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Giovanni Paolo Pannini

Portrait of Giovanni Paolo Pannini by Louis Gabriel Blanchet

One of my favourite vedutisti, Pannini was born on this day in 1691. During the Rococo of the late 1600's two major ideas evolved in landscape painting: the capriccio and the veduta, which eventually sort of merged into a kind of scenic cappriccio. The Capriccio, meaning caprice or fancy, evolved from the idea of imagination triumphing on the base of Classical architecture, often depicting it with deep shadows and bold colours, whereas the veduta. or view, arose from the British who frequently visited Spain, France and Italy (the Grand Tour) where they became so inspired by the glorious vistas they wanted to take a souvenir back home with them, a veduta. This of course launched the careers of some artists, especially Canaletto. Pannini, although he didn't invent the style, was the one who inspired all of them and as we can see by his portrait above by Blanchet, Pannini was held in high regard in his lifetime.

Giovanni Paolo Pannini - The Piazza and Church of Santa Maria Maggiore
The Piazza and Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, 1744

Having been to Rome and actually staying in a hotel near the Santa Maria Maggiore, it is so amazing to observe this painting and go back in time to the eighteenth century. The costumes of the figures, in various colors and in realistic body language patterns reveals keen perceptual skills that defy anyone who thinks that all this genre of painting is, is about using a camera obscura. Pannini uses strong diagonals and uses the church itself as the main horizontal along with the long shadows of the foreground. It appears that the viewers are watching a man on horseback chasing a dog, and we see a distinct social class difference between the people seated on the rocks on the left and the gentlemen by their carriages on the right. The angular shadow on the giant pillar creates a focal point that leads the eye straight across to the church, with various figures dotting the middleground in red. The way Pannini paints the change in light on the church itself is brilliant. Judging by the brushy skies above however, Pannini probably didn't care for painting clouds much and once you notice them they look quite rough...but maybe it was done deliberately to draw the eye to the architecture and foreground.

Giovanni Paolo Pannini - Apostle Paul Preaching on the Ruins - WGA16977
Apostle Paul Preaching on the Ruins, 1744

I've included this example to show how well Pannini could paint figures, once again to defy those that believe vedutisti painters merely traced what they saw. We can also see where successive painters like Hubert Robert, Bernardo Bellotto, and Charles-Louis Clérisseau received their inspiration from, and in fact Robert studied with Pannini. Here he takes a common religious scene and transposes it into a capriccio of Roman ruins, something never done before by any other artist before or after Pannini. Again, this new theme has interesting philosophical implications of religion defeating antiquity itself. Notice how the figures are placed in a triangular composition that is off-tilt. A mother with child stands framed underneath an arch half covered with vegetation, loosely implying the Madonna with Christ child. The Rococo era already noticed a wane in religious themes and possibly religion itself, as the painting here shows a scant audience available to hear Paul give his sermon.

Picture gallery with views of modern Rome, 1759

Here we can already see the importance of collectors in the art world, as well as artists copying from Masters of the day. Tourism is born. What makes this painting so fascinating is how there are paintings within a painting— it's a philosophical view of art, in a way. Rome is not only a place for artists to flock for work, but it is also a destination for admirers of art and beauty. Sadly, Pannini could have never imagined that over two hundred years later the Eternal City itself would become a massive tourist trap of postcards, t-shirts and cheap trinkets, and the most common art available on the streets are drawings of overpaid, overexposed celebrities.

Giovanni Paolo Panini - Interior of St. Peter's, Rome
Interior of St. Peter's in Rome, 1754
Click here for a different zoomable version on the Met

This version, one of many painted by Pannini, once again shows his incredible love of architectural detail and presence. The way he lights the interior with delicate horizontal shadows and attention to color is clearly evident. Again, we see the difference in class and faith both in the above version as well as the Met version: the poor kneel reverently while the wealthy collectors stand proudly admiring, and the clergy are neutral passersby. I wonder what Pannini would have thought of watercolor, and painting en plein air...suffice to say that anyone who is painting urban landscapes and veduti should restudy Pannini, the man who made it a style—he has plenty to teach us.


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