Even In Deep Decline, Rome Collected Genius

The exhibition called The Splendor of 18th-Century Rome , which Joseph J. Rishel has organized at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is a considerable conundrum–a museological oddity that combines the inspired, the mundane and the insipid in a spectacle that is by turns very entertaining and very pedantic. It would be an injustice to describe the exhibition as an example of academic camp, yet there is much in this odd show that answers to that description.

While certainly not lacking in splendor–if, by that term, we mean brilliant display–this is an exhibition that also often descends into the merely splendiferous. For Splendor is a major exhibition–major in the scale of its ambition, major in its scholarship and major in the sheer number and variety of the objects it contains–devoted to a subject that is, in many respects, of distinctly minor interest. As a consequence, its content, though encompassing some 442 works by 160 artists, often fails to support the scale of its artistic pretensions.

It is, after all, an exhibition built upon a historical paradox. Rome in the 18th century was a capital and a culture in irreversible decline. Its greatest artistic and intellectual glories lay in the near or distant past. Yet it was in this period of decline that Rome, largely owing to its past glories, became a magnet for some of the most interesting and ambitious talents in Europe. Privileged amateurs in the arts from Russia and England mingled with greatly gifted writers and artists from France, Germany and Scandinavia to worship at the altar of the past in the hope of replicating its achievements and preserving its spirit in future endeavors. Rome became, in effect, an academy for every sort of aspirant to greatness in the arts.

Meanwhile, however, the sun was setting on native achievement. Italian painting, which had indeed been one of Europe’s greatest glories, was rapidly declining into mere competence when not falling into utter ostentation. Much of the finest talent was to be found in the decorative arts rather than in the many attempts to emulate the heroic heights of earlier Italian painting and sculpture. The most accomplished new artists tended to be foreign visitors for whom Rome, like Italy itself, was already on its way to becoming a museum.

There were exceptions, to be sure–Pompeo Batoni, among the painters, is one, and Giovanni Battista Piranesi, among the printmakers, is another–but even they were not of a stature capable of restoring Rome to its former artistic glory. And in the case of Piranesi, the only artist to be accorded a room of his own in the Splendor exhibition, his macabre architectural fantasies have, in this context, very much the look of a mordant memorial to that lost glory.

Given the problematic character of the exhibition’s subject, it was a wise decision on Mr. Rishel’s part to organize The Splendor of 18th-Century Rome not as an anthology of unexceptionable masterpieces but rather as a historical and cultural documentary survey of its period. Hence the division of the exhibition into sections devoted to “Rome: The City,” “The Making of Modern Rome,” “City of God,” “City of Art,” etc., an organizational plan which implicitly acknowledges that something other than strictly aesthetic judgments–an attempt to convey the ethos of a city and a period–has governed the selection of objects. It is therefore left up to the visitor to this exhibition to determine his or her own priorities.

As my own interest in monumental inkstands, gold-embroidered ecclesiastical vestments and elaborately designed inlaid tabletops is not especially keen, I shall leave the great preponderance f decorative objects and textiles in this exhibition for others to savor. As for its many paintings and sculptures and drawings, there is certainly enough of real quality to make a visit to the Splendor show worthwhile, but there is also enough fluff to leave a visitor with such interests a little irritated. Two paintings of The Immaculate Conception –one by Placido Costanzi, circa 1753, the other by Stefano Pozzi, circa 1762–are of an insipidity that is not to be borne, but such things are to be expected in an exhibition in which historical considerations are given priority over aesthetic judgments.

Giovanni Paolo Panini is a far more interesting painter, and since his pictures of the Interior of the Pantheon, Rome, the View of the Palantine, Arch of Constantine and the Colosseum, Rome, and other such subjects are themselves brilliant documentaries, it was inevitable that he would be abundantly represented in this exhibition. Moreover, it is from Panini’s Imaginary Picture Gallery paintings, in which vast interior spaces are tightly packed with pictures and other art objects too numerous to count or even look at, that Mr. Rishel seems to have derived his own style of installation for the Splendor show. Yet, when you return to Panini’s paintings for a second or a third look, they turn out to be interesting only as documentary or imaginary accounts of Rome.

It is principally Batoni who salvages the honor of Italian painting in this period and in this exhibition, and when you confront his grand portrait of Count Kirill Grigoriewitsch Razumovsky (1766) and his other pictures in this exhibition, you can almost forgive some of its fripperies. But it is the painters and sculptors from elsewhere who provide the greatest interest. If only for the paintings by Jacques-Louis David in this show–among them, the Academy Male, Called “Hector” (1778), from the Musée Fabre in Montpellier; Saint Roch Interceding for the Victims of the Plague (1780), from the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Marseille; and a version of The Oath of the Horatii (1786) from the Toledo (Ohio) Museum of Art, this exhibition would be worth a visit.

For many, however, the real discovery in this exhibition will be the German painter Anton Raphael Mengs, who is very strongly represented here and to whose pictures one finds oneself frequently returning. In both his portraits and his allegorical paintings he is one of the real stars of the show. It’s a pity that some of the other foreign talents in the exhibition–the Swiss-born English artist Henry Fuseli, the German painter Asmus Jakob Carstens, the Danish painter Nikolai Abraham Abildgaard and the Irish painter Hugh Douglas Hamilton–could not have been more amply represented. Abildgaard’s Philoctetes on Lemnos is a knockout painting. I would have happily sacrificed one or two of the Panini views for more Abildgaard.

But that’s one of the problems with documentary exhibitions. It’s always a little of this and a little of that, until in the end one leaves with the impression of having seen something of a miscellany. Except for that last room devoted to Piranesi, whose vision renders a judgment on Rome in the 18th century much harsher than mine.

The Splendor of 18th-Century Rome remains on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through May 28, and will then travel to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (June 25-September 17).