivy grown,
The garland of eternity, where wave
The green leaves over all by time o’erthrown;—
What was this tower of strength? within its cave
What treasure lay so lock’d, so hid?—A woman’s grave.
In the foreground is a fragment of ancient bas-relief, a fallen composite capital, and the clutter of stone blocks, which may be the pieces of a toppled obelisk, on which Goethe is taking his ease. Rather, the ancient vestiges that surround the poet are painted as part of his natural environment of thought and reflection. They are not potential “souvenirs.” And the bas-relief (as Nicholas Boyle pointed out) has a quite specific meaning in relation to Goethe’s own work. It depicts the “recognition scene,” from Iphigenia,whose dramatic adaptation Goethe was then writing; and its marble block is overgrown, or crowned, with ivy, symbol of immortality.
“I shall never rest,” Goethe declared in a magnificent passage, written in Rome in June 1787, “until I know that all my ideas are derived, not from hearsay or tradition, but from my real living contact with the things themselves. From my earliest youth, this has been my ambition and my torment.” In this spirit he approached the enormous bulk of the city and its antiquities.
And so Rome took time. Not only for Goethe, but for any serious visitor. “It is as impossible for a person to dash through it,” noted Charles Cadogan in 1784, “as it is for him to fly.” To set his impressions in order, get smooth access to collections, and have the whole confusing panorama of ancient Rome explained to him, the Grand Tourist would need help. It could be at hand in the form of a guide or “bear-leader”—a traveling tutor, preferably English, experienced in antiquity, who might be found living as an expatriate in Rome but was more likely to have been brought over in the tourist’s party. Some of them were harmless clergymen of no high distinction, but Thomas Pelham retained no less a figure than Anton Mengs to show him around Rome, and men as eminent as Thomas Hobbes and Adam Smith were also well known as bear-leaders—in fact, guiding the bear cubs, as the young and the rich were known to the Italians, was practically the only way an impecunious intellectual could afford to get to Italy himself. One of the most popular guides to the city was the great German art historian Johann Winckelmann, “than whom no one has greater skill in antique statues” (said Edward Wortley Montagu). He was besieged with requests for such services from bigwigs on the Grand Tour. Goethe observed his happy relations with ordinary (and less ordinary) Romans, but:
He experienced considerable pain at the hands of visitors from abroad. To be sure, nothing is worse than the ordinary tourist in Rome. In any other place, the traveler can go his own way; however, those who fail to do as the Romans do are a horror to the true Roman.
Such provincial sightseers—narrow-minded, unobservant, always in a hurry, arrogant—Winckelmann cursed more than once and repeatedly swore never again to act as their guide, only to relent on the next occasion.… Yet he also benefited considerably from serving as a guide to persons of position and reputation.
Some of the bigwigs, particularly the English, disgusted him: Frederick Calvert, Lord Baltimore, appeared in Rome with a harem of eight women, some of whom were stout and others thin; the fat ones were fed sour food, and the thin a meat-and-dairy diet. Winckelmann, a fastidious homosexual, found both them and their master repellent. The duke of York, George III’s brother, seemed to be “the greatest ass I know, no credit to his rank or country.” Naturally, the scholar kept these opinions to himself. He did a little bear-leading, but others did a lot, and without these guides, the novice—as a friend wrote to the painter George Romney—would not be ready for the shearing; he would walk through whole palaces of pictures
[like] an upholsterer through the Vatican. They have been told of the gusto of the antique, but where to find it, or how to distinguish it, they know no more than their mothers. Virtu however is to be purchased, like other superfluities, and in the end theirCiceronelays them in for a bargain, perhaps a patchwork head of Trajan set upon a modern pair of shoulders, and made up with Caracalla’s nose and Nero’s ears.… Home they come privileged Virtuosi, qualified to condemn every thing that their own countrymen can produce.
Some Grand Tourists collected on a huge scale. Richard Boyle, third earl of Burlington, who presided over the Palladian “Revival” in England, was a shining example of what intelligent patronage—allied, in his case, with equally intelligent collecting—could do. The “Apollo of the Arts,” as Horace Walpole called him, collected on a lavish scale during two Grand Tours of Italy, the first in 1714–15, the second in 1719. Burlington came back from his second tour of Italy in 1719 with no fewer than 878 pieces of luggage, crammed with works of art. He bought with the utmost discrimination, finding, for instance, more than sixty original drawings by Palladio, together with prints and rare books of the master’s work, during his sojourns in Verona and Vicenza. Lord Burlington was one of those exceptionally rare talents who could have altered the history of architecture as patrons, but who did so instead as geniuses of creative design in their own right. By involving himself directly in architecture as a designer rather than simply as a patron, he shifted the social relation in England between patron and artist. And certain of his buildings, such as his own Palladian villa, Chiswick House, or the grandly pure Assembly Rooms in York, are of a near-minimalist intensity which exceeds most of their Palladian prototypes.
Among the materials Boyle brought back from Italy would certainly have been various editions of the Roman etchings of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, printmaker extraordinary and architect manqué. No artist has ever done more to record the posthumous image of a great city than this Venetian brooding on the ruins of Rome. In effect, he created and re-created the Eternal City and its obsessively present antiquities for a mid-eighteenth-century public, ruin by ruin, almost stone by stone. In the course of a working life of forty or so years, Piranesi made etchings of every kind of structure in Rome: amphitheaters, baths, churches, monasteries, bridges and arches, fora, piazzas and freestanding columns, perspectives of streets, gardens and grottoes, obelisks, mausoleums, aqueducts, fountains, ruined temples, tombs, theaters, villas and palaces both abandoned and lived-in, sewers, and crematoria.
The writer and connoisseur Horace Walpole urged artists to “study the sublime dreams of Piranesi, who seems to have conceived visions of Rome beyond what it boasted even at the meridian of its splendour”:
Fierce as Michelangelo, and exuberant as Rubens, he has imagined scenes that would startle geometry … He piles palaces on bridges, and temples on palaces, and scales heaven with mountains of edifices. Yet what taste in his boldness! What grandeur in his wildness!
He reproduced inscriptions that had been chipped and worn to near-illegibility by the gnawing of time, tempus edax. He designed tripods, urns, trophies, shields, imaginary armor, lamps, marble maps, Egyptian-style beds, Etruscan-style candlesticks, and yawning, cavernous Roman fireplaces. He did huge decorative initials: a letter “V” made of sections of lead piping leaning one against the other, a “D” featuring the Roman lupa glaring toothily at the reader from inside its curve. He created a set of clocks, and another of designs for sedan chairs and coach doors, as well as some Egyptian Revival decorations (which featured sphinxes, vultures, and a Nile crocodile but, alas, were destroyed long ago) for the inside of the Caffè degli Inglesi, and a set of hauntingcapriccishowing the gloomily enfolding spaces of imaginary prisons, which for many people remain his supreme imaginative achievement and had more effect on writers than any etchings of the eighteenth century. He also designed elaborate furniture, nearly all of which has since disappeared—the sole apparent survivor being a carved and gilt side table from the Quirinal Palace in Rome, designed for one of his principal patrons, the Cardinal and future Pope Clement XIII, Carlo Rezzonico, which ended its travels in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
Piranesi died in 1778, at the relatively advanced age of fifty-eight. He left some 1,024 engraved images, an output unrivaled by any other graphic artist of his age. More than seven hundred of his preparatory drawings also survive. But there is only one building standing in Rome that he designed and built: the church and headquarters of the Knights of Malta, on the Aventine Hill. For a man who styled himself a “Venetian architect,” it must have been something of a disappointment to have built only one building. Yet, in the end, his colossal output of prints and drawings had more effect on the experience of architecture, on what many people expected of that art, than anything he could have achieved with real buildings. Their effect was powerfully felt all over the Western world, in structures as far apart from one another as John Soane’s Bank of England (1798) and Benjamin Latrobe’s Baltimore Cathedral (1805–18). His prints could and did travel everywhere, with an ease that no actual building could possibly rival. These “buildings I never saw,” as the great English designer Robert Adam wrote in 1755, “are the greatest fund for inspiring and instilling invention in any lover of architecture that can be imagined.” In them, memory, fantasy, and scholarship all combined to produce a parallel Rome, in many ways as actual as the city itself: a Rome that was both permanent and forever lost. This must have consoled Piranesi for his lack of built buildings. This hugely ambitious artist re-created not only a city, but several ages of it.
Which is not to say that his instincts about its past were necessarily right. Piranesi managed to convince himself that the root of all classical architecture, Greek as well as Roman, was actually Etruscan. He even compared Etruscan buildings to the architecture of the Egyptians. (Of course, Piranesi had never been to Egypt.) He never wavered from this belief, which had no shred of evidence to support it. He had studied the Roman systems for water distribution and sewage removal, starting with the Cloaca Maxima. Knowing that the Etruscans had been experts in drainage, he wrongly supposed that they were masters of the same kind of massive tunneling and vaulting that the Romans had developed. He imagined Etruscan architecture as massive, stonily articulated, vast in its spaces and recessions—all qualities which, he believed, lay at the root of Roman building. Actually, though some Etruscan temples and sacred spaces were artificial caves hollowed out of bedrock (the soft and easily cut tufa), those that were built—such as the Portonaccio Temple in Veii, from the sixth century B.C.E.—were made of timber and mud brick and bore no resemblance at all to Piranesi’s massive fantasies.
Born in Venice in 1720, Piranesi was the son of a mason, and he grew up fascinated by the question of where the roots of classical architecture in Italy lay. One should remember that Venice was the only major Italian city that, because of its watery site among the lagoons, had no Roman-era building and therefore no Roman ruins; this must have immensely increased the impact of the Rome that young Piranesi saw when he went there for the first time. This happened when he was aged twenty, and a draftsman on the staff ofMarco Foscarini, the Venetian ambassador to the court of the new pope, Benedict XIV. Piranesi already had an enthusiasm for antiquity. It had been nurtured by his older brother, Angelo, a Carthusian monk who had encouraged him to read Livy, Tacitus, and other historians of Rome.
There were large and magnificent buildings in Venice, but none of them were Roman at all, let alone Roman on the scale of the Baths of Caracalla or the Colosseum or Flavian Amphitheater. Moreover, because Venice (like its cradling sea) was flat, Piranesi grew up without seeing anything like the tumbled, precipitous palimpsest of seven-hilled Rome, with its gigantic overlay of columns, fallen cornices, collapsed vaults, and ancient excavations. Its imaginative impact on him would be immense, and it would liberate his imagination. It would encourage him to turn big things into titanic ones. “These speaking ruins,” he would write, “have filled my spirit with images that accurate drawings, even such as those of the immortal Palladio, could never have succeeded in conveying.”
These images were often intensely theatrical. There is no evidence that Piranesi, as has sometimes been said, ever actually worked with the chief stage designer of Italy, the Venetian Ferdinando Galli da Bibiena (1657–1743), but he certainly knew Bibiena’s work—as who in Venice did not?—and he did an apprenticeship with two somewhat less celebrated Venetian stage designers who worked in a similar mode, Giuseppe and Domenico Valeriano. He also became an expert in the dramatic use of angular perspective, under the tutelage of an engraver, Carlo Zucchi.
Venice was the natural home of such exercises, which went by the name of capricci, and were the stock-in-trade of earlier painters who clearly had an impact on the young Piranesi, such as Canaletto and the Tiepolos. So one will find his views of ancient Rome populated by the figures of people scattered among the ruins—ragged, gesticulating, tiny people, very different from the more elegant and composed travelers to be seen in other “views” of Rome, sometimes troglodytic, as if they had just crawled out of holes between the rocks. These contributed to the impression given by Piranesi’s later collections of architectural and topographic prints, such as the four-volume Le antichità romane (1756)—that the Rome whose remains he was etching had indeed been the creation and home of earthly giants, a titanic but now vanished race whose like would not come again, sublime in ambition and unlimited in scope of grandeur.
Piranesi was lucky to reach Rome when he did. Any talented artist would have been. It was a clearing house of ideas, a place where one went to learn, irrigated by the talent of scores of foreign artists (John Flaxman, Henry Fuseli, Angelica Kauffmann, Anton Mengs, Pierre Subleyras, Claude-Joseph Vernet), Italian ones (Marco Benefial, Pietro Bianchi, Giuseppe Cades, Pier Leone Ghezzi, Corrado Giaquinto, Benedetto Luti, Giovanni Pannini, Francesco Trevisani), British architects (William Chambers, Robert Adam, George Dance, and John Soane), and cultural theorists (notably Johann Winckelmann), and hundreds of intelligent tourists from all over Europe, some highly cultivated and others eager neophytes.
Among the former, Piranesi found a professional context. In the ranks of tourists, he found an abundant market. Chipped marble heads and Ionic capitals were not easy to carry back from Italy, but sheets of paper were, and large numbers of Piranesi prints from his major series (the Antichità romane, the Della magnificenza ed architettura de’ Romani, and all the other series he made, not forgetting his fanciful studies of chimney ornament and of designs for vases, candelabra, and gravestones) found their way back to England, where they were pored over and used as inspirational models by dozens of architects. True, it was sometimes difficult to mimic Piranesi’s effects in the materials of the real world. The layers of massive, rusticated stones in his view of the understructure of the Castel Sant’Angelo seem to be bulging, extruding their very substance under the weight of the primeval masonry above. However, the care which Piranesi brought to depicting his Roman-ruin architecture is so dedicated as to challenge belief. In some of the plates, which purported merely to depict the technical aspects of ancient building, he was able to invest tools and techniques—like the lifting tackle for large masonry blocks—with the drama of the technological sublime, a project dear to the heart of other eighteenth-century figures. At the same time, fantasy ruled the world given by other prints. Thus, when he rendered the Pyramid of Cestius, in reality quite a small and almost delicate affair (as pyramids go), and erected near the Porta Ostiensis in memory of a man about whom almost nothing is known, he gave it an Egyptian scale and mass.
In making his Roman ruins look like chasms and cliffs of stone, Piranesi was protecting the Roman genius for mass from dilution, as he saw it, by Greek artificiality. Much of this was fiction, of course. There could be little in the world—not even the Roman part of it—quite like those disturbingly congested perspective views of the Via Appia in its heyday, stretching away in a surreal perspective, crammed cheek by jowl with statues, tombs, sarcophagi, urns, and obelisks. No wonder such things would become a rich source of plunder for later and lesser artists—Eugene Berman and Salvador Dalì—seeking to project a disquieting dreamworld of never-never architecture.
Making large etchings is an expensive business, and to do it on a Piranesian scale required large financial support. The patron from whom Piranesi expected most was a young Irishman: James Caulfeild, first earl of Charlemont, to whom he wrote in 1757, “I believe I have completed a work which will pass on to posterity and which will endure so long as there are men curious to know the ruins which remain of the most famous city in the universe.” Charlemont seemed to Piranesi like a good potential patron; he was rich (though not, as it turned out, as rich as the artist supposed), and in 1749 he had set up an academy, though a short-lived one, for British artists in Rome to study antiquities, about which he was passionately enthusiastic. It looked a splendid idea, both to him and to Piranesi, to have his noble name attached to such a turning point in archaeology as the Antichità romane. But, unfortunately, Charlemont had no idea—and since he was an amateur without earlier experience of publishing, how could he?—of the overwhelming mass of work and expense in publishing the four volumes and more than 250 plates of the Antichità. He had supposed he would be paying for a single volume about tomb chambers, and now he was faced with the cost of this mammoth work, all of it, the fruit of more than ten years of study and meditation. Not only did Piranesi plan to show all of ancient Rome above ground: his engravings would also show what was hidden—the foundations and footings, the drainage conduits and water-supply systems. Poor Charlemont had something much simpler in mind, and much more salable: picturesque vedute of the Eternal City. Not surprisingly, his resolution buckled, and he dropped the project altogether, fleeing back to the British Isles. This was the greatest disappointment of Piranesi’s life, and he never really got over it, even though he was able to find other supporters for the Antichità. Perhaps he would have killed the traitorous, chickenhearted Charlemont (as he now thought of his ex-patron) if he could have gotten away with it, but he did not have the chance, and so he had to be content with a kind of damnatio memoriae. His title page had originally carried a rather fulsome dedication to James Caulfeild, inscribed on an ample plaque surrounded by attributes of antique ruin. Piranesi now removed Caulfeild’s name from the plate. This was in imitation of the Roman Senate, which after 203 C.E. had erased the once-honored but now disgraced name of Geta from a dedicatory inscription on the arch of Septimius Severus in the Forum Romanum.3 Presumably Caulfeild would have recognized this insult, even if few others did.
One area of Piranesi’s output departed into pure fantasy, and has always seemed separate from his archaeological and view-making work. This is the series of fourteen plates known as the Carceri d’invenzione or Imaginary Prisons, which first appeared in 1745 and were reissued in 1760. Unlike all his other work, as their title implies, these are not based on any known buildings. They are emanations of the artist’s mind, and right from the start it was recognized that they had little relation to real architecture. What they depict, essentially, are limitless underground chambers with no exit, the space knitted together, but never resolved, by ramps, stairs, bridges, galleries, catwalks, vestibules, and arches that all assert a powerful presence but actually lead nowhere. They seem self-replicating, and this was what spoke, with peculiar directness and vividness, both to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, sunk deep in his own laudanum addiction, and to his friend Thomas De Quincey, an addict as well. When Coleridge eloquently described the Carcerito De Quincey, they did not have copies of the Prisons to hand. But Coleridge thought that these strange and paranoid imaginings recorded “the scenery of his own visions during the delirium of a fever.” De Quincey seemed to recognize them, too, from Coleridge’s vivid account of the “Gothic halls,” the wheels, cables, pulleys, levers, and racks. And he recognized some of the features of his own opium hallucinations. “With the same power of endless growth and self-reproduction did my architecture proceed in dreams.”
In one sense, these images hark back to his earlier years as a student of stage design. Prison scenes were common and popular in the eighteenth century and through into the nineteenth, as an acquaintance with Beethoven (Fidelio) or Puccini (Tosca) reminds us. Many artists designed prison sets, whose towering arches and claustrophobic, vast-space, no-exit qualities all suggest affinities with Piranesi’s dream prisons. What had been palatial now turns penal. Huge spaces had in the past been taken to magnify their inhabitants’ importance, in a world of wealth, power, and privilege. But now in the very different world of the Carceri, magnitude reduces man to a crawling, suffering insect.
In all their oppressive power, the Carceri had a strong appeal for writers, particularly for English Romantics. One of the first to set out his response to them was William Beckford (1760–1844), the dilettante who, fabulously wealthy from inheritance in the slave trade and the sugar business, had taken his Grand Tour in 1780. When he was in Venice, his gondola floated him under the Bridge of Sighs. “I shuddered whilst passing below,” he would recall later.
Horrors and dismal prospects haunted my fancy upon my return. I could not dine in peace, so strongly was my imagination affected; but snatching my pencil, I drew chasms and subterraneous hollows, the domain of fear and torture, with chains, racks, wheels, and dreadful engines in the style of Piranesi.
Memories of Piranesi’s Carceri would infest Beckford’s imagination for years to come, pervading the landscapes of his novel Vathek (1786). They were filled with a fear of vastness and indeterminacy—the Carceri could not be reconstituted in the mind’s eye as real, architectural space, betokening security. This, of course, was what gave them their grip on the dreaming mind. In the 1960s, when the “drug culture” was looking for antecedents to its often obsessive interest in hallucination, efforts were made to find a parallel between Piranesi’s carceral visions and the visions caused by pot or LSD. It was argued, or at any rate suggested, that the connecting thread may have been attacks of malaria, caught by Piranesi while sketching aqueducts and ruins in the mosquito-infested Campagna outside Rome: a common treatment for malaria was large doses of the opiate laudanum. But this is unprovable, and probably has more to do with the atmosphere of the 1960s than that of the 1740s.
There were several reasons why such images might have caught the at-tention of a liberal-minded public. The whole issue of imprisonment—of crime and punishment, of what could deter the errant soul from sin—was much to the fore in English literary thinking around the turn of the nineteenth century. What was an appropriate architecture, a “speaking” architecture, that would make a building truly carceral and would distinguish itself from other structures not designed to punish, intimidate, reform? George Dance the Younger (1741–1825) seems to have extracted part of his answer from the ideas of Piranesi, whom he met in Rome in 1763, and whose Carceri he undoubtedly saw. In 1768, after he got back from Rome, Dance was given the job of rebuilding London’s main prison, Newgate Gaol. This task occupied him for the best part of seventeen years. It was hardly a coincidence that Dance’s design for Newgate, dreadful though it may seem today, emerged just as the movement for penal reform in England began to stumble into life, urged along by its pioneer, John Howard, with his monumental report on punishment, The State of the Prisons in England and Wales (1777). We do not know if Dance read this tome, but its message was certainly in the air among the enlightened and reasonably Whiggish Englishmen whose values George Dance esteemed. Dance did not wish to create a jail along the traditional English lines—a sump of misery and social chaos, without decent ventilation, lighting, heating, sanitary provisions, or even segregation of the sexes. In the “new” Newgate, he paid some attention, within a tight budget, to all of these matters, supplying such necessities of overcrowded life in a cold climate as stoves and privies. The walls of Newgate had to be blind, with no openings through which prisoners might conceivably escape to or even glimpse the world outside. In this, the design showed some debt to the claustrophobic spaces of Piranesi’s prisons.4 Further touches were directly taken from the Carceri, such as the festoons of carved stone chains over the prison’s entrance.
It was the custom among successful architects to hire assistants and apprentices, as lawyers took articled clerks. For four years, 1768–72, Dance employed a young assistant who was to change the language of English architecture, largely as a result of his visit to Rome and the influence of Piranesi. He was John Soane, to whom Dance was a “revered master.”
Some architects come from a background of wealth and relative ease, but in the eighteenth century few did. Certainly Soane did not. He was the son of a bricklayer, always short of money, proud of his craft background, which gave him confidence in his own building, but socially insecure when dealing with his “betters.” The degree of that insecurity can be sampled, if not judged, from his change of name. His father’s name was “Soan”; the son added a terminal “e” because it seemed classier. Thenceforth he would always be referred to as “Soane,” and he would not be drawn into any conversations about his background, becoming irritable and touchy whenever social position came up in conversation. He even went back over his own early drawings when he could get at them, and “corrected” the signatures.
Soane, with the backing of the architect William Chambers, who was the Royal Academy’s influential treasurer, was awarded a traveling studentship which would finance a three-year tour of Italy. It was a well-timed stroke of fortune. His tour was not “grand,” but his sojourn in Rome put him in touch with other Englishmen who were Grand Tourists and would become his clients and colleagues in years to come. Among them was Thomas Pitt, cousin of England’s future Prime Minister William Pitt. Soane loved Italy so much that every year he celebrated March 18 as the day on which, aged a hopeful twenty-four, he set out in 1777 for the wondrous South. It was not his birthday. But it was the day of his professional birth, which counted for rather more. It was just around the time that Thomas Pelham was writing home to complain about the surfeit of English tourists he encountered in Rome. The Eternal City had, he wrote, “too great a resemblance with [Brighton], being crowded with about seventy English visitors.” (Crowded! Just as well, perhaps, that Pelham was not granted a prophetic vision of English package tourists harried along in their thousands from bus to museum to Michelangelo to pizza bar two centuries later.)
Soane quickly found lodgings in Rome and made the Caffè degli Inglesi—in Via Due Macelli, on the south side of Piazza di Spagna, rendezvous of foreign artists and intellectuals—his postal address. With his friend Thomas Hardwick, another postulant architect, he started measuring Roman buildings, both ancient and more recent: the Pantheon, the Temple of Vesta, Santa Maria Maggiore, Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura. And, as Chambers urged, he looked up Piranesi, with whom he began a steady friendship.
But it was Soane’s misfortune—which at first he mistook for good luck—to spend part of his tour with Frederick Augustus Hervey, later bishop of Derry and presently to become the fourth earl of Bristol. This culturally literate but deeply unpleasant cleric regarded Soane as part servant, part pet, and as a reputable creative figure only from time to time. When the two men were exploring the ruins of the Villa of Lucullus, south of Rome, Derry turned to Soane and announced that he wanted to see designs made for a “classical dog kennel, as I intend to build one for the hounds of my eldest son.” Instead of treating this dotty idea with the repudiation it deserved, for no English architect with a sense of his own future was likely to want to spend his time housing dogs, even for a noble bishop, poor Soane—whose embarrassment at his own humble origins had not equipped him for dealing properly with the rich and titled—took the bishop seriously, went off, and drew up designs for a kennel in the ancient Roman taste, decorated with every sort of doggy detail that his febrile imagination could muster. To Soane’s mortification, it was never built. Nor was anything else he proposed for Derry. The bishop had capriciously half-promised that Soane would get more serious work at his seat, Downhill, building for people rather than animals, when they got back to Ireland. Soane impulsively cut short his Italian trip by almost a year, went to Ireland at his own expense, and spent a month there measuring and sketching. But nothing came of it; Derry dismissively dropped the idea, and the bitter disappointment this caused Soane was to skew his relations with clients for the rest of his life.
Soane was not the only person made miserable by Hervey’s egocentric and brutal behavior. The earl-bishop’s wife, Elizabeth Hervey, was reduced to what her husband unkindly called a “majestic ruin” by his vile moods. She described herself, in a sad letter to her daughter in 1778, as “almost such a skeleton as Voltaire … wizened like a winter apple.”
Fortunately, however, Hervey was by no means the only person with whom Soane was significantly involved in Rome, and others were more seriously helpful. To a great extent, Soane’s tastes, and his way of displaying them as a collector, were formed by his acquaintance with the Roman cleric Cardinal Alessandro Albani (1692–1779). Albani was very much the child of privilege. He had been born in Urbino, and his uncle Giovanni Francesco Albani became pope (as Clement XI) in 1700. To the young man’s mortification, this uncle had so sharply attacked the nepotism widespread in the papal court that he was unable to do much for his own relatives, including Alessandro. The young man showed promise as a linguist, a student of the classics, and a horseman; the last talent recommended him (since nepotism was not yet quite dead, this being Italy) to be made a colonel of the Papal Dragoons. Clement XI died, nepotism was given full revival, and Innocent XIII bestowed the cardinal’s red hat and tassles on Alessandro at the age of twenty-nine. (It was possible to be made cardinal without being a priest first.) His nominal task in Rome was to look after the interests of its German community as “Protector of the Holy Roman Empire.” But his main interest was a peculiarly rapacious form of archaeology; it was even said that when the catacombs were being opened, and the pious nuns were sieving the dirt inside them for anything that could be called, however optimistically, a relic of an early Christian saint, Albani was right at their backs, snatching any cameos, intaglios, coins, rings, or other antique tidbits that might turn up. His position in the Vatican meant that he could indulge his acquisitive passions to the full, and deal without restraint. When Soane and Albani met, the cardinal had only a year to live, could barely walk, and was as blind as a mole—but there was Albani’s enormous, eclectic, and ruthlessly acquired collection, begging to be imitated. Rivaling it became one of the central passions of Soane’s later life, when he became an avid collector himself.
In addition to sponsoring neoclassicist theory and practice—Anton Raphael Mengs painted an enormous and frigid Parnassus for His Eminence’s library, considered then and ever since, though not always with undiluted admiration, to be among the key works ofneoclassicism—Albani was a formidable collector of antiquities. His palatial villa on the Via Salaria was stocked with bronzes, marbles, coins, and other tesori dell’arte antica raked in from the excavations that were going on around Rome and, in particular, fromHadrian’s Villa at Tivoli. Soane visited Albani whenever he could wangle an invitation, and since Albani’s hospitality to young foreigners was cast wide there were many invitations.
Having Albani for a model might not seem realistic for a bricklayer’s boy whose career was only just opening, but in 1784 Soane married, and richly. The bride was the niece of a wealthy English builder and property speculator. From then on, Soane would never be less than comfortable. Not only could he pick and choose between projects, but he could make his own private museum, like a (less generously endowed) Cardinal Albani.
This is the wondrously diverse accumulation of architectural fragments, plaster casts, Greek and Etruscan vases, cinerary urns and other antiquities, prints, paintings by Hogarth, Turner, Fuseli, and a host of others, architectural drawings, cork models, and other delights, such as the ponderous alabaster sarcophagus of the Egyptian King Seti I, all acquired by Soane over the years, which makes a visit to his house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields such an adventure. No other museum in the world conveys such a powerful feeling of passing through the convolutions of another person’s brain. It is the polar opposite of those boring epics of standardized taste that so many museums, especially in America, have become.
In terms of Soane’s career prospects, the most generous new friend he made in Rome was Thomas Pitt, the future Lord Camelford. With Thomas’s cousin William Pitt’s backing and encouragement Soane, whose surname now had its “e,” was appointed surveyor (or chief architect) to the Bank of England in 1788. This put him, at the age of thirty-five, in charge of the much-needed redesign of the building, one of the most important in the city.
There are certain forms beloved by Soane that you can recognize, instantly, as coming from Piranesi’s version of the ruins of Rome. One of these is the segmental arch that seems to rise from ground level, rather than being borne up on columns—a form which is all curve, no springing. Low, and giving an impression of primeval weight, it derives from the actual Roman arches that Soane had observed and drawn, half buried in the earth. It is an extremely powerful shape, and Soane used it as the main motif in the new bank rotunda—a ring of windows, providing the top lighting he so prized. Soane was so enamored of this effect that he actually commissioned the painter Joseph Gandy (1771–1843), a visionary illustrator of architectural themes who often did renderings for Soane, to create a painting of the rotunda of the bank (1830) as a ruin.
Robert Adam (1728–92) was, with William Chambers and John Soane, the most influential British architect of the late eighteenth century. Born in Fifeshire, the son of a leading Scots architect, he was not rich, but he managed to embark on a medium-grand tour to Europe, sharing expenses with his friend Charles Hope, younger brother of one of his father’s main clients, the earl of Hopetoun. They embarked in 1754, and traveled together through Paris, the south of France, and central Italy. It was there, in Florence, that Robert Adam met the slightly older man who would prove so decisive to his career, a Frenchman who, he wrote, “has all these Knacks, so necessary to us Architects.” This was Charles-Louis Clérisseau (1721–1820). In the course of his immensely long life, Clérisseau did not put up many buildings, though he did collaborate with Thomas Jefferson on the Virginia State Capitol, based on the Maison Carrée in Nîmes. His fame came from his drawings: he produced an enormous corpus of gouaches and watercolors of ancient, Renaissance, and Baroque Roman monuments, both real and imaginary. He had, Adam wrote,
the utmost knowledge of Architecture, of perspective & of Designing & Colouring I ever saw, or had any conception of; he raised my ideas, He created emulation and fire in my Breast. I wished above all things to learn his manner, to have him with me at Rome.
The wish was granted. In Rome, Clérisseau became Adam’s teacher and cicerone. His other guide was Piranesi, whom Adam met, came to know, and believed to be the only Italian “to breathe the Antient Air.” Adam did not emulate the dramatic massiveness of Piranesi’s visions of ancient Rome, but his work, even at its most delicately articulate, was never spindly or effeminate, and he sometimes borrowed decorative details such as those in Piranesi’s engravings of chimneypieces.
He did not confine himself to houses, either. A grand master of design, he filled them with furniture (chairs, chimney boards, tables, escutcheons, doorknobs, chandeliers, carpets) and ornamented their walls and niches with painted “Etruscan” designs and quasi-Pompeiian grotesques whose twining imitated the grotteschi he had seen in Rome. All this was done with a consummate precision and light-handedness, not to say lightheartedness. Though he was so successful in business that he had to employ a small army of assistants and draftsmen to satisfy the demand, there is hardly such a thing as a dull or self-repeating Adam design for anything. “We flatter ourselves,” he remarked in the introduction to his Works (1773–78), “[that] we have been able to seize, with some degree of success, the beautiful spirit of antiquity and to transfuse it, with novelty and variety, through all our numerous works.” This is of course true of the greatest Adam buildings, such as Syon House, Osterley Park, Kenwood House, and Kedleston; but its spirit informs all of Adam’s work, and makes it perhaps the most refined and complex architectural response to Rome built anywhere in England, or even in Europe, in the eighteenth century.
At the time when the influence of Rome on foreign architecture was reaching its eighteenth-century meridian, the impetus of building in Rome itself had slowed considerably. There were no popes cast in the Baroque mold of architectural ambition. In fact, the whole eighteenth century saw the creation of only one scheme that compared to the vast projects of an earlier Rome under Sixtus V, Julius II, or Alexander VII. This was the three-flight stairway connecting the floodplain of the Tiber below to the system of streets laid out by Sixtus V above, rising from Piazza di Spagna with its Bernini ship-fountain to the triumphant, climactic surge of the Church of Santissima Trinità dei Monti and its attendant obelisk. Rome, being a city of hills, is also a city of steps and ramps, but theSpanish Steps are the grandest and most spectacular of all its staircases—its only rival being the flight of steps down the side of the Campidoglio that connects Santa Maria d’Aracoeli to Piazza Venezia. The Spanish Steps were constructed between 1723 and 1726 to the designs of Francesco de Sanctis (c. 1693–1731), the very young architect of the French Minims who owned the whole hillside down from the church, and it was his only major work in Rome. The commissioning pope was Innocent XIII. It grew out of an unrealized project of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s, who in the 1660s was thinking of a monumental ramp to connect the Piazza di Spagna below to the church above, including an equestrian monument to Louis XIV as its centerpiece. For various political reasons, this was not carried out. The division of the stairway into three major flights and three landings refers to the Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), after which the church at its summit is named.
The Spanish Steps are the only great rococo monument in Rome, and, in fairness, they should not be called Spanish at all, but French. (They got the name from the building at number 50 on the piazza, which was and is the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See.) The French Minims controlled and supplied the funds to build the staircase, and de Sanctis had worked for them since 1715. This masterpiece, however, finished the architect’s career. In 1728, defective engineering combined with freakishly heavy rains caused the upper part of the stairs, linked to the Viale del Pincio, to collapse; and although repairs were made, and the disaster was not de Sanctis’s fault, he got no more projects in the city he had so unforgettably embellished.
Today most visitors to this part of Rome have little or no interest in the Spanishness of the Spanish Steps. They—or, rather, their flanking buildings—have other claims on one’s attention. Two of the greatest English poets of the nineteenth century are associated with them. In a tiny museum room with a view in the Casina Rossa, as the building at 26 Piazza di Spagna is called (for its color), the poet John Keats lived for a time, and died at the age of twenty-five in the evening of February 23, 1821; his gently smiling death mask is preserved there, along with a lock of his hair and a carnival mask worn in Venice by his fellow poet Noel, Lord Byron. English doctors had sent Keats to Rome, hoping it would cure his tuberculosis, but it did not. He was buried in the Protestant Cemetery not far from the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, in a tomb which bears the famous inscription “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” His friend Percy Bysshe Shelley lies nearby, in the “New Cemetery” of non-Catholics, along with August, the only son of Goethe (1789–1830), and the Marxist political theorist Antonio Gramsci.
The flood of information about ancient art, of archaeological discovery, of new specimens, fragments, and entire masterpieces that was appearing every month from the plum pudding of Italy was bound to produce its interpreters. The leading one—the man who revolutionized archaeology by creating a framework in which antiquities could be classified by style and time of origin—was Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–68).
To the extent that Winckelmann is read at all today, it is by scholars of the discipline of art history, not by art scholars. The almost papal influence and prestige his writings acquired in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries have evaporated, but his position as one of the “fathers of art history” is secure and presumably always will be. “Winckelmann must be regarded as one of those who developed a new organ,” wrote Georg Hegel, “and opened up fresh perspectives in the world of art.” Goethe regarded him as hardly less than a moral hero. “While the characters of many men, and especially of scholars, tend to disappear from view as we look at their achievements, the opposite is true of Winckelmann: everything that he produces is great and remarkable because it reveals his character.” To see that character in action, in all its fervent enthusiasm for the Greek ideal, one should consult his famous dithyramb on the marble statue known as the Apollo Belvedere, “the most sublime of all the statues of antiquity”:
An eternal spring, such as reigned in the blessed Elysian fields, clothes the attractive manliness of full maturity with delectable youth, and plays about the majestic frame of his limbs with soft tenderness. Pass with your spirit into the kingdom of incorporeal beauties and try to become a creator of a heavenly nature, to fill your spirit with beauty that rises above nature: for there is nothing mortal here, nothing that human appetite demands. No veins, no sinews, heat and stir his body.… His delicate hair plays about the divine head, like the slender and waving tendrils of a noble vine, stirred, as it were, by a soft breeze; it seems to be anointed with the oil of the gods.… My breast seems to dilate and swell with reverence.… How is it possible to describe it?
It sounds faintly ridiculous now. One doubts the truth of such ecstasies. It might not have been entirely possible, but many a visitor to the Vatican Belvedere, where the Apollo stood (enclosed in a kind of wooden sentry box to protect it from unauthorized eyes), tried very hard. To see the Apollo was considered both a privilege and a high point of one’s Roman visit, and Winckelmann, in his position as librarian to Cardinal Albani (whose near-total blindness had not impeded his appointment as head of the Vatican Library), was the gatekeeper of such occasions. When the painter Benjamin West came to Rome, its cognoscenti were agog with curiosity about what the American’s reaction to the Apollo would be. Not a few supposed that, being American, he was some kind of Noble Savage complete with feathers, and were politely surprised to see before them a young Philadelphia Quaker. Thirty carriages had followed him and Winckelmann to the Vatican. The marble deity stood revealed; West exclaimed, “My God, a young Mohawk warrior!” Winckelmann was thrilled; this could only confirm his argument that the Greek masters had created archetypes of mankind, true across all cultures.
Winckelmann was a cobbler’s son from the provincial town of Stendal who, by dint of fierce application, studied Greek, Latin, medicine, and theology at the universities of Halle and Jena. He taught classics and became a librarian. By 1754, he was involved as a librarian with the court of Augustus III, elector of Saxony, and began—while having seen, as yet, very little of classical art beyond some engravings—to develop his theories about the relative merits of Greek art, which he regarded as the supreme aesthetic achievement of mankind, and Roman art, which to all intents he dismissed as a corrupt imitation, unworthy of its Greek prototypes. His library work in Dresden brought him into contact with the man who changed his life, the papal nuncio to the court of Saxony, Count Alberigo Archinto. It happened that Archinto, mortally bored with what he regarded as his “Babylonian exile,” had a friend at court—the papal court, far away in Rome. This was Cardinal Passionei, scholar and secretarius brevium, in charge of the promulgation of all papal briefs, who (by a nice coincidence) was looking for a librarian who could set in order his collection of 300,000 volumes. Archinto recommended Winckelmann to him. Passionei responded favorably, and offered the young German aesthete a room in his own palace in the Vatican. Winckelmann realized that this kind of offer would not be made twice. Everything was drawing and pushing him to Rome, the center of the world’s art.
For convenience, and to show his sincerity, Winckelmann underwent conversion to the Roman Catholic faith, a move which horrified his Lutheran associates but opened to him a far wider field—of clerical contacts, of collections, of access of every sort—than he could ever have had as a mere Protestant neophyte, a naïve heretic in the Eternal City. Lutheranism would do nothing for a man whose obsession was with antiquity. Rome and its clergy could do everything. Winckelmann had no family ties that could impede a conversion to Catholicism. His beloved mother was long dead; his father had succumbed to epilepsy in 1750. Winckelmann also knew very well that, without firsthand contact with Rome, an immersion in antiquity far deeper than anything he could scratch together by looking at engravings in books, he would never win recognition as an Aufklärer, a wise and enlightening connoisseur. Expatriation or obscurity, go or die: there was no other choice, he would go to Rome. But before he went, he would write.
His first attempt at art criticism rested on wobbly foundations. Published in 1755, the year he left for Rome, Gedanken über die Nachahmung der grieschischen Werke in der Malerei und Bildhauerkust (Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture) was his effort to enshrine ancient Greek art at the topmost and purest pinnacle of taste. It suffers, in retrospect, from the fact that Winckelmann at the time literally did not know what he was talking about. He had scarcely seen any Greek art; he had only read about it, and seen a few engravings. But this was also true of his own readers, and it made very little difference; the essay was an immediate success. One phrase from it in particular became a standard utterance in the presence of the Ideal, a motto of neoclassicism: the characteristic of high Greek sculpture was “eine edle Einfalt, eine stille Grosse”—“a noble simplicity, a calm grandeur.” This essay later became the basis of his most influential and elaborate work, his Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums(History of Ancient Art, 1767).
Winckelmann was chiefly responsible for implanting the modern belief that later classical art, Greek and Roman, was a degenerate form of the “pure,” early-Hellenic tradition. There were no limits to his admiration for Hellas. “Our race is not likely to produce as perfect a body as the Antinous Admirandus, nor can our ideas conceive anything beyond the superhuman and harmonious proportions of a god as they have taken shape in the Apollo Belvedere. Here is the consummation of the best that nature, art, and the human mind can produce. I believe that imitating the Greeks can teach us to become wise more quickly … They have marked for us the utmost limits of human and divine beauty.” This, Winckelmann believed, was partly because the Greeks had achieved a sort of genetic transcendence, expressed in the “great care” they took to “have beautiful offspring.” They sought to avoid any distortion of their own bodies; Alcibiades “refused to play the flute in his youth because it might distort his face, and the Athenian youths followed his example.”
In the true and exemplary art of Greek antiquity, Winckelmann saw the refutation of much of his own age and its cultural expressions. Modern artists had gone off the rails, and the Baroque filled Winckelmann with disgust. Among his contemporaries, “especially the famous ones” (meaning the school of Bernini), admiration was reserved for “exaggerated poses and actions, accompanied by an insolent ‘dash’ that they regard as spiritedness.… Their favorite concept is ‘contrapposto,’ which for them is the essence of everything that makes for artistic perfection. They want their figures to have souls as eccentric as comets.” Since contrapposto—the depiction of a standing figure with most of its weight reposing on one leg—was an absolutely fundamental device of classical Greek art later than the archaic, one may well wonder what Winckelmann thought he was getting at.
Nevertheless, it was really Winckelmann who invented the idea of stylistic development within antiquity, a master story of rise and decline. He was also the first writer to create a sexual narrative within his subject. Winckelmann was homosexual—when his friend Casanova interrupted him in mid-grapple with a servant one Roman afternoon, he unconvincingly explained that he had undertaken this sexual adventure in the interests of research, since he wanted to know what it was that the ancient Greeks had liked so much. But his yearning, lip-smacking descriptions of the ideal Greek body obviously come from deeper sources; and his descriptions of the canon, in which (for instance) the left testicle is always larger than the right, are permeated with desire.
Unfortunately, his sexual passions not only supplied fuel for his art interpretation, they led to his death. In the spring of 1768, after a meeting with the Empress Maria Teresa in Vienna, he was passing through Trieste on his way back to Rome when his eye was caught by a pockmarked young hustler on the waterfront, by the name of Francesco Arcangeli. Winckelmann made the classic mistake of boasting to Arcangeli about his exalted friends in Rome, and showing him some valuable medals the empress had given him. They were both in Winckelmann’s room, number 10 in the comfortable Locanda Grande, when Arcangeli turned on Winckelmann, tried to choke him with a cord, and then repeatedly stabbed him.
Few sexual encounters between foreigners and natives in Rome had such drastic outcomes, but it need hardly be emphasized that prostitution was one of the most commonplace and visibly eternal aspects of the Eternal City. For the visitor, its very air was saturated with sex, offered, bought, paid for, and consummated. If you were male and could manage a trip to Rome without getting laid, this could only be because you did not want sex. The frequency with which tourists indulged their tender passions is certainly hard to gauge, since letters home do not always describe it—sex with Italian strangers, socially high or low, was not the first thing you would tell the family about—and diaries were often censored and tampered with by the travelers’ descendants. But the availability of Italian women—not only professionals, but more or less respectable married ones as well—was a well-known fact among English travelers. “If Italy don’t spoil his Chastity and Germany his Sobriety, I flatter myself he will preserve the character he sets out with, as an honest worthy young man,” wrote Sir George Oxenden of his son Henry (1721–1803). Few Grand Tourists could have been unaware of the major punishment of vice, death by venereal disease, or of the painful and usually ineffective treatments eighteenth-century medicine reserved for the pox. Among others, Charles Howard, Viscount Morpeth, succumbed to it in Rome in 1741 in his early twenties, necessitating a by-election in Yorkshire.
The perils of vice had been a well-known feature of Rome since antiquity, when prostitutes were called lupe or she-wolves, perhaps in homage to the original lupa who suckled Romulus and Remus, and brothels—particularly dense in the area of the city known as Suburra—were known as “lupanars.” We owe one of our commonest sex terms to the humble environment in which so many of the street girls traded; they offered sex out of doors, in the arches or fornices of the city; hence “fornication.”
There were myriad steps between this commonplace rutting and the much more costly engagements offered by quality ladies—between the ordinary work of the whores (puttane, from which comes the name of the delicious pasta alla puttanesca, a simple dish using olives, anchovies, and onions, easily prepared while in between clients) and that of the meretrici or, at the top, of the cortigiane, the courtesans, who could expect to be escorted out on ceremonial occasions and receive a place at table—and even enjoyed real social and political power. Such women counted nobles, prelates, and even cardinals among their clientele. The scale of their income was recognized by realistic and heavy taxation, which at times became necessary to the income balance of the Roman state. Some even endowed their own churches. Areas of the city were set aside for them, not only in life, but in death as well; a favored spot for the burial of ordinary whores, in unconsecrated ground, was by the wall known as the Muro Torto, at the ancient entrance to the Villa Borghese. This practice fell into disuse, perhaps because the hookers’ cemetery ran out of space.
An effort was made in September 1870 to systematize the sex trade in Rome by the introduction of casini or “closed houses”—so called because their blinds and shutters were kept closed, by law—in a very limited number of locations. By 1930, there were nineteen of these highly ordered and state-supervised brothels, with strict rules: the client had to be able to show his age (the prescribed minimum being eighteen years, three months, and a day), and could only enjoy the services of the sex workers between 10 a.m. and midnight, never staying the night. Naturally, the actual business done in these places was only a fraction of the whole prostitution industry of Rome, but one had to start somewhere.
Any great society like Rome’s, at almost any time, is bound to have its sex goddesses who are not, in fact, prostitutes: women famed for their beauty and desirability who are known to everyone but are not in the trade at all. Rome, of course, had several, and the most famous of them is commemorated in a statue. Her marble effigy reclines in its own chamber in the Villa Borghese, queening it over all the rest of the women (except Bernini’s) in the building. This is Antonio Canova’s full-length, semi-nude, reclining marble portrait of Maria Paolina Bonaparte (1780–1825), the sister of Napoleon who, renowned for her beauty, had married Prince Camillo Borghese. It is one of the absolutely iconic images of woman in Western art, as justly celebrated in its way as the Mona Lisa, and not without a parallel mystery of expression, which is hinted at in its title, La Venere vincitrice, Victorious Venus. This is a masterpiece at the end of a tradition which runs from the earlier reclining nudes of Titian and Giorgione to Jacques-Louis David’s slightly later portrait of Madame Récamier.
That Antonio Canova was the last of the line of great and generally admired Italian sculptors, the eighteenth-century successor in fame and reputation to Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the seventeenth century, without rivals in his lifetime or successors after his death, can hardly be doubted today. His very presence in Rome, and his art’s relation to Roman prototypes, seemed to confirm that the city had kept an undiminished vitality as a center of the world’s culture. His success as a professional artist was on an almost Berninian scale, even though, unlike Bernini’s, his architectural ambitions were modest and he built nothing in Rome and only one major building outside it—but the work kept pouring from the studio, and the commissions kept pouring in. No Italian artist since Bernini had the relations Canova enjoyed with the great and the good of his day: with the popes he served, depicted, and memorialized (Clement XIII, Clement XIV, Pius VII); with bankers and politicians; with princesses and other powerful women; with every sort of foreigner.
Canova never married and had no children. He may have been homosexual, but there is no real evidence for that: only the famous but rather ambiguous story about Paolina Bonaparte, who, on being asked if she had never felt some frisson of anxiety being naked in the studio with the maestro for so many hours and days, retorted, “With Canova there was never any danger.” More likely, he was one of those artists whose entire libido is subsumed in his creativity, leaving no room for the distraction of sexual expression.
This could not have meant that he was an introvert, or in any way a selfish man. Rather the contrary: he had a large and thoroughly deserved reputation for generosity. A tireless worker in the studio, he also spent large sums of his own earnings giving support to other, less successful Italian artists, including students, and on the commendable project of keeping Italian art in Italy, defending it against the merciless suction of foreign capital. He constantly visited archaeological sites (Naples, Paestum, Pompeii, Pozzuoli), acquired Roman antiquities for the Vatican museums, and did his best to stem the export of works of art. He was helped in this difficult and distracting task by Pius VII’s appointment of him as ispettore generale of antiquities and fine arts for the Papal States, which gave him the power to block foreign sales of significant artwork. In 1815, after the fall of Napoleon, it was Canova who went to Paris to earmark for return the major works of art the French had abducted from Italy and the Papal States during the Napoleonic Wars, an essential part of Italy’s cultural patrimony that included the Apollo Belvedere and the Laocoön.
Canova had never been to Greece, but that did not imply that he was ignorant of classical Greek sculpture. Some was to be seen in Italy, and though little of that was in Venice when he was a young artist, he eagerly drew and imitated the plaster casts of ancient Greek sculptures assembled there in Palazzo Farsetti by Filippo Farsetti, a Venetian collector who wanted to provide his city’s young artists with a sense of quality. His reputation as the authority on ancient sculpture was such that the English government brought him to London to certify the Phidian origins of the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon. Critics who were against their purchase (often out of venomous dislike of Lord Elgin, masquerading as a desire for economy) wanted to dismiss them as vulgar Roman copies from the age of Hadrian, not even Greek, let alone by Phidias. Canova’s opinion as the greatest living sculptor was rightly thought to be decisive: he thought the marbles genuine, “stupendous and unforgettable,” and said that any attempt at restoring them, even to touch them with a chisel or a rasp, would be “sacrilege.”
Among the English milordi in particular, Canova had an immense vogue. Although nobody could mistake one of his carvings for an ancient marble of the kind he sometimes indirectly quoted, English connoisseurs and collectors credited him with the authority of the best Greco-Roman antiquity. The Hanoverian King George IV bought his work, and as prince regent presented him with a diamond-studded snuffbox bearing his royal portrait in miniature. Canova did not take snuff. He was urged to try a pinch, and on opening the box the sculptor found a five-hundred-pound banknote in it. And in the early nineteenth century, a pound was very much a pound.
Canova designed a cenotaph for the Stuarts in Saint Peter’s, which Stendhal, no less, thought was the touchstone of one’s appreciation of sculpture—if it left you cold, you had no feeling for the art. Practically every English or European writer of note was deeply affected, sometimes even shocked, by encountering his work. “The devils!” William Wordsworth exclaimed on catching his first sight of Canova’s entwined lovers, Cupid and Psyche. But the overwhelming feeling it induced was nostalgia—a kind of longing for an imagined Golden Age of antiquity, when emotions, whether of patriotic valor, of piety, or of young love, were pure and unsullied. A partial list of the well-known English writers who found themselves stirred to the marrow by Canova would include Keats, Coleridge, Thomas Moore, the Brownings, and, of course, Byron. “Italy has great names still,” Byron wrote in the preface to Canto IV of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1818), “Canova, Monti, Ugo Foscolo … will secure to the present generation an honourable place … and in some the very highest;— Europe—the world—has but one Canova.” If one added the French, German, Russian, and of course the Italian ones, the list would be even longer and more eminent. Small wonder that collectors all over Europe, from the Devonshires at Chatsworth in England to Russian royalty in Saint Petersburg, competed to possess his work and vied to pay the highest prices for it.
He was tirelessly and exuberantly inventive, creating entire new conventions for such constantly worked-over problems as the design of tombs. As a funerary sculptor and an interpreter of myth in stone, nobody in his time could approach him. He was, for instance, the first artist in modern times to find something fresh in one of the most ancient of all commemorative forms, the Egyptian pyramid, that symbol of grief, permanence, and transcendence. The finest of Canova’s pyramidal tombs (1798–1805) is in the Augustinian Church in Vienna, and contains the ashes of Maria Christina of Austria. In the tombs of the past, figures had been included or integrated with the structure. Canova had the simple but brilliant idea of detaching them so that they move, as it were, from our space into the domain of death; they form a procession of young and old mourners toward the dark doorway which contains the corpse invisibly, and swallows up the visible living. Canova was thinking of the pyramids of Egypt, but even more of the Pyramid of Cestius, which he had seen so often in Rome.
No artist who came later, with the single spectacular (though very different) exception of Auguste Rodin in France, achieved Canova’s measure of fame and influence in his own lifetime. He was, and still is, the only sculptor in all history to have a monument erected to him while he was still alive.
After his death in 1822, all this fell apart. The reaction against him began in England, with John Ruskin, who fulminated that the demand for Canova’s work only went to prove the decadence of the upper classes—cold, overidealized, boring. By the twentieth century, good taste had come to neglect or even to despise him utterly, and the praises heaped on him in earlier times looked like so much fustian, the products of some kind of collective delusion against which modernism, fortunately, had inoculated most of us, leaving only reactionaries to admire his like. Nobody seemed to be speaking up for him, even in his native country, whose unrivaled culture hero he once had been. Its most powerful art critic, Roberto Longhi, let fly at “the funereal blunders of Antonio Canova, the stillborn sculptor whose heart is buried in the church of the Frari, whose hand is in the Accademia and the rest of him buried I know not where.”5 We critics all make mistakes, but this was an extreme one; one may or may not share Canova’s idealism about the body—he was perhaps the last great sculptor to share implicitly Spenser’s belief that “Soule is Forme, and doth the Bodie make”—but there is hardly a “funereal blunder” anywhere in his large and immensely refined output.
If ever an artist appeared at the exact moment when his society most needed him, he was Antonio Canova. He was the last of a line of geniuses who redefined the art from the late fourteenth century, through Andrea Pisano in the late Middle Ages, to Donatello in the Quattrocento, to Michelangelo in the High Renaissance, and Bernini after them. But after Canova there would be no more such figures.
Inevitably, one’s feelings about the singularity of Canova are increased by his isolation within his moment in Italian cultural history; aside from him, that history, at the start of the nineteenth century, was at a low ebb—the lowest it had ever reached, though not as debased as it would be by the start of the twenty-first. Italy’s long-lasting cultural primacy, especially in the plastic arts (painting, sculpture, architecture), was a thing of the past. There were no Italian writers who could be even fleetingly compared to Dante;Alessandro Manzoni, the future author of I promessi sposi, had not yet appeared, nor had the romantic genius of Giuseppe Verdi emerged to vitalize Italian music. The situation of the arts in Italy echoed, broadly speaking, the miseries of politics: almost all authority gone, almost all power in the hands of foreigners, most conspicuously Napoleon.
The heyday of the Grand Tour was well and truly over by 1800. The French Revolution broke out in 1792, and it had immediate repercussions on continental travel, especially for the English. The threat of French naval action against Rome and Naples was taken very seriously. Britain entered the conflict in 1793; no Englishman now could contemplate a journey across France, and although it would perhaps have been possible to plan a trip to Italy by the sea route through the Bay of Biscay and the Straits of Gibraltar, the fear that the French might get complete control of the Mediterranean and thus be able to interdict British shipping going either way was a powerful discouragement to civilian travel to Italy by sea.
The spectacle of the Terror made matters worse. Who, for the sake of culture, was going to risk leaving his head in a basket at the foot of the guillotine? The Grand Tourist’s noble and illustrious contacts on the Continent were being killed or forced to flee. British diplomats were being withdrawn. Banking was in chaos. Access to Italian monasteries, nunneries, and academies closed down. The art market collapsed in the face of massive confiscations; Lord Derry’s large collection of antiquities, for instance, which had imprudently been left in storage in Rome, was simply seized by the French as French loot; portable ones, such as the Laocoön and the Apollo Belvedere, were taken to Paris (whence Canova would retrieve them in due course); immovable ones, like murals, were rendered harder to get to. The French occupied Rome in 1798 and founded the Roman Republic; Pope Pius VI went into exile (in France) in 1799. The entire cultural world of Europe, in short, was in upheaval and shock.
1 The year in which Naples refused to continue to accept its status as a papal fief.
2 Canaglia means, approximately, “scum” or “dirty mob.”
3 Publius Lucius Septimius Geta (b. 189 C.E.) was the younger brother of the Emperor Caracalla. The two hated each other to the point where their palace in Rome had to be physically divided. In 211 C.E., Caracalla had Geta stabbed to death—in his mother’s arms!—and tried to have his memory obliterated by having his portraits defaced and removing his name from all public inscriptions—the damnatio memoriae, Rome’s last and worst insult to the dead.
4 However, the main influence on Dance here was Italian but not Piranesian. Its source was the massive rusticated stonework of Palladio’s Palazzo Thiene in the center of Vicenza, which Dance had seen on his tour and now adopted for his imagery of impenetrability and retribution: the heavy stones deliberately used as emblems of the weight of sin and crime on the crushed human conscience.
5 This refers to the reverent dismemberment of Canova’s body for burial. Most of his body was interred in his own museum-mausoleum in Possagno, his birthplace in northern Italy. However, his heart was placed in the monument to Canova in the Church of the Frari, Venice; and his amputated right hand is in an urn in the Accademia di Belle Arti, Venice.