In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Netherlandish artists regularly visited Italy to view works produced during the Italian Renaissance and to learn from practicing artists. Likewise, artists from Italy traveled to the Low Countries to learn about the different artistic techniques employed there under what became known as the Northern Renaissance. Such trips served as opportunities to refine techniques, to develop important contacts with both other artists and potential donors, and to catapult the artist into the upper ranks of artistry and patronage.
After returning home, artists from the north sometimes included images of Roman architecture or the Italian countryside in paintings that involved classical themes. Such images worked to demonstrate the depth of their knowledge and to solidify their connection to an esteemed artistic tradition, while the paintings themselves proclaimed the patron’s own classical education and social standing. Artists continued traveling to Italy into the eighteenth century, but by this time wealthy patrons had also started to make the trip, with art—both old and new—remaining a central focus of their Grand Tour.
Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691-1765)
The Italian artist Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691-1765) made his reputation by producing inventive works that appealed to this ever-growing group of wealthy tourists. Panini grew up in Piacenza and studied with architect and decorative painter Ferdinando Bibiena for three years before moving to Rome in 1711 at the age of twenty. In 1718, he received a commission to decorate the villa of Cardinal Giovanni Patrizi, which helped secure his election to the Academy of St. Luke. At first, like most Italian artists, Panini produced imaginary classical landscapes and mythological scenes for Roman patrons. But he eventually entered an artistic market space that had traditionally been dominated by foreign artists who made a living painting accurate views of Roman ruins and landscapes for tourists. Indeed, England’s Sir Joshua Reynolds, who spent time in Rome improving his skills from 1750 to 1752, purchased an early painting by Panini during his stay.
One of Panini’s first works in this tourist marketplace is Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti, a watercolor that he painted around 1730 and is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The painting accurately depicts the Spanish Steps in Rome and was likely commissioned as a souvenir by a cleric, who appears with his entourage at the foot of the steps. Most of Panini’s early works that he produced for the Grand Tour market, however, fancifully depict assemblies of actual Roman buildings and ruins in a single scene, even though geographically such a grouping would be impossible as they were in different parts of Rome. One of these paintings, Roman Monuments, [https://philamuseum.org/collection/object/57565] probably painted in the 1730s and now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, depicts the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum, the Parthenon, and the Arch of Trajan all implausibly sitting next to one another.
Both of these works employ the concept of vedute, large-scale, detailed paintings of architectural vistas, which during the Grand Tour usually featured identifiable sites in and around Rome, such as the Roman Forum, St. Peter’s Cathedral, and the Colosseum. Despite their depiction of actual sites, such paintings often placed them in imaginary idyllic settings or in a fictional artistic mashup of famous buildings. Vedute, then, came to be split into two related concepts: vedute prese da i luoghi, which were meticulously rendered views of definite places (as in the case of Panini’s Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti) and vedute ideate, where authentic buildings appeared in fictitious views (as in the case of Panini’s Roman Monuments). Over the course of his career, Panini excelled at both.
But the paintings that Panini is most known for—and that inevitably draw museumgoers to them like a magnet—are those that depict numerous paintings of notable Roman sites hanging on the walls of cavernous spaces. To create human drama, Panini shows a small number of collectors and art dealers discuss the depicted paintings as they stand among ancient sculptures that also litter the floor, but their presence is easily dwarfed by the canvases and the expanse of the room. Indeed, their relative insignificance heightens the impact of the works depicted on the walls. The resulting spectacle is as grand as the ancient ruins that appear in the paintings. In these works, Panini sets out a feast of high culture and knowledge that the collector who commissioned the piece has consumed while on his Grand Tour, and the works themselves now proclaim the owner’s social status, connect him to one of the most powerful and enduring civilizations in world history, and remind him of the sites he witnessed during his travels.
Paintings of Paintings
Panini was not the first artist to create paintings of paintings on a grand scale. Flemish artist Willem van Haecht (1593-1637) produced paintings of collections and galleries well over a hundred years before Panini did, although less than a handful of his works survive. Van Haecht curated the art collection of Cornels van der Geest, a wealthy spice merchant from Antwerp, and he used his paintings to celebrate the making and collecting of art. His Appeles Painting Campaspehanging in the Mauritshuis in The Hague is his largest. The painting is fanciful in that the famous paintings depicted in it—including Quinten Massys’s Money-Changer and His Wife (in the lower right corner) and other works by Rubens, Jan Brueghel the Elder, and van Dyck—never hanged together in the same gallery.
Both Panini and van Haecht flatter collectors by showing them consulting with sellers and painters in the lower corners of their paintings, but Panini adds a crucial new element to the function of his works. The paintings depicted on Panini’s walls are not by well-known artists but rather generic scenes of famous sites in Rome and Italy. In essence, Panini uses the conceit of an enormous gallery to solve the problem in his earlier works of impossibly showing famous ruins sitting next to one another when in reality they are spread across Rome. By essentially turning such scenes into art and showing each one on an individual canvas, he can more logically display images of must-see sites on the Grand Tour on a single canvas—in fact, he can include many more such sites now that location ceases to be an issue. Panini brilliantly turns the painting itself into a souvenir of the patron’s trip, so that the painting in essence functions much like today’s booklets of picture postcards sold in souvenir stores.
Ancient Rome and Modern Rome
Panini created several pairs of paintings of paintings that highlight the two historical artistic and architectural periods that drew tourists to Italy: ancient Rome and the Italian Renaissance. The Duc De Choiseul (1719-1785), who served as the French Ambassador for King Louis XV to Rome for three years starting in 1754, commissioned two of these pairs near the end of his tenure in 1757. One of these pairs today appear together in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In Ancient Rome, Panini depicts the Duc de Choiseul standing in the center of the painting holding a guidebook that would lead him to the various sites and works depicted in the painting, while Panini stands behind him looking out at the viewer. The artworks in the gallery all relate to classical times and include depictions of the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and Trajan’s Column, among others. In Modern Rome, the Duc sits in a chair while he watches an artist copy one of the drawings from the fictional collection. Here, the room is filled with works created by Renaissance and Baroque artists, including sculptures by Michelangelo and Bernini and depictions of more modern architecture. This time, Panini inserts himself into his painting by depicting his Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti sitting on the floor at the right hand of the Duc.
Both van Haecht and Panini depict an enormous art gallery to convey the awesomeness of cultural power, but in both cases, the real emphasis is on the collector, despite his diminutive appearance on the canvas. While Panini may have used this setting to solve the problem of creating images of architectural works that are more realistic than pretending that they sit close to one another on Roman streets, both he and van Haecht remain in the world of fantasy. The settings are fictional, both in the sense that the grandiose space in which the paintings appear one on top of another is near impossible to achieve in real life and that the problem of physical proximity remains, because the depicted artworks never sat in the same room together. Still, in one stroke, Panini produces a postcard-like effect of canvases depicted on a single canvas that serves as a souvenir of all the sites visited by the patron, flatters that collector, and still conveys the historical significance of the ruins in an awe-inspiring scene.
Panini developed a clever mechanism for creating souvenirs for travelers on the Grand Tour that both represented many of the sites that they had seen on their trip and had the feel of being realistic. His work, however, was rooted in a more traditional form of patronage that only those with immense wealth could afford, and the paintings themselves reinforce Panini’s relationship with the patron who commissioned the painting by including his own image in them. But as the Grand Tour became more institutionalized and drew in people with fewer resources at their disposal, new forms of artistic souvenirs were developed to appeal to them. After Panini’s death, his two sons, Giovanni and Francesco, followed in their father’s footsteps as architects and painters. They also supplied engravers with his father’s works so that they could be used to create print reproductions. The next post will look at the role of engraving in the production of souvenirs for the Grand Tour through the work of its master, Giovanni Battista Piranesi.
Bellacosa, Juliette and Tatyana Johnson. “Giovanni Paolo Panini: Viewmaker of Ancient and Modern Rome.” Piranesi in Rome. Web exhibit: http://omeka.wellesley.edu/piranesi-rome/exhibits/show/panini.
Gillespie, Richard. “The Rise and Fall of Cork Model Collections in Britain.” Architectural History 60 (2017), pp. 117-146.
Gillies, Linda Boyer. “An Eighteenth-Century Roman View: Panini’s Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 30:4 (Feb.-Mar., 1972), pp. 176-184.
Mardueño, Melina. “The Grand Tour in Italy.” Piranesi in Rome. Web Exhibit: http://omeka.wellesley.edu/piranesi-rome/exhibits/show/grandtouritaly.
Salomon, Xavier F. Catalogue Entry. Ancient Rome by Giovanni Paolo Panini. Metropolitan Museum of Art website: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/437244.
Wunder, Richard Paul. “Panini’s View of Roman Monuments.” Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin 56:258 (Winter, 1961), 54-56.