Share this page

Tuesday 8 December 2020

Collection Focus – Giovanni Panini, the Baroque and the Neoclassical

In our next Collection Focus, our volunteer Madeleine studies the painting by Panini in the Octagon Room and his position in the artistic movements of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Following my article on Impressionism, I immediately dived headfirst into the Richmond Borough Art Collection to source the next subject for my writing. There was one particular painting which I could not forget: Fred Fordham’s Architectural Capriccio with Roman Ruins (2017). Coincidentally, there is a fascinating story attached to this work.

In 2017, Fred Fordham – artist and author – was commissioned to recreate an 18th-Century work which had vanished from Orleans House Gallery around 50 years ago. The work in question originally hung in the Octagon Room and was executed by the established Italian painter, Giovanni Panini.

Fordham, Fred. Architectural Capriccio with Roman Ruins. 2017, oil on canvas, Richmond Borough Art Collection

In order to recreate Panini’s original work, Fordham initially used a single black and white photograph of the painting to accurately construct his replica in style and subject matter. A close observation and analysis of other works of Panini’s followed in order to accurately match the colours within his 2017 work. It is difficult to imagine the work in front of us having been completed just three years ago; Fordham’s finished result is an immaculate duplicate of the original Baroque painting. You can read more about the project and Fred Fordham’s response here.

Architectural Capriccio with Roman Ruins itself is a work which is overwhelming in its grandeur. It combines the good and the bad; victory and defeat; hope and despair. It is these works, which incorporate such binary oppositions, that come to hold an immense power over their viewer and eventually emerge as immortal works of art. The beautiful framing quality that the ruins hold within the composition entirely cement this sentiment for me. The ancient ruins within the centre of the composition draw us to the soldier on horseback who points towards the distant horizon; ultimately acting as a symbol of hope. Additionally, the framing ability of the ruins is so narrow and constricted that the technique gives way for a tunnel-vision effect. The viewer is directed from the darkness of the foreground and guided into the light of the centre and background. We are picked up from the rubble of the ruins and transported to the edge of the destruction looking onto the future.

As always, my first step when looking at a painting is researching the artist. For the purpose of this particular article, I will be concentrating on the original artist of the work, Giovanni Panini, and embarking on a deep-dive into the Baroque period.

Blanchet, Louis-Gabriel. Portrait of the Artist Giovanni Paolo Panini. 1736, oil on canvas, 97 x 76 cm, private collection. 

Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691-1765) was an Italian 18th-Century painter and architect who was best known for his vedute – a topological view often involving architectural elements. It has been argued that while Canaletto was the Venetian master of vedute, Panini was the master of the genre in Rome (The National Gallery, n.d.). It is interesting to observe how Panini and Canaletto are often placed within the same discourse on their respective vedute; on one hand, the two artists render beautifully detailed Italian urban landscapes; on the other, however, Panini’s vedute demonstrate a particular interest in Roman antiquities combined with capriccio themes which Canaletto’s works do not.

It must be said that both vedute and capricci fall into the more general term of landscape painting. However, there are stark differences between the two artistic styles. Whilst a ‘veduta’ is a detailed and largely factual painting, drawing or etching, a ‘capriccio’ refers to a work of art which represents a fantasy and combines real and imaginary features (Lucie-Smith, 1984). Typically, a capriccio incorporates an architectural fantasy with architectural ruins or fictional architectural placements.

The genre was made popular in the mid-17th Century by Roman artists Alessandro Salucci and Viviano Codazzi. However, it was in the 18th-Century that the term ‘capriccio’ took on the specific meaning of ‘fictional landscape’ amongst painters and it was during this period that notable vedute and capricci painters such as Marco Ricci, Canaletto and Giovanni Paolo Panini began to emerge. Capriccio painting remained a popular artistic style from its introduction in the Renaissance into the Baroque period.

Ricci, Marco. A Classical Ruin Capriccio. C. 1727-29, tempera on leather, 30 x 44.7 cm, The Royal Collection Trust, United Kingdom.

Canaletto. The Entrance to the Grand Canal, Venice. C. 1730, oil on canvas, 49.6 x 73.6 cm, 209 Nicandros Gallery, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, United States of America. 

Panini, Giovanni Paolo. Roman Capriccio: The Pantheon and Other Monuments. 1735, oil on canvas, 99 x 135.8 cm, Jane H. Fortune Gallery, Indianapolis Museum of Art, United States of America.

Generally speaking, the Baroque was a style of architecture, performance art and visual art which flourished in Europe from the early 17th-Century until the mid-18th Century. The 17th-Century was a period of volatile change and innovation; scientific, astronomical, philosophical and geographical development was mixed with intense religious upheaval. Initially, the Baroque was a reaction against its Renaissance and Mannerist predecessors with painters working deliberately to set themselves apart.

Alongside this, the emergence of the Baroque coincided with the Counter-Reformation, or Catholic Revival, of the 16th and early-17th Centuries. In fact, the Catholic Church overtly encouraged the Baroque as both an artistic and cultural movement. The Church saw the Baroque as a counteraction of and, more importantly, an opposition to the simplicity and austerity of Protestant artwork and architecture. The movement combined a definite separation from the elitism and coldness, which was present within Renaissance and Mannerist works, with the religious motive of creating artworks and architecture which spoke to the Catholic congregation – aiding the cause of the Counter-Reformation. By the 17th-Century, the religious element of the Baroque art movement was cemented, and Catholic artists were producing incredible works which they believed held a divine power to persuade and move their viewers. Ultimately, the Counter-Reformation played a pivotal role in the emergence of the Baroque as we know it today.

As mentioned previously, Baroque painters would intentionally employ contrasting styles and techniques to their predecessors in order to detach themselves from the Renaissance and Mannerist periods. The Baroque style consisted of a heightened use of contrast, movement, flamboyant detailing and deep, rich colours; all of which were executed with the desire to spark a divine sensation within the viewer. Artists would often construct spaces whereby paintings, sculptures and the overarching architecture would unite to create a ‘bel composto’ which would have a much greater impact on the viewer; further promoting such a transportation from the earthly world. This intensely realist style was fresh and gave way to the Baroque being termed a “grand theatre” (Phaidon, 2011). Rococo, which followed from Baroque art, would comprise of a much more delicate and enchanted stage.

Within the Baroque palette, artists would typically employ deeply rich and warm colours in combination with an elevated degree of chiaroscuro. The manipulation of light and darkness would become incredibly crucial in executing dramatic artworks that held the power to move the masses. Caravaggio was, and still is, the absolute master of this technique and his works exude romance, melodrama, and the Baroque.

Caravaggio. Supper at Emmaus. 1606, oil on canvas, 141 x 175 cm, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, Italy.

Asymmetry was another popular characteristic employed by Baroque artists within their compositions. One of the sole aims of Baroque artists was to keep their viewer’s attention within every aspect of the visual arrangement; the viewer’s consistent excitement when observing the work would be key in ensuring an emotional response. With no fixed axes, the works would often slant to the left or the right which would increase the sense of fluidity and movement. Alongside this, the ‘action’ of the scene would often occur away from the centre of the composition. All in all, aiding the key Baroque characteristic of movement and drama. Here, within Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith beheading Holofernes (1611-12), Judith dramatically leans away from the centre of the composition where Holofernes’ severed head lies.

Gentileschi, Artemisia. Judith beheading Holofernes. 1611-12, 159 x 126 cm, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy.

Despite Panini being more generally labelled as a Baroque painter and architect, it is also true to say that his works carry Neoclassical characteristics and techniques. Consequently, Panini has been hailed a forerunner of the movement. So, with that being said, let’s take a quick splash into Neoclassicism!

Neoclassicism, as defined within The Dictionary of Art Terms, was primarily a style of decoration based on Ancient Greek and Roman examples which emerged in the 1750s as a reaction against the Rococo (Lucie-Smith, 1984). Such a revival of Classical styles was entirely supported by the rediscovery of the ancient sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum which resulted in a considerable renewed fascination with antiquity. These discoveries would eventually infiltrate all the arts; both decorative and visual. As Classical art styles embodied realism and order, Neoclassicism became an essential element of the Enlightenment where a belief in human progress and human reason was of the utmost importance (Phaidon, 2011).

In its beginnings, the movement was promoted by the writings of Johann Joachim Winckelmann at the time of Pompeii and Herculaneum’s rediscoveries. However, Neoclassicism truly gained speed and momentum with the results of The Grand Tour during the 17th-Century. The Grand Tour was thought to be an “educational rite of passage, in which cultural understanding, foreign languages and social connection would be acquired” and was undertaken by young, aristocratic men through Western Europe to Italy. Art students would complete their Grand Tour and return to their home countries with freshly discovered ideals surrounding antiquity (Phaidon, 2011).

Ultimately, Neoclassical painting is characterised by a linear composition, smooth brushwork, a minimal palette, and clear definition of its forms. Neoclassical works also include a subject matter which relates to either Greco or Roman history; this could be related to the figures present within the work or other cultural attributes. Typically, such subject matter will be taken straight from historic events, mythological scenes or architecture from Ancient Rome or Greece. With this being said, Panini’s capricci overtly draw inspiration from the sites of Ancient Rome, enabling his artistic oeuvre to become a melting pot of the Baroque and Neoclassical. Here are just a few of some unforgettable Neoclassical works, including one of Panini’s.

David, Jacques-Louis. Oath of the Horatii. 1784, oil on canvas, 330 x 425 cm, Musee du Louvre, Paris, France. 

Mengs, Anton Raphael. Parnassus. 1761, oil on canvas, 55 x 101 cm, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia. 

Panini, Giovanni Paolo. Fantasy view with the Pantheon and other monuments of Ancient Rome. 1737, oil on canvas, 98.9 x 137.49 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, United States of America

Through such an examination of artistic movements and periods in relation to works of art, it is strikingly clear that each and every piece produced has been brought about by a very specific set of factors. Without even just one of those said factors, any artistic movement, and the resulting artwork, would have become slightly contrasted to the one that we are familiar with today. For example, if the Counter-Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries were not to have taken place, the Baroque as a cultural movement – let alone an artistic one – would have an entirely different significance.

Fred Fordhams’s Architectural Capriccio with Roman Ruins can be found on display within the Octagon Room, where Panini’s once hung. Of course, if you are too impatient, the incredible work can be viewed here on our website as part of the digitised Richmond Borough Art Collection.

Madeleine Luxton

I have recently graduated from the University of East Anglia with a degree in History and History of Art. I am thoroughly enjoying my time exploring the art world and have already become enamoured with one of London’s hidden gems – Orleans House Gallery! Volunteering at Orleans House Gallery has allowed me to meet fellow art enthusiasts and to broaden my passion in helping the art world become much more accessible. My favourite artists are Edouard Manet, Diego Rivera, Robert Rauschenberg and Tracey Emin.

You can read all of our volunteers’ articles on works from the collection on our News page.

Would you like to write your own article about the collection? Join our volunteer team and you could be featured next! For this, and other opportunities, visit our Volunteering page.