by Roderick Conway Morris

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Private collection
View of Rome by Michael Wolgemut from the Liber Chronicarum, 1493

Rome Viewed: Panoramic Drawings and Prints of the City

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 30 December 2000


While landscape painting, once established as a genre, came to be considered one of the higher forms of art, view painting of towns and cities remained a decidedly inferior activity.

To do his job well, a view painter had to spend a great deal of time and effort on documenting bare visual facts, a pursuit that smacked of the dogged and the mechanical. So, of all the genres threatened by the invention of photography, one might have thought that the city view would have been the most ripe for replacement by the new technology. For if, as Paul Delaroche prematurely predicted on the advent of photography, 'From today painting is dead,' surely view painting should have been doubly so.

The practical and aesthetic, not to mention commercial, reasons why the lens failed to supplant the artist's eye is nicely demonstrated by 'Rome Viewed: Panoramic Drawings and Prints of the City From the 15th to the 19th Century,' which contains much of general interest and relates an extraordinary tale of how a 19th-century painting came to be hailed as a classic of early photographic art.

The show inaugurates the new special exhibition spaces of the National Graphical Institute at their home in the restored Palazzo Poli (the southern façade of which includes the Trevi Fountain, affording visitors a novel view from above of this extravagant confection), and continues until Jan. 28.

Considering Rome's historical and religious importance, competent overall views of the place appeared surprisingly late. There is no known equivalent here of Jacopo de' Barbari's astonishing bird's-eye view of Venice of 1500 - that masterful blend of accuracy and illusion.

The explanation is, no doubt, partly due to the challenges posed by Rome's complicated, hilly topography and more extensive spread. But it is also, perhaps, because the greatest demand was originally for schematic, illustrated 'maps' showing the key shrines for the use of pilgrims, such as Stefano Duperac's 'The Seven Churches of Rome' of 1575.

Nonetheless, toward the end of the 16th century more sophisticated overviews began to appear, which also gave more equal emphasis to ancient and Christian monuments.

From the beginning, foreigners played a major role in Roman view painting, and over half of the 90 well-chosen examples here are by artists and engravers from the Low Countries, France, Germany and England. Curiously, even when views became a thriving business in the 17th and 18th centuries, hardly a single native-born Roman rose to prominence, leaving the field open to immigrants such as Piranesi, who came from Venice.

A flurry of wide-angled views of Rome was stimulated by the Roman Revolution of 1848-49 and Garibaldi's desperate defense of the city against the onslaught of the French artillery, cavalry and infantry dispatched to strangle the nascent Roman Republic at birth and restore the papal status quo. Two particularly striking works recording these stirring events displayed here are a beautifully composed and executed engraving by Karl Christian Andreae, and a sweeping canvas by Theodore Jung and Gaspard Gobaut (which was first shown at the Salon in Paris in 1852).

But easily the most grandly conceived record of the 'Siege of Rome' was a painting 120 meters long and 14 meters high (395 feet by 45 feet). It was created in the 1880s for a 'Panorama' to be housed in a purpose-built rotunda lit from above, within which visitors viewed the 360-degree scene from a circular central platform. Panoramas, the first of which dates to the late 18th century, were all the rage by the time this one was constructed in Milan in 1883, and potentially a highly lucrative enterprise.

The chief artist of the 'Siege of Rome' Panorama was the precocious, now all-but-forgotten Belgian, Leon Philippet. Born in Liege in 1843, Philippet had won a scholarship to study in Rome, where he went on to marry and was based until 1887.

He researched his subject extremely thoroughly, amassing contemporary illustrations and gathering eye-witness accounts, before painting substantial section-by-section oil sketches of the view from the vantage point of Villa Savorelli on the Janiculum Hill (Garibaldi's headquarters, and now part of the American Academy), to be scaled up 10 times by himself and the team of fellow artists he recruited to realize the final Panorama.

The oil sketches are now conserved in Belgium and have been loaned by the Municipal Museum in Seraing, near Liege. The Panorama itself, after its Milan debut, embarked on an international tour, being exhibited in Turin, London, Brussels and Vienna before sailing for Buenos Aires and Chile.

The triumphant progress of this vast, proto-cinematographic, peripatetic pageant was unexpectedly halted, after disease broke out on the ship transporting it from Chile to Brazil, and the heat and chemicals employed in the vessel's subsequent fumigation brought it to a sticky end.

Yet Philippet & Co.'s 'true-to-life' record of the battle for Rome was to resurface once again in a bizarre fashion in 1967, when 11 large contemporary photographs of the original full-scale Panorama were accidentally stumbled upon in the storerooms of the Museum of National Reunification in Rome.

Mistaken for action shots of the actual events of June 3 1849, they were greeted in the Italian press as the first ever examples of photographic war reportage taken in the heat of battle, despite the palpable impossibility that any apparatus or plate available at the time could have captured with such freeze-frame clarity these fast-moving scenes of men on the march, galloping horses and smoke-belching cannons.

Amazingly, this myth was only exploded a couple of years ago, as a result of the research of Alessandro Cartocci, a doctor and amateur sleuth, which revealed the true origins of these artfully composed scenes.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023