The conclave to choose a successor to Pope Benedict XIII started in March of 1730 and was still under way in mid-May when a series of earthquakes shook Italy. God seemed displeased at the contentiousness and corruption, as Spain’s King Philip V, France’s Louis XV and Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI all pushed their own candidates. Finally, but not before July, the House of Medici’s man, Lorenzo Corsini, the 78-year-old Florentine nobleman, was elected in part because of “financial enticements” and became the new Pope Clement XII. Pope Clement wasted no time in going after Benedict’s right-hand man, Cardinal Coscia, who had embezzled huge amounts. This old pope became bedridden with blindness, gout, and a hernia, but still ruled the church for a decade.
The ordeal of the conclave was not a happy time for Cardinal Melchior de Polignac, one of more than 50 participating cardinals. (The Portuguese contingent boycotted the whole conclave.) But in the autumn of 1729, the great Polignac had a happier matter on his mind: the birth of the son of King Louis XV, the dauphin: heir apparent to the French throne. Polignac, a notable poet and ambitious diplomat, decided to throw a big celebration in the dauphin’s honor. He arranged to transform Rome’s Piazza Navona (where Lorenzo Corsini had his home) into an open-air ballroom. Polignac commissioned Pier Leone Ghezzi to design a set that emulated the square as it was in the first century anno Domini. A massive effort went into assembling this set for the public’s entertainment. To ensure their good will, one fountain dispensed red wine, another, white. A big fireworks show to wrap things up late in the evening.
To pay for it all, the foreign ministry allotted 12,000 livres. “You can believe me that this sum will not suffice but it does not matter; for such a great cause, I shall spare nothing,” Polignac told the foreign minister. He arranged to have a forest his family owned in France cut down to raise more funds. Pursuing the most important detail, he hired Giovanni Paolo Panini to paint the scene. Twice, in fact: one canvas for the king, the other for Polignac. Panini’s composition showed just the final preparations—the carpenters, painters, and florists—finishing up the set under Polignac’s direction. The king had to imagine the crowd.
As Peter Björn Kerber notes, the king got the message when he saw his copy of Panini’s painting, which was three and a half feet high and eight feet across. “This strategic gift was the equivalent of placing of a large, colorful, and highly conspicuous advertisement that would be permanently on view at Versailles, extolling his [Polignac’s] munificence and originality in glorifying his sovereign’s royal house.”
The anecdote is just one story emerging from Eyewitness Views: Making History in Eighteenth-Century Europe, which opens at the Minneapolis Institute of Art on Sept. 10. Curator Kerber illuminates aspects of several dozen view paintings in his fine catalog. Many of the paintings are from Venice, where a papal visit or ambassadorial entry made a marvelous display that begged to be shared. The broad topographical view perfected by Luca Carlevarijs was refined by Canaletto, Bellotto, and Guardi, so that by century’s end many liberties were taken with natural and architectural details, all in the name of bringing the viewer into the canvas.
Relief from the political pomp and spectacles of the rich is provided by paintings documenting the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, a frequent occurrence of the century, and the horrible royal opera house fire in Paris, as documented by Hubert Robert. Painters were reporters, too. Robert even provides the coda with his mesmerizing The Bastille in the First Days of Demolition.
War and economic disruption during the century led to the isolation and decline of Venice, and some painters hit the road, accepting commissions elsewhere in Europe. Among the best examples, in London, Canaletto painted the new Westminster Bridge and an incredible depiction of the Lord Mayor’s procession on the Thames. Antonio Joli and Francesco Battaglioli accepted commissions from Spain’s King Ferdinand VI, son of Philip V, and Ferdinand’s Queen Maria Barbara of Braganza. And where else but Warsaw would Bellotto became the court painter?
Ultimately, the French Revolution changed the emphasis; grandiosity fell out of fashion, and commissions dried up. Nevertheless, we’re left with this splendid visual record and Kerber’s elegant, erudite elaboration.