Travel to 18th Century Italy at the Morgan Library

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

When in Rome…

…you stay as long as you can.

It was very common for eighteenth century artists to travel to Italy. As they crossed through the country, these artists were inspired by the splendid grandeur of cities like Rome and Naples. In Rome, the birthplace of Baroque architecture and the setting for millennia-old monuments, the buildings themselves toyed with light and shadows; in Naples, the Mediterranean waters and countryside were easy inspiration for landscape portraits. Now, an exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum of ten small paintings shows what they saw: the manmade domes and arches gradually falling to disrepair in Rome and the bay falling over grass in Naples. This collection, Views of Rome and Naples: Oil Sketches from the Thaw Collection, generates a vision of what it was like to stand in Italy 250 years ago.

The first piece in the Morgan’s collection is by the French artist Pierre Henri de Valenciennes. He lived in Italy for eight years after falling in love with Rome in his first visit as a student. While there, he painted View of Colosseum, Rome. The Colosseum is clearly the subject of the piece, but Valenciennes focuses more on the surrounding nature in his view: the leaves on the bush obscuring the rest of the city, the clouds falling over Rome, the mountains drawing attention even despite their distance. Valenciennes hoped for landscape painting to reach the status of historical painting, and his desire is quite clearly reflected in this piece.

The amphitheater was a subject to another painting in the collection by Jean-Antoine Constantin. The forefather of paintings in Provence chose not to immortalize the exterior of the Colosseum, but rather one of the arcades that keeps the emblematic figure of the Roman Empire standing. Using shadows and detailed edges in An Arcade in the Colosseum, he concentrates on the damage that time has inflicted on the architecture.

Alphonse-Henri Perin, another French artist, painted the Temple of Venus, Rome, another Imperial Roman symbol, while he resided there for nine years. He is also known for painting the murals directly on the Notre-Dame de Lorette church in Paris in 1833. The temple is shown in this portrait as it was in the eighteenth century prior to the reconstructions and restorations added in the following years.

One of the works of Johan Christian Dahl, an incredibly talented Norwegian painter is on display at the Morgan as well. He is the considered the first from his country to reach the acclaim of the other European artists of the age. The founder of the Norwegian painters’ “golden age” created Mausoleum of S. Vito near Pozzuoli. Dahl often added strange details to his paintings like snow falling in summer, and in this piece he illustrates white fog emerging from the tomb in the background, as though something more mystical resides in the mausoleum.  

The Crypta Neapolitana, or the Grotto of Posillipo, Naples, found a home in the Morgan as well. It is a half-mile long tunnel that connects Naples and Posillipo. Gustaf Soderberg from Sweden painted it after visiting the tunnel in Naples that morning in 1820. The site was long forgotten at that time, since it was built a millennium before. Soderberg exposes a fear of the unknown in this piece by overemphasizing the darkness of both the tunnel itself and by casting the surrounding foliage in shadows. 

These snapshots of eighteenth century Italy can be found at the Morgan Library & Museum until March 17, 2018. All should attend, since all roads lead to Rome.


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