Curator Dita Amory captures the Grand Tour of Italy via the Met’s rich holdings, including paintings of Venetian life, a Neapolitan drawings album documenting the 1794 eruption of Vesuvius, and marketed souvenirs such as teapots, spoons, fans, and pocket watches.
Dita Amory: Hello. I am Dita Amory, acting associate curator in charge of The Robert Lehman Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I am also the curator of the current exhibition Italy Observed: Views and Souvenirs, 1706–1899.
Beginning in the seventeenth century and accelerating into the eighteenth century until the early years of the Napoleonic Wars, a phenomenon of tourism developed in Italy, whereby sons of aristocratic families in Great Britain and from countries in continental Europe traveled to Italy to further and finish off their education. These were already highly educated individuals—male individuals—who went on what was later called the Grand Tour of Italy to examine the relics of the Holy Roman Empire, the great monuments of Roman history, as well as to take a look at the newer Baroque architecture of Saint Peter’s and many ecclesiastical monuments throughout Rome. And it was a chance for these travelers to actually read Caesar in the context of the Eternal City, to read the great classical writers in an environment from which they came.
The traveler typically carried with him quite an entourage. It was a very expensive undertaking. They traveled slowly to the major cities of Italy. This exhibition actually offers a glimpse of what one might have seen, what one might have acquired in Rome, Venice, and Naples.
It was in Venice in the early years of the eighteenth century that Luca Carlevaris—and soon after Luca Carlevaris, Antonio Canaletto—established what was known as the vedute tradition. Vedute means “views,” and they became the preeminent view painters of Italy. There was such a market for view painting established by British tourists who came as Grand Tourists, that Canaletto flourished in his early years painting ambitious, large-scale canvases of views of the Grand Canal. For those who couldn’t afford large-scale canvases, he also drew for prints. Prints were sold and disseminated throughout the tourist markets of Venice, so that his work was widely known abroad in continental Europe and even in Great Britain. Incidentally, when Canaletto’s patronage seemed to slip a bit in the 1740s, he traveled to England, where he had such robust, continuing patronage and drew and painted for some of the great country seats. Canaletto was as much a Venetian as he was an adopted Italian in England.
So the vedute tradition was very rich in Venice and the exhibition gives you many wonderful examples of Venetian topography—not only marvelous views looking down the Grand Canal, but also views along the Brenta Canal outside of Venice. One has, as a result of this exhibition, a marvelous understanding of the architecture of Venice in the eighteenth century. To this day, many of those monuments are still in place. So it’s an armchair traveler’s delight to look upon the walls of the Venetian section of the exhibition and to see not only life in Venice but the architecture of La Serenissima, wonderful views.
As I mentioned, there are prints, drawings, and paintings in the exhibition—drawings and prints that would have been just as much in demand as the paintings, perhaps even more so, given the breadth of travelers, some of whom were not quite as prosperous as others.
There are two other sections of the exhibition: Rome and Naples. And of course Rome is where it all began. Typically a Grand Tourist would arrive in Rome and with enough resources, they might have asked an artist like Pompeo Batoni to paint their portrait, to paint a portrait surrounded by the Coliseum, Trajan’s Column, the Pantheon. All of those monuments that we see today in Rome, tourists of the twenty-first century can take the very same tour. There were sculptors in Rome who would also produce small-scale statuettes of ancient statuary, statuary that was recently discovered in the early decades of the eighteenth century and then transferred to the Capitoline Museum, where they are today. The Capitoline is a rich repository of antiquities and ancient statuary.
And, indeed, there were, in addition to statuettes, impressions of intaglios based on neoclassical sculptors like Canova and Thorvaldsen. There was another wonderful souvenir tradition, and that is in fans. In this exhibition there are two lovely fans in the Roman section, and in Naples, a selection of fans, all of which are borrowed from the Metropolitan Museum’s Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts. The fans celebrate not so much built monuments as natural monuments, and in the case of Naples, of course, that being Vesuvius.
Well, Pompeii and Herculaneum were only discovered in the early years of the eighteenth century and excavated in the thirties and forties, and so Pompeii and Herculaneum were absolute destinations for any tourist. Naples was a rich site for visitors who typically might have come on land, but of course it was a great port, so many arrived by sea as well. One should recognize, looking at the works of art on the walls, that this robust tradition of marketing souvenirs predates the age of photography. So works of art were original works of art that were collected as visual souvenirs of a memorable trip. Once photography was invented, the market for these souvenirs was somewhat less urgent.
The British could not get enough of all things Venetian, and it is so clearly obvious when one examines this tradition in Venice that the British sustained the Venetian economy, an economy that had slipped somewhat in its historical context, and it was really thanks to these wealthy and voracious spenders that an artistic tradition developed, both among the artists of the highest order like Luca Carlevaris and Antonio Canaletto, and of course in a lesser, more mass-produced manner, in prints after those great masters. Books of engravings would have been sold as well. There was a tremendous thirst to return to the continent and to Great Britain with marvelous visual souvenirs of this once-in-a-lifetime experience. And it engendered many industries, it sustained many industries, not only the careers of many artists but porcelain factories developed in Rome and in Naples. The porcelain actually represents the very same views as you might see on the walls of the exhibition or in fans in the exhibition. For instance, a common iconic image in the Roman section of the exhibition is, of course, the Coliseum, and you have examples of the Coliseum in fans, engraved onto gold pocket watches, and, of course, throughout the exhibition in drawings.
In the area of Naples, the mystery and mystique of Mount Vesuvius is ever present on porcelain, on fans, and in every visual representation of Neapolitan topography. There’s a marvelous sketchbook where the artist has produced four gouaches per page spread of imagery—delicate, jewel-like imagery—of the Neapolitan area. And, of course, Vesuvius appears in every light of day, in every nocturnal setting, and it’s just the most marvelous souvenir that clearly achieved its market as a result of the wish of a collector to collect multiple views, prior to the arrival of photography, when, of course, photography would have superseded the wish to buy such treasured mementos.
The watercolors, drawings, and paintings in the exhibition were chosen from The Robert Lehman Collection. Robert Lehman, the collector, gave this material to the Museum as a bequest. In addition to the works of art on the walls, the exhibition samples the various souvenirs that a Grand Tourist might have collected in the eighteenth century: spoons, watches, fans, statuettes, intaglio impressions in gesso. These works of art would have been collected in the eighteenth century just the way today, if you visit the kiosk outside the Coliseum in Rome, you could find the very same spoons, perhaps not as meticulously painted, but the spoons today would serve the very same function as they might have two centuries ago. And the function of those spoons was as vital in the eighteenth century as it is today. They were trinkets that one would take home as mementos of one’s visit to the Eternal City.
Italy Observed is on view from October 12, 2010, to January 2, 2011, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.