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Eighteenth-Century Studies 40.1 (2006) 157-162
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Jon L. Seydl
Throughout his career, the late Stefano Susinno maintained that Rome was the great cosmopolitan city of eighteenth-century Europe. If not a generator of the most pivotal trends of the Enlightenment, nor the place where modern economics effloresced, Rome (which was retrograde in each of these arenas) had an international intellectual and cultural life without parallel in Europe, a quality lost in the nationalist approaches that still dominate scholarship in the humanities. While very little of Susinno's own particular take on settecento Rome remained in the provocative, intelligent, wide-ranging, and often maddening exhibition and catalogue under review, capturing this cosmopolitan, immensely refined intellectual and cultural life was the project's central thesis.
Anna Lo Bianco and Angela Negro originally planned this exhibition for the Palazzo delle Esposizioni. Scaled back in several campaigns, the exhibition emerged with roughly 230 objects in the Palazzo Venezia, now the permanent site for Old Master exhibitions for the Roman Soprintendenza Speciale per il Polo Museale Romano. The organizers cast their project in dialogue with two predecessors: first, the legendary 1959 Il Settecento a Roma, a 2656-object show that blew open the field for a generation of scholars, leading to the pioneering research of Stella Rudolph, Steffi Roettgen, and Anthony Clark. In 2000, a group of international scholars, many associated with Clark, sought to review and stabilize the field with a 435-object exhibition in Philadelphia and Houston, The Splendor of Eighteenth-Century Rome. [End Page 157]
The present exhibition reaffirmed many premises of the Philadelphia/Houston exhibition: The Roman eighteenth century is indeed distinct, marked by the collapse of nepotism and the waning of papal military power at the century's beginning, and ending with the Napoleonic invasion. Settecento Rome defined itself as international artistic center, its cultural importance at odds with its political and economic weakness. This internationalism had long been misread—especially by non-Italian scholars—as a colonialist Grand Tour narrative that absorbed the best-known voices. Like its predecessor, this exhibition strongly argued against such an approach. The organizers chose to arrange it on loose chronological lines and split the century in two major divisions, the hinge being the new, archaeological classicism emerging at mid-century, thus separating earlier Bellorian classicism from the antiquarianism of the 1750s.
The first gallery of portraits announced the thrills, ambitions, and failures of this complex exhibition. While eighteenth-century Rome was an immensely inventive period for portraiture, the curators aimed not to interrogate the genre, but to show a cross-section of Roman society. The polemic selection stressed local figures and especially female patrons, and—in a problematic theme that traversed the entire exhibition—privileged secular over religious voices (no papal portraits, one cardinal), and risked a startling quality range—e.g. Ceccarini's slow-witted, abraded Elisabetta Gabbuccini Passionei beside Rusconi's masterwork Giulia Albani (awkwardly mounted and spotlit so that the face—executed with astonishing, but here invisible, texture and profound interiority—was unreadable).
The second gallery moved from persons to place. An inner ring examined architecture. Elisabeth Kieven's judicious selection covered key monuments and typologies (architectural models and a wide variety of drawings) while constantly revealing the brilliant draughtsmanship and invention of Roman architects, even amid collapsing patronage. The perimeter presented vedute and ideal landscapes. Vedute are eighteenth-century Italy's great contribution to European culture, and the story of the Roman voices in this tradition—long overshadowed by Venetians—needs to be told. However, instead of major works by Panini, Vanvitelli, Vasi, Piranesi, and Nolli (the absence of prints—given the Istituto Nazionale per la Grafica collection—was puzzling), Panini's Picture Galleries carried an exceptional load, articulating the valorization of ancient and modern Rome as well as demonstrating how Rome's urban fabric functioned as a testing ground for international patronage, spectacle...