Gleaning a Lesson From a Grand Tour of Rome

Where Good Advertising and Wishful Thinking Lead

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By Elizabeth Lev 

ROME, FEB. 10, 2011 ( As far back as the Roman Republic, there have been tourists visiting the Eternal City. The row of money changers’ shops in the Forum testifies to the many currencies that passed through Rome, as do lively travelers’ accounts left to us from the ages. 

Rome’s Christian age saw tourists replaced by pilgrims, coming to pray at the graves of Peter and Paul, visit the shrines of the martyrs, gape at the Roman ruins and marvel at how the humble witness of a few brave saints managed to revolutionize such a mammoth empire. 

With the organization of the Jubilee years as of 1300 — set at every 25 years by the 16th century — pilgrims were a regular sight, with their dusty cloaks and walking sticks, often treading barefoot in the Roman dirt. The Renaissance popes reorganized the city for them, adding fountains, roads and bridges.The Romans sold them rosaries on Via dei Coronari and gave them beds and care at Trinità dei Pelligrini, while artists immortalized them, particularly Caravaggio in his “Madonna of the Pilgrims” in the Basilica of Sant’Agostino. 

But as the triumphant 17th century waned, pilgrims found themselves flanked by new visitors, the Grand Tourists, who arrived in the early 18th century. 

These men and occasionally women came not to pray at the tombs of saints but to study the remnants of ancient Rome, finding new models and examples in the ancient pagan world. 

In the new museum space on Via del Corso, the beloved promenade path of the Grand Tourists, a special exhibition reveals the Rome of the 18th century: its irresistible attraction for the rest of Europe as well as the city’s response to this new, curious type of visitor. 

“Rome and Antiquity: Reality and Vision in the 1700s” is housed in the Palazzo Sciarra on Via Mario Minghetti, and will be in Rome until March 6. The few exhibition halls are elegantly designed in the neo-classical style, developed in Rome during the 18th century, and filled with paintings, plaster casts and delightful pieces of decorative art recounting Europe’s fascination with its pagan past at the dawn of the Enlightenment. 

In 1738, workmen digging foundations for the king of Naples’ newest villa unearthed the lost city of Herculaneum, which had been swallowed up by volcanic ash in 79 A.D.. Ten years later Pompeii was found, resurrecting from the dead the lost world of the ancients. Nobles and scholars flocked to Italy to see this great discovery, stopping first in Rome to admire the ruins of the civilization that had given the world Pompeii. 

Many came to Rome from England and Germany, then celebrating their second bicentennial as Protestant nations, and uninterested in the “popery” and «superstitions» of the Catholics. They were looking for greater truths in antiquity; the order, majesty and erudition of the ancients was their goal. 

The ruins of Rome captivated them. From the ghostly arcades of the Colosseum to the lonely columns rising above the cow pasture of the Forum, these ancient fragments served as a backdrop to portraits of these Grand Tourists. Considering themselves to be the heirs of the legacy of antiquity, they posed under arches or perched on columns. Looking at the figures in their fashionable contemporary dress, one sees vanitas leaning on ruin. 

Like good tourists, they loved souvenirs, and the Italians were more than ready to produce luxury products to take home. Two views of the tomb of Cecelia Metella and the Pantheon in inlaid semi-precious stone must have cost more than a business class ticket to Rome today. Delicate landscapes depict the ruins, skyline and picturesque corners of Rome, expensive mementos from a world without digital cameras. 

Statues were unearthed daily from various excavations around Rome and brought to the great workshops of Rome’s finest restorers to be completed or copied and then sold as the art market came into its own. A large part of the current show is dedicated to the fascinating figure of Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, antique dealer to the stars. Popes and nobles frequented his studio, looking for masterpieces by the ancients or fashioned by his own hand. Copies of beloved works, such as the Capitoline Eros, the Apollo Cithedra, and the Farnese Flora flowed from his studio to villas in England, France or Russia. 

Rome also began to receive students, not seminarians enrolled at the Gregorian University to be trained in theology, but artists coming to study the works of the ancients and recreate their ideal of aloof divinity, mathematical perfection and cavalier disregard for the human condition. The French academy produced artistic geniuses of the stature of David, who illustrated the most noble events of Roman history on the eve of the French revolution. 

Two women earn special notice in the exhibition. From the origin of the Roman Art Academy until the 20th century, only two women were ever admitted to its prestigious ranks. One was Angelika Kaufmann, who is represented with several works through the show; the other, Mary Moses, has no works on display. 

The tourists read Latin poetry under the ruins and adored the perfection of proportions and anatomy in art. Under their gaze, the Greek and Roman statues began to return to their status as idols; women dressed like them (even wetting their slips to get the effect of the drapery), and men posed by the busts of the ancient thinkers. 

Johann Joachim Winkelmann, antiquarian par excellence, wrote: “The only way to be great, if possible, inimitable, is through imitation of the ancients.” Winkelmann, however, was horrified at the gaudy colors and base depictions in Pompeii. Confronted with the reality that his great ancients loved their food and wine, had flamboyant taste in domestic decoration and peppered their towns with taverns and brothels, he retreated into his world of classical statuary, creating a personal vision of antiquity that was beautiful, however inaccurate. 

The ideal model of the noble, civilized ancients that would supplant the holy lives of Christian saints, whose tombs line the streets of Rome, was based on little more than good advertising and wishful thinking. 

* * * 

Open arms 

With all these tourists scoffing at martyrs and extolling the greatness of Cicero, how did the Church respond? Did she retreat grumpily behind the Vatican walls to stare alone at the darkening frescoes of the Sistine Chapel? Did she coldly ignore the misguided souls as they worshipped their new idols? 

No. The Roman Church responded to the irreligious tourist by opening her arms wider than ever. Pope Pius VI Bracci, proud custodian of the world’s finest collection of antiquities, opened the doors of the Pio-Clementine Museum in 1780, during the heyday of Grand Tourism. 

Designed by Michelangelo Simonetti and organized by Giovanni Battista Visconti, Pope Pius’ museum astounded the world. The Laocoon, Apollo Belvedere, Venus and Cupid, Cleopatra and hundreds more were made readily available to scholars, students and tourists. 

Arranged in large halls flooded with light that evoked their original placements, the collection was on every Top 10 list in Rome. Several lucky visitors, including Goethe, were able to tour the collection by candlelight in the evening when the idyllic setting and warm glow seemed a return to a golden age. (Visitors can still do this on Friday nights from spring through fall, as the Vatican Museums stay open late to the public). 

Pius VI enhanced the collection with many works excavated under his reign. From Tivoli he brought several muses as well as the head of Pericles, one of the most exciting finds of 1779, recorded in the poetry of Vincenzo Monti. The Athenian ruler and art patron was perfected in the person of Pius VI, administrator of the Eternal City, benefactor of the arts as well as Successor of St Peter. 

(Little did he know of course, th
at several of his visitors were taking notes about what to seize when Napoleon would conquer Rome in 1797, carrying off some 500 precious works to the Louvre.) 

The Grand Tourist spent months preparing for his trip. More than just perusing a little guide book, he studied Latin texts, learned Greek inscriptions, and understood history, styles and materials. This intellectual elite, proud of their hard-earned knowledge, were amazed to find the Curia as well informed about the art, language and literature as they were — if not more so. 

Pius VI led the example of erudition in the Curia, acting as tour guide for King Gustave III of Sweden. Gustave, king of Protestant Sweden, was amazed to find the Pope so interested in and knowledgeable about the art and culture of the ancient world. Indeed these ecclesiastics turned out to be a far cry from the superstitious old fools many Protestants had been told to expect. 

But for all the admiration the popes and prelates had for the ancients, they never forgot that the pagan world had imploded under its all-consuming pursuit of the temporal. Christians had been killed in the name of those beautifully crafted idols, when the ancients sought to force everyone to believe that men could become gods. But the revelation of God become man had patiently withstood the rages and ridicules of the pagan ancients, offered its martyrs to the entertainments of the arena, and prepared to pick up the pieces of a self-destructive society. 

At the entrance to the Pio-Clementine museum, Pius VI placed the splendid porphyry tombs of St. Helena and St. Costanza. Helena, mother of Constantine, was instrumental to her son’s sympathy toward Christianity, which would ultimately result in its legalization in 313 A.D.. She also made the long and arduous trip to the Holy Land to find the cross of Christ. The patroness of Christian archaeology if you will, St. Helena uncovered the tangible evidence of Christ’s salvific sacrifice. 

Helena’s granddaughter, Costanza, began life as any spoiled, privileged daughter of a king. In the midst of her comforts, extravagances and amusements, however, she found Christ through the virgin martyr St. Agnes and converted to Christianity. 

Pius’ arrangement of the museum taught a lesson valid for tourists of every age: Even the highest and most indulged members of Roman society saw the emptiness of their accomplished world. The high vaults of their temples contained nothing; the beautiful faces of their idols were but vacant masks. The greatest achievement of the Romans, that which allowed their accomplishments to be preserved and admired, was to turn away from their pagan gods and turn toward Christ. 

Some true pursuers of truth and wisdom continue to learn this lesson in Rome today.

— — — 

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at 

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