The Académie de France in Rome, founded in 1666, provided training for the most talented students from the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture in Paris, for a period of about four years. This group of artists comprised the dozen recipients of the Grand Prix de Rome, awarded for excellence in painting, sculpture and architecture.
The students made copies of antiquities in public squares, gardens and the Capitoline Museum, and they visited the churches and palazzos of Rome to study Renaissance and Baroque masters. The Académie also offered a live model class, open to these pensionnaires (as they were called), external students and foreigners. Although the nude study was part of the curriculum, many of the resulting paintings of academy figures were of exceptional quality. Students’ work was regularly dispatched to the king of France to attest to their progress.
A number of French artists went on to successful careers in Rome or submitted proposals for major Roman projects. The length of time that both pensionnaires and independent artists spent in Rome varied depending on their financial resources and patron support.
A revival of interest in the art of landscape was sparked in 1725 when Nicolas Vleughels, who took over as director of the Académie de France in Rome, encouraged young painters to sketch in situ. This desire to breathe new life into the landscape genre resulted in a variety of forms.
Rome and its environs provided painters and draughtsmen in search of picturesque views with a constant source of inspiration. Some artists offered an idyllic, pastoral vision, mixing imagination and reality, while others opted for a more objective portrayal of the land and its inhabitants, carefully reproducing the natural and built environment. During his Roman sojourn (1754–65), Hubert Robert made countless images of the surrounding landscape, building a vast repertoire of motifs. Like other French pensionnaires in the 1740s, he was influenced by the vedutisti Giovanni Paolo Panini and Giovanni Battista Piranesi. The masterful studies of atmospheric effects by Adrien Manglard, Claude-Joseph Vernet and Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes helped to bring landscape to the forefront in the following century.
Rome was a cosmopolitan centre that attracted not only artists of diverse nationalities but also sophisticated sponsors and connoisseurs eager to hone their knowledge. A number of dilettanti emerged as key figures of this lively community, in which the most promising talents of the time flourished.
The well-established artistic relationships linking Paris and Rome were forged primarily through the directors of the Académie de France in Rome and reinforced by visiting amateurs, each with his own set of connections. The diplomatic realm also provided a fertile terrain for exchanges and development of the network.
Art tourists rarely stayed in Rome for more than a few months. They took full advantage of the resources offered by the Académie, which had available a pool of young artists keen to serve as guides. Certain visitors seem to have warranted special attention; the most important was the Marquis de Marigny, future director of the king’s buildings, who was in Rome in 1750–51 in preparation for his upcoming appointment.
Although the discoveries in Herculaneum in 1738 were exciting to lovers of antiquities, observation of Roman monuments – known through prints since the Renaissance – enabled art lovers, members of the ruling classes, and students to become familiar with this remarkable heritage.
Travellers’ accounts provide information about the condition of the monuments, some of which were still partially buried. Ancient ruins were a source of fascination to both artists and enlightened travellers; some wealthy art enthusiasts went so far as to finance excavations, from which they amassed major collections. Albums featuring views of Rome, especially those by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, became hugely popular.
Architecture, history and the decorative arts thus gave rise to a new imaginative vision. Whereas the great monuments provided the context for reinterpretation of ancient Roman history, specific objects – such as vases and tripods – became emblems of the neoclassicism that would hold sway in Europe from the 1740s to the early nineteenth century.
Life in Rome was punctuated by numerous celebrations and festivals, and the French artists made the most of them. Especially memorable were the extraordinary Turkish and Chinese masquerades organized by students at the Académie de France for Rome’s annual carnival. The caricatures produced offer a glimpse into a milieu full of camaraderie.
Various works illustrate the extravagant set pieces, parade floats and fireworks displays conceived for the secular celebrations and religious ceremonies that regularly transformed the city. Among the official ceremonies held to mark political events was the Chinea festival, commemorating the ceding of the kingdom of Naples by Pope Clement IV to Charles of Anjou in 1265. As the new king of Naples, Charles presented the papacy with a white mare known as a chinea (a “hackney” in English). When Naples passed into Spanish hands, the tradition was preserved. Temporary structures made of wood, canvas and stucco were built before the ambassador’s palace. These macchine, inspired by allegorical themes that glorified the kingdom of Naples, were lit up at night by fireworks.