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Pompeo Girolamo Batoni

Italian, 1708 - 1787

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Pompeo Girolamo Batoni was born in Lucca on January 25, 1708, the son of a distinguished local goldsmith named Paolino, and his wife, Chiara Sesti. He achieved a local reputation for decorating and engraving precious metals in his father's workshop, but in 1727 left his native city to study painting in Rome. In the years 1727-30 he engaged in the usual activities of newly arrived artists, drawing the antique sculptures in the Vatican collections, copying Raphael's Stanze frescoes and Transfiguration, Annibale Caracci's Palazzo Farnese ceiling, and other acknowledged masterpieces of modern painting, and drawing from live models in the private academies of local artists. His drawings after the antique came to the attention of British antiquaries and collectors in Rome and provided him with both a source of income and the beginnings of an artistic reputation. The most important of these clients was Richard Topham, who owned fifty-three drawings by Batoni (Eton College Library, Windsor). These drawings, nine of which are signed, are among the most beautiful surviving reproductions of antique sculpture in Roman collections of the time (see Art in Rome cats. 310-13).

Beginning in the 1730s, Batoni painted altarpieces for Roman churches in a strongly classicizing style that proved immediately popular and anticipated the Neoclassicism of the later eighteenth century. By 1740 the artist's reputation was firmly established as a history painter, for both private patrons and the Church (Art in Rome cat.168). His colossal altarpiece for St. Peter's, The Fall of Simon Magus (1746-55; S. Maria degli Angeli, Rome), represents the climax of his development in this regard. Enormous and complex, rich in varied attitudes, gestures, and expressions, the painting was exhibited in St. Peter's in 1755, but within a year the project to translate it into mosaic was abandoned, and in 1757 the rejected canvas was transferred to S. Maria degli Angeli.

Batoni did not give up history painting thereafter, but he never again produced a major altarpiece for a Roman church, nor did he pursue private commissions for subject pictures with anything like his previous vigor. The result was that his history paintings became extremely expensive and were commissioned almost exclusively by the Church, European sovereigns (Art in Rome cat.167), and visiting nobility, or the occasional British Grand Tourist (Art in Rome cats.163, 174). Nonetheless, certain of Batoni's history paintings, notably Saint Mary Magdalene and Saint John the Baptist (both c. 1742-43; Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, destroyed 1945) were among the most famous in Europe in his day.

It was during the 1740s, when Batoni was at his most productive as a history painter, that he forged his connections with British (primarily Irish) visitors to Rome with dramatic consequences for his career as a portrait painter. He began slowly with the emerging British clientele, producing only half a dozen portraits during the decade, notably Joseph Leeson, 1st Earl of Milltown (1744; National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin). Between 1750 and 1760 he produced nearly sixty portraits of British sitters alone, including such sensitive and beguiling images as John, Lord Brudenell, Later Marquess of Monthermer(1758; The Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry, Boughton House, Northhampshire). During this decade Batoni painted only about twenty subject paintings, and he maintained a similar ratio over the following two decades, continuing to concentrate on portraits.

Batoni's fame as portrait painter was quickly established as firmly on the Continent as in Britain, and a great number of royal and sovereign sitters visited his studio (Art in Rome cat.172). His major output, however, remained his portraits of British gentlemen on the Grand Tour. He did not invent the Grand Tour portrait: nearly all the features associated with his portraiture had been anticipated in the preceding decades by the Italian painters Francesco Trevisani, Andrea Casali, Marco Benefial, Antonio David, and Agostino Masucci. Nevertheless, Batoni surpassed them in the freshness of his coloring, the precision of his draftsmanship, and the polish of his handling. No contemporary painter in Rome, or elsewhere in Europe, could draw more incisively than Batoni, and very few could match his ability to produce an accurate likeness. Batoni "values himself for making a striking likeness of everyone he paints," wrote an English visitor to Rome, and his sitters were almost always pleased with this aspect of their portraits.

A striking feature of Batoni's portraits was the emblematic use of antiquities and views of Rome to establish both the sitter's presence in the city and his status as a learned, cultivated, yet leisured aristocrat (Art in Rome cat. 169). Batoni popularized the portrait type of a casually posed sitter in an open-air setting, surrounded by classical statuary and antique fragments, and often set against the backdrop of a classical building. Among the objects that Batoni employed most often as accessories in these portraits were the most famous and admired antique marbles in eighteenth-century Rome (Art in Rome cat.171), although a host of lesser-known antiquities also appear, included presumably at the sitter's request. The backgrounds of his portraits present glimpses of such famous antique monuments as the Colosseum and the Temple of the Sibyl at Tivoli.

Batoni's reputation among the international travelers who visited Rome in the second half of the eighteenth century was highest among the British, and for nearly half a century they offered him a sustained and intensely fruitful source of patronage. His virtuosity in depicting British gentlemen on the Grand Tour was highly admired: James Bruce's acclamation that he was "the best painter in Italy," and Lady Anna Riggs Miller's declaration that he was "esteemed the best portrait painter in the world" (quoted in Clark, Anthony M. Pompeo Batoni: A Complete Catalogue of His Works. Edited by Edgar Peters Bowron. New York: New York University Press, 1985, p. 42) are typical of contemporary estimations of his talent.

Batoni, one of eighteenth-century Rome's most notable citizens, was well known to residents and visitors alike. He was created a Cavaliere by Pope Benedict XIV and ennobled by the Archduchess Maria Theresa, and had received in his studio popes Benedict XIII, Clement XIV, and Pius VI; the Holy Roman Emperor (Art in Rome cat. 172), the Grand Duke of Russia; and many other distinguished visitors. He was, however, largely indifferent to Rome's artistic officialdom and to the Accademia di S. Luca, of which he was the oldest and most famous member at his death. Batoni was elected to the academy on December 19, 1741, and although he held various offices within the institution, he was never elected Principe. His major participation in the affairs of the academy involved the "Accademia capitolina del nudo," established by Benedict XIV in 1754 to permit instruction in life drawing under the supervision of such painters as Batoni (Art in Rome cats. 317-18).

In spite of Batoni's considerable contemporary fame, after his death on February 4, 1787, his reputation diminished. By 1800 the descendants of his famous British patrons ignored his art, which was virtually unknown to the general public. His portraits, on which such a substantial part of his fame had depended, had been shipped on completion straight to England, Scotland, and Ireland to hang in the home either of the sitter or of a relative, where most of them have remained ever since, unseen except by the occasional privileged visitor. Only one painting seems to have been shown publicly in London in the artist's lifetime, and none in Great Britain in the late eighteenth century or the nineteenth.

Batoni's critical fortunes began to revive in the twentieth century with the increasingly general and scholarly interest in Italian painting of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The exhibition Il Settecento a Roma (1959) brought the work of Batoni to the attention of a generation of younger scholars. A monographic exhibition devoted to the artist was held in Lucca in 1967; a second, focusing on his patronage by the British, was held in London in 1982; and the monograph and catalogue raisonné of his art by Anthony Morris Clark, who brought the painter's brilliance to the attention of museum curators, collectors, and art historians in Europe and North America, was published in 1985.

Edgar Peters Bowron, from Art in Rome in the Eighteenth Century (2000), pp. 305-306.

Boni, Onofrio. Elogio di Pompeo Girolamo Batoni. Rome: Stamperia Pagliarini, 1787.
Benaglio, Francesco [1708-59]. "Abbozzo della vita di Pompeo Batoni pittore." In Angelo Marchesan, ed.,Vita e prose scelte di Francesco Benaglio, pp. 15-66. Treviso, Italy: Turazza, 1894.
Emmerling, Ernst. Pompeo Batoni: Sein Leben und Werk. Darmstadt, Germany: Hobhann, 1932, p. 83.
Belli Barsali, Isa, ed. Mostra di Pompeo Batoni Lucca, Italy: Maria Pacini Fazzi, 1967.
Puhlmann, Johann Gottlieb [1751-1826]. Ein Potsdamer Maler in Rom: Briefe des Batoni-Schülers Johann Gottlieb Puhlmann aus den Jahren 1774 bis 1787. Edited by Götz Eckardt. Berlin: Henschelverlag Kunst und Gesellschaft, 1979.
Pascoli, Lione [1674-1744]. Vita de'pittori, scultori, ed architetti viventi: dai manoscritti 1383 e 1743 della Biblioteca comunale Augusta di Perugia. Edited by Francesco Federico Mancini and Isa Belli Barsali. Treviso: Canova, 1981. Originally published as Vita de'pittori, scultori, ed architetti moderni scritte, e dedicate alla Maesta di Vittorio Amadeo Re di Sardegna da Lione Pascoli. 2 vols. (Rome: Antonio de'Rossi, 1730-36), pp. 178-89.
Bowron, Edgar Peters. Pompeo Batoni (1708 - 1787): A Loan Exhibition of Paintings. New York: Colnaghi, 1982.
Clark, Anthony M. Pompeo Batoni: A Complete Catalogue of His Works. Edited by Edgar Peters Bowron. New York: New York University Press, 1985.
Barroero, Liliana. "Batoni, Pompeo Girolamo." In La pittura 1990. Vol. 2, p. 616.

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