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Sunday, March 20, 2016

Caspar van Wittel

View of the San Marco Basin, Gaspar van Wittel. A word of advice for those perusing
the Internet in lieu of a personal visit to Venice or other famous cities. This painting,
and the one below, are one and the same. The obvious difference is that some idiot
decided to digitally "beautify" van Wittel's effort with a shocking
increase in blue and probably a slight reduction in red.
An edited View of the San Marco Basin, Gaspar van Wittel.
Caspar van Wittel, 1711, Luigi van Wittel
There's no place on earth that I enjoy visiting more than Europe, particularly Italy and France. I love trekking among the urban landmarks which have gone largely unchanged for hundreds of years. I firmly believe that there would be far less of the xenophobia we are now seeing in this country if more Americans availed them-selves of their freedom to visit the far-flung countries, cultures, and peoples around the world. Yes, it can be costly as well as phys-ically and mentally tiring, even vaguely frightening at times (exciting may be a better word). But for me, the joys of investing in the wonderful experiences, memories, and fresh points of view that foreign travel af-fords far outweigh the trials and tribulations of investing in gold, commodities, stocks, bonds, real estate, houses, cars and all the other burdensome things money can buy. As the "arty" type, one of the great joys derived from travel is when I later come upon an artist from long ago who has painted with enduring accuracy a place which I've visited. Thus when I came upon the Dutch vedute painter, Caspar van Wittel, I was stunned to find at least a half-dozen topographical landscapes from Italy that I'd wearily (and sometimes warily) trod past and about since my first trip to "the continent" some fifteen years ago.

St. Peter's Square, Rome, Caspar van Wittel. Looks pretty much as I remember it except it's now paved and the vehicular traffic has now changed somewhat.
Although Caspar van Wittel was Dutch, born in Amersfoort (central) Netherlands in 1652. He spent most of his adult life, from 1674 until his death in 1736, living and working in Italy. Insofar as topographical landscapes are concern, there is little difference between those painted by Dutch artists and those by Italian painters such as Canaletto, (45 years his junior) whom van Wittel may have met while in Venice. Though his work shows evidence of his having traveled broadly throughout Italy, van Wittel spent most of his time in Rome where he joined a group of other Dutch painters calling themselves the Bentvueghels (Dutch for Birds of a Feather). Van Wittel's St. Peter's Square, Rome (above) is only superficially different than it appears today, allowing for pavement and modern-day vehicular traffic.

Trevi Fountain, Rome, Caspar van Wittel. The day I visited Bernini's magnificent work, it was just as crowded with people throwing money away as when van Wittel painted it.
Rome has long had the nickname "The Eternal City." It's not, but it does tend to look that way. In studying van Wittel's painting of the city's famed Trevi Fountain (above), I was startled to note how little it had changed in the past three hundred years since Bernini left his mark on the locale. By the way, along the street just to the right of the fountain is a souvenir shop with a life-size fiberglass replica of Michelangelo's David. Check it out next time you're in Rome.

Castel Sant' Angelo from the South, 1690s, Caspar van Wittel. I walked across the bridge over the Tiber, falling behind my tour group, having spent way too much time taking pictures.
Although most of van Wittel's images were in oil painted on fairly modest-size canvases, vedute paintings served the purpose of today's picture postcards, though costing a thousand times more. At the time, no young man could consider himself a well-educated gentleman having not completed a months-long "Grande Tour" of Europe. One English gentleman bought as many as eight of van Wittel's souvenir scenes. They were churned out mostly by carefully supervised, paid assistants and students, often drawn with the aid of a camera obscura. No one really knows just how many such architectural landscapes van Wittel's art factory turned out but the number might well reach into the hundreds or higher.

Piazza Navona, Rome, 1698, Caspar van Wittel
Probably one of the more impressive of van Wittel's scenes of Rome is that of the Piazza Navona (above). Architecturally, it has changed little, if at all. There I met an American art student selling his work in the area between the two fountains. We talked and rested on the doorstep of the second building on the right. The first building on the far right now houses a delightful Italian toy store. The only problem was, having trekked with my tour group from the Rome franchise of the Hard Rock Café, through the Pantheon, to this point, I was too tired to do much shopping. This stop, by the way, was only about the half-way point on the walking tour. Fortunately this was in April. Come summer this square is said to be sweltering, to the point that in the olden days they used to periodically flood it to allow the locals to cool off a bit.

A View of the Coliseum, Casper van Wittel
During my first visit to Rome in 2001, like any good tourist, I visited the city's famed coliseum. I recall standing roughly where the horse and buggy appear in van Wittel's A View of the Coliseum (above). Strangely, I don't remember the interior arches depicted by van Wittel as being so flat in the center. Structurally, I don't think they would have withstood all the earthquakes and vandalism this ancient landmark has endured if they were as van Wittel has painted them.

View of the Arch of Titus, Rome, 1710, Caspar van Wittel.
Van Wittel's painting, View of the Arch of Titus (above) does not bring back memories. If I saw it I don't recall it. The painting by van Wittel, Expositie van Schilderijen, Rome (below), dating from 1700, gives us some idea of the painting "souvenir" gallery one might have encountered during the early 18th-century in search of a small memento to take home to remember Rome. Notice, some of the vedute are not so small. Mailing them back home intact must have been quite an undertaking.

Expositie van Schilderijen, Rome, 1700, Caspar van Wittel


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