“Rome is the city of echoes, the city of illusions, and the city of yearning”
Giotto di Bondone
Rome, the focal point of the world at some many points in history, has always captivated the imagination of artists. From depictions of it in the glorified heydays of the Roman Empire to the bastion of Antiquity to the newly ancient-modern fusion we have before us today, Rome in all its splendour is a difficult task to put under the paintbrush. Yet, in my mind, one artist captures so fascinatingly, in stokes of genius inspiration, the essence of a forever changing ‘city of illusion’ like nobody else.
The artist known as Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691-1765) — no Earl-of-Sandwich-esque relation to the culinary snack I hasten to add — was born to a modest family in Piacenza along the banks of the River Trebbia. Not much is known of his early life, except that his precocious painting talents were first nurtured in this childhood town. Fortunately for him, they were honed well enough for his advancement to study under Benedetto Luti in Rome itself. Moving here in 1711 must have made an lasting impression on the twenty-year old Panini, for the entire city was to become the muse for the rest his artistic career.
Panini would paint numerous sights of Rome and often drew small ‘postcards’ for his friends and visitors to his home at the Accademia di San Luca where he later taught during the final years of his life. He admiration for Rome was so great that two massive projects were embarked upon by Panini and completed side by side in 1757.
The first (above) entitled Ancient Rome features in striking detail the major art and places of Rome all within one painting. Depicted within it are both Panini and his wealthy patron the Count de Stainville (looking at us holding the guidebook with Panini just behind his armchair). The second featured a similar striking design as the first but is by no means any less diminished:
Again featuring his patron the Count (later Duke de Choisel) this seated but with Panini still attentive to his side, this painting sets out to display the ‘now’ as opposed to the ‘then’ in the above. So this these are two grand depictions of an ever changing Rome. What makes them so utterly fascinating to me is the detail. Look within the busy scene before us and we can see the entirety of Rome’s artistic landscape; those famous monuments, sculptures and plazas. Almost everything in the eternal city lies exposed, seemingly cluttered, before our very eyes.
Both together represent a shifting city. One from a decaying version of former glory to a newly refreshed city based upon the same. The interesting thing about viewing the paintings together is their shared similarity. Both depict this grand art gallery perhaps, not quite the same but a mirror of one another. Reflecting again this juxtaposed vision of Rome. The second, more modern, is of course noticeably brighter, the warmth of paint almost glows, the lavish red sash that envelopes the edges seems to also radiate a new vibrancy. Whereas the older vision of Rome, featuring the older places of interest, is not entirely greyed but apparently darker in tone. Though, it too contains a sense of warmth, and almost glaring sash of red too in the corner highlights, perhaps, the oncoming change of scene.
The true genius of these paintings, and something that must surely have demanded hours upon hours of painstaking work, is the sheer detail of it all. Within each painting there exists yet more individual paintings. Each one, if it were to repositioned and detached, could be in itself another fine visualisation of the ‘city of illusion’, instead they lie together – perhaps making up the illusion of grandeur itself – as a visual feast for our very eyes.