Creation from Destruction : Frieze Masters 2020London
Gaspar van Wittel, called Vanvitelli
View of the Colosseum and Arch of Constantine from the East, 1707
Purchased in Italy, together with a View of Venice, by Frederik Sigismund van Byland (1749–1828), The Hague,
By inheritance to Anne Visser (née van Byland) (1866–1929), whose coat of arms was formerly visible on the back of the pendant,
Christie’s, London, 16 December 1998, lot 69,
Richard Green, London,
Private collection, Italy.
Laura Laureati, Vanvitelli–Gaspar Van Wittel, exh. cat. Robilant+Voena, London, 2008, pp. 29–31, no. 4.
London, Robilant+Voena, Vanvitelli–Gaspar Van Wittel, 18 November–19 December 2008. Amersfoort, Museum Flehite, Tijdloos Eigentijds: Kunstenaarskijken naar oude meesters, 24 February–3 June 2013.
An engaging veduta of the Roman Forum, this work offers a vivid impression of the site’s appearance in the early eighteenth century. Against a backdrop of old and new, Vanvitelli animates the cityscape of his day with figures going about their daily business. His depictions of antiquity’s celebrated monuments enlivened by contemporary elements held great appeal both for collectors in Rome as well as for tourists wishing to take back mementoes of their travels.
Eight variants of views by Vanvitelli showing the Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine are known, but only two are dated: one dated 1703 was sold at Sotheby’s, London, 5 July 2017, lot 69, and the other is a view of 1716 at Holkham Hall, Norfolk, in the collection of the Earl of Leicester, which was bought directly from the artist by his forbearer Thomas Coke.
In this view, the magnificent Flavian amphitheatre dominates the scene. Rome’s most iconic building takes centre stage, while the Arch of Constantine plays a considerably more minor role. Other peripheral sites are readily identifiable. In the distance to the left is the Lateran: indeed, the road to the left of the Colosseum is the Strada di San Giovanni, because, as Mariano Vasi explained in his guidebook in 1791, “direttamente conduce alla Basilica di questo Santo” (i.e. the Lateran). The centre of the piazza is punctuated by an Egyptian obelisk in red granite, while to its right are the two medieval campanili of the basilica flanked by the long façade of the sixteenth-century Lateran Palace built by Domenico Fontana for Sixtus V. At the far left of the scene, closer to the foreground of the painting, are the ruins identified in Giovanni Battista Falda’s plan of Rome of 1676 as the Vestigia di Tito popularly known as “le 7 Sale.” To the right, nestled within the cityscape beyond the Arch of Constantine, are the apse and campanile of the ancient basilica of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, and at the far right, the brick arches of the aqueduct of Aqua Claudia. Just in front of the Arch of Constantine is the Meta Sudans, a large conical fountain built in the first century AD by the emperor Titus, rebuilt by Domitian, and by this date a ruin reduced to its brick core; it was fully demolished in 1936. The view is taken from the garden of the Servite church of Santa Francesca Romana, where the imposing ruins of the Temple of Venus and Roma stood. Even more precisely, the point of view corresponds with the end of what is now the via dei Fori Imperiali.
In the foreground at right, between the veduta’s two principal monuments, amidst various figures, grazing cows and sheep, and scattered architectural spolia, is an artist, dressed in red, seated and in the act of drawing the famous monument. At the far right, another artist has also just arrived on the scene, his sketchbook under his arm, accompanied by a dog. Among the many drawings by Gaspar van Wittel in the collections at Caserta is one portraying two artists, one sitting and the other standing with his folio of drawings under his arm. The drawing is not exactly preparatory for this painting but instead reveals van Wittel’s careful attention to figures in general and to this motif in particular, one of which the artist was particularly fond and often introduced into his works. The motif of the artist drawing en plein air was not only autobiographical, but also reflected what Van Wittel constantly found before his eyes.
It was at least in part thanks to Vanvitelli that in eighteenth century, the Colosseum, one of the most famous sites of ancient Rome, became emblematic of the city in the eyes of the Grand Tourists, and British visitors in particular. Only a few decades after Vanvitelli’s views of the amphitheatre, in the 1730s, Giovanni Paolo Panini would take up the subject, often combining it with other buildings of ancient Rome, without any respect for topographical truth. Even later, in his portrait by Pompeo Batoni, the Honourable Colonel William Gordon had himself portrayed with the monument just behind him (1766, National Trust for Scotland, Fyvie Castle, Aberdeenshire).
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