December 2, 2023

Lost Horizons: how the Scottish National Gallery revitalised a forgotten master

Expanding Horizons: Giovanni Battista Lusieri and the Panoramic Landscape

  • Scottish National Gallery, the Mound, Edinburgh (Academy / Lower galleries)
  • 30th June ? 28th October 2012

This summer, the Scottish National Gallery gallantly faced the challenge of pulling in an audience to discover an ‘unknown’ artists’ work; no mean feat in times when money talks louder than ever and ticket sales are easily boosted by a bit of big-name dropping.

This flawlessly researched and curated  ‘retrospective’ allowed a wider public a first, long-overdue chance to immerse themselves  in the hazy Mediterranean light of  Lusieri’s 18thC Italy and to marvel at the unique insight which he had into Lord Elgin’s plundering of Athens.

Giovanni Battista Lusieri (1754–1821) was hailed in his lifetime as the most gifted and sought-after landscape watercolourist in Europe, with a particular mastery of the panoramic landscape. As such, most of his exceptional and painstakingly-executed watercolours have lain in the relative obscurity of private collections ever since they were first snapped-up by Grand Tourists hungry for a suitably grand souvenir of their enlightened journeys through Europe. This exhibition pulls together a dazzling array of these seldom-seen works in order to reinstate the reputation of this hitherto largely-unknown artist.

Chronologically-ordered and separated into the three principal locations (Rome, Naples and Greece) in which ‘Don Tito’ worked; the exhibition is laid out in the distinct spaces of the RSA’s lower galleries. The first, octagonal room gives the first quietly-striking sensation of a wondrous ‘window-view’ onto three sequential panoramas of Rome’s iconic skyline (one can almost smell the dewy morning air so luminous and existent are these renderings) and hints at the capabilities evident in the larger-scale works which will be encountered later in the exhibition.

Sketches and figure studies shown alongside the complete (and also the semi- finished) landscapes which they inhabit allow for a unique insight into the working process; and Lusieri’s meticulous draftsmanship and flawless sense of perspective are undeniably visionary (with no evidence that he used anything other than a patient and unerring eye and hand to aid his compositions). The  undeniable star of the show is a vast panorama of the bay of Naples, as seen from Palazzo Sesso: a masterwork, two years in the making in which every tiny figure is alive with purpose and each architectural detail reads as fresh as the day it was set in stone. It gleams with lush detail and hazy Mediterranean light, leaving the viewer in a sense of awe.

From 1800-1821 Lusieri was based in Greece and the eastern Mediterranean. When in Athens, working as Lord Elgin’s resident artist, he managed a team of artists and craftsmen who planned to make drawings and moulds of the celebrated Parthenon marbles (later, and somewhat controversially, to become more commonly-known as the Elgin marbles).  Due to the systematic neglect and maltreatment of the buildings, it was arranged that Lusieri oversee the removal of sculpture and architectural features from the Acropolis. The viewer is permitted by Expanding Horizons an intriguing insiders-viewpoint into this process with the added treat of a guest exhibit from the British Museum (the Greek Double Urn, shown alongside its very own depiction by Lusieri) to drive home the agency of Lusieri’s task in Athens.

So meticulous was he in his renderings of Athens that, of his twenty years in Greece, very few works were completed: there remain only six finished and coloured works from this period. Don Tito made numerous ‘sketches’ and un-coloured outline drawings in startling detail which  work serendipitously to fully illuminate his painstaking working methods to us, almost two-hundred years later; he (unintentionally) left scores of them this way – preferring to reserve their colouring for days which, alas, never came. Most of his body of work from this time was lost in a shipwreck.

Of the lost works, drowned in the sinking of the Cambrian in 1828, we can only imagine the spectacle which must have been the 25 foot panorama of Athens from Museum hill – its loss a tragedy indeed. But what would really be tragic now would be to allow Lusieri to slip back into the depths of obscurity. Lusieri’s work is dazzling to behold – Yet, the true triumph is in the presentation of the exhibition itself: a labour of love, a decade in the making. By excavating so much of this work from the private homes of the ancestors of Europe’s grand tourists, and reams of unfinished drawings from Elgin’s collection at Kincardine (even reuniting two estranged halves of a larger panorama which had been framed in two separate collections!); chief curator, Aidan Weston-Lewis has exceeded himself and truly does justice by lifting Lusieri once again out of the annals of history.

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