Articles About Art - Eighteenth Century Painting in Italy
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Eighteenth Century Painting in Italy*
During the eighteenth century the power of Rome as a flourishing artistic centre was challenged
by Venice and Paris. But Rome continued to be a centre of interest for studies of antiquity. Travel
abroad was a natural result of the Enlightenment interest in new horizons. The "grand tour"
became more important than university for members of the aristocracy and upper classes in
countries such as England. Young men travelled across Europe through France and Italy on the
trail of the classical past. Rome was the final goal, where, under the patronage of the popes, not
only the antique heritage was preserved but museums and academies were founded. Foreigners
streamed to Rome and the treasures of Italy assumed European importance. The strong influence
exerted by the antique came to be reflected in the work of numerous artists in France, England
and Germany' as well as in Italy itself.
One such artist, who settled in Rome and developed a strong poetic feeling for ruins, was
Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778). Piranesi was a master engraver; his series of etchings Le
Vedute di Roma (1745) was particularly popular with British tourists, and helped kindle a romantic concept of Rome. Piranesi's romantic constructions were aided by his knowledge of theatrical design. He used dramatic light and shade and skilful perspective for spatial expansion. His numerous etchings include Carceri d' Invenzione, a series of fantastic prisons, which were later acclaimed by the twentieth-century Surrealists.
The transition from Baroque to Rococo in Italy amounted to a change in emphasis from the
grandiloquent and splendid to a delicate, light effect which aimed at pleasure. Venice enjoyed an
artistic revival, based on her sixteenth-century tradition, especially the art of Veronese, and the
city with her elaborate festivals became a playground for Europe. Three major artists were mainly
responsible for the revival and international fame of Venetian painting - Tiepolo, Canaletto and
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770)
Although Tiepolo produced many easel paintings and graphics, of which his series of etchings
Capricci and Scherzi di Fantasia became famous, it was as a fresco painter that he attained the
greatest heights. His frescoes are deeply indebted to the Baroque with their grand manner, bold
style and illusionistic space, but added to this he introduced new elements that were to influence
the development of Rococo painting. Tiepolo's palette differed from the sumptuous richness of
Baroque tones. He preferred cool colours and silvery tones and avoided theatrical lighting. He portrayed the brilliant light of day with reflections from figures and objects, which gave his
frescoes a luminous character. This effect was also created by sensitive rapid brushwork and
colours so delicate that they became almost transparent. He made use of architectural perspec-
tive, foreshortening, floating clouds and figures which fly in space, to create illusions of profound
spatial recession. These characteristics may be seen in The Institution of the Rosary and in the
Apotheosis of the Spanish Monarchy (1764-1766), a detail of a ceiling fresco in the Royal Palace in
Madrid. In the latter the glorious woman enthroned high in the centre represents the Spanish
monarchy to whom allegorical figures are paying homage.
Whatever the commission, for church or nobility, Tiepolo always worked in the same spirit,
his decors and heroes being inspired by the theatre. He displayed real virtuosity, especially in the
control of lighting effects. Yet his work fails to convince; unlike the Baroque artists, however, it
was not his aim to do so. With his art he intended to daze and stun the spectator; he played with
his viewers, but knew how to control his work by organising the movement, figures and draperies
into a harmony. Tiepolo found pleasure in the act of painting itself and was thus content even
when his figures did not convince.
Tiepolo was active in North Italy, Germany and Spain and his work had a wide influence,
particularly on French, German and Austrian Rococo art.
Giovanni Antonio Canal Canaletto (1697-1768)
Canaletto was an artist of painstaking precision who rendered nuances of light and topographical
detail with such accuracy that his work was greatly prized by tourists. He was patronised by
Joseph Smith, the British Consul in Venice, and received many English commissions. From about
1746 to 1755 he painted in England where he was initially successful, but his work began to
decline before he returned to Venice. His best works were views of Venice such as The Molo and
Piazzetta seen from St Mark's Basin. This work shows a dramatic use of light and shade
contrasts, as well as skilful use of perspective and spatial organisation. His attention to detail
invites a close scrutiny of his work and although these details are strongly representational, they
are always handled with subtlety. The architectural settings seem to play a dominant role but
there is no lack of human interest, and Canaletto gives a careful record of daily activities. He also
took great care with his drawings and etchings; his imagination was not entirely bound by
accurate topography, as may be seen from his numerous capricci.
Francesco Guardi (1712-1793)
Another painter who specialised in lyrical views of Venice was Francesco Guardi. Guardi came
from a family of painters, and initially worked in the studio of his elder brother Gianantonio
Guardi (1669-1760). It is difficult to isolate each artist's work in their collaborated paintings.
Francesco was the more sensitive artist and his rapid strokes enabled him to create instant
atmospheric effects. Although Guardi and Canaletto had similar subject matter and Guardi was
influenced by Canaletto, their methods of painting were quite different. The more prosaic
Canaletto used realistic perspective and accurate light effects to construct his space, while
Guardi allowed outlines to disintegrate and light to flicker, giving the effect of fluctuating
movement and scintillating luminosity. This can be seen in his View of Island of San Pietro di
Castello. Guardi's poetic art of high pictorial quality was the antithesis of neoclassicism which
spread through Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century. This is particularly evident in
his capricci, which are pure fantasy. A Genoese artist who had some influence on Guardi's style
was Allessandro Magnasco (1667-1749). Magnasco, a painter of monks and nuns, used explosive
brushwork. His paintings are romantic and even melodramatic with tormented, frenzied forms
which may be considered forerunners of the work of Goya.
* Drawn from notes compiled by E.A. Maré for the University of South Africa