This panoramic vista of St. Peter's Square with the basilica beyond is one of the largest variants of a subject treated several times by Ipolitto Caffi throughout his artistic career. Caffi trained in Venice and led a peripatetic existence throughout his life; he lived in Rome for an extended period in the early 1830s and again in the mid-1850s, with frequent visits in between.
Like Carlo Bossoli (see lot 53), Caffi was an inveterate traveller, painting not only numerous cities in Italy, but also visiting Greece, Turkey, Syria, Egypt and Malta. He shared with his contemporary a sense of local colour, and a lightness of touch in his handling of paint, which brings his pictures to life. His sense of architecture, however, was more developed and his palette less highly keyed, imbued with the southern light typified by Neopolitan artists such as Anton Pitloo and Giacinto Gigante, and by the early paintings of French plein-air artists such as Camille Corot.
In this painting Caffi depicts a procession heading out of St. Peter's Square, watched by an elegant group of bystanders. The two coaches with their retinue of soldiers are probably accompanying Pope Pius IX, who ruled the Papal States under the protection of France and Austria until 1870. The figures are meticulously observed, the women curtsying and the men doffing their hats. Two elderly gentlemen in the foreground turn casually towards the approaching spectacle, as if interrupted in the middle of aconversation. These little vignettes soften the grandiose setting by providing accents of colour which root it in a contemporary context, while still allowing Caffi full scope to show off his extraordinary visual understanding of architecture.
This variant of St. Peter's Square is indeed more rigorously architectural than any other treated by the artist. Caffi's grasp of architecture arose from a deep study of Roman archaeology and of perspective, the latter which he formalized in a treatise on the subject. The foreshortening of the curved braccio on the right, and the connecting angles and planes of the Vatican complex are all rendered with extraoardinary technical precision. The upwards thrust of the composition, from a low vantage point, through the domed basilica to the billowing clouds above, is reinforced by an interplay of strong verticals -- the 17th century fountains spouting water high into the air, the serried columns and the obelisk. This, in turn, is balanced by the overall horizontality of the composition, emphasized in particular by the broad sweep of the colonnade. Caffi's great skill is thus not only to order and faithfully render a complex series of lines and planes, but to harmonize them into an exquisitely balanced composition.