by Roderick Conway Morris

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Louvre, Paris
The Oath of Horatio by Jacques-Louis David, 1784

Italy as Neoclassicist inspiration

By Roderick Conway Morris
MILAN 23 March 2002


What came to be called Neoclassicism was from the outset a cosmopolitan affair. Though Rome was its cradle, most of its outstanding exponents were foreign, with the exception of the engraver, designer, architect and writer Piranesi and the sculptor Canova (both of whom were Venetian in origin), and a handful of decorative artist-craftsmen.

Italy's inspirational role in the movement and the particular contribution of some of its native artists is the subject of 'Neoclassicism in Italy: From Tiepolo to Canova,' at the Palazzo Reale (until July 28). The press-ganging of Tiepolo into the show and its subtitle is puzzling, given that he marked the spectacular end of the previous era, an act impossible to follow. Piranesi, who arrived in Rome in 1740, represented the beginning of the new age, and his name would have made a more logical starting point.

Italian artists and architects had continuously drawn on the Roman past from the early Renaissance, but the manner and extent to which the ancient world was mined, exploited and reinterpreted changed radically in the mid-18th century. As the German art critic Wincklemann, Roman by adoption and principal ideologue of the Neoclassical creed, pronounced in 1755: 'There is only one way for the moderns to become great and, perhaps, unequaled: by imitating the Ancients.'

By this time, Italy in general - and Rome in particular - was the prime destination for the Grand Tour, bringing wealthy patrons, collectors and scholars in search of ancient objects, modern copies and derivatives of them. Foreign artists also flocked to the city to study and work. This period coincided with stunning new discoveries at Herculaneum and Pompeii, which were an added attraction and did much to stimulate interest in the details of Roman life, dress, interiors and furniture. And homeward-bound Grand Tourists, members of ad-hoc circles of artists and official institutions, notably the French Academy in Rome, were soon spreading these new tastes and fashions throughout Europe.

Although a certain kind of Neoclassicism, with its measured restraint, emphasis on decorum, cool lines, and studied lack of emotion came to be seen as the antithesis of Romanticism, in its Italian inception it was in many ways an intensely idealistic and romantic movement. Piranesi's celebrated engravings of Roman monuments and views and his fantastical images of the 'Prisons' verged on what in the later Romantic context would have been dubbed 'gothic.' Meanwhile, foreign painters produced unashamedly romantic pictures of the Italian landscape and, when the occasion presented itself, thrilling, apocalyptic records of Vesuvius erupting.

The re-examining of Roman and Greek art also extended to ancient Egypt. The first outbreak of Egyptomania had occurred in the first century B.C. when, following the conquest of Egypt, piles of booty from obelisks to household objects were brought back to Rome (even Cleopatra in person, as Julius Caesar's mistress, contributing to the exotic scenario), and Egyptian imagery became a permanent feature of the ancient Roman visual universe. The endlessly inventive Piranesi, whose understanding of the vast possibilities of the ancient world as a source of inspiration for contemporary design was ahead of his time, was one of the first to revive Egyptian motifs in chimney pieces, furniture and a frescoed room he designed for the English Coffee House in Rome.

The impetus behind Neoclassicism was derived substantially from the ideas of the Enlightenment, which questioned traditional values, religion and, ultimately, the legitimacy of autocratic, supposedly divinely sanctioned, government. Accordingly, the relationship between this radical, new, 'rational' style with the Old Regimes, theocratic and civil, that ruled Italy was bound to be ambivalent.

This is evident in the sections of the show devoted to manifestations of Neoclassicism at the courts of Rome, Naples, Tuscany, Parma, Sardinia and Milan, none of which could be said ever to have embraced Neoclassicism wholeheartedly. The classical motifs are there, but they are purely decorative, a matter of fashion rather than conviction. Indeed, there is virtually nothing here that stands out when set against the best examples of contemporary Neoclassicism in the rest of Europe, and many of the pieces are muddled, mediocre and sometimes downright ugly.

Hardly surprisingly, Neoclassicism had little to offer Italian religious art, since it derived most of its energy from an admiration of the pre-Christian civilizations. When it came to painting, it was the Frenchman Jacques-Louis David - beside whose works those of the Italian Pompeo Batoni (now most famous for his portraits of Grand Tourists) and the German Mengs (favorite of Wincklemann), look decidedly of a lower order - who was to show Neoclassicism's potential to turn the world upside-down.

The artist won the Prix de Rome to study in Italy in 1774, and arrived determined not to be excessively beguiled by the antique. Yet, partly as result of his direct exposure to the mysteries uncovered at Herculaneum and Pompeii, his experience helped generate an art that was revolutionary before the event. (He is represented in this show only by a male nude and a self portrait.)

David returned to Rome in 1784 to paint 'The Oath of the Horatii' which, with its dramatization of republican virtues, self-sacrifice and the nobility of violence in defense of liberty, even today looks like a virtual incitement to revolution. Five years later the storm in France did finally break, sweeping away many who had acclaimed the picture, and David became Dictator of the Arts. The canvas remains the most powerful example of Neoclassicism as revolutionary painting.

Italy did, however, produce the greatest Neoclassical sculptor, Antonio Canova, who is represented here mainly by plaster casts, alas, interesting though these are in terms of their composition. Of the few marbles, two funerary reliefs for the Mellerio family from Palermo are the most striking. As a sculptor, Canova was more exposed to direct comparison with the Ancients than artists in other disciplines, but he triumphed through his avoidance of mere imitation, his mastery of technique, his miraculous delicacy in finishing marble and his ability to translate his extraordinarily refined sensibility into stone.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024