Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Bay of Naples from Palazzo Sessa

Expanding Horizons: Giovanni Battista Lusieri and the Panoramic Landscape, the most exciting art exhibition this year, will shortly be coming to the end of its run at the Scottish National Gallery.  You can be forgiven for not knowing much about Lusieri: scholarly interest in him has been growing but as recently as 1996 he was not deemed important enough to include in the thirty-four volume Macmillan-Grove Dictionary of Art.  His posthumous obscurity would have seemed surprising in 1799, when the 7th Earl of Elgin wrote delightedly at having engaged the 'first painter in Italy' to accompany him to Constantinople'. Lady Elgin thought him superior to any artist working in London - 'high praise indeed', Aidan Weston-Lewis writes in the exhibition catalogue, 'for among the English artists Lord Elgin had approached unsuccessfully to join his embassy were J. M. W. Turner and Thomas Girtin, arguably the two landscape watercolourists held in highest esteem in Britain to this day.'  In Athens, Lusieri became increasingly embroiled in archaeology and the operation to remove sculptures from the Acropolis, only returning properly to painting as an old man in 1817.  Byron encountered him during this period, finding that Lusieri's 'works as far as they go are most beautiful; but they are almost all unfinished.' Lusieri died in 1821 and most of the paintings he had completed in Greece were lost when a ship bringing them back to Elgin was wrecked off the coast of Crete in 1828.

Giovanni Battista Lusieri, The Bay of Naples from Palazzo Sessa, 1790  
The Bay of Naples from Palazzo Sessa 
A few examples might convey why I found Expanding Horizons so fascinating, and the most obvious place to start is with this painting, described accurately in the catalogue as 'one of the most spectacular exhibitions of the art of watercolour ever created.'  It measures nearly nine feet across and took Lusieri nearly two years to complete (1789-90), working from a room at the residence of Sir William Hamilton.  This room, incidentally, was designed by Hamilton with large mirrors to reflect the bay so that, as Wilhelm Tischbein found, 'if you sat on the sofas installed around the room, you imagined you were out of doors, sitting on a rocky peak above sea and land.'  What I think really makes Lusieri's panoramic view so breathtaking is not the incredible detail of the foreground - figures, buildings, boats - but that view out to sea, where the distant water and sky fuse in a haze of brilliant Mediterranean light. 
View of Rome with St Peter's and the Vatican from the Lower Slopes of Monte Mario
When Thomas Jones first mentions Lusieri in his memoirs he describes him as a painter of 'tinted drawings' and although this seems an inadequate description of the luminous landscapes Lusieri produced, it does capture the way in which they took shape.  It is thus no surprise to find some exceptionally detailed drawings like this View of Rome, sketched in 1780.  A 'tour de force' according to the curators, in which 'the black chalk is handled with an astonishing range of mark and pressure', and where the real subject seems to be the way the light describes the shape of every stone, leaf and tree root with as much care as it illuminates the dome of St Peter's and walls of the Vatican.
Panoramic View of Rome from Piazza San Pietro in Montorio on the Janiculum
These three of the four surviving sheets from a 180 degree panorama of the city lead your eye from St Peters in soft golden sunshine over the rooftops to trees on the outskirts of the city which seem still to be emerging from the grey mist of early morning.  The paintings probably date from 1778-9, and there is an interesting question of precedence because Louis Le Masson painted a very similar panorama of Rome in 1779, commissioned by Louis XVI to decorate the interior of a luxurious dairy he was building for Marie-Antionette (complete with buckets made of Sèvres porcelain) at the Château de Rambouillet.
Vesuvius during the Eruption of 1794
In 1787 Lusieri had painted some moonlit views of the Bay of Naples in which the tranquillity of the scene is threatened by the distant orange glow from the volcano.  He was still in Naples for the eruption of 1794 which was, as Sir William Hamilton reported to the Royal Society, the most spectacular since 1631 and AD79 (when the original Plinius, Pliny the Elder lost his life).  It is possible that Lusieri, like Pliny, was out in a boat - the sketch and the watercolour have no foreground save a flat expanse of water.  The dark volcano is dwarfed by an inverted mountain of fiery clouds and smoke pours from the long river of lava, flowing all the way down to the sea.  In 1799, after the Bourbon court had fled Naples, Lusieri found himself in Sicily, appointed to oversee work on its antiquities, a brief foretaste of the work he was about to engage in with Elgin.  There he painted another volcano, a View of Taormina and the Coast Looking South towards Etna, a near-monochrome composition of grey washes which may record the effects of ash darkening everything except the waves breaking on the shore.
The Temple of Serapis, Pozzuoli  
This watercolour includes a figure sitting among the broken stones with his head in his hand, like Fuseli's The Artist Overcome by the Grandeur of Antique Remains, and probably similar to the way I was gazing at this painting, the tourist overcome by the grandeur of eighteenth century art.  What is particularly interesting about this subject is the way the temple has become an index of geological change.  'The corrosive action of salt water and lithodomes on the monumental shafts of cipollino marble, as a result of bradyseismic activity (the slow rising and falling of the earth's crust) in the area, can be clearly seen.'
    The Monument to Philopappos
    Although there are relatively few completed paintings from Lusieri's years in Greece, two versions exist of this, a study of the funerary monument to Emperor Trajan's consul in Athens.  One is a watercolour, completed in 1805 and the other, just as beautiful, an oil painting (one of only two that we know of by Lusieri). A contemporary, Edward Daniel Clarke, marvelled at Lusieri's ability to convey 'every grace and beauty of the sculpture, every fair and exquisite proportion, every trace of the injuries of time'.  But Lusieri pays as much attention to the stones at the base of the monument and the grassy slope on which it stands as he does to the frieze of marble figures and the broken statue of Philopappos.  
At the end of his life, Lusieri was visited in Athens by an Englishman, John Fuller, who remembered the artist, still 'labouring with the greatest exactness and diligence' at a panoramic view of the plain of Attica.  'Day after day did this indefatigable veteran pass on the hill of the Museum; and his meagre figure, his drawing apparatus, and the large umbrella over his head, are as much attached to the spot in the recollections of those who have visited Athens, as the monument of Philopappos itself.'  Lusieri's perfectionism was such that it seemed to Fuller few of his paintings would actually be finished.  When he raised this with the old man, Lusieri said (perhaps with a mischievous smile) 'that colouring was such a fascinating employment he feared if he once began it he should never again have the patience to return to the dry details of outline; and that therefore (though he acknowledged himself to be in his 74th year and with a portfolio crowded with sketches), he reserved it [colouring] as an amusement for his adanced age.  Two mornings afterwards he was found dead in the chair in which he had been left sitting the previous evening, his supper before him, like his drawings, unfinished.'

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great summary. I really wanted to respond to this for a while, but I've not found the time. I thought the unfinished figures and detail in the foreground often added so much. I really like the way it gave strength to the mid distance, with the far-off disappearing into haze, and those uncoloured foreground figures.

The classical architecture, especially of the bays, and the hazy hills, often evoked to me, Edinburgh's own landscape. This exhibition seemed perfectly at home in that city!

Thanks, Kieron (of Lines of Landscape)