Master Drawings, vol 27.2


VIEWS OF ROME FROM THE THOMAS ASHBY COLLECTION IN THE VATICAN LIBRARY, organized by Donald R. McClelland and Raymond Keaveney, catalogue by Raymond Keaveney with essays by Father Leonard E. Boyle O. P., Donald R. McClelland and Marc Worsdale.


 Since artists first began to converge on Rome in search of training and patronage in the fifteenth century, the city itself took a prominent place in their sketchbooks. Architects made systematic studies of the antique monuments in perspective, plan and elevation. Landscapists observed the city according to the conventions of their genre. Amateurs made sketches of Rome as a visual extension of their travel diaries. Artists of all kinds drew the city from direct observation, as if they were making a portrait, in order to record an image of the unique locality they had come to visit. A market for these views emerged among foreign collectors, and more finished types developed in order to satisfy their tastes. Alexander VII introduced a theatrical metaphor into the vocabulary of views of Rome in all media. (Drawings generally maintained a character of their own, more intimate than that of prints or paintings.) In the eighteenth century the travellers on the Grand Tour and the Romantic visitors in the nineteenth left their mark on the genre, both as patrons and as artists. From the beginning fantasy persisted alongside the precise observation of the antiquarian. In this way an extremely rich and varied tradition has unfolded that is still alive today.

The present exhibition consists of eighty-one drawings and watercolors of Rome, almost entirely selected from the collection of Thomas Ashby (1874-1931), which was purchased from his widow by the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana in 1933. Because of the very individual personality of the collector, the exhibition is quite different from most exhibitions of drawings organized today. Its significance lies in its reflection of the taste of the learned and passionate collector and in its vision of a Rome that was destroyed in the late nineteenth century by the construction boom that followed its establishment as the capital of a united Italy--a process that continues with ever-increasing rapidity today.

Thomas Ashby was the foremost student of the topography of Rome and the surrounding Campagna in his time. He was introduced to the region by his father and Rodolfo Lanciani, the great topographer and archaeologist, when he was still a schoolboy at Winchester. He and his father took up residence in Rome for a period. After obtaining a first class degree in litterae humaniores as an undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1897 he won a fellowship to pursue research in Rome. When the British School at Rome was founded in 1901, he became its first Student, and in 1906 its Director. Until he left the post in 1926 he made the British School a major center of archaeological and topographical studies. Ashby became one of the great authorities in his field, the successor of Gell, Nibby, and Lanciani, the friend and associate of Tomassetti, and one of the major influences on subsequent generations of scholars. His many publications are still considered indispensable. His most general book, The Roman Campagna in Classical Times remains a vivid and informative viaticum for the student and the traveller.

Essential to his method was his constant exploration of the land and the ancient remains he found upon or within it, sometimes on bicycle, sometimes on foot, always with gusto for the tactile experience of the remains. He recorded his wanderings in over 9000 photographs, which are now kept at the British School in Rome.

His collections of watercolors, drawings, prints and maps should be understood as a part of his exploration of ancient Rome. In 1900 he made his first important purchase: a set of five volumes of views of the Via Appia drawn by Carlo Labruzzi for Richard Coalt Hoare. Ashby published them three years later, discussing them primarily as topographical documents. He wrote frequently about drawings, both in his own collection and in others, but always from the standpoint of an archaeologist. He had little interest in the attribution of the drawings and found an appeal in sheets of rather limited artistic merit. His passionate enthusiasm for ancient Rome overrode not only aesthetic, but even documentary value as well, since his collection includes not only architectural fantasies (nos. 5 & 81), but also conventionalized treatments in the Bolognese/Roman landscape tradition (no. 8). Ashby's Romantic delight in Rome and the Campagna is apparent even in his more technical publications. His collection of drawings not only helped him to determine what had changed over the years, either through decay or restoration, but allowed him to share in the pleasure of earlier generations that had come under the spell of classical antiquity.

The exhibition and its catalogue both stress the experience of Rome in the topographical arrangement of the drawings, as if the visitor were taking a walking tour of the city, beginning at St. Peter's and eventually proceeding out through the city gates into the Campagna.

Jakob Philipp Hackert's grandiose view of the Colosseum with the Temple of Venus and Rome (no. 27) is surely the most significant drawing in the exhibition. The organizers have rightly emphasized its importance on the catalogue covers and in Donald McClelland's introductory essay. Also handsome are Jan de Bisschop's small but richly handled drawing of the so-called "Tomb of the Horatii and the Curatii" near Albano (no. 78). Other sheets stand out for their documentary interest, for example, the two sixteenth century Netherlandish drawings of the Basilica of St. Peter under construction (nos. 1 & 2), one of which shows the now lost Benediction Loggia, one of the earliest Renaissance buildings in Rome. Also of special interest are Étienne Dupérac's view of the tangle of medieval streets that he observed from the roof of the Palazzo della Cancelleria (no. 44) and Jakob Franckaert the Elder's view of the still largely intact "Temple of Minerva Medica" and the rolling Campagna that surrounded it until the late nineteenth century (no. 39).

The catalogue is handsomely designed with color reproductions of each drawing in the exhibition. These are generally rather too warm in their balance. Of the three introductory essays, Father Boyle's gives an account of Ashby and his cordial relations with the Vatican Library. Donald McClelland provides an introduction to views of Rome through an intelligent discussion of Jakob Philipp Hackert and the Ashby watercolor, and Marc Worsdale provides an account of the changes undergone by the city over the centuries. Raymond Keaveney's entries, following Ashby's example, emphasize the subject-matter of the views. Not only does he discuss the history of the monuments in the manner of a detailed guide-book, he includes a most welcome supplement: selctions of pertinent quotations from a wide range of authors that placed at the head of almost every entry, including Seneca, Pliny the Elder, Vasari, John Evelyn, Smollett, Stendhal, Florence Nightingale, and Henry James, to mention only a few.

The connoisseurship of the drawings themselves is not the central matter of the exhibition. Appropriately so, since many of the drawings are by minor hands. Keaveney, nonetheless does not neglect these problems, even if few substantive conclusions are reached. He relies primarily on Didier Bodart's fundamental publication of the Ashby collection, but he also subjects Bodart's attributions to some scrutiny, not only by himself, but by a number of eminent correspondants. In certain cases traditional attributions are retained for convenience, even if they are denied in the entry. In others often-discussed problems emerge. For example, the fine study of an artist sketching in the Colosseum (24) has been variously attributed to Jan Breughel the Elder by Bodart and to Paul Brill by Ashby and Winner, reflecting the difficulties which arise from the association of the two artists in 1593, when they travelled around Italy together, drawing landscapes and copying each other's drawings. Paul, furthermore, often set his students the task of copying the Roman views of his brother Matthijs. All of these elements have been noted in the Ashby drawing. In the present catalogue Bodart's attribution is retained with some reservation.

At the Cleveland venue thirty-eight views of Rome from the Cleveland Museum of Art collection were also shown, including the set of eighteen of Lievin Cruyl's drawings for the DeRossi engravings. Ashby published these himself when they were still in the Habsburg family collection in Vienna. Among the others there is a view of the Ponte San Rocco at Tivoli that had been attributed to Jan Breughel the Elder by its previous owner, Frits Lugt [fig. 1]. It appears to be rather a copy by a follower of Paul Brill of a drawing done during Brill's and Breughel's sketching trip of 1593, probably Willem van Nieuwlandt. A drawing attributed to Willem van Nieuwlandt in the Ashby exhibition (no. 73) shows the same difficulty in rendering perspective and the same burin-like hatching.

This and Johann Philipp Hackert's view of the waterfall at Terni (CMA 82.40) were the only points in common between the Cleveland and the Vatican drawings. The juxtaposition of the archaeologist's collection with the group assembled by the staff of a public institution with radically different objectives indicates the abundance and diversity of a tradition which could still offer a wealth of material for collectors and for further exhibitions.