Nicknamed 'Gasparo degli Occhiali' ('Gaspare of the spectacles'), Vanvitelli is first recorded in Rome in 1675. Apart from a few visits to Venice and northern Italy, as well as a stay in Naples from 1700-01, he stayed in Rome for the remainder of his life. From his early career onward, he broke new ground by eschewing the earlier traditions of depicting the famous remnants of the old Roman city, introducing in their stead a directness of observation and originality of viewpoint that were quite without precedent. Vanvitelli's first painted vedute date from 1680, and by the following decade, he established his mature style that he sustained for the rest of his career. His ability to combine a careful description with a panoramic perspective won him many patrons from the Roman nobility and visiting British Grand Tourists; Matthew Bettingham, writing later in 1773 would state that 'The Justness of Occhiali's Perspective Views, and the fine glow of his Flemish colouring, are Excellencies perhaps not to be met with in the Works of any other painter'.
This view of St Peter's and the Vatican epitomizes Vanvitelli's inventive skills: the famous cupola and Basilica of Saint Peter's, regularly depicted from an elevated viewpoint in front of Bernini's famous piazza, are instead rendered from the point of view of a traveler approaching the Eternal City through the area of meadows to the north-east, known as the Prati di Castello. The viewer is heading south-west along the old road leading to the Porta Angelica, which can be clearly seen on the left of the composition. Visible beyond the Porta Angelica is the obelisk in the center of the Piazza San Pietro, and to its right are the statues that adorn the top of Bernini's famous colonnade. Rising from the hills directly behind the obelisk is the Villa Cesi. The center of the composition is dominated from left to right by the palaces of the Vatican, the dome of St Peter's, the Belvedere, and the back of the Nicchione. On the far right can be seen the trees and the small tower (or turrione), which marks the farthest extent of the Vatican gardens.
During this period, it would have been unusual to capture a view so far from the city's more famous or inhabited city center. Despite their distance, the meadows and fields of the Prati di Castello were evidently a favorite sketching ground of Vanvitelli's, and a number of his most original views of the city are taken from this neighborhood. These include, for example, the canvas of similar dimensions to the present work depicting the Castel Sant'Angelo, formerly in the Odescalchi collections and now in the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica in Rome,1 or the two works in tempera of 1683 looking over the Campo Marzio and towards St Peter's from the road to the Porta Castello, now in the collection of the Marchese P. Patrizi Montoro in Rome.2
The source of Vanvitelli's composition is his own drawing in red chalk, ink and wash on squared paper, today in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale Vittorio Emanuele in Rome.3 The drawing is one of a series of fifty-two cityscape views of Rome made in situ by Vanvitelli, which remain today among his most original creations.4 The drawings were made from life and then completed in the studio, where some were squared for transfer and used as the basis for his canvases and gouaches. Painted examples of many of these compositions are known, and many are known in multiple versions. The present painting is, however, unique in that it is the only known painting of this particular view to have survived. The choice of viewpoint seems to have been equally rare among Vanvitelli's contemporaries and successors. The only comparable prospect is undoubtedly Giovanni Paolo Panini's View of Rome from Monte Mario, painted in 1759 and now in Berlin, which is taken from a viewpoint further south of the road and to the west of the present view.5
1 Inv. no. 1415, reproduced in G. Briganti, Gaspar van Wittel, L. Laureati and L. Trezzani (eds), Milan 1996, p. 167, no. 94.
2 Briganti 1996, pp. 166-67, nos 91 and 93.
3 349 by 935 mm.; also reproduced in L. Laureati et al. (eds), Gaspare Vanvitelli e l'origine del vedutismo, exh. cat., Chiostro del Bramante, Rome, 26 October 2002 - 2 February 2003, p. 259, cat. no. D8, reproduced in colour.
4 Briganti 1996, pp. 393-411, nos D304-355.
5 Reproduced in F. Arisi, Gian Paolo Panini e i fasti della Roma del ’700, Rome 1986, p. 428, no. 395.
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