Travels through France and Italy, by Tobias Smollett

Letter XXXIII

Nice, March 30, 1765.

DEAR SIR — YOU must not imagine I saw one half of the valuable pictures and statues of Rome; there is such a vast number of both in this capital, that I might have spent a whole year in taking even a transient view of them; and, after all, some of them would have been overlooked. The most celebrated pieces, however, I have seen; and therefore my curiosity is satisfied. Perhaps, if I had the nice discernment and delicate sensibility of a true connoisseur, this superficial glimpse would have served only to whet my appetite, and to detain me the whole winter at Rome. In my progress through the Vatican, I was much pleased with the School of Athens, by Raphael, a piece which hath suffered from the dampness of the air. The four boys attending to the demonstration of the mathematician are admirably varied in the expression. Mr. Webb’s criticism on this artist is certainly just. He was perhaps the best ethic painter that ever the world produced. No man ever expressed the sentiments so happily, in visage, attitude, and gesture: but he seems to have had too much phlegm to strike off the grand passions, or reach the sublime parts of painting. He has the serenity of Virgil, but wants the fire of Homer. There is nothing in his Parnassus which struck me, but the ludicrous impropriety of Apollo’s playing upon a fiddle, for the entertainment of the nine muses. [Upon better information I must retract this censure; in as much, as I find there was really a Musical Instrument among the antients of this Figure, as appears by a small statue in Bronze, to be still seen in the Florentine Collection.]

The Last Judgment, by Buonaroti, in the chapel of Sixtus IV. produced to my eye the same sort of confusion, that perplexes my ear at a grand concert, consisting of a great variety of instruments: or rather, when a number of people are talking all at once. I was pleased with the strength of expression, exhibited in single figures, and separate groupes: but, the whole together is a mere mob, without subordination, keeping, or repose. A painter ought to avoid all subjects that require a multiplicity of groupes and figures; because it is not in the power of that art to unite a great number in one point of view, so as to maintain that dependence which they ought to have upon one another. Michael Angelo, with all his skill in anatomy, his correctness of design, his grand composition, his fire, and force of expression, seems to have had very little idea of grace. One would imagine he had chosen his kings, heroes, cardinals, and prelates, from among the facchini of Rome: that he really drew his Jesus on the Cross, from the agonies of some vulgar assassin expiring on the wheel; and that the originals of his Bambini, with their mothers, were literally found in a stable. In the Sala Regia, from whence the Sistian chapel is detached, we see, among other exploits of catholic heroes, a representation of the massacre of the protestants in Paris, Tholouse, and other parts of France, on the eve of St. Bartholomew, thus described in the Descrizione di Roma, “Nella prima pittura, esprime Georgio Vasari l’istoria del Coligni, grand’ amiraglio, di Francia, che come capo de ribelli, e degl’ugonotti, fu ucciso; e nell’altra vicina, la strage fatta in Parigi, e nel regno, de rebelli, e degl’Ugonotti.” “In the first picture, George Vasari represents the history of Coligni, high admiral of France, who was slain as head of the rebels and huegonots; and in another near it, the slaughter that was made of the rebels and huegonots in Paris and other parts of the kingdom.” Thus the court of Rome hath employed their artists to celebrate and perpetuate, as a meritorious action, the most perfidious, cruel, and infamous massacre, that ever disgraced the annals of any nation.

I need not mention the two equestrian statues of Constantine the Great, and Charlemagne, which stand at opposite ends of the great portico of St. Peter’s church; because there is nothing in them which particularly engaged my attention. The sleeping Cleopatra, as you enter the court of the Belvedere, in the Vatican, is much admired; but I was better pleased with the Apollo, which I take to be the most beautiful statue that ever was formed. The Nile, which lies in the open court, surmounted with the little children, has infinite merit; but is much damaged, and altogether neglected. Whether it is the same described in Pliny, as having been placed by Vespasian in the Temple of Peace, I do not know. The sixteen children playing about it, denoted the swelling of the Nile, which never rose above sixteen cubits. As for the famous groupe of Laocoon, it surpassed my expectation. It was not without reason that Buonaroti called it a portentous work; and Pliny has done it no more than justice in saying it is the most excellent piece that ever was cut in marble; and yet the famous Fulvius Ursini is of opinion that this is not the same statue which Pliny described. His reasons, mentioned by Montfaucon, are these. The statues described by Pliny were of one stone; but these are not. Antonioli, the antiquary, has in his Possession, pieces of Laocoon’s snakes, which were found in the ground, where the baths of Titus actually stood, agreeable to Pliny, who says these statues were placed in the buildings of Titus. Be that as it may, the work which we now see does honour to antiquity. As you have seen innumerable copies and casts of it, in marble, plaister, copper, lead, drawings, and prints, and read the description of it in Keysler, and twenty other books of travels, I shall say nothing more on the subject; but that neither they nor I, nor any other person, could say too much in its praise. It is not of one piece indeed. In that particular Pliny himself might be mistaken. “Opus omnibus et picturae, et statuariae artis praeponendum. Ex uno lapide eum et Liberos draconumque mirabiles nexus de consilii sententia fecere succubi artifices.” “A work preferable to all the other Efforts of Painting and Statuary. The most excellent artists joined their Talents in making the Father and his Sons, together with the admirable Twinings of the Serpents, of one Block.” Buonaroti discovered the joinings, though they were so artfully concealed as to be before invisible. This amazing groupe is the work of three Rhodian sculptors, called Agesander, Polydore, and Athenodorus, and was found in the thermae of Titus Vespasian, still supposing it to be the true antique. As for the torso, or mutilated trunk of a statue, which is called the school of Michael Angelo, I had not time to consider it attentively; nor taste enough to perceive its beauties at first sight. The famous horses on Monte Cavallo, before the pope’s palace, which are said to have been made in emulation, by Phidias and Praxiteles, I have seen, and likewise those in the front of the Capitol, with the statues of Castor and Pollux; but what pleased me infinitely more than all of them together, is the equestrian statue of Corinthian brass, standing in the middle of this Piazza (I mean at the Capitol) said to represent the emperor Marcus Aurelius. Others suppose it was intended for Lucius Verus; a third set of antiquaries contend for Lucius Septimius Severus; and a fourth, for Constantine, because it stood in the Piazza of the Lateran palace, built by that emperor, from whence pope Paul III. caused it to be removed to the Capitol. I considered the trophy of Marius as a very curious piece of sculpture, and admired the two sphinxes at the bottom of the stairs leading to this Piazza, as the only good specimens of design I have ever seen from Aegypt: for the two idols of that country, which stand in the ground floor of the Musaeum of the Capitol, and indeed all the Aegyptian statues in the Camera Aegyptiaca of this very building, are such monstrous misrepresentations of nature, that they never could have obtained a place among the statues of Rome, except as curiosities of foreign superstition, or on account of the materials, as they are generally of basaltes, porphyry, or oriental granite.

At the farther end of the court of this Musaeum, fronting the entrance, is a handsome fountain, with the statue of a river-god reclining on his urn; this is no other than the famous Marforio, so called from its having been found in Martis Fore. It is remarkable only as being the conveyance of the answers to the satires which are found pasted upon Pasquin, another mutilated statue, standing at the corner of a street.

The marble coffin, supposed to have contained the ashes of Alexander Severus, which we find in one of these apartments, is a curious antique, valuable for its sculpture in basso relievo, especially for the figures on the cover, representilig that emperor and his mother Julia Mammea.

I was sorry I had not time to consider the antient plan of Rome, disposed in six classes, on the stair-case of this Musaeum, which was brought hither from a temple that stood in the Forum Boarium, now called Campo vaccine.

It would be ridiculous in me to enter into a detail of the vast collection of marbles, basso relievos, inscriptions, urns, busts, and statues, which are placed in the upper apartments of this edifice. I saw them but once, and then I was struck with the following particulars. A bacchanalian drunk; a Jupiter and Leda, at least equal to that in the gallery at Florence; an old praesica, or hired mourner, very much resembling those wrinkled hags still employed in Ireland, and in the Highlands of Scotland, to sing the coronach at funerals, in praise of the deceased; the famous Antinous, an elegant figure, which Pousin studied as canon or rule of symmetry; the two fauns; and above all the mirmillone, or dying gladiator; the attitude of the body, the expression of the countenance, the elegance of the limbs, and the swelling of the muscles, in this statue, are universally admired; but the execution of the back is incredibly delicate. The course of the muscles called longissimi dorsi, are so naturally marked and tenderly executed, that the marble actually emulates the softness of the flesh; and you may count all the spines of the vertebrae, raising up the skin as in the living body; yet this statue, with all its merit, seems inferior to the celebrated dying gladiator of Ctesilas, as described by Pliny, who says the expression of it was such, as appears altogether incredible. In the court, on the opposite side of the Capitol, there is an admirable statue of a lion devouring an horse, which was found by the gate of Ostia, near the pyramid of Caius Cestius; and here on the left hand, under a colonade, is what they call the Columna Rostrata, erected in honour of Caius Duilius, who first triumphed over the Carthaginians by sea. But this is a modern pillar, with the old inscription, which is so defaced as not to be legible. Among the pictures in the gallery and saloon above, what pleased me most was the Bacchus and Ariadne of Guido Rheni; and the wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, by Rubens. The court of the Palazzo Farnese is surrounded with antique statues, among which the most celebrated are, the Flora, with a most delicate drapery; the gladiator, with a dead boy over his shoulder; the Hercules, with the spoils of the Nemean lion, but that which the connoisseurs justly esteem above all the rest is Hercules, by Glycon, which you know as well as I do, by the great reputation it has acquired. This admirable statue having been found without the legs, these were supplied by Gulielmo de la Porta so happily, that when afterwards the original limbs were discovered, Michael Angelo preferred those of the modern artist, both in grace and proportion; and they have been retained accordingly. In a little house, or shed, behind the court, is preserved the wonderful group of Dirce, commonly called the Toro Farnese, which was brought hither from the thermae Caracallae. There is such spirit, ferocity, and indignant resistance expressed in the bull, to whose horns Dirce is tied by the hair, that I have never seen anything like it, either upon canvass, or in stone. The statues of the two brothers endeavouring to throw him into the sea are beautiful figures, finely contrasted; and the rope, which one of them holds in a sort of loose coil, is so surprisingly chizzelled, that one can hardly believe it is of stone. As for Dirce herself, she seems to be but a subaltern character; there is a dog upon his hind legs barking at the bull, which is much admired. This amazing groupe was cut out of one stone, by Appollonius and Tauriscus, two sculptors of Rhodes; and is mentioned by Pliny in the thirty-sixth book of his Natural History. All the precious monuments of art, which have come down to us from antiquity, are the productions of Greek artists. The Romans had taste enough to admire the arts of Greece, as plainly appears by the great collections they made of their statues and pictures, as well as by adopting their architecture and musick: but I do not remember to have read of any Roman who made a great figure either as a painter or a statuary. It is not enough to say those professions were not honourable in Rome, because painting, sculpture, and musick, even rhetoric, physic, and philosophy were practised and taught by slaves. The arts were always honoured and revered at Rome, even when the professors of them happened to be slaves by the accidents and iniquity of fortune. The business of painting and statuary was so profitable, that in a free republic, like that of Rome, they must have been greedily embraced by a great number of individuals: but, in all probability, the Roman soil produced no extraordinary genius for those arts. Like the English of this day, they made a figure in poetry, history, and ethics; but the excellence of painting, sculpture, architecture, and music, they never could attain. In the Palazzo Picchini I saw three beautiful figures, the celebrated statues of Meleager, the boar, and dog; together with a wolf, of excellent workmanship. The celebrated statue of Moses, by Michael Angelo, in the church of St. Peter in Vincula, I beheld with pleasure; as well as that of Christ, by the same hand, in the Church of S. Maria sopra Minerva. The right foot, covered with bronze, gilt, is much kissed by the devotees. I suppose it is looked upon as a specific for the toothache; for, I saw a cavalier, in years, and an old woman successively rub their gums upon it, with the appearance of the most painful perseverance.

You need not doubt but that I went to the church of St. Peter in Montorio, to view the celebrated Transfiguration, by Raphael, which, if it was mine, I would cut in two parts. The three figures in the air attract the eye so strongly, that little or no attention is payed to those below on the mountain. I apprehend that the nature of the subject does not admit of that keeping and dependence, which ought to be maintained in the disposition of the lights and shadows in a picture. The groupes seem to be intirely independent of each other. The extraordinary merit of this piece, I imagine, consists, not only in the expression of divinity on the face of Christ; but also in the surprising lightness of the figure, that hovers like a beautiful exhalation in the air. In the church of St. Luke, I was not at all struck by the picture of that saint, drawing the portrait of the Virgin Mary, although it is admired as one of the best pieces of Raphael. Indeed it made so little impression upon me, that I do not even remember the disposition of the figures. The altar-piece, by Andrea Sacchi, in the church of St. Romauldus, would have more merit, if the figure of the saint himself had more consequence, and was represented in a stronger light. In the Palazzo Borghese, I chiefly admired the following pieces: a Venus with two nymphs; and another with Cupid, both by Titian: an excellent Roman Piety, by Leonardo da Vinci; and the celebrated Muse, by Dominechino, which is a fine, jolly, buxom figure. At the palace of Colorina Connestabile, I was charmed with the Herodias, by Guido Rheni; a young Christ; and a Madonna, by Raphael; and four landscapes, two by Claude Lorraine, and the other two, by Salvator Rosa. In the palazetto, or summerhouse belonging to the Palazzo Rospigliosi, I had the satisfaction of contemplating the Aurora of Guido, the colours of which still remain in high perfection, notwithstanding the common report that the piece is spoiled by the dampness of the apartment. The print of this picture, by Freij, with all its merit, conveys but an imperfect idea of the beauty of the original. In the Palazzo Barberini, there is a great collection of marbles and pictures: among the first, I was attracted by a beautiful statue of Venus; a sleeping faun, of curious workmanship; a charming Bacchus, lying on an antient sculpture, and the famous Narcissus. Of the pictures, what gave me most pleasure was the Magdalen of Guido, infinitely superior to that by Le Brun in the church of the Carmelites at Paris; the Virgin, by Titian; a Madonna, by Raphael, but not comparable to that which is in the Palazzo de Pitti, at Florence; and the death of Germanicus, by Poussin, which I take to be one of the best pieces in this great collection. In the Palazzo Falconeri there is a beautiful St. Cecilia, by Guercino; a holy family, by Raphael; and a fine expressive figure of St. Peter weeping, by Dominechino. In the Palazzo Altieri, I admired a picture, by Carlo Maratti, representing a saint calling down lightning from heaven to destroy blasphemers. It was the figure of the saint I admired, merely as a portrait. The execution of the other parts was tame enough: perhaps they were purposely kept down, in order to preserve the importance of the principal figure. I imagine Salvator Rosa would have made a different disposition on the same subject: that amidst the darkness of a tempest, he would have illuminated the blasphemer with the flash of lightning by which he was destroyed: this would have thrown a dismal gleam upon his countenance, distorted by the horror of his situation as well as by the effects of the fire; and rendered the whole scene dreadfully picturesque. In the same palace, I saw the famous holy family, by Corregio, which he left unfinished, and no other artist would undertake to supply; for what reason I know not. Here too is a judgment of Paris, by Titian, which is reckoned a very valuable piece. In the Palazzo Odescalchi, there is a holy family, by Buonaroti, and another by Raphael, both counted excellent, though in very different stiles, extremely characteristic of those two great rival artists.

If I was silly enough to make a parade, I might mention some hundreds more of marbles and pictures, which I really saw at Rome; and even eke out that number with a huge list of those I did not see: but whatever vanity I may have, it has not taken this turn; and I assure you, upon my word and honour, I have described nothing but what actually fell under my own observation. As for my critical remarks, I am afraid you will think them too superficial and capricious to belong to any other person but — Your humble servant.

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