Exhibition: ‘Italy Observed’ at the Met

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on October 29, 2010

Press release from the Met:

Italy Observed: Views and Souvenirs, 1706-1899
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 12 October 2010 — 2 January 2011

Luca Carlevaris, "The Bacino, Venice, with the Dogana and a Distant View of the Isola di San Giorgio," ca. 1709 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection)

In the 18th century, privileged Europeans embarked on the Grand Tour, traveling principally to sites in Italy, where they visited cherished ruins of the ancient world and the splendid architecture of the Renaissance and Baroque eras. The influx of these travelers to destinations north and south – Venice, Rome, and Naples in particular – led to a flowering of topographical paintings, drawings, and prints by native Italians serving a foreign market eager to return home with pictures and souvenirs.

Italian Fan with view of the Roman Colosseum flanked by grotesques and landscapes, late 18th-century. Paint on parchment (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Italy Observed: Views and Souvenirs, 1706-1899, currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum through January 2, 2011, showcases a selection of the rich holdings of Italian vedute (views) collected by Robert Lehman. From paintings of Venetian life by Luca Carlevaris to a Neapolitan album of gouache drawings documenting the eruption of Vesuvius in 1794 to sketches and watercolors of Italian antiquities, the installation captures the artist’s romantic attraction to Italy and its irresistible Roman heritage. It also includes various marketed souvenirs—exquisite fans, spoons, teapots, and pocket watches—on loan from the Museum’s Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts.

The exhibition is divided into three sections: Venice, Rome, and Naples. The British elite constituted the largest percentage of Grand Tourists, and their fascination with Venice and its surrounding landscapes fueled the vedute market. Artists like Luca Carlevaris, Canaletto, Bernardo Bellotto, and Francesco Guardi produced vedute of the Venetian Grand Canal. In Rome, wealthy aristocrats commissioned artists such as Pompeo Batoni to paint their portraits surrounded by imagery of the Coliseum, Palatine Hill, Saint Peter’s Basilica and other emblematic souvenirs of the Grand Tourist culture. And in Naples, the picturesque Bay of Sorrento, Mount Vesuvius, and Pompeian frescoes inspired a prosperous trade in affordable mementos to foreign visitors in port. The spectacular eruptions of Mount Vesuvius were particularly popular, and found expression on porcelain, fans, and even pocket watches. The installation combines the rich artistic tradition of Canaletto and his contemporaries with marketed souvenirs adapting the same iconic monuments as keepsakes.

In addition to vedute, Italy Observed features fine examples of capricci —landscape or city views presenting real and imaginary classical architecture, essentially vehicles for invention and the picturesque. The Frenchman Hubert Robert and his Roman contemporary Giovanni Paolo Panini were among the principal practitioners, readily borrowing from noteworthy monuments for their own fantastical architecture. On loan from the Museum’s Department of European Paintings is Panini’s great picture Ancient Rome, which depicts the city’s most famous ancient monuments as paintings in a sumptuous gallery.

The fans, watches, spoons, jewelry, and small sculpture in Italy Observed were manufactured for the robust Grand Tourist market in the 18th and 19th centuries. To satisfy some of the growing demand for portable mementos of Italy, craftsmen began to produce in large quantities fans that were especially designed as aide-mémoires. Many of these fans included depictions of well-known sites like the Coliseum, famous Venetian architecture, and an erupting Mount Vesuvius. Tourists could purchase finished fans or, more economically, unmounted painted fan leaves for later mounting on the Continent. Beautiful examples of both are on view in the installation.

While the phenomenon of the Grand Tour declined during the Napoleonic Wars, due to the dangers of travel abroad, Italy continued to produce fine mementos of its splendid monuments right through the 19th century, and indeed to this very day.

Italy Observed: Views and Souvenirs, 1706-1899 is organized by Dita Amory, Acting Associate Curator-in-Charge and Administrator of the Robert Lehman Collection, with assistance from Emma Kronman, Kress Interpretive Fellow.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: