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Villa at Caprarola

Claude-Joseph Vernet, French, 1714 - 1789

Made in Rome, Italy, Europe


Oil on canvas

52 3/16 inches × 10 feet 1 13/16 inches (132.6 × 309.4 cm)

Curatorial Department:
European Painting

* Gallery 383, European Art 1500-1850, third floor

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
Purchased with the Edith H. Bell Fund, 1977

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In the center of this painting a grand procession of courtiers and clerics with Elizabeth Farnese, the queen of Spain, take an afternoon walk in Caprarola, north of Rome. Caprarola was known since antiquity for its cool air and rugged beauty. The country palace of the Farnese family, visible in the background, was being used by the Spanish ambassador to Rome, Cardinal Acquaviva, who leads the procession. Seated on a rock on the left is Vernet, recording every detail of this informal yet significant event.

Additional information:
  • PublicationArt in Rome in the Eighteenth Century

    Vernet's considerable reputation in Rome as a topographical painter is amply justified by this grand view. Vernet noted in his account book: "For the Queen of Spain a picture on canvas fourteen palms wide, by six high representing the view of Caprarola ordered in the month of June in the year 1745," and he was duly paid in 1746 (Lagrange 1864, pp. 325, 376). The commission came from Cardinal Troiano Acquaviva d'Aragona, archbishop of Monreale, protector of the Two Sicilies, and minister in Rome of their Catholic majesties. As Spanish ambassador to Rome from 1735 until his death, Acquaviva acted as an agent for Elisabeth Farnese, Queen of Spain, looking for works of art on the market and recruiting artists to work for the court in Madrid.

    Vignola's celebrated Palazzo Farnese at Caprarola, about 40 miles north of Rome, had been completed for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese by about 1575. In 1731 the palace became the property of the Bourbons, when it was inherited by Elisabeth Farnese of Parma, queen to Philip V of Spain. Their son Don Carlos was King of Naples and the Two Sicilies and on his father's death in 1746 became Charles III of Spain. It is likely that Vernet's painting went to Naples with Don Carlos, as, according to Juan J. Luna, (L'Art européen 1979), it does not appear in any Spanish inventories in the eighteenth century. Another impressive painting by Vernet, Charles III Shooting Duck on Lake Patria, also dated 1746, remains in the Palazzo Reale, Caserta. (Zeri and Gonázlez-Palacios 1978). Such a provenance for the Philadelphia painting would help to explain its appearance in the collection of the Baron de Breteuil, French ambassador to Naples from 1771 to 1775 and a great connoisseur of modern French painting, who may have received it as a diplomatic gift. It seems unlikely that a second version ever existed.

    The spectator looks from the southwest up a rocky hillside, the ancient Monte Cimino, and his eye follows the small town of Caprarola as it ascends to the entrance façade of the palace, an imposing, fortress-like structure dominating the hill. A herd of goats (capra is Italian for "goat") is scattered among the rocks and grass of the small ravines in the right foreground, watched over by a goatherd and his companion, a woman winding wool. This modest scene of daily life is a familiar trope of eighteenth-century landscape imagery, signifying that all is well in the dependent rural community, under the protective shadow of the palace (De Grazia and Garberson 1996, pp.14-18). At the left the artist himself sits on a rock in the shade of a tree, drawing the scene. In the center foreground, a well-dressed crowd is out for an afternoon walk, followed by a retinue including horses and carriages for the return trip. In the Breteuil sale (1786) the party is identified as "Cardinal Acquaviva with his company and his entourage." The cardinal is probably the man in a red skullcap leading the party; the most prominent lady, accompanied by courtiers and clerics, may be Elisabeth Farnese. The relation of palace to town and countryside, of ruler to ruled, even of patron to artist, is clearly but unexceptionally spelled out in this image. What is unusual, in the context of eighteenth century painting, is the sight of such a socially distinguished party out taking the country air in such an informal manner.

    In a contemporary guidebook published in 1741, it is noted that the area around Caprarola had been cherished since antiquity for "the healthiness of the air" (Sebastiani 1741, p. 1). The volume records that the queen had restoration work undertaken on the palace and its grounds after she inherited it in 1731 and that she soon put it at the disposal of Acquaviva. The cardinal continued the refurbishments, furnished the palace at his own expense, and then "he made it his country residence, with princes, prelates, and nobility, whom he invited there, or who visited him, and whom he treated in a grand style, making this palace always attractive and admired by all of Italy" (Sebastiani 1741, p. 117). Philip Conisbee, from Art in Rome in the Eighteenth Century (2000), cat. 302, p. 454.

    Lagrange, Léon. Joseph Vernet et la peinture au XVIIIe siècle. Paris: Didier, 1864. , pp. 325, 473.
    Bertin, Georges. Joseph Bonaparte en Amérique. Paris: Librairie de la Nouvelle revue, 1893, p. 418.
    Ingersoll-Smouse, Florence. Joseph Vernet: peintre de marine, 1714-1789. 2 vols. Paris: Étienne Bignou, 1926, vol.1, p. 48, no.167.
    Rutledge, Anna Wells, ed. Cumulative Record of Exhibition Catalogues: The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1807-1870. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1955, p. 238.
    Benisovich, Michel. "Sales of French Collections of Paintings in the United States during the First Half of the Nineteenth Century." The Art Quarterly, vol. 19 (1956), p. 296.
    Philadelphia Museum of Art. Bulletin: Annual Report, vol. 7 (1977), detail on cover
    Zeri and González-Palacios 1978, pp. 59, 61, fig. 10
    Conisbee, Philip. "Paris: Art from Spain at the Grand Palais." The Burlington Magazine, vol. 121 (1979), p. 821.
    Conisbee, Philip. "The Eighteenth Century: Watteau to Valenciennes." In Alan Wintermute, ed., Claude to Corot: The Development of Landscape Painting in France, pp. 85-97. New York: Colnaghi in association with The University of Washington Press, 1990, p.93, fig. 13.
  • PublicationPhiladelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections

    The most famous French landscape painter of the eighteenth century, Claude-Joseph Vernet worked in Italy between 1734 and 1751, executing sweeping, light-filled, yet meticulously observed views of Rome, Naples, and the surrounding countrysides. In 1745 Cardinal Acquaviva, Spanish ambassador to Rome, commissioned this painting to commemorate the visit of the Italian-born queen of Spain, Elizabeth Farnese, to one of her ancestral homes, the Villa Farnese at Caprarola near Rome. Here Elizabeth, the cardinal, and their elegant entourage have descended from their carriages to take the air. Simple shepherds stare at the grandees in amazement, while at the left Vernet himself sketches the colorful scene. Beyond them the humble village climbs the hillside toward the pentagonal palace-villa, a stately monument to the power of the Farnese family. It was for his ability to combine minute topographical specificity with grandly sweeping landscape in panoramic paintings such as this that Vernet was most appreciated. This picture has been in Philadelphia since 1815, when it was brought by Joseph Bonaparte, who lived here in exile after the fall of his brother Napoleon. Christopher Riopelle, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections (1995), p. 180.

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