Real News, Fake News, in the 18th Century
Pomp and Pageantry
“Eyewitness Views: Making History in Eighteenth-Century Europe” at the Getty
by Bondo Wyszpolski
If we didn’t have cell phones, camcorders or cameras, how would we document and later commemorate historic events like the assaults on Pearl Harbor or the twin towers in New York, let alone the allegedly unsurpassed attendance at this year’s presidential inauguration?
Well, we’d have to hire the finest painter we could afford, describe this, that, the other, and then let him or her use their imagination. That’s pretty much what they did in eighteenth-century Italy, which is the subject of an ongoing Getty exhibition as well as the subject of a fine new book by Peter Björn Kerber.
The works on display, some 40 paintings by three generations of artists, are vedute, or view paintings, but with an ephemeral event “captured” for posterity, which might also translate as impressing and deceiving those who weren’t there. These mostly large and busy canvases, often commissioned by heads of state, ambassadors, or church officials, usually fell (to paraphrase Francis Haskell) “halfway between art history and history.” Kerber calls them “reportorial views,” and although they seem to encompass everything but the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd, they were usually worked-up after the event from on-the-spot sketches and then laboriously fleshed-out.
I should point out that the exhibition highlights festive events, from boat races to coronations, and doesn’t include works that commemorate battles or victories in war. That’s another subject or, if you wish, sub-subject (however, disasters such as fires or volcanic eruptions warrants a chapter of its own; see below). Also, if you’re wondering who were the significant artists of the period, they include Canaletto, Bellotto, Panini, and Guardi, an all-star lineup by any standard.
One occasion frequently commemorated was the official entry made by foreign ambassadors to the Serene Republic, the code name for Venice. I’m not sure when or how this became elevated into such a big deal, but either way it could be quite costly. Kerber includes lots of detail about expenses, especially for gondolas, which were gussied up rather fancily. Needless to say, these were a bit more extravagant than the vaporetti that today glide through the canals loaded down with camera-wielding tourists. Back then, regular-use gondolas, like the Ford Model T, had to be black, with no frills.
As for the gilded parade gondolas, they were lavish in every sense, and that included the oarsmen’s gala liveries. Although some vessels were refurbished in order to cut costs, one might wonder if there were gondola dealerships offering used, um, pre-owned gondolas that had been recaulked and repainted.
We might also ask, Why did the newly arriving government officials feel the need to spend so much money?
As Kerber notes, “Foreign ambassadors were the first to recognize the image-making potential offered by the qualitative leap in Venetian and Roman view painting in the early decades of the eighteenth century that turned the viewer into a virtual eyewitness.” In other words, as indicated above, the works were both document and propaganda. Remember, also, that this was during a time when it truly meant something, politically and economically, to be in Venice.
Of course, not just any street artist would do. You wouldn’t ring up Grandma Moses if John Singer Sargent was available, would you?
For a long time, Luca Carlevarijs was the go-to man for paintings of ambassadorial entries, that is, until Canaletto came along. For his crowd scenes, Carlevarijs often resorted to his albums or sketchbooks. Kerber gives us one example, a recurring figure who appears in several canvases, sort of like Waldo, Zelig, or Forrest Gump. In short, there are two words to keep in mind: artistic license. This is especially true if the person commissioning the work had a particular agenda. Or, if you prefer another two words, here they are: early Photoshop. But Kerber also notes that crowd scenes had to have more than just riffraff or bystanders: “The significance of the figures is one of the key characteristics that lifts reportorial view paintings out of the plethora of views produced in the eighteenth century.”
All in all, walking through the galleries, it’s a supreme visual feast of ceremonial commissions and commemorations, but there’s more, such as the frequent festive regatta, or boat races, in which colorful craft traversed and largely doubled back on the Grand Canal that cuts through Venice. There were typically four or five races–single-oared, double-oared, etc.–and in 1740 it was described by Giovanni Battista Albrizzi as “one of the happiest entertainments the public customarily offers to foreign princes.”
Looked at today, the pictures commemorating these events can seem reminiscent of a waterborne Rose Parade, but one sprinkled with all sorts of mythological iconography, along with the symbols or what we might call logos or trademarks of the current ruling families. One is particularly transfixed by the array of outfits, if you can imagine different sporting teams with elaborate uniforms, gold braided epaulettes on the shoulders of pitcher Clayton Kershaw, for example.
The boats, the barges, the gondolas, not to mention the ambassadorial coaches, were often luxury personified. Do any of them still exist, maybe somewhere in grand-mère’s attic? It would have been nice to have seen one installed in the Getty’s main foyer like they did with Bouchardon’s “Barbarini Faun.”
Of course, not everything took place outdoors.
Apart from a regatta or a bull chase (early shades of Pamplona?), and much easier to organize or control, royal visitors were often entertained by concerts in the Ospedali, the girls’ orphanages, although the girls themselves were often heard but not seen (in contrast to children who should be seen but not heard). But at this point there’s a new approach or angle to the painting, in that “the reportorial view transcends the depiction of architecture, ephemeral decoration, and pageantry to become a document of social behavior.”
Nowadays, when we attend an opera, we can’t even unwrap candy without someone shushing us or kicking the back of our seat, but in the opera houses of the eighteenth century refreshments were served during a performance, which naturally leads us to wonder just how much attention was paid to the work being played.
Most of what I’ve touched on so far refers to the pomp and pageantry that took place in Venice, and part of that has to do with the simple fact that Venice was where most of the “”eye-witness” view painters were based. But there were some grand stagings in Florence and Rome as well, and with regard to the latter, and as to why the foreign ambassadors were so keen on recording them, there’s the following: “The two key political statements that those events and their paintings intended to make,” Kerber writes, “were the appropriation of the grandeur of ancient Rome and the claim to a role as defenders of Christendom for their crowns. As the ultimate addressees of these homages were unable to attend them, the representation of an event grew to be more important than its reality.”
Ironically, it may be the vanity of the various men who financed these festivities that is largely responsible for the exquisite paintings we’re admiring today. And, in a sense, when we stand in front of these pictures, we are validating those men and their outsized egos.
Presumably there were occasions in London or Paris or Madrid that would have warranted a first-rate painter to depict them, but since there was a lack of such talented artists at home the solution was to entice a few from Italy, as was being done with opera singers. Eventually the moment arrived, at least in London, to “finally import the Handel of view painters, Canaletto.”
It proved to be a good move, and Canaletto’s “The Thames with the Lord Mayor’s Procession” (c.1748) is a panoramic candybar of a painting. However, the artist’s first English reportorial canvas was of the new Westminster Bridge, the construction of which began in 1739. Actually, quite a few different artists tried their hand at depicting this important civic contribution, some of them even anticipating how the span would appear when completed. As Kerber notes, “the convincing rendition of topography” allows for or induces “a plausible rather than a mimetic version of reality by leveraging, magnifying, manipulating, and occasionally even predicting events and buildings.”
Apart from celebrating events, what else brings people running out of their houses? Disaster, natural and otherwise, that’s what. The final gallery of “Eyewitness Views” is turned over to artists like Hubert Robert, who depicted the burning and then smoldering ruins of the Opera House of the Palais-Royal, and Pierre Jacques Volaire, who set his sights on an erupting Mount Vesuvius. There is also the small but ravishing “The Fire at San Marcuola,” by Francesco Guardi and the compelling “The Demolition of the Ruins of the Kreuzkirche,” by Bernardo Bellotto, painted 14 years after his depiction of the building while it was still intact (it was later rebuilt, destroyed again, and rebuilt once more).
In general, though, going back to the regattas and the ambassadorial entries, by the end of the eighteenth century these kinds of reportorial views had fallen out of favor, at least among those who had formerly commissioned them. There are of course examples elsewhere and scattered throughout the decades that followed, but that’s another story, another show, another catalogue.
The Lure of Italy: Artists’ Views
Curated by Julian Brooks, who heads up the Getty’s Department of Drawings, “The Lure of Italy: Artists’ Views” is, as Brooks himself framed it to us, a show that piggybacks on the much larger “Eyewitness Views.” It’s comprised of selected works from the Getty’s own collection, marched out of storage and assembled into a succinct two-room exhibit in another part of the museum.
There are 25 works on view (55 in the accompanying catalogue), largely souvenir views, many of them not surprisingly depicting scenes of Venice. Although not on display, at least here, Bellotto’s “View of the Grand Canal” is also the subject of an exquisite meditation of sorts written some years back by poet Mark Doty (and published by the Getty).
Pen and ink washes by Francesco Guardi are on view, but not “The Grand Canal in Venice with Palazzo Bembo,” which at the very least is nicely reproduced in the catalogue.
Brooks also includes works by the Zuccaro brothers, the subject of a Getty book and show that he curated in 2007.
However, one work that is in the show, and arguably the most commanding, is “A View of the Bay of Naples, Looking Southward from the Pizzofalcone toward Capo di Posilipo” (1791), by Giovanni Battista Lusieri. Not only is it a panoramic scene nearly nine feet in length, its detail is so astonishing we might even want to refer to it as a precursor to photorealism. Magnifying glasses hang on either side of the work, inviting one to step outside of time and to become lost in this masterpiece.
Much of the work included here centered on or was inspired by the Grand Tour, which was, a couple of centuries ago, an almost obligatory part of one’s cultural and worldly education, especially for the young man (and occasionally, one hopes, young woman) of the aristocratic and moneyed classes. You can read Goethe’s “Italian Journey” to gain some idea of what this was like. A few travelers, like John Talbot, had their portraits painted (his was done by Pompeo Batoni) with picturesque ruins in the background. Other visitors acquired views (vedute) like Canaletto’s “View of the Arch of Constantine with the Colosseum” (1742-45) that they could bring back with them as mementoes of their journey and adventures.
This small show is a bit like that as well, a tiny souvenir that one can savor and bring home, at least as a pleasant lingering memory.
Eyewitness Views: Making History in Eighteenth-Century Europe and The Lure of Italy: Artists’ Views are both on display through July 30 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. Eyewitness Views is a collaborative effort between the Getty, the Minneapolis Institute of Art (on view there from Sept. 10 through Dec. 31) and the Cleveland Museum of Art (Feb. 25 through May 20, 2018). Most of the work in this show will be seen in all three venues, but not all. The catalogue, however, includes everything. Getty hours, Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., plus Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Free, but parking is $15, reduced to $10 after 3 p.m. Call (310) 440-7300 or go to getty.edu. ER