Birthdays / Italian / Look Back: Art History / Painting

Happy 322nd Birthday, Giovanni Paolo Panini!

One of the artist's later works painted to commemorate a ball given by the duc de Nivernais to mark the birth of the Dauphin. 175, oil on canvas, 167.5 x 132 cm, National Trust - Waddesdon Manor.

One of the artist’s later works painted to commemorate a ball given by the duc de Nivernais to mark the birth of the Dauphin. 175, oil on canvas, 167.5 x 132 cm, National Trust – Waddesdon Manor.

Where’s the Party? 

While Panini (1692-1765) lived and worked in Rome, his party is nowhere you could get to with a plane ticket – or even a ride in a time machine. Panini loved creating new, fantasy landscapes filled with monuments of the Classical – that is, ancient Greek and Roman – past.

Classical Ruins with the Arch of Constantine, oil on canvas, 97 x 134.5 cm, National Trust: Stourhead.

Classical Ruins with the Arch of Constantine, oil on canvas, 97 x 134.5 cm, National Trust: Stourhead.

But he didn’t exactly want to visit an earlier age. Instead, he would rearrange the crumbling monuments and overgrown buildings that surrounded him, to create strange landscapes of ruins. Known as vedute, these ‘view paintings’ presented backdrops for imagined Classical dramas, or simply chances for Panini to produce antique architectural scenes.

Biblical figures set in a landscape of Classical ruins. Pen and brown ink, 180 x 250 mm © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Biblical figures set in a landscape of Classical ruins. Pen and brown ink, 180 x 250 mm © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Who’s funding it? 

A troop of young, 18th century gentlemen. Not all together, but as individual customers they’re they ones who’ve made it possible to throw the party in the first place. You see, Panini earned a large part of his living by producing his antique fantasies for young men on their Grand Tour. Like the most elaborate kind of postcard, Panini’s paintings were carried home and displayed for their beauty but also as souvenirs for these young men — the earliest modern tourists.

One such tourist painting - View of the Colosseum, 1747, oil on canvas, 32 5/16 x 52 7/16 in. (82 x 133.2 cm),  The Walters Art Museum.

One such tourist painting – View of the Colosseum, 1747, oil on canvas, 32 5/16 x 52 7/16 in. (82 x 133.2 cm), The Walters Art Museum.

What should you get him for his birthday?

A Pinterest account.

Pintrest, 2013.

Pintrest, 2013.

He would probably have found the concept of this contemporary social media platform deeply appealing. I’m taking this idea in part from the fact that he produced two paintings – perhaps you could think of them as giant Pinboards – of the ancient and modern monuments of Rome.

Ancient Rome, 1757. Oil on canvas, 67 3/4 x 90 1/2 in. (172.1 x 229.9 cm), New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ancient Rome, 1757. Oil on canvas, 67 3/4 x 90 1/2 in. (172.1 x 229.9 cm), New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

In each painting he presents row upon stack of statues and buildings in a deeply sumptuous setting. No rooms like these ever existed – just as the self-curated spaces on Pinterest can never exist. But in throwing all these works together, Panini created, in a way, a beautiful new architectural body, distinctly his own.

Modern Rome, 1757. Oil on canvas, 67 3/4 x 91 3/4 in. (172.1 x 233 cm), New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Modern Rome, 1757. Oil on canvas, 67 3/4 x 91 3/4 in. (172.1 x 233 cm), New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Why should you go? 

Because you and Panini probably have more in common than you think… If you’re reading this blog, and aren’t a particularly dogged revolutionary, you are probably open to the idea that Classical civilization gave us the most beautiful things and should be preserved. Now these aren’t necessarily true. But these are things that are often thought today — and they are distinctly 18th century ideas.

It was 18th century thinkers and writers who glorified the statuary of the Greeks and marveled at the architecture of the Romans. In fact, it was arguably in this century that art history itself was born in the figure of Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768), who’s serious volumes glorified the statuary of Classical world.

Alexander the Great Cutting the Gordian Knot, c. 1718-19. Oil on canvas, 28 7/8 x  23 1/2 in. (73.3 x 59.7 cm), The Walters Art Museum.

Alexander the Great Cutting the Gordian Knot, c. 1718-19. Oil on canvas, 28 7/8 x 23 1/2 in. (73.3 x 59.7 cm), The Walters Art Museum.

And yet there’s something distinctly human about Panini’s efforts with his Classical backdrops. By adding figures, arranging the monuments to suite the needs of you, the viewer, even by preserving the fact that these monuments are ruins, Panini always puts a touch of reality in with the extraordinary.

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