Graziella Colombo

Giovanni Paolo Panini: Capriccio (with Rome’s famous ancient monuments)

In this time of pandemia, when it’s difficult to travel, Milan celebrates at the Gallerie d’Italia the international phenomenon of the Grand Tour with a large and very interesting exhibition open till March 27th. What is it about? The term Grand Tour has been used to refer the educational and formative trip that, between the end of the 17th century and the first half of the 19th century, was taken by writers, musicians, artists, literary and church men, scholars and nobles, who came to Italy from the whole of Europe, from Russia and later also from America. For these European élites, the trip was not only a pleasure or a fashion, but an opportunity for cultural enrichment and professional improvement.
Travelling along the Italian Peninsula they could enjoy the variety and beauty of nature and landscapes, still intact, and admire the many monuments and masterpieces of our art. For all these learned ‘tourists’, Italy was a sort of unique open-air museum. A country still poor and underdeveloped from certain points of view, but also the cradle of the values and culture of the west world.
The exhibition shows 130 works coming from Italian and foreign institutions such as, for instance, the National Gallery , the Louvre, the Prado, the Uffizi, the Vatican Museums and includes sculptures, decorative arts, and, above all, a lot of painting landscapes, portraits, scenes from everday life, reproductions of ancient monuments.
Many European landscape painters, between the 17th and 19th centuries, spent their time in Italy and produced, meaningful works, some of which we can see in the exhibition in Milan. Among the Italian and foreign artists who contributed at the birth of the ‘Bel Paese’ we find the names of Canaletto, Piranesi, Van Wittel, Ducros, Ingres, Giovanni Paolo Panini, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun and Valadier.
Many of the marble, bronze and porcelain items on show were commissioned by noble and learned travellers who wanted to take home some examples of beautiful ancient models. The artistic souvenirs industry developed and flourished along with the popularity of the Grand Tour. Canaletto’s Venetian views, for instance, were the postcards of the time to bring back home as well the detailed views of Rome by Panini.
Italy was not yet an independent country, but for the travellers Italy was really a nation and when they went back home, they talked about our art and nature, our people, our history, traditions, customs and even food. They were fascinated by our rich towns and by the ancient ruins, by the blue sky, sea, mountains and lakes as well by the volcanoes. They talked about a deep, unique experience.
Rome, the capital of antiquity and of Christianity, Venice lying on the wonderful lagoon, Florence with the art masterpieces of the Renaissance and Naples, situated between the gulf and the Vesuvius were all favourite destinations. The rediscovery of the buried cities of Herculaneum and Pompei destroyed by the eruption of the Vesuvius in 79 A.D., revealed a fascinating ancient world. And, in the end, Sicily, one of the roots of European civilization.
Many literary men and artists, such as Byron or Goethe or Canova were deeply influenced by the classical past and the classicism.
Samuel Johnson, great English writer and literary critic, wrote that a man who has never come to Italy, will be always aware of his inferiority.
The Beatles sang All We Need Is Love. It’s true but I think that we also need beauty.

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