After Mrs. Andriadis’ party and an exhaustingly long night out, Nick returns to the neighborhood of his shabby flat in Shepherd Market, gentrified today but then a precinct of “seedy glory” in his eyes. In reality, the walk through Mayfair is only a few minutes, but Powell makes it seem like a journey through time. In a sweeping passage evoking the romantic beauty of sunrise over this ruinous quarter, Powell invokes no fewer than four eighteenth-century artists to help paint the scene:
“Now, touched almost mystically, like another Stonehenge, by the first rays of the morning sun, the spot seemed one of those clusters of tumble-down dwellings depicted by Canaletto or Piranesi, habitations from amongst which arches, obelisks and viaducts, ruined and overgrown with ivy, arise from the mean houses huddled together below them . . . . As I penetrated farther into the heart of that rookery, in the direction of my own door, there even stood, as if waiting to greet a friend, one of those indeterminate figures that occur so frequently in the pictures of the kind suggested—Hubert Robert or Pannini––in which the architectural subject predominates.” [BM 161-2/153-4]
Canaletto is the name by which we now know the Venetian painter Giovanni Antonio Canal (1697-1768), famous for his majestic depictions of Venice, at once panoramic and filled with local incident and detail. Powell alludes to the way in which Canaletto’s admiration for Venice’s architectural splendors blends seamlessly with his attention to the squalor of everyday life in La Serenissima. Canaletto’s paintings were highly prized by English visitors to Italy, and many Canalettos found their way into the great British collections. Late in his career Canaletto moved to England, where he painted many scenes of London and the great houses in the surrounding countryside, but his genius seems not as well suited to this terrain as to his native city, and the English paintings are not among his most highly regarded.
The Stonemason’s Yard, reproduced here, gives a sense of Canaletto’s proto-Romantic pairing of the humble and the sublime that so moves Nick as he approaches Shepherd Market.
Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), accomplished for the glories of Rome what Canaletto had begun a generation earlier for Venice, though with a difference. The apex of Venetian hegemony over the eastern Mediterranean had only recently passed, and perhaps that passing was not even fully apparent to Venetians of Canaletto’s generation. In Canaletto’s Venetian panoramas the contrast is between public splendor and private humility. In Piranesi’s work the architectural wonders of Imperial Rome are artifacts of an Arcadian past, almost invisible to medieval Romans, and now an occasion for archeology and nostalgia.
Piranesi studied as an architect and draughtsman in Venice, where his uncanny mastery of linear perspective became apparent. He moved to Rome in 1740 and studied etching and engraving, and at the same time furthered his architectural studies by measuring meticulously the ancient ruins that underlay the 18th century city. These experiences combined to inform his lifelong magnum opus, a series of etched drawings of vedute, or views, of Rome, in which the ruins of its ancient monuments survive cheek by jowl with the litter of their successors through the centuries. In many cases, Piranesi’s views are examples of visual archeology, because he used his architectural knowledge and measurement data to “restore” ancient buildings in his drawings as they would come to be restored literally by future generations. In addition, Piranesi’s mastery of perspective allowed him to alter the scales of monuments, convincingly, to accentuate a sense of romantic nostalgia for a lost classical past. Piranesi was enormously successful in publishing and selling his etchings during his lifetime, and a huge industry persists to this day in the trade of his original prints, posthumous prints of his original plates, restrikes made from those plates, and lithographic posters printed from photographs of his original work.
Reproduced here is Piranesi’s View of the Inside of the Atrium of the Porta di Ottavia, in which contemporary Romans seem to toil almost oblivious of their noble surroundings.
Hubert Robert (1733-1808) and Giovanni Paolo Panini (1692-1765) are the two additional view painters whom Nick invokes to suggest the insignificance, in comparison to its architectural surroundings, of the figure lurking in his doorway (soon to be identified as the all too significant Uncle Giles). Robert was a Parisian, Panini from Piacenza in northern Italy, and both found their way to Rome as a result of renewed Europe-wide interest in the excavation of classical ruins. Panini was the elder artist and employed Robert in his workshop; both associated with Piranesi and with Robert’s French contemporary, Jean-Honore Fragonard. While neither Robert nor Panini are very popular with contemporary general audiences, their reputations among scholars has not diminished noticeably, and both painters were enormously successful in their time, especially among wealthy tourists on the Grand Tour who could afford to take home a really grand souvenir of Rome.
Both Robert and Panini were fond of architectural fantasies and dreams of a classical past, as in Robert’s Temple of Philosophy at Ermenonville, but both were also masters of documentary exactitude, as the Panini Interior View of St. Peter’s, Rome, suggests exquisitely.
We will finish with a photo of Shepherd’s Market, taken a few years later in 1938, to show how much morning light, mood, and imagingation romanticized Jenkins’ perception.