The Grand Tour: Vedute di Roma at the Smart Museum

Considered an essential component in the education of young English aristocrats, the Grand Tour’s objective was to broaden the mind, to polish one’s command of foreign languages, and to establish valuable personal and diplomatic connections by means of a lengthy stay abroad. The Tour’s standard itinerary included visits to all the major European capitals. The concept developed in earnest in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and peaked in the eighteenth century until travel was disrupted (as it was in other times of lawlessness) by the outbreak of the French Revolution. When tourism resumed in popularity to some degree in the early nineteenth century, the new efficiency of railroads meant the lapse of the Tour in its traditional form. However the legacy of its golden era is lasting. During that time Rome was the marquee destination of the Grand Tour, and it is now the focus of a new exhibit at the Smart Museum, “Sites to Behold: Travels in Eighteenth-Century Rome.”

With its myriad styles of architecture, the city was attractive to artists who were inspired both by the ruins of classical antiquity and by baroque culture. Rome also presented them with a lucrative commercial opportunity via the influx of wealthy, souvenir-seeking tourists.
Mementos from the Tour held prestige back home, and those who could not afford to cart off ancient statues contented themselves with prints and paintings of city views, or vedute. One of the most prominent practitioners of vedutismo active in Rome at this time was Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Trained as an architect, Piranesi studied etching under Giuseppe Vasi (whose work is also on display in this exhibit). He gained widespread acclaim for his prints of both the ancient and modern buildings and monuments of Rome. In one such print on view at the Smart Museum, an etching of the “Temple of the Sibyl, Tivoli” (1761), Piranesi’s background in masonry is clearly visible in his painstakingly detailed rendering of the columns and stonework of the building. His temple is depicted in an almost theatrical manner, with gnarled trees clinging to the ruins and wispy, miniscule figures looking up in awe, accentuating the buildings’ grandeur. In contrast, another painting by Jean-Baptiste Lallemand (“View of Tivoli: The Temple of the Sibyl”) features the same temple but in a remarkably different manner. Lallemand renders the scene with a much greater emphasis on its pastoral aspects, with the temple occupying a much smaller area of the painting in the background. In this way the exhibit highlights the fact that although these artists were working with the same subject matter, at roughly the same time, the work they produced was tremendously diverse and reflected a variety of aesthetic preferences.

Also on display at “Sites to Behold” are several works by the English print sellers Charles Knapton and Arthur Pond. Their series of “Prints in Imitation of Drawings” replicated the Old Masters, and they contributed greatly to the formation of English artistic tastes during this period. Because these prints made particular works of art more widely known, they served to substantially elevate the status of the original paintings and their subject matter. The prints by Pond and Knapton were also desirable because they were original works in themselves. It was not until the nineteenth century that reproductive engravings lost esteem as an art form.

“Sites to Behold” is interesting in that it addresses a variety of cultural aspects of eighteenth century Rome. It showcases the assortment of artistic styles and aesthetics that thrived in that unique setting. Many of the artists featured in this exhibit were extremely influential and would be an inspiration to later movements, including Neoclassicism and Romanticism. Additionally, their work served to cement Rome’s significance as a serious artistic and cultural center.
Smart Museum of Art, 5550 S. Greenwood Ave. Through January 17. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, 10am-4pm; Thursday 10am-8pm; Saturday-Sunday, 11am-5pm. (773)702-0200. smartmuseum.uchicago.edu