by Roderick Conway Morris

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Nationalhistoriske Museum, Hillerod
Danish artists at the Osteria 'La Gensola' in Rome by Detlef Conrad Blunck, c.1836

The Majesty of Rome

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 29 March 2003


Having become the artistic epicenter of Europe in the 16th century, Rome reinforced this position as the powerhouse of the baroque in the 17th century, and maintained its primacy in the 18th, when the city became the principal destination of the Grand Tour.

By the beginning of the 19th century, Rome's artistic community had become the most cosmopolitan anywhere. A glance at the list of contributors to an exhibition on the Capitoline Hill in November 1809 of some 100 pieces by resident artists, includes painters and sculptors from Austria, Denmark (the great Bertel Thorvaldsen, in reputation second only to the Italian Antonio Canova, also present), Finland, France, Germany, the Low Countries, Russia, Spain and Sweden. By 1858, a Roman 'artistical directory,' which was aimed mainly at foreign art buyers and which did not include the obvious national institutions such as the French Academy at Villa Medici, catalogued 200 studios, in which were working artists of all the nations already mentioned and, in addition, others from America, Britain, Malta, Poland and Switzerland.

Such was the sheer number and variety of these artists, that it is no easy matter to provide an all-embracing account of them. However, a brave attempt to do so is represented by a trio of exhibitions, whose content is for the most part of great interest, even if the presentation is not always easy to follow. The three shows, under the joint title of 'The Majesty of Rome: From Napoleon to the Unification of Italy' (which culminated in 1870 when Rome was declared the capital), are: 'Universal and Eternal,' at the Scuderie del Quirinale; 'Capital of the Arts,' at the National Museum of Modern Art, and 'From Ingres to Degas: French Painters in Rome,' at Villa Medici.

Neoclassicism, which had originated in the already markedly international milieu of the Rome of the mid-18th century, was the most fashionable of styles by the turn of the century, and was given a further boost by Napoleon's adoption of it on a grand scale for his new quasi-Roman European Empire.

Yet, 1810 - when Rome was declared the second capital of the Empire, with the clear implication that it should be the city of the arts par excellence - was also the year that the founders of the German Nazarene movement, dedicated to returning religious painting to its pristine spirituality and tranquil beauty by relearning the lessons of Duerer, Perugino and the early Raphael, settled in Rome to begin their influential artistic mission.

One of the virtues of bringing together such a substantial quantity of the work that was created in Rome during this period, but has subsequently been scattered all over the world, is that it reveals how many artists, who taken in isolation seem to belong primarily to the 'classical' or 'Christian' schools, in fact drew successfully from both these traditions, something they would not have been able to do but for the experience of living from day to day with Roman art in its multi-layered entirety.

Ingres was perhaps the supreme example of this synthesis, but it can be witnessed to some degree or other in many of the artists represented here. The French artist spent two spells in Rome: the first, 1806-1820, having won the Prix de Rome, as a pensionnaire at the French Academy, supported by the state, and then as a free-lance painter; the second, 1835-1841, as the director at Villa Medici.

Of all the nationalities, the French students of the academy consistently enjoyed the most favorable conditions. The French Academy in Rome had been founded in 1666 by Louis XIV, with the principal aim of having the artists there copy classical pieces to be sent back to France. The institution later became primarily educational, and moved into its present splendid premises at Villa Medici 200 years ago this year.

The existence of this prestigious and well-financed establishment encouraged other countries to support their artists in Rome, if seldom on so lavish a scale. But even the prince of a small German state, the Grand Duke of Oldenburg, paid for a single painter, Ernst Willers, to live for many years in Rome, regularly dispatching works to Germany. (Willers's charming, recently rediscovered landscapes are on show at the Casa di Goethe on the Corso - where he stayed when in the city - until May 4.)

In the first decades of the century, classical models in sculpture and historical themes in painting were the most revered of post-Enlightenment forms. But the confluence of so many young artists in a single place - 'all are equal, and only he who can really do something is esteemed,' wrote the German artist Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld - and often the sheer necessity to make a living also encouraged the practice of lowlier genres that would gain increasing respect. As Jacques-Louis David, himself winner of the Prix de Rome, onetime revolutionary Dictator of the Arts, doyen of classical painters and teacher of Ingres, observed: 'Far better to do good genre pieces than mediocre history paintings.'

The availability of comely local models of both sexes and the exotic light and atmosphere of Rome helped make the nude an end in itself, rather than a mere element in historical and mythological painting, and lent this type of study a more blatant eroticism: muscular young men and hairless, androgynous, boys competing with black-eyed, raven-haired femmes fatales; blonde, fair-skinned Circassians of the kind that Ingres liked to depict languishing in harems or chained to rocks.

In this context it becomes less surprising that three of Ingres's most sexual 'Oriental' paintings - 'The Bather of Valpincon,' 'The Grand Odalisque' and 'Odalisque With Slave' - were executed not on the shores of the Bosporus but on the Pincian Hill in Rome.

Ingres sometimes seems to have spent almost as much time complaining about the demeaning task of doing portraits as painting them, but after the end of his scholarship, he was obliged to keep himself and wife from penury by taking to portraiture almost full-time -- for which we may be grateful, even if he took this to be a form of slavery more dreadful than that suffered by his odalisques.

One of his most attractive portraits here is of his friend Francois-Marius Granet, against a stormy Roman backdrop that was almost certainly painted by Granet himself. Portraiture, often delightfully informal, thrived among Rome's artists, who often painted one another, leaving an invaluable record of their likenesses and lifestyles. Granet was a landscape painter and the picturesqueness of the semi-rustic city landscape and surrounding plains and mountains did a great deal to stimulate the study of landscape in Rome, which had longer-term effects.

The novelist-painter-politician Massimo d'Azeglio, who died in 1866, warned that if Rome were to be made the capital of the soon-to-be-reunified peninsula, the city, which until then had been the capital of the world, would merely be the capital of Italy.

After Rome became Italy's political capital in 1870, it undoubtedly lost its supremacy as the artistic capital of Europe. But this was more the consequence of the decline of classical and religious art, the increasing demand by the ever more properous middle classes for landscape, portraiture and images of contemporary life, and the inexorable rise of Paris as the new capital of the arts.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023