The Idea of Beauty: Seventeenth-century Rome Seen through the Eyes of Giovan Pietro Bellori

March 29 > June 26, 2000

29 March - 26 June 2000

The exhibition's title alluded to an artistic theory founded on the cult of classical antiquity that inspired many of the Italian artists active in Rome during the seventeenth century, including Alessandro Algardi, Annibale Carracci, Domenichino, Carlo Maratti, Guido Reni and Andrea Sacchi, as well as a number of foreign artists, Poussin and Duquesnoy in particular. According to this theory, which Giovan Pietro Bellori presented during a famous speech at the Accademia di San Luca in Rome in 1664, art should be understood as the imitation of nature with all its flaws removed; an idealized nature, therefore, in line with a vision inspired by order and restraint; an art with the power of exalting noble actions, expressed by the decorum of gestures and heightening of emotions, in keeping with the models provided by the ancient sculptures present in Rome, as well as the paintings of Raphael.

The subtitle referred to the arrangement of the exhibit, which was conceived of as spanning a long historical period particularly rich in artistic events, with Giovan Pietro Bellori's book, Le Vite (Lives) as a guide. This work was devoted to those artists who adhered to the ‘Idea of Beauty,' but also included Caravaggio, Rubens and Van Dyke, who produced works that moved in a very different direction, but possessed an extraordinary power and novelty that Bellori was quick to recognize. Yet Bellori was not concerned solely with artists of his own time, or immediately prior to it. A Roman, a man of letters, a lover of antiques, numismatics, and books, he was an advisor to Queen Christina of Sweden as well as the Cardinal Camillo Massimo; he was also the papal superintendent of Roman antiquities at a crucial time when many significant archeological finds were coming to light.

This unique figure thus appeared to be an excellent eyewitness to a period which not only saw the creation of works of art with the power to influence broader European trends, but was also one in which the foundations of modern archeology were laid, as well as the concepts of the preservation and enhancement of Italy's cultural heritage, a function now entrusted to the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, which promoted and arranged the exhibition.

The exhibition's great novelty consisted in the direct comparison of antique and modern. Occupying two floors of the Palazzo delle Esposizioni as well as the adjacent ex-Teatro dei Dioscuri, it led visitors past over 800 works, including paintings, sculptures, mosaics, jewelry and medallions, lent by museums from all over the world.

In the first part, seventeenth-century sculptures and paintings were on display, alongside statues, bas-reliefs, small bronzes, jewelry and other works of antiquity, selected from among those that were the chief sources of inspiration for the artists included in Bellori's treatise. The second part consisted in a series of sections devoted to Bellori's specific interests, such as medallions, coins, jewelry, mosaics and ancient mural paintings rediscovered over the course of the seventeenth century.

Some of Annibale Carracci's most significant paintings on show included Hercules at the Crossroad from the Museum of Capodimonte, The Adoration of the Shepherds from the Musée des Beaux Arts in Orlèans, and the large Landscape from the National Gallery in Washington. Domenichino was represented by The Hunt of Diana from the Galleria Borghese, The Guardian Angel from the Museum of Capodimonte, and the two large landscapes with the stories of Hercules from the Louvre. There were five paintings by Caravaggio, including the Magdalene from the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Abraham and Isaac from the Uffizi, and The Supper at Emmaus from the Brera; and ten by Poussin, among them The Triumph of David from the Prado, The Capture of Jerusalem from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, The Triumph of Flora from the Gemaldegallerie in Dresden, and The Rape of the Sabine Women from the Louvre. Guido Reni was represented by works that include The Massacre of the Innocents from the Pinacoteca in Bologna, Atalanta and Hippomenes from Naples, and Saint Michael and the Archangel from the church of Santa Maria della Concezione in Rome. The exhibition featured two works by Andrea Sacchi: The Vision of Saint Romualdo from the Pinacoteca Vaticana, and The Allegorical Portrait of the Singer Pasqualini Crowned by Apollo from the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Foremost among the seventeenth-century sculptures was the large statue of Saint Susanna by Duquesnoy from the church of Santa Maria di Loreto, a work that has been restored for the occasion. The ancient sculptures included the Sarcophagus of the Dionysiacs with Orgy, ex-Farnese, from Naples; the Eros with Arms raised, ex-Borghese, from the Louvre; the statue known as The Gypsy Girl from Versailles; the Aphrodite, ex-Farnese, from Naples; and two Niobides and the Hermaphrodite from the Uffizi.

Exhibition commissioners: Evelina Borea, Andrea Emiliani.
Project Research by Evelina Borea and Carlo Gasparri.
Archeology curator: Lucilla de Lachenal