by Roderick Conway Morris

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Pinacoteca Capitolina, Rome
Portrait of Gerolama Santacroce Conti, circa 1760

The Two Careers of Pompeo Batoni


By Roderick Conway Morris
LUCCA, Italy 23 January 2009

 

Pompeo Batoni was born here in 1708 and was to become the most internationally esteemed of Rome's Italian painters for much of the century. Yet subsequently his reputation declined with remarkable rapidity, as Sir Joshua Reynolds prophetically predicted in 1788, the year following Batoni's death.

In the British Isles Batoni was known almost solely as a portraitist of Grand Tour visitors to Rome. In Italy, the rest of Europe and Russia, his renown rested chiefly on his religious, mythological and allegorical works (although he also painted a number of the princes and crowned heads of Europe).

These "two Batonis" have finally been brought together in "Pompeo Batoni, 1708-1787: The Europe of Courts and the Grand Tour," an absorbing exhibition of more than 90 paintings and drawings from collections in Europe, the United States and Russia, to mark the 300th anniversary of the artist's birth. (The show, at the Palazzo Ducale, continues until March 29).

Lucca was the last survivor of the medieval Tuscan republics, the city's massive walls successfully deterring its overbearing neighbor Florence, until Napoleon's armies overthrew it in 1799.

At first sight rather a provincial backwater, Lucca had a reputation both for industriousness and commercial acumen, the adventurous Lucchese journeying far and wide to sell their wares, principally olive oil and textiles. (According to local legend, when Columbus made his first landfall in America, he was greeted on the beach by a Lucchese traveling salesman.)

Batoni, too, was hard-working, deft at dealing with native and foreign clients, and he had sound business instincts. Only the nature of his calling and his almost manic perfectionism undermined his ability to make more money than he did. As he wrote to one of his Lucchese patrons in 1744: "My honor requires me to dispatch no work that is not finished with the greatest attention and diligence, for the reason that one single slipshod work could make me lose all the credit acquired up until now."

The upshot throughout his career was a long list of impatient customers awaiting belated delivery of their pictures. On the other hand, the technical mastery, still vibrant color and lustrous finish of painting after painting in this exhibition leave us in no doubt that his products were of the highest quality.

The young Batoni unwillingly entered his goldsmith father's workshop. But the experience taught him precision in drawing and in the execution of pieces, and brought him to the attention of some of Lucca's republican grandees. At 21, he was chosen to take to Rome a golden chalice commissioned by the republic's "Elders" as a gift for the pope. Half a dozen of the city's leading citizens also agreed to pay Batoni an allowance to remain in Rome to continue his artistic education. When he married there against their wishes, this subsidy was cut off. But by then he had launched himself in the Eternal City and his Lucchese sponsors remained dedicated patrons and promoters.

In Rome Batoni embarked on the usual round of the Vatican and other collections, drawing marbles and antiquities, and attending the life classes of the city's numerous academies and sketching circles. His exceptional flair as a draftsman soon won recognition among connoisseurs, notably the Englishman Sir Richard Topham, who bought more than 50 of his drawings, three beautiful examples of which are on loan here from Eton College in Windsor.

This period also provided Batoni with an invaluable archive of reference material of statuary, sarcophagi, vases and other antique fragments that were to appear in many of his images of English milords and other Grand Tourists.

Promising signs that he might one day become Rome's leading painter of ecclesiastical subjects were commissions for pictures for papal apartments and a portrait of Clement XIII himself. But his "Fall of St. Simon Magus" destined for an altarpiece in St. Peter's, on which Batoni toiled during nearly a decade, was ultimately rejected and ended up in the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli (where it remains).

Other patrons, however, were still eager to possess religious works by him. The exhibition offers a sumptuous succession of these: among them the daring "Ecstasy of St. Catherine of Siena" of 1743, in which two athletic angels expertly field the swooning saint; the brutally dramatic "Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew" (1749) and "St. James Led Away to Martyrdom" (1752); the exquisitely tender, Corregesque "Holy Family" (early 1760s); and the lyrically composed and charmingly domestic "Holy Family with St. Elizabeth and St. John the Baptist" of 1777 (from St. Petersburg), and "The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine with Saints Jerome and Lucy" (1779). The last, painted without a specific commission, includes the namesakes of Batoni's first and second wives, as well as his own - his middle name being Girolamo (Jerome).

Any potential shortfall threatened by the Vatican's failure to exploit more fully Batoni's talents was from the 1740s onwards more than made up for by the unstinting enthusiasm of visitors to have their portraits done by him. For not only did the artist pride himself on "making a striking likeness of everyone he paints" (as one witness recorded), he also devoted lavish attention to their colorful and luxurious apparel, often, in the case of his British sitters, in the Italian style and much more flamboyant than they would have been accustomed to wear at home.

The characteristic selection here includes Batoni's first known Grand Tour portrait, of the eccentric-looking Irish peer Joseph Leeson (1744), and an entertaining lineup of more than a dozen others, among them the celebrated actor David Garrick (1764). The most touching is of Wills Hill, 1st Earl of Hillsborough, pensively gazing at a portrait of his young wife. He had brought her to Italy in 1765 in the hope of improving her poor health, but she died the following year in Naples.

Of about 225 known portraits, 175 were British, only about 30 Italian. The rest of his subjects were Austrians, French, Germans, Poles, Russians, Spanish and one American, Philip Livingston, nephew of the signatory of the Declaration of Independence of the same name.

Since far fewer women made the Grand Tour, it is not altogether surprising that fewer than 25 female travelers from Britain sat for Batoni. But among the revelations of the show are the portraits of well-heeled Italian women.

The two most delightful of these are of the highly intelligent and cultured Giacinta Orsini Boncompagni Ludovisi, Duchess of Arce, that exotic rarity, a legitimate daughter of a Cardinal (her father had been elevated to this position after the premature death of his wife); and a startlingly intimate image of Gerolama Santacroce Conti, seductively loosening the ribbon of her chemise, in an unconventional horizontal format, designed to hang above the door of an anteroom by her bedroom. But her charms did not come cheaply: she had a famous passion for expensive jewelry, hinted at by the pearl necklace she is laying aside on her dressing table with her other hand.

Batoni's name later suffered for being so closely associated with the styles and fashions of the ancien régime that was swept away soon after his death. But this timely reappraisal of the full range of his œuvre recalls not only his immense skills but also a warmth and sympathetic powers of observation that will surely win him new admirers.


First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016