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.