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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.2 (2001) 275-280

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Exhibition Review

The Splendor of Eighteenth-Century Rome

The Splendor of Eighteenth-Century Rome, Philadelphia Museum of Art (16 March-28 May 2000); The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (25 June-17 September 2000). Catalogue: Art in Rome in the Eighteenth Century, eds. Edgar Peters Bowron and Joseph J. Rishel (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, and London: Merrell Publishers Ltd., 2000). Pp. 628. Color and black-and-white illustr.

The Splendor of Eighteenth-Century Rome was a splendid blockbuster of an exhibition on a subject that may not seem to be traditional blockbuster fare: many, if not most, of the artists' names, for example, were unfamiliar to American audiences. The magnitude of the show was appropriate, however, for the city of Rome--the "Academy of Europe" and the "universal Mother of the Arts"--was itself an artistic blockbuster in the eighteenth century. Judging by the crowds in attendance in Philadelphia, the exhibition proved a popular success. Part of the show's appeal, no doubt, was that it attracted the same audience that Rome itself has since at least the Renaissance, and never more so than in the eighteenth century: artists, art lovers, scholars, tourists, and pilgrims, or in short, just about everyone.

What made--and still makes--Rome unique are its interrelated historical identities as a center of Western power and as an artistic and cultural capital, both ancient and modern, pagan and Christian, and from the early modern period on many have gone to the city in search of one or more of these Romes, perennially on display, like a kind of giant museum without walls. Both the incomparably built and natural environment of Rome in the eighteenth century and many of its individual artistic treasures were represented in the exhibition in a thematically organized display that evoked the various identities and spaces of the city during the period, as well as its artistic and cultural roles. The 435 works of art (370 in Houston)--a veritable catalogue of greatest hits--were well laid out and lit through the course of fifteen rooms and eleven thematic divisions. The exhibition included virtually all famous and many lesser-known artists (over 160) who had worked in eighteenth-century Rome, even if Benjamin West was surprisingly [End Page 275] omitted in his native Philadelphia area. As one would expect, the show was dominated by transportable paintings and works on paper, but it was delightful to also find sculpture, the decorative arts, and even architecture and urbanism so well represented.

The visitor to the exhibition began his vicarious tour of eighteenth-century Rome with some of Giovanni Paolo Panini's large and impressive paintings of the city's signature sites: the Pantheon, St. Peter's and its grand piazza, as well as other vedute or views of ancient ruins and "modern" spaces, and a spectacular silver inkstand and gilt leather cover in the form of the Quirinal monument. The famous villas in and near Rome were well represented, too. Hubert Robert's drawing of the Villa Madama, with Washerwomen and painting of a Garden of an Italian Villa were especially memorable, contrasting in their evocative and picturesque qualities with many vedute: for example, Claude-Joseph Vernet's picturesque views of well manicured villas at the close of the show (it might have been nice to pair these with Robert's works). This section of the exhibition also included Giambattista Nolli's gigantic Plan of Rome, a perfect lead-in to the "Making of Modern Rome" in the next room, which focused, through drawings and prints, on some of the great architectural projects of the century, still defining monuments for the visitor: the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Villa Albani, and the facades of S. Giovanni Laterano and S. Maria Maggiore. The highlight of this section, however, was a fully adorned three-dimensional model by the architect Nicola Michetti for the Pallavicini Rospigliosi chapel in S. Francesco a Ripa.

Having richly evoked the environment of eighteenth-century Rome, the exhibition moved to examine the decorations of its spaces...


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