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Gaspar van Wittel, called Gaspare Vanvitelli* (1653-1736)

Gaspar van Wittel, called Gaspare Vanvitelli* (1653-1736)

Castel Sant' Angelo and Ponte Sant' Angelo, Rome, looking east from the Gardens of the Hospital of Santo Spirito in Sassia with San Trinità dei Monti and the Villa Medici beyond, ladies playing bocce in the foreground

oil on canvas
33½ x 45in. (85 x 114.3cm.)

Lot Essay

Gaspar van Wittel was born in Amersfoort in July 1653 and studied with Matthias Withoos (1627-1703) before travelling to Italy, where he had arrived by 1674 or earlier. He settled in Rome permanently, apart from sporadic trips to Florence, Bologna, Ferrara, Venice, Milan, Piacenza, Parma, Modena, and Naples. Van Wittel's early artistic training was in Rome with the artist Abraham Genoels (1640-1722) between 1675 and 1680. In 1675 van Wittel joined a fraternity of Dutch artists in Rome known as the 'Bentveughels' ('Birds of a Feather') under the name of 'De Toorts' ('the Torch'). He was elected a member of the Accademia di San Luca in 1711, and was patronised by the Colonna, Falconieri, and Sacchetti families, the last mentioned commissioning at least ten views of Rome by him (see, for example, R. Bruno, Roma, Pinacoteca Capitolina, 1978, pp. 120-2, nos. 317-26, illustrated).

In the present painting the artist has taken as his viewpoint a bend in the Tiber directly under the conservatorio de' fanciulli projetti of the church of S. Tecla. Immediately on the left, the wall of the hospital gardens of S. Spirito is visible leading to the nave and tympanum of the hospital itself, as it appeared before the constructions of Benedetto XIV. Just behind, the bell tower of the Oratorio della Confraternita of S. Spirito is visible. Also on the left side of the Tiber can be seen one of the oldest floating mills in existence, visible in Antonio Tempesta's plan of the city of 1593. In the center of the river are the ruined pylons of the ancient Neronian bridge. Spanning the Tiber is the Ponte Sant' Angelo, topped with ten over life-size marble angels holding the Instruments of the Passion, commissioned by Clement IX and carved under the direction of Bernini circa 1667-72 (he also renovated the bridge, adding iron grillwork to the redesigned parapets thus enabling passersby to see the flowing river). Bernini directed a team of eight sculptors, each of whom carved one angel, while he himself made two. Clement IX, on viewing them in the sculptor's studio decided they were too good to be placed on the bridge and ordered copies made. Bernini secretly carved one of the replacements himself (the 'Angel with the Superscription') and it remains in situ. For centuries the Ponte Sant' Angelo was the only access from the center of Rome to the Vatican and, therefore, the only point of entry for pilgrims and processions bound for St. Peter's. In the background of the painting are visible the Villa Medici, the dome of S. Carlo, and the church of S. Trinità dei Monti. On the right bank Palazzo Altoviti adjoins houses that eventually lead to S. Giovanni dei Fiorentini.

Clearly, the focal point of van Wittel's painting is the huge and impressive fortress of Castel Sant' Angelo, surmounted by Pieter Antoine Verschaffelt's bronze angel of 1752, which replaced Rafaello da Montelupo's marble original. The Castel Sant' Angelo was originally conceived as a mausoleum for the Emperor Hadrian (A.D. 76-138). Construction started circa A.D. 130 and was completed one year after his death in A.D. 139 by Antonius Pius. The Pons Aelius then joined the fortress to the Field of Mars. The architecture of the Castel Sant' Angelo is in the tradition of ancient Roman tombs, but compared to its direct prototype, the Augustus mausoleum, it is substantially larger. In the early Middle Ages the tomb was surrounded by ramparts and became the citadel of Rome, and it continued to be a place of refuge for Popes until the eighteenth century. The name derives from a legend that tells how St. Gregory the Great saw the Archangel Michael on the battlements of the fortress sheathing his sword and thus presaging the end of the plague of 590, ever since which the fortress has borne the name of the holy angel. Paintings of the Castel Sant' Angelo survive from the sixteenth century and by the beginning of the nineteenth century it had become something of an icon of Rome.

The importance of van Wittel's work in the context of the Dutch Italianate school of painting has long been recognised. Albert Blankert pointed out that he was the last Dutch Italianate artist whose work is both wholly original and at the same time typically Dutch because of its realism (A. Blankert, Nederlandse 17e Eeuwse Italianiserende Landschapschilders, 1978, p. 36). His topographically accurate views owe a far greater debt to artists such as Jan van der Heyden and the Berckheydes than the Italianate painters who generally used a greater deal of artistic license in their view paintings, and he based his finished works on detailed drawings executed 'en plein air'. Blankert even claims that '...the only direct models for the work of Canaletto and Guardi are the views of Venice by van Wittel' (ibid.).

Luigi Salerno regards van Wittel as the direct heir of Claude Lorrain in his use of light, and notes that some of van Wittel's figures are taken directly from Claude. He describes the artist thus: 'Vanvitelli stands apart from both the classical landscape tradition as represented by Van Bloemen, and from the later Rococo of Panini's representation of Roman ruins. His work is the culmination of the long tradition of view painting that developed in Rome from the sixteenth century onwards, and he can be described with reason as the first great painter of Modern Rome....His main concentration was on objectivity, on an accurate rendering of the image such as could be achieved through the camera ottica. And this truthfulness to his subject, which for thoroughness was almost revolutionary in the Rome of the 1680's, was Vanvitelli's contribution to the new cultural climate based on reason and reality that pointed the way to the Enlightenment' (L. Salerno, Landscape Painters of the Seventeenth Century in Rome, 1977-78, II, p. 844).

At least three other versions of this view are recorded by Giuliano Briganti, all with substantial differences (see G. Briganti, Gaspar van Wittel e l'origine della veduta Settecentesca, 1966, pp. 199-200, nos. 83-5, illustrated). He dates the first of these to the beginning of the eighteenth century and notes the existence of a squared preparatory drawing in the Biblioteca Vittoria Emanuele (Inv. no. 419).

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