Our Assistant Preparator went to Rome and all we got was this knowledge he dropped.
Rome shares a nickname with my birthplace, Lisbon, Portugal, as the “City of the Seven Hills”. But this is only one of Rome’s several nicknames, and it is world famous by the magnificent title of the “Eternal City”. At the time of Christ’s birth, Rome was the most populous city in existence. The capital of an enormous empire, Rome survived the rise and fall of the Imperium, several barbarian invasions, Napoleon’s conquest, and even a world war. Presently, it is a chaotic European city pulsating with millions of people visiting the Coliseum or the Pantheon, spending money at the Vatican Museum, and crowding the narrow streets that converge at the Fontana di Trevi.
I took a picture in the Piazza di Popolo, which translates to “People’s Square”, knowing that the Brooks Museum has a painting of this piazza by the Dutch artist Gaspar van Wittel on view as part of its permanent collection. Painted in 1683, Wittel depicts daily life in Rome as running quite harmoniously around the Egyptian needle, which marks the center of the rectangular piazza. On the far end, two twin buildings stand out: the churches of Santa Maria Deli Miracolli and Santa Maria deli Montesanto. Compare the painting to my humble photo and you can tell Wittel was working from a high vantage point. His semi-aerial view of the piazza shows it in magnitude, with a clear view of the facades, and with more magnificent detail than any camera could capture. The photo is populated, or I should say overpopulated, with tourists making their way through the city, most likely on their way to the world famous stairs of Piazza di Spagna. (Too little, too late, we just learned the Photoshop trick to getting those pesky tourists out.)
But if we look at the buildings, remarkably little has changed since Wittel painted the piazza in the late-18th century. It’s one reason why, out of all the cities in the world, Rome unquestionably deserves to be named the Eternal City!
Luis Seixas, Assistant Preparator at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art
Gaspar van Wittel
Dutch, 1653 – 1736
Piazzo Del Popolo, Rome, ca. 1683
Oil on canvas
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, Tennessee
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Hugo N. Dixon, 54.4