by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Enchantments of Italy: 17th to 20th Century


By Roderick Conway Morris
GENOA 12 May 2001

 

The Elizabethan Thomas Coryat was perhaps the first person in history who set out on foreign travels not only, as the ancient Greek voyager Solon did, "for the sake of seeing" but with the specific aim of writing a book, "Coryat's Crudities," about his adventures along the way.

By the time this father of modern travel literature strode forth from the West Country village of Odcombe (his low-budget, proto-Grand Tour was accomplished almost entirely on foot), Italy was the prime attraction for European would-be wanderers, even those from Protestant lands for whom the pilgrimage to Rome had become a historical and artistic, not a religious, one.

Bafflingly, Coryat and his "Crudities: Hastily gobled up in five Monthes travells ... Newly digested in the hungry aire of Odcombe, and now dispersed to the nourishment of the travelling Members of the Kingdome," which remains one of the most vivid accounts of Italy ever written, does not receive a mention in "The Journey to Italy: An Enchanted Procession From the 16th to the 20th Century," at the Palazzo Ducale. (It continues until July 29.)

And there are other puzzling omissions in this vast, labyrinthine exhibition, which wends its way through the subterranean vaults of the Palazzo Ducale: Rubens and Van Dyck are here, but not Velazquez; Shelley, Byron, Browning and Dickens, but not Keats; Henry James, Sargent and Proust, but not Whistler, and so on.

High on magpie content (there are more than 700 exhibits), but low on explanation and analysis (the catalogue entries on individual items and essays are as mixed a bag in terms of quality as the objects on display), the show nonetheless contains some fine and unusual pieces and is enjoyable as an impressionistic anthology of the Italy that once was -- evoking sunny climes and the allure of long-lost vistas before the motor-car age, and times when the country was a special source of inspiration rather than, as it is to so many visitors today, merely another destination.

Lamartine declared this Italy of old to be "not a country but a mirage," and the men and women who came here over the four centuries spanned by the exhibition did so in search of many different things.

Goethe fled here to escape an excess of success at home and to recharge his mental and physical batteries. He was the ideal tourist -- informed, observant, curious about every aspect of the country, from its street life and art treasures to its botany and geology -- and he departed spiritually enriched with a stock of happy memories to last a lifetime.

Byron was taking refuge from scandal in England and found the place a perfect one for a man of his promiscuous tastes. And, although in retrospect he could be accused of sex tourism, the delight he took in Italian women both high and low seems thoroughly straightforward and redblooded when compared with the reactions of the Marquis de Sade to paintings of them.

Already perversely stimulated in Rome by frescoes and canvases of soulful female saints and martyrs, Sade's ecstasy reached a climax when he was confronted by a Guido Reni of Mary Magdalene, "a sinner so beautiful" that it only served to arouse in him the desire "to entice her into repeating her former errors."

While most Italian artists were still engaged in painting religious and historical images, visiting and resident foreign artists did much to capture the Italian landscape, and without them, as this exhibition serves to emphasize, our record of the country as it once was would be much the poorer.

Certainly, it was in the visual arts that visitors and Italians interacted most fully. Art and artists from the Low Countries were especially influential, and while working all over Italy, they were the first to form a recognizable "colony" in Rome. When Goethe arrived in the 1780s there was a well-established German group, and it was with these painters rather than writers that he spent most of his time. By the 19th century even smaller nations were represented by such communities of artists, and there is a charming canvas, dating from 1836 by Blunck, of the Danish group gathered around a table in one of their favorite taverns.

Many more artists than writers settled in Italy permanently -- partly because Italy had something unique to offer followers of this calling and because images cross borders more readily than words. Thus, despite Byron's best efforts, there must be far more blood of foreign artists than writers flowing in Italian veins today. The 18th-century German painter Mengs alone produced 15 children, having stayed on in Rome and married a model who posed for him for a canvas of the Madonna.

The venue for this show is noteworthy, in that so many prominent artists and writers spent time in Genoa and sang its praises. Yet whereas the other principal cities on the route -- Rome, Florence, Naples and Venice -- are still hardy perennials, Genoa has lost the place it once held as somewhere not to be missed -- a pity, since there is still much of interest and artistic value here.

It is a sign of the times that the show will be temporarily closed to the public from July 17 to 22, while the Group of Eight meeting takes place in the city, and half of Genoa's public buildings seem shrouded in scaffolding and its streets dug up as frantic preparations take place. And given the segregated nature of such events, this flawed but suggestive exhibition may be as close as this group of foreign visitors is likely to get to Italy's aesthetic delights of either yesterday or today.


First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016