The Morgan Library Presents "City of the Soul: Rome and the Romantics"

city-of-soul-turner.jpgNew York, NY— During the one hundred year period from 1770 to 1870, often called the Romantic Era, hosts of artists traveled to Rome and witnessed the most dramatic transformation of the Eternal City since ancient times—from papal state to the capital of a unified, modern nation. Painters such as Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and J. M. W. Turner, writers such as John Keats and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and a coterie of early photographers were among those who documented the city’s historical sights and monuments amidst what amounted to a massive project of urban renewal. 

City of the Soul: Rome and the Romantics, a new exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum opening June 17, explores the broad sweep of artistic responses to this extraordinary period in Rome’s history. Featuring a variety of media—including drawings, prints, books, manuscripts, letters and photographs—the show demonstrates the continuing hold magnificent ruins and scenic vistas had on artists, even as the need for new government buildings and improved transportation would alter some of these sights forever. At the same time, the exhibition looks at work by individuals who found the changing contemporary scene alluring and who captured the evocative interaction between daily street life and the layers of Roman history forever in the backdrop.

“Today, we are fascinated by how rapidly cities change and how neighborhoods go through a cycle of development and destruction, which seems to occur almost overnight,” said Colin B. Bailey, director of the Morgan Library & Museum. “City of the Soul brings us to such a moment in one of the world’s greatest cities, Rome, seen from the vantage point of artists, writers, and photographers. The Morgan’s diverse collections of art and literature, supplemented with select loans from public and private sources, allow us to tell this story in a particularly engaging manner.” 

THE EXHIBITION

I. The Greatest Theater in the World

In the nineteenth century, Italian nationalist and founding father Giuseppe Garibaldi characterized the view of Rome from the Janiculum Hill as “the greatest theater in the world.” Garibalidi’s metaphor embraces the full sweep of history, the rich interplay of past and present, and it was this urban palimpsest that so attracted Romantic-era artists and writers. Many were drawn to the city’s ruins and eternal qualities, while others sought out the current social and cultural milieu.

Turner’s Interior of St. Peter’s Basilica employs transparent washes to capture the atmospheric effects of the grand structure. The flood of light descending from Michelangelo’s dome seems almost palpable as it casts into relief the spiral columns of Bernini’s baldachin in the distant crossing. Turner understood that the titanic architecture of St. Peter’s is not so much an exercise in the deployment of mass and surface as it is about the molding of space, which flows freely through the nave, aisles, and crossing. The artist introduces diminutive human figures to establish the colossal scale of the basilica, which was often criticized in the nineteenth century.

Over the course of the eighteenth century, the Piazza di Spagna became the hub around which hotels, lodging houses, and shops catering to tour ists and foreign residents were situated. Robert Turnbull Macpherson’s ca. 1856 photograph The Spanish Steps shows this center of activity. In 1820 John Keats spent the last three months of his life in a house overlooking the steps—partially visible on the right. The piazza was also the center of the artists’ quarter. The Caffè Greco, where Macpherson regularly met with other photographers and artists, is nearby. The concentration of foreigners and artists around the Spanish Steps also attracted a picturesque population of beggars and models.

II. Speaking Ruins

Romantics approached Rome’s history and monuments more emotionally and less analytically than their Renaissance and Enlightenment predecessors. The association of ruins entailed much more than crumbling masonry and marble fragments. In the mid-eighteenth century, fresh from a trip to Rome, Giovanni Battista Piranesi remarked, “Speaking ruins have filled my spirit with images.” Lord Byron, after a visit to the Colosseum, would evoke living nature amidst the decrepit structure. “Dead walls rear/their ivy mantels,” he wrote.

Painting in oil, Corot shared certain concerns with early photographers, including the manipulation of contrast. The Arch of Constantine and the Forum (1843) represents a remarkable fusion of solid structure and intangible, atmospheric space. The arch anchors the left side of the composition. The oblique view casts into bold relief its projecting elements, especially the columns and attic statues. Balancing the arch on the right side are the massive ruins of the Temple of Venus and Rome.

III. Rus in Urbe: Villas,Gardens, and Fountains 

The ancient Roman poet Martial coined the phrase rus in urbe to characterize urban estates offering the pleasures of the “countryside within the city.” Prior to 1870, Rome’s garland of villas blurred the distinction between the city proper and the landscape of the Campagna beyond, and much of the city was given over to formal gardens and vineyards. Cattle even grazed on the site of the Forum.

The gardens of the Villa Borghese, situated just outside the Aurelian Walls, were a favorite subject for landscape painters of the nineteenth century. Gustav Wilhelm Palm’s Entrance to the Giardino del Lago, Villa Borghese, Rome (1844) depicts one of the allées defined by ilex trees, laid out in the 1780s by Prince Marcantonio Borghese. Statues from the family’s extensive collection of ancient sculpture define the entra nce to a portion of the garden known as the Giardino del Lago.

Alfred-Nicolas Normand’s Statue of the Goddess Roma (1851) is a photograph of a colossal sculpture in the gardens of the Villa Medici, the gift of a pope to a cardinal in the Medici family. In Normand’s day, it was situated on the central axis of the garden so its silhouette could be viewed against the sky. The soft focus and grainy quality of Normand’s prints produce remarkably atmospheric and painterly effects.

IV. Magick Land

In the nineteenth century, the rolling hills of the Campagna studded with ruins were mostly deserted. The landscape painter Thomas Jones poetically characterized this picturesque combination of nature and classical architecture as “magick land.” The views offered countless prospects for artists.

Louis-François Cassas traveled extensively throughout the Mediterranean basin, producing drawings and watercolors that provided the basis for richly illustrated publications. He created a unique blend of archaeological site description with local color and dramatic reconstructions of ancient sites, such as Landscape with Arch of Drusus (1778). Depicting an arch on the Appian Way, Cassas in true Romantic spirit took liberties with his composition providing the structure with an expansive surrounding landscape which does not exist in reality.

V. Written from Rome

The Romantic image of Rome was as much the product of writers as of visual artists. The literary genre of the romance allowed novelists and poets to intertwine the real and the magical, the present and imagined past, as in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1860 Rome-based The Marble Faun, the last of his four major works.

The same might be said of travel diaries and letters, which mix description with impression. In a diary kept by Lord Byron, the great poet writes, “My first impressions are always strong and confused, and my memory selects and reduces them to order, like distance in the landscape, and blends them better, although they may be less distinct.” A letter by British novelist Wilkie Collins written on hotel stationery in January 1864 provides a highly personal evocation of Rome at the time. He describes seeing Pope Pius IX while taking snuff and characterizes the basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere as “a mysterious, awful and ancient place.”

VI. From Drawing and Etching to Photography

Upon their departure, many visitors wished to take back with them portable distillations of the Eternal City. Over time, engraving, etching, lithography, and, finally, photography - all of which were capable of producing multiple images - met this demand. 

Piranesi, arguably the most inspired interpreter of Rome in any age, cast a long shadow that extended temporally well beyond his death in 1778. His iconic etching View of the Ponte Sant’Angelo and Castel Sant’Angelo (1750-51) presents a vista looking down the Tiber past the Castel Sant’Angelo and its bridge to the dome of St. Peter’s. While Piranesi’s work was often sold as loose sheets, tourists and collectors frequently had them bound in sumptuous folio volumes to take with them as they returned home.

The immediacy of plein-air painting, in the form of watercolors and oil sketches, influenced early photographers, many of whom came to the fledgling medium from training in the fine arts. By 1870, photography had displaced prints and paintings as popular souvenirs of Rome, at precisely the time when other new technologies - the railroad and steamship - were making it possible for increasing numbers of tourists to visit the city. Gioacchino Altobelli shrewdly composed his ca. 1868 photograph of the Castel Sant’Angelo mindful of Piranesi. The picture brings the viewer close to the fisherman in the foreground, a “local color” element that would have been appreciated by the photographer’s customers—affluent tourists who were then flocking to Rome with their Baedekers.

Image: Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851). Interior of St. Peter’s Basilica. Watercolor, over traces of pencil, on board. The Morgan Library & Museum, Thaw Collection. Photography by Steven H. Crossot. Right: Robert Turnbull Macpherson (1814-1872). 

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