How Giovanni Battista Lusieri captured the glories of the Grand Tour in watercolour
In 1828, a ship bound for England was wrecked near Crete, taking with it half the life’s work of an artist whose landscapes delighted the likes of Byron and Elgin. We look at three views of Rome offered at Christie’s that confirm Lusieri’s reputation as a master of his art
Giovanni Battista Lusieri (1754-1821), A panoramic view of Rome from the Aventine Hill towards the South (detail). Graphite, pen and black ink, watercolour. 55.5 x 97 cm (22 x 38¼ in). Sold for £126,000 on 4 July 2023 at Christie’s in London
One warm evening in 1778 (or perhaps 1779), Giovanni Battista Lusieri made his way to the top of the Aventine Hill, above the Tiber. Standing with his back to the crowded sights of Rome, the artist drank in the view to the south: the open green campagna; a glimpse of the river where it looped round to the west; the far-off basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura; and, in the middle distance, the startling geometry of the 1,800-year-old pyramid of Caius Cestius.
All of this was awash in a soft, crepuscular light. Lusieri laid out his hard pencils and his watercolours, and he got down to work.
The painting that Lusieri began that day was once part of a set of four large watercolours; two of the other three survive, one in a museum and one in a private collection. That quartet of works recorded the view in different directions, and at various hours of the day.
Giovanni Battista Lusieri (1754-1821), A view of the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, circa 1788/9. Graphite, pen and black ink, watercolour. 50.9 x 65.7 cm (20 x 26 in). Sold for £176,400 on 5 July 2022 at Christie’s in London
This Roman panorama was commissioned by a 21-year-old traveller, Philip Yorke (later the 3rd Earl of Hardwicke). The other two Lusieri works illustrated here were also made at Yorke’s behest.
One is a view to the north from Monte Mario, Rome’s highest hill. Here, the bright arc of the Tiber sits in the flat landscape like a bishop’s silver crozier laid on green baize. The other painting, a depiction of the Baths of Caracalla, demonstrates Lusieri’s fabulous talent for capturing dilapidation: the rough texture of the ruined stone arch is almost palpable.
The three watercolours are part of the bounty that Yorke brought home from his Grand Tour. Like many wealthy English aristocrats of that era, he had gone to Italy to explore the bleached ruins of the classical world and to visit some private collections — as well as to start building an art collection of his own.
Giovanni Battista Lusieri (1754-1821), A view of the Tiber Valley towards the North from Monte Mario, circa 1778/9. Graphite, pen and black ink, watercolour. 58.9 x 96.4 cm (22¾ x 37 in). Sold for £113,400 on 5 July 2022 at Christie’s in London
Yorke’s friendly patronage of Lusieri was central to the last part of the project, and it was a happy arrangement for both men. For the artist, Yorke was an important and well-connected client. For Yorke, Lusieri was a catch — because his work was so admired by the English elite. Lord Elgin, who later employed Lusieri full-time in Athens, thought him the best painter in all Italy. And Lord Byron, a friend of the Lusieri family, wrote that he was ‘a painter of the first eminence’.
The attraction of Lusieri’s work lay partly in his meticulous attitude to the landscape. He deeply disapproved of the tradition of the capriccio, whereby artists concocted fantastical ruins, or placed real ones in fictional settings. To Lusieri, that was fake drama. ‘I detest this way of operating,’ he wrote, ‘pictures produced mainly from the imagination… when one should faithfully imitate nature.’
Lusieri worked directly from life. He first drafted every natural and architectural detail using special Middleton pencils imported from England. Then, while still en plein air, he filled the ‘contour’, as he called it, with layers of colour and shading. That way, he could be certain that the scene was as good a match to reality as his mastery would allow.
Giovanni Battista Lusieri (1754-1821), A panoramic view of Rome from the Aventine Hill towards the South. Graphite, pen and black ink, watercolour. 55.5 x 97 cm (22 x 38¼ in). Sold for £126,000 on 4 July 2023 at Christie’s in London
Lusieri’s approach was so documentary that it could be said to have an air of reportage about it, as if he were a landscape photographer. The attention to topographical accuracy is only part of it; there is also his instinctive sense that the picture should come into being in the very place it portrays, with the exact set of vectors and the same light and shadow as were present in the moment.
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So Lusieri was an artist ahead of his time — but he was posthumously unlucky. In 1828, a ship carrying half his life’s work went down off Crete, while en route to England. But for that accident — an oeuvre lost at sea — he could have remained well known throughout the 19th century and beyond.
But these three landscapes demonstrate how right Lusieri’s contemporaries were about him. He knew that watercolour, so often a diffuse and imprecise medium, was perfectly suited to capturing the radiance of the Mediterranean, and could be used to make paintings that were ambitious, rigorous and truthful. This was Giovanni Battista Lusieri’s special insight, and the essence of his unusual gift.