Penelope's Weavings and Unpickings

Recycled Piranesis and an impossible Pantheon: The Grand Tour paintings from the Ebony Bedroom at Charlecote Park in Warwickshire

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on October 25, 2012

In late August my sister and I took our mother for a birthday day out, which included an afternoon visit to Charlecote Park National Trust property in Warwickshire. Charlecote is a lovely 16th-century red brick property, set on an estate which has been home to the Lucy family from the 12th century right up to the present day, and we very much enjoyed exploring its grounds in beautiful sunny weather. Late in the afternoon, my mother and I looked round the rooms of the property itself, and ended our visit in the Ebony bedroom – so called after the grand ebony-wood bed which dominates the room.

What really caught my eye, though, was not the bed but the set of paintings on the walls, brought back to Charlecote Park by George Lucy (master of the house from 1744 to 1786) after a Grand Tour undertaken in the late 1750s. There are fourteen of them in total (although the volunteer guide in the room told us that there had once been twenty), depicting romantic scenes of semi-ruined monuments from ancient Rome. But as we chatted about them to the guide, he mentioned that no-one who worked at the property today knew exactly what the monuments depicted were. Well, I did. I could see straight away what several of them were, and knew it wouldn’t take me long with access to the right books to identify the others. And it seemed such a pity for the subjects of the pictures to go on being unidentified when I could so easily sort that out. So after I had returned to Leeds at the end of the weekend, I wrote to the House Steward offering to identify the monuments shown if she could send me some pictures of them to work from. She kindly obliged, and I got to work.

At first, I simply focused on identifying the monuments shown in the paintings. Most I recognised immediately, while others could be tracked down fairly easily, just as I had suspected. Of the fourteen pictures in the house, half showed scenes from Rome itself, including well-known monuments such as the remains of the Forum, the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, the round temple in the Forum Boarium and the Pantheon. Three more showed tombs and aqueduct arches along the roads leading out from Rome into the Campagna; a further three ventured to Tivoli (twenty-five miles east of Rome) for the so-called ‘Tempio della Tosse‘ and two views of the Anio falls; and one final picture showed the supposed tomb of Virgil just outside Naples.

But I quickly realised as I jotted down the names of the monuments that some of the scenes looked awfully familiar. Following a hunch, I tracked down some engravings of the same monuments by Piranesi, and sure enough, I found that at least five of the Charlecote paintings had clearly been modelled directly on his work. A good example is the image of the so-called ‘Tempio della Salute’ (Temple of Health) near to the Via Appia, about 3 miles south-east of Rome – today recognised not as a temple at all, but as a second-century monumental brick-built tomb. Below is the Charlecote Park image and the Piranesi equivalent:

Image reproduced with permission. Photograph by Claire Reeves.

Image taken from Wikicommons.

It’s not just that these two images are very similar in their composition, surrounding scenery and figures – including the goats! The real give-away to their relationship lies in the two distinctive triangular shadows shown on the side of the monument in each. These could not have been cast by any real structure, since nothing appropriate stands nearby. Rather, they were probably added by Piranesi to his engraving to evoke monuments from other parts of Rome like the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, and create the sense of a wider landscape of ruins around this structure. (This is very typical of the way Piranesi worked – his views of ruined monuments were often romanticised, presenting the monument itself with the accurate eye of an architect, but freely embellishing the context.) The presence of the exact same shadows on the Charlecote Park painting is enough to show that its artist must have used Piranesi’s engraving as a model, creatively recycling it (shall we say?) as the basis for a gouache colour painting.

Piranesi was not the only influence I could detect behind these paintings. The Charlecote painting of the tomb of Virgil, for example, likewise shares the same composition and figures as this image, also from the 18th century. But it’s no great surprise to find that Piranesi’s engravings were the single greatest source of inspiration for the Charlecote artist. George Lucy’s visit to Italy would have taken place right at the height of Piranesi’s career and just when his engravings were first taking Rome by storm. His drawings attracted great admiration in their own right, and helped to drive an already growing interest in Rome’s monuments to even greater heights. So of course contemporary Roman artists were busy replicating them (and others like them) for English gentlemen like George Lucy to buy and take home as a souvenirs. The blatant copying by direct contemporaries seems rather shocking to us, but this was a world which lacked even the concept of copyright. And perhaps having colour paintings of Piranesi’s images instead of the rather severe black and white originals even seemed like the superior option, rather than the cheap knock-off alternative?

Meanwhile, one painting must be based on an image by an artist considerably earlier than Piranesi. That is the Charlecote Park image of the Pantheon, which looks like this:

Image reproduced with permission. Photograph by Claire Reeves.

The Pantheon can never have looked quite as it is shown in this painting, as some fine-detail architectural history (gleaned in particular from this excellent article by Tod A. Marder) and other contemporary images reveal. Firstly, during the medieval period, the left-hand end of the Pantheon’s front portico was engulfed in adjoining buildings, and a single central bell-tower was built on top of the pediment. A drawing by Van Heemskerck dated 1532-36 shows it in this state:

Image from here.

Between 1626 and 1633, pope Urban VIII had the central bell-tower removed, and two new ones, popularly known as le orecchie d’asino (the asses’ ears), built onto either side of the pediment. He also had the front left corner of the portico repaired, but otherwise left the medieval buildings butting up against it at the side in place. A drawing by Stefano della Bella dated 1656 shows the results of his work:

Image from here.

The medieval buildings were then finally demolished in 1662 on the orders of pope Alexander VII. He also had the portico fully repaired in 1666-7, and two columns still missing from the side replaced using ancient columns found near S. Luigi dei Francesci, probably originally from the baths of Nero. But the asses’ ears remained in place, and were not removed until 1883. Piranesi’s engraving of the Pantheon from a century later, in 1761, captures very nicely what it looked like after Alexander VII’s intervention:

Image from here.

Meanwhile, the Charlecote Park version of the Pantheon shows it without either the adjoining medieval buildings or the asses’ ears. But this is impossible, since the asses’ ears were added before the medieval buildings were removed. In fact, the Charlecote painting seems to show a yawning gap where those buildings had been, before the repairs at this end of the portico were completed on the orders of Alexander VII. This makes me suspect that this image of the Pantheon was originally created while that work was underway in the 1660s, but that the artist deliberately chose to omit the asses’ ears. Not a very surprising choice, given how much everyone seems to have hated them!

Presumably, that original image was then reworked around a century later to create the Charlecote painting, which clearly fits in right alongside the rest of the set in stylistic terms. I can’t track down an exact original model for this particular image, but it would have been very odd indeed for somebody painting the Pantheon in the 1750s or ’60s to think to show the left-hand end of its portico in a semi-ruined state, give that it hadn’t looked like that for almost a century by then. You have to wonder, though, how the decision to depict the Pantheon in this way, rather than as it actually looked in the 1750s, came about. Did the artist choose to depict the Pantheon stripped of later additions or repairs, because he (or she) had found that customers generally preferred Roman ruins which looked as though they had simply crumbled away gently for centuries, untouched by human hands? Or was it simply an accident arising from whatever original image he or she was working from? Similarly, did George Lucy actively choose a painting which showed the monument in this light – or, conversely, did he even notice that it didn’t look quite like the Pantheon as he had actually seen it?

There are all sorts of further questions I’d like to answer about these paintings, for that matter. Another one would be how closely the geographical settings of the paintings match up with the places which Lucy actually visited while he was in Italy. Did he, for example, go down to Naples and see the supposed tomb of Virgil for himself? I’m also interested to note that Lucy’s visit to Italy seems to have taken place in the late 1750s, but (as far as I’m aware at the moment) Piranesi’s engravings of the Porta Tiburtina and the Nymphaeum of Alexander Severus first came out in 1761. These were clearly the sources for two of the Charlecote paintings, which that ought to mean the latter couldn’t have been painted until 1761 or later. But I’d need to do some library work to double-check that this really was the original publication date for the Piranesi engravings, and not just the date of a reissue. If correct, though, it might mean that George Lucy bought the paintings via agents after he himself had returned home – so perhaps he never even knew about the Piranesi images which they had been modelled on.

Recycled or not, though, this is a fantastic set of paintings which say a lot about the tastes and sensibilities of 18th century Grand Tourists – and the people who catered for them! I’m very glad to have come across them on a summer’s afternoon, and I hope I will have the chance to delve deeper into their history very soon.

7 Responses to “Recycled Piranesis and an impossible Pantheon: The Grand Tour paintings from the Ebony Bedroom at Charlecote Park in Warwickshire”

  1. Juliette said

    Now I’m feeling guilty – when I visited a few years ago, I pointed out the ones I knew like the Pantheon and pyramid and explained those to the volunteer in the room, but didn’t look into what the others were!

    • Heh – I wonder how many other Classicists have been there and done much the same thing? Don’t feel guilty about it, though – we can’t all do everything. It just happens that these rather caught my fancy, so I wanted to help out. I’ve sent a full list with the details of each monument to the House Steward, as well as some comments on the recycling and anachronism which I’ve talked about here. So now the volunteers in the house will be able to share it all with future visitors as well.

  2. Thanks so much for sending us the additional information Penny! Our house team are very grateful to you. We love to learn more about the collection and it is amazing the information we can glean from our visitors!

    Hope to see you back at Charlecote again soon.

    • Thanks for your comment, and I’m glad you found the blog post. Please do feel very free to share it with your guides and visitors. I think the paintings in the Ebony bedroom are a lovely set with a very interesting story to tell, and I’m glad to have helped bring that to light.

  3. [...] Recycled Piranesis and an impossible Pantheon: The Grand Tour paintings from the Ebony Bedroom at Ch…. [...]

  4. Thanks for this fascinating blogpost. I particularly enjoyed the detective work about the Pantheon, an example of the sort of mystery to which there may not be a definite answer. I will have to take a look at the paintings next time I’m at Charlecote (my nearest NT house).

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